A Dhamma Reflection by Ajahn Sucitto
So, the world has changed, we’re in lock-down, and Dhamma practice continues with heightened focus. COVID-19 just marched in.
I just got back to Cittaviveka from a retreat in the Netherlands; one of the last creatures on Noah’s New Ark after my train was cancelled, a flight to replace it was cancelled and another flight promptly arranged by the tireless, unflappable, and matter-of-fact compassionate retreat manager.
As the retreat contained people from New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, the UK, Ireland and the USA, there was quite a lot of rearranging to do. The teachers themselves (from four different countries on this planet) met briefly each day, to look at the new unknowns, return to the concerns of the retreat and its yogis, and open to what seemed best – for now. A sound Dhamma focus. And this was what we brought back to our students; creating up to four days of practice to facilitate moving out into the new world. So there had to be time to sit in silence as a group, grounding the agitation and anxiety with embodiment, and the encouragement to expand mindfulness around that. Also there was the invitation to feed back on what arose from that process. ‘Compassion’ (karuṇā) was the universal theme. Concern for others arose, particularly of course friends and relatives back home; gratitude was expressed – for having the container of the retreat and the companionship in Dhamma; and in the silence and the restraint, there was a sense of the enormity of what all humans are involved with now. This is the response from balanced and trained awareness. Other signs are not so positive.
When customary structures weaken or collapse, there are a number of responses that occur. And this is what we’re seeing now. ‘Fighting over toilet paper’ is a laughable reaction; ‘buying guns and bullets’ is more frightening. Will food supplies last? When people panic, wild reactions set in built around self-preservation. More common is the loss of reasoned assessment – we imagine that the system or our nation can manage, this will all blow over and then it’s back to normal. I doubt it. Our governments are making up strategies as the situation develops, but this situation could go on for the rest of the year, and its ramifications last much longer. Does the current economic model suit us best? Is it for the welfare of all? Why the homeless, the food-banks, the inequality? Something has to change in terms of looking after each other and hoarding less.
As I noted, more positive signs are already arising in terms of the movement towards compassion and sharing. An act of faith is definitely called for, along with sense-restraint and compassion. When the known becomes the unknown, an act of faith can only arise with mindfulness: ‘Here we are now, the future always was uncertain, we always were going to get sick and die and be separated from the loved; best stay grounded and open to what arises in awareness.’ When proliferating emotions and thoughts are checked by that practice, panic gets replaced with concern for others. This pivot from self-orientation towards the welfare of the whole was the hinge-point in the Buddha’s own awakening process:
‘As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of sensual desire… a thought of malice… a thought of cruelty arose in me. I understood thus: “This thought…has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.” When I considered: “This leads to my own affliction,” it subsided in me; when I considered: “This leads to others’ affliction,” it subsided in me; when I considered: “This leads to the affliction of both,” it subsided in me; when I considered: “This obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna,” it subsided in me.’ [M.19]
So as followers of the Way, we should cultivate in line with the Buddha, who replaced these unskilful inclinations with those associated with renunciation, kindness and compassion. This is especially the case when the ‘heavenly messengers’ of sickness and death come knocking on the door – but best before it gets too late. Panicking, hoarding and blaming doesn’t do any good when it’s your turn to meet this inevitability. But ‘the origin of suffering is to be relinquished’, and its basis is in ignorance and craving. What then do we need to be less ignorant about? The harm of consumerism (= encouraged craving) is a good topic. And to follow through on that consideration by only consuming what one needs; to keep reviewing the wish-fulfilment items that are projected by the media: ‘Do I need this? I was OK before this was presented as an option, why buy it?’ Considering that every material thing originates from planet Earth and uses Earth-derived fuel to assemble and deliver it, that would be an act of pragmatic goodwill as well as strengthen one’s inner resources. With renunciation, the freedom from habitual consumption, the heart grows strong.
With an attention that is turned towards the heart and concerned for the effects of its action, there can be a reviewing of the semi-conscious inclinations towards ‘malice’ and ‘cruelty’. These sound like surprising qualities for the Buddha-to-be to experience as arising in his mind, but we can easily witness the malice in the political domain, and the divisions in the society around Brexit or immigration. And if we review what makes people hard-hearted and cruel, it is the withdrawal of fellow-feeling, empathy and concern. This is a constant trend in human history; wars, crusades, slavery, and racism are founded on it. Can we not redouble our efforts to see other people as brothers and sisters in ageing, sickness and death; as beings who are innately worthy and need guidance, and friendship?
