By Rev. Ken Yamada
A joke goes, “This person is dying! Is there a doctor here?” Someone steps forward and says: “I’m a doctor of philosophy. We’re all dying.”
Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic is bad, wreaking death and destruction to the world’s economies, creating urgent health care and human services challenges, for which, we’ve yet to find answers. This isn’t what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the sudden shock to our inner lives—now fearing infection, sickness and death, forced to avoid family, friends, and even strangers, confronting great uncertainty and loneliness, and not knowing when, if ever, we’ll return to normal. These worries fester in our psyche, causing anxiety, frustration and pain.
I’m generally not a worrier, but I’m worried. Before I thought people who constantly used hand sanitizer were paranoid germaphobes; now I constantly use hand sanitizer. I hated being a homebody; now I’m a homebody. I enjoyed grocery shopping; now grocery shopping makes me nervous. Who have I become?
The pandemic changed, not only how we live, but also how we think and feel. Not only personally, but as a community, nation and world. Across the globe, scenes look eerily similar—empty streets, masked faces, busy hospitals and rising fatalities.
During times of crisis, people often become more “spiritual,” turning to religion for solace. Is it happening now? I can’t say, but over the years, I’ve seen people become interested in Buddhism after confronting a crisis, such as a divorce, job loss, major illness, or death of a loved one.
Such crises cause one’s life to crumble and disappear. When my brother lay dying in bed years ago, his body ravaged by cancer, I wondered: “What happened to his body, fancy clothes, expensive car, successful career and exciting big city life? Gone, like an illusion, like a dream.”
It’s a major disruption that shakes us to our core, and makes the world we thought we knew—disappear. Without a way out, we may be overcome by frustration, anger, depression, hopelessness and darkness.
Fortunately, the Buddhist teachings provide a way to transcend our suffering. Not merely a means to soothe our worries, but a path leading to greater wisdom about life and ourselves.
Before Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha, he lived a spoiled life of comfort and luxury. One day he left home, passing through a palace gate, and wandered through the surrounding neighborhood. He encountered a sick person for the first time in his life. Not knowing what was wrong, he asked his attendant, who replied: “He is ill. Sooner or later, everyone becomes ill.” This reality shocked Siddhartha.
Another time Siddhartha passed through a palace gate and encountered a funeral for the first time, seeing a body lying stiff and motionless. He asked his attendant about it, who replied: “He has died. Sooner or later, everyone has to die.” This reality also shocked Siddhartha.
Encountering these hard truths compelled Siddhartha to seek answers to the inner turmoil he felt. In Buddhism, we say he passed through the Dharma Gates of Illness and Death. This story also includes encounters with old age and with a spiritual seeker, who by seeing him, opened Siddhartha’s eyes to the path of spirituality.
Siddhartha ultimately abandoned his worldly life and became a seeker of spiritual truth, ultimately becoming the Buddha.
In Buddhism, the lotus flower symbolizes wisdom. Lotuses only grow in muddy water. This dirty water nourishes the lotus plant, allowing it to grow and blossom above the water. The blossom represents wisdom. Mud represents suffering and difficulties in life, meaning these difficulties are what help us grow and gain wisdom.
In this pandemic, leaders of various religions are encouraging people to seriously use this time to deepen their spirituality and re-think one’s view of life. Catholic theologian Father Thomas Joseph White recently wrote:
What does it mean that God has permitted (or willed) temporary conditions in which our elite lifestyle of international travel is grounded, our consumption is cut to a minimum, our days are occupied with basic responsibilities toward our families and immediate communities, our resources and economic hopes are reduced, and we are made more dependent upon one another? What does it mean that our nation-states suddenly seem less potent and our armies are infected by an invisible contagion they cannot eradicate, and that the most technologically advanced countries face the humility of their limits? … We might think none of this tells us anything about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice. But if we simply seek to pass through all this in hasty expectation of a return to normal, perhaps we are missing the fundamental point of the exercise.
When confronted by our own crisis, suddenly questions of life and death become deeply personal. What’s happening and why am I feeling this way? What is the way out? What have I learned? Have I become a better or worse person? How will I live from now onward? Do I cast off my old life and do a major re-set?
During these times, I realized some of the most essential people in my life are many of the under-appreciated and lowest paid—grocery store clerks, cashiers, farm workers, fishermen, meat processors, truck drivers, delivery people, home aides caring for my mom, and many others.
I miss family and friends more than I thought. I realize the importance of staying in touch. Not being able to shop freely made me rethink what I buy and what I really need, making my previous life seem so materialistic.
Most importantly, I’m reminded human life is fragile indeed. In this world of impermanence, as Rennyo Shonin wrote, “I may have a radiant face in the morning, but in the evening, become no more than white ashes.” The world truly can change in a heartbeat.
The joke I mentioned is so true. We’re all dying, whether we know it or not. I will die, if not today, then maybe next year, maybe in 20 years, but my time will come. Which also means, I am living now. Life is precious. How will I live from this time forward? Have I changed from this pandemic, which has changed the world?
Now we are forced to slow down our lives, giving us an opportunity to seek answers to important questions: Have I gained wisdom? Will I be more aware of our interdependence, less selfish and more helpful to others? What is the meaning of my life and my relationship to others? It’s time to deeply reflect on life. If not now, then when?
Let these words be our reminder: “Namu Amida Butsu.”
Rev. Ken Yamada is editor at Shinshu Center of America