“Milarepa said that he regarded everything that appeared to his mind as a Dharma book. All things confirmed the truth of Buddha’s teachings and increased his spiritual experience.” – Joyful Path of Good Fortune
For the last several months, China and much of East Asia have been dealing with the Coronavirus outbreak. There was hope, at first, that the virus could be contained, but most public health experts now believe that is impossible. It is now breaking out in Europe, North America, and most significantly in developing countries that lack sufficient public health infrastructure or administrative means to contain it. Some have said the spring and summer heat will kill it, but they forget there is a Southern Hemisphere, where our summer is their winter. While nobody has a crystal ball, all reliable sources point to one conclusion – the Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is technically called, is now and will remain for the foreseeable future a fact of modern life.
The question we must ask ourselves is how can we transform this into the spiritual path Milarepa-style? As Kadampa’s, we may not be able to stop the spread of the virus (though we need to do our part), but we can use the Dharma wisdom we have been taught to help stop the spread of delusions associated with this outbreak. The nurses and doctors who are heroically on the front lines of the virus outbreak should be our role models. The difference is we as spiritual practitioners need to be the first-responders to the arguably more dangerous outbreak – mass delusions. At worst, the virus can kill us only in this life, but the delusions people are generating towards this virus will harm us in this and in all of our future lives. Delusions are the true pandemic.
Countering Mass Delusions
Transforming this outbreak into the spiritual path for ourselves is vital – more on that below. But let’s first talk about how to help others swept away by mass delusions – specifically irrational fear and racism. All delusions function in the same way – they mentally project a mistaken reality, and then we relate to that mistake projection as if it were actually true. Countering delusions – others’ or our own – is the essence of the Bodhisattva’s way of life. The outbreak is triggering mass delusions, delusions only function is to harm, and we need to become part of the solution.
Planet-wide, it is no exaggeration to say people are freaking out. Human psychology is not individual rational actors, but rather the mentality of a herd. It is very easy to be swept away by the herd. Fear can be divided into two types – rational and irrational. It is perfectly rational to fear delusions, negative karma, samsaric rebirth, and even solitary peace. These things can genuinely hurt us and others and are the deep causes of all of our suffering. Irrational fears are misplaced fears – fear of something we don’t need to fear. The reality is on the aggregate, the total human suffering from delusions about the Coronavirus FAR EXCEEDS the suffering from the virus itself. Delusions are the real virus.
Let me be clear in my meaning here. I’m not saying we should not fear the virus or take the necessary precautions advised by experts. This virus has the potential to be a global catastrophe. Experts are now estimating that if we do nothing, somewhere between 30%-70% of the global population will get the virus. Globally, that’s between two and five billion people, with between 200 and 500 million deaths worldwide. This has the potential to be as devastating as a major war. But humanity is not doing nothing, people are acting to minimize the spread, and we should encourage everybody to do everything experts are advising. Externally, we need to act exactly as normal and take this thing as seriously as we would a mobilization for a major war. Before a hurricane, it is calm and skies are clear. That is when we need to prepare. Once the storm hits, it’s too late. If we all do what we are supposed to do externally, we can mitigate enormously the impacts of all of this, and possibly escape with relatively minimal overall impacts.
What I’m saying is the bigger pandemic is the delusions humanity generates in response to this crisis. Doing what is externally required of us is good, but not good enough. As Kadampas, we need to deal with the inner outbreak of delusions.
The short version is while we should externally do what we can to avoid getting the virus, internally we should not fear it. We can take precautions without delusions. Aversion mentally projects some external thing to be a cause of our suffering, exaggerates its harmfulness, and then relates to that exaggerated projection as if it were true. Typically, aversions can be countered by rational explanations, deflating the exaggeration, and presenting a more balanced view of the situation. Here, the analogy of the toy snake is particularly useful. If it is dark and we are not looking too closely, it is possible we can see a snake on the path, and be seized by strong fear. But then, when we look more closely, we realize it is a toy snake, and our fear subsides. Even though in fact there was not ever an actual snake there, one nonetheless appeared vividly to our mind and we generated real emotional fear. The truth of the situation didn’t matter. But when presented with new information realizing it was just a toy snake, our fear went away. Right now, when people think about the prospects of getting the virus, they see a real snake; when we know we can transform it into the path, we realize it is a toy snake. The virus is still the virus, but our fear of it goes away.
