There’s a huge elephant in the COVID room that no one wants me to talk about, but we need to talk about it.
I’m not gonna be as flowery and poetic as usual for this post, because times like this require bluntness and straightforward speech. Everything we experience in life is an opportunity to study and practice the Dharma, so I usually go around asking, “What’s the lesson? What can I learn from this? How can I adapt?” From a Buddhist perspective, the coronavirus’ lesson is very simple: people get sick. I’m a person, so I’m going to get sick. It might not be COVID that gets me, but something will. It’s also taught us that people die, I’m a person, so I’m going to die. Once again, it might not be CV that does me in, but something will—it’s just a matter of time.
With that in mind, here’s one of the first teachings everyone should dive into when they start Buddha practice. They’re called the Five Remembrances
- I am sure to become old, I cannot avoid aging.
- I am sure to become ill, I cannot avoid illness.
- I am sure to die, and I cannot avoid death.
- I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
- I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb from which I have sprung, actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Of whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I become their heir.
This is important stuff my friends. So important that, at the beginning of the Sutta it’s from (The Upajjhatthana Sutta: The Five Contemplations for Everyone) the Buddha states that men, women, laypeople, monks, basically everyone should often mindfully and meditatively reflect on these facts. But why?
What use is there in thinking negative? Well, there’s one thing I’ve learned: You must face everything—all the pain, all the fear, all the heartache and insecurities. Face it, and then move through it like it’s fog or smoke. Then, on the other side of it, everything’s groovy.
After the rapids, there’s a lazy river flowing. I know it because I’ve been there. And once you’re there, the only hard part is remembering that you’re there. Summing it all up: you’ve gotta go through your Yin to get to Yang. That’s what the Buddha’s trying to do here. He isn’t trying to bum us out, he’s trying to do the opposite of that. At the end of the Sutta, the Buddha says that being mindful of these facts are what eventually allowed him to be free and unbound. They brought him to, “the good life.
Because here’s the simple truth: we’re afraid of catching COVID because we’re attached to, addicted to, or intoxicated by being healthy and feeling good. But if really contemplate the eventuality of sickness, that it’s a matter of when not if, then we can work at letting go of our health fetish a bit.
Because it’s not going to last, and if we live like it’s going to last, we’re going to make a lot of mistakes squander our lives and cause suffering. If we face these facts over and over again, then we naturally start to let go until our attachment to youth, health, life etc. weakens or disappears altogether. Then we’re just not bothered by such things anymore. And when our hearts and minds are unbothered, then we’re less likely to bother others.
The Buddha goes on to say that not only will I get old, get sick, die and lose everything, but that everyone will, every living being in this universe. Everyone we love and hate, everyone we’ve met, will meet, or will never ever know. Everyone in America, China, Europe. Hell, even everyone on in other galaxies. We’re all in the same boat, whether human or non-human.
We can’t ultimately protect ourselves and others against these eventualities, we can’t even protect our own parents and children from them. But we can protect ourselves from living lives of fear, sorrow, and mediocrity by changing our relationship with these eventualities. That’s what the “heir of our actions” part means. And the best thing is that we can share that with others too, we can pass along everything we’ve learned and experienced so that the ones we love the most have the same tools that we do.
So, hypothetically, Five Remembrance practice could take you “all the way” if we combine it with mindfulness, meditation, and some natural ethics.
How widespread the coronavirus is does unsettle me, and the fact that it’s made a lot of people sick and even killed a few makes me incredibly sad. But what breaks my heart is seeing everyone run around terrified, lonely, and confused, because that’s the part we can work with if we put in the effort to see things clearly.
Keeping with the Sutta’s aspect of personal responsibility, we’re also all responsible for doing what we can to prevent others from getting sick, and we’re responsible for helping them if they do get sick, and we’re responsible for trying our best to help them not cling to health and life so much so that they might find peace and joy even in sickness, even in death.
We are responsible for our own fear, our own sadness, our own anger and frustration and it’s our job to use the Five Remembrances to kick that shit out of our heads before we pass those afflictions onto others because, as long as we’re paralyzed by our own ignorance, then we can’t help anyone—not even ourselves. Then we’re totally at the mercy of our own habits and an uncertain future.
But if we practice with the Five Remembrances, we have a chance to find some genuine happiness in this life, and to be truly helpful to others.
Anshi is the pen-name for a Buddhist writer. If you know who Anshi is, please don’t tell anyone since these posts often have sensitive autobiographical info in them. Anshi is a Mahayana Buddhist priest at the Bodhisattva Process.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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