In our meditations then we can touch into the ‘non-measuring’ (appamāno) states of kindness, compassion, joy at others welfare and equanimity regarding the ups and downs, the sickness and separations that will come our way. After all, as cultivators of Dhamma we have the priceless resource of a trained heart; and every new dilemma encourages us to review that and see what further training is needed. Remember: ‘What’s in the way, is the Way.’ The opportunity to transform suffering into release is to be taken and lived out.
In all walks of life, people do come forth with good heart. Some members of Cittaviveka’s international resident community have taken it upon themselves to make the perilous journey home to look after their ageing relatives. We’re also suggesting that our supporters look towards offering food and requisites to those in greater need than ourselves: we have no children, and as renunciants we can live lightly. It’s beautiful to see that in Britain, people have been volunteering at a rate of three per second to act as assistance workers to support the National Health Service. In the wider world, medics have come out of retirement; hotels opened their doors for relief accommodation; drinks’ manufacturers used their alcohol to produce free sanitary gel. Virtual gatherings were already happening the day before I left the retreat, and now online Dhamma programs are getting rolled out. (See your local and national Dhamma centres.). We also hope to use technology to present Dhamma, as the monastery has regretfully had to close to visitors for a while.
Finally, the encouragement is to widen your compassion, renunciation and concern to include the welfare of other creatures on this planet. How many do we need to kill in order to nourish ourselves? How much of the Earth’s surface do we have to convert into grazing and golf-courses? Let’s bear in mind where coronavirus came from. Not to stop at ‘China’; but to point out that COVID-19, along with HIV, Ebola, SARS and MERS, is a virus that has mutated from a pathogen that infects wild animals (and that they can cope with). When humans plunder the fragments of wilderness that are left and kill the few animals that remain (only four percent of all land mammals are still wild) these pathogens transmute and transfer to people. With lethal effect. Isn’t it time to learn something? Not just to create a new vaccine (until the next virus mutates and floods the population), but to call a halt to the needless and suicidal destruction of the biosphere. It seems that the wildfires, hurricanes and floods didn’t hit hard enough; but now a grim heavenly messenger is driving the point home. We’re creatures of this Earth: if we can’t offer support, we have to at least respect each other’s right to live.
Truly, the wise person ‘neither inclines towards his/her own harm nor for the harm of others, nor for the harm of both; and he/she does not experience… suffering and grief. In this way… Nibbana is directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, worthy of application, to be experienced individually by the wise.’ [A.3:55]
Above all, now is the time to meditate. The skill is to not deny fear, but to steady awareness in the body, then encourage it to grow bigger than the fear. From this the heart of compassion gains ground.
Sit steady and upright and establish your awareness in the presence of your body. Not in a particular spot, but in the living presence of being here. Shift attention away from agitated or tense areas of your body. Being with the tide of your breathing might make this more comfortable.
Draw awareness into whatever seems to be the centre of your body, then, as things stabilise, relax whatever is around that centre. Extend your awareness to edges of areas that are tense and agitated, as if you are gently applying warmth to frozen tissues. Stay with this until your entire body feels balanced and at ease.
Feel to the edge of your body and sense the space around that.
No pressure. Open. Feel wrapped by that space.
Bring to mind that the body is vulnerable and feel protective towards it. This is not defence – which operates in terms of fear of the other and what might be, but protection – which gathers around what is valuable and loveable.
Bring to mind other people, in their laughter, intelligence and sorrow, and extend that protective sense to them. Let the extent of ‘other people’ widen to include more.
Bring to mind other creatures, in their living contexts – fish leaping and flowing through fresh water; land animals foraging, resourceful and alert; birds swooping through the skies. See them as intrinsically valuable and marvellous.
Bring to mind the resilient plant life that feeds and shelters creatures and fertilises the Earth. See this too as intrinsically valuable and marvellous.
Consider any action that you can undertake to respect, protect or support others.