In the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak, especially when we consider some transmission occurs even if the person does not have a fever or other symptoms, we start to mentally project everyone around us is infected and every surface we touch is covered with the virus. It can get to the point where we feel like going outside is just dangerous, like the whole world is filled with gaseous disease. Every time we see somebody wearing a mask, it then reinforces our fear that the virus is everywhere. This is our toy snake. In actual fact, statistically speaking, very few people actually have the virus – at present at least, this could change very quickly if people do not take the necessary precautions – and almost none of the surfaces we encounter are dangerous. But danger appears vividly to our mind, and we relate to these projections as if they were actually true and become seized by fear.
This is not to say nobody is infected and no surfaces are dangerous, just that what appears to our mind is not reliable and much of our fear is exaggerated and irrational. As we become aware of these facts, just like realizing it is a toy snake, the majority of our exaggerated fears will subside and we can deal with the situation in a balanced way. What is a balanced way? Externally, we take every precaution experts advise; internally, we learn to patiently accept whatever arises.
But what if we get sick? Shouldn’t we fear that? First of all, not all sickness is the Coronavirus. We have gotten colds and flus our whole life, and it could be just that – a cold or a flu. No big deal. Second, not all infections of the Coronavirus are fatal – experts put the mortality rate at between 0.025% and 1.5%. Young people seem to not be too affected, but older people are dying at much higher rates. The overwhelming majority of cases will be no different than any other flu people get. Not pleasant, but perfectly endurable and survivable. Some people have been infected and showed no symptoms whatsoever – it simply passed through them with barely a blip. But for vulnerable populations, it is a real risk. Regardless, whatever happens, our job is to transform it into the path by responding to it with wisdom and compassion.
Samsara is the nature of sickness. It is an unavoidable part of human life. We transform it into the spiritual path like we do any other sickness we might get. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer strike people all of the time. We will inevitably get sick many times in our life, and likely die of some sickness. It is just a question of when and which sickness. Sickness itself is a fact of samsara, whether it is a problem for us or a blessing depends upon whether we transform its arising into the path.
In many respects, it’s almost better to just assume now we will get the virus. That way we can mentally begin to accept it and start thinking about how we will transform it into the path. When we see how we will do so, our fear will subside. This does not mean we should not still take all the normal precautions to avoid getting it, it just means we accept even if we do get it – even if we die from it – it will not be a problem because spiritually we will grow from it. By staring into the worst case scenario and realizing it need not be a problem for us, our fears will subside. Wisdom brings fearlessness. We only fear that which harms us, but if we can transform everything into something that spiritually helps us, we have nothing to fear.
Exotic diseases that start out in foreign places leads to a natural fear of unknown others. In today’s political climate, so-called political “leaders” are none too happy to stoke racist fears of immigrants and others for their own narrow political gain. “We need to ‘keep them out’ because they are all ridden with disease,” is a popular refrain. As long as we allow irrational fear to remain in our mind, we make ourselves susceptible to becoming ensnared in racist tropes. We may even begin propagating them ourselves, thinking we are keeping people safe. Long after the Coronavirus has left the front pages, the racism will remain. It is far more destructive to human society than the virus itself, and if we are not careful, we too can become part of the problem. There is no wall strong enough to keep out microscopic germs. The germs themselves don’t care what race anybody is. We have a responsibility to push back against racist exploitation of human illness.
How to Transform the Outbreak for Ourselves
Having looked carefully at the mass delusions of irrational fear and racism, how can we ourselves transform the outbreak into the spiritual path? Transforming some difficulty into the path does not make the difficulty go away, it just makes it spiritually useful. If the difficulty can become a powerful cause of our own or others’ enlightenment, then on-net from a spiritual point of view, the difficulty becomes a good thing, it becomes rocket fuel for spiritual growth.
How would Milarepa look at all of this?
First, and most obviously, the outbreak is a good lesson in karma. Some people get it and others don’t. Of those who get it, some die and others don’t. Why the difference? It’s the same as why some people die in a plane crash and others don’t – it’s a question of what karma do we have and what karma is ripening. We all have the karma to get the Coronavirus and countless other diseases. Karma is the deep cause. If you don’t want to get the virus or any other sickness, then apply effort to purify your negative karma. Further, negative minds activate negative karma, positive minds activate positive karma, and pure minds activate pure karma. So just as we are careful to wash our hands and not touch our face, so too we should be careful to not let our mind become negative, because that is how we activate the karma of ourselves possibly getting sick.
Second, use the outbreak to strengthen your renunciation. The only reason why we get sick is because we are still identifying with contaminated samsaric aggregates that get sick. Humans experience human suffering because they identify with human bodies and minds. We might be able to avoid catching the Coronavirus, but for as long as we remain in contaminated aggregates, we will inevitably get and possibly die from some sickness. The only long-term sustainable solution to sickness is to escape from samsara once and for all.
Third, we can use this as an opportunity to practice cherishing others. Even if we ourselves are not likely to die from this because we are not part of a vulnerable population, we can still become a carrier of the disease and inadvertently infect somebody else who is vulnerable. So we should all be careful as an act of cherishing others. We can help people who are afraid by presenting things in a balanced way and showing them how they can transform it into the path if they ever did get sick, or we can teach them about the nature of samsara. If we come to know people who have gotten sick, we can care for them and help them (while of course protecting ourselves from getting sick as well). The possibilities for cherishing others are limitless when surrounded by suffering.
Fourth, we can use the outbreak to increase our compassion. Look at how much suffering there is – both physically from the virus and mentally from the anxiety – in the world as a result of the outbreak. Think of all of the other sicknesses there are circulating throughout the world. All samsaric beings are, in effect, being cooked in a giant stew of disease. None of us can escape it for as long as we remain in samsara. And this will go on and on and on for eternity until we stop it. Sometimes considering such a state of affairs can make us extremely sad and depressed. But this only happens because we lack sufficient faith that there is a solution. Through reliance on the three jewels, we can eventually help all beings escape once and for all from all sickness. Seeing their suffering will still be unbearable, but instead of dragging us down, it will energize us to realize the solution. This is not a game. Outbreaks such as this can help shatter our complacency in our Dharma practice, and become the forcing action to start to actually get serious about progressing along the spiritual path. What other solution is there? In this way, the outbreak becomes a powerful cause of our bodhichitta, and through that, we will eventually gain the ability to help each and every living being find everlasting freedom from all sickness. If only one practitioner generates a qualified bodhichitta as a result of this outbreak, and that bodhichitta eventually leads to their enlightenment, then on the aggregate we can say the outbreak will have resulted in more good than harm. Now imagine thousands of Kadampas develop such a bodhichitta. This outbreak could mark the turning point in the spiriutal fate of millions. Whether it does depends entirely upon us.
In Universal Compassion, Geshe-la explains the practice of taking and giving is the essence of transforming adverse conditions into the path, or Lojong practice. If we ourselves discover irrational fear or racism in our mind, we can imagine that we are taking on all the irrational fear and racism of everyone in this world and the fear and racism in our own mind is that which we have taken on. Then, we use our Dharma wisdom to overcome it within our own mind, and then give back our fearlessness and universal love. Taking on our own future or others’ suffering is one of the most powerful methods for overcoming our fears. This courageous mind willing to take on others suffering so they don’t have to experience it eradicates our selfishness and, paradoxically, actually purifies the negative karma that could possibly cause us to get sick in the first place. Likewise, we can mentally imagine we take on everyone’s Coronavirus and give them back immortal vajra bodies free from all sickness. We need not fear practicing taking, we should fear not practicing it and remaining burdened by our negative karma.
The outbreak is also an excellent opportunity to train in Tantra. Tantric practice, fundamentally, is a method for creating pure worlds. It is not enough to just wish to escape from samsara and sickness, Tantra is our spiritual method for constructing alternative pure realities. Heruka and Vajrayogini never get sick because their bodies are made of wisdom light. There is no sickness in Keajraland because there is no karmic basis for it to arise. China may be able to build a new hospital in 10 days, but once built, people still die from sickness within it. Through our Tantric practice, we can generate spiritual field hospitals where all of the doctors are emanations of Medicine Buddha and all of the medicine is pure healing nectar. We can purify the deep contaminated karma giving rise to worlds of sickness and replace them with charnel grounds in which all appearances teach the truth of Dharma. The body mandala deities of Heruka and Vajrayogini are the supreme nurses who can purify the subtle bodies and minds of all beings, resulting in a permanent healing of all sickness. Such results might not be instantaneous, but if we are persistent with our effort, they are guaranteed. There is no need to give in to hopelessness and despair, the solutions lay at our feet. We need merely pick them up and use them and never give up until all beings know everlasting freedom.
Whether this outbreak is a cause of mass delusion and pernicious racism depends, fundamentally, upon all of us. We each have a responsibility to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Dharma wisdom shows us how. We cannot control how others think, but we can control how we react to the outbreak. If we do the right things for long enough, this world will get better. Ultimately, this outbreak is a powerful lesson in the truth of Dharma and a unique opportunity for us to supercharge our spiritual life. If we succeed in transforming the outbreak into the spiritual path, all of the suffering associated with it will not have been for naught. We can make it meaningful, and indeed spiritually beneficial for the world. Now, the ball is in our court. The only question that remains is what will we do with our opportunity?