Bringing fear of coronavirus (and all other fears) onto the path: Part 1: The four ends

It’s March 2020 and coronavirus, along with its associated illness, covid-19 (corona virus disease of 2019, has appeared on the scene in the last few weeks, overtaking headlines in the midst of a volatile presidential primary season; and inspiring widespread alarm, toilet paper hoarding, and precautionary measures — as other illnesses have done in the past (bird flu, SARS, Ebola, etc.). It might turn out to be a devastating pandemic like the Spanish flu of the early 20th century. Or it might not.

Update March 17, 2020: Last week the World Health Organization classified covid-19 as a global pandemic, a lot of people are sick (though it’s mild in most), and many people have died in Asia and Europe, though still fortunately not on the scale of the Spanish flu. A number of people have died the US, though we’re behind other parts of the word in covid-19 transmission. To try to contain it, as of this week many events have been canceled (Mingyur Rinpoche’s annual retreat in Minnesota, that I was registered for; major league basketball and March Madness, concerts, political rallies, etc.) and venues closed (Disneyland, the Metropolitain and other museums, colleges, restaurants, churches and dharma centers — including Richmond’s Ekoji Buddhist Sangha) and we are being urged to stay home as much as possible. San Francisco shut down yesterday. We don’t know yet how it will continue to develop, and if public health efforts to contain it succeed, we may never know if we contained it successfully or if it was over-hyped in the first place. That would be a good result. Meanwhile, there are ways to work with this in our practice and use it as an opportunity to prepare for whatever may befall us.

Bringing fear to the path: As dharma practitioners, we are encouraged to use all adverse circumstances — up to and including deadly illness and imminent death — to wake ourselves up by applying the practices we train in, rather than giving in to fear and panic. I’ll be adding more practices in the next week or so, but a good place to start is simply to contemplate the classic Buddhist teaching known as “the four ends”:

The end of accumulation is dispersion.

The end of building is ruin.

The end of meeting is parting.

The end of birth is death.

The four ends serve as a reminder of the inevitability that all things that exist relatively, through the coming together of causes and conditions, are destined to end. There is no way to escape it. In our culture, we tend to cope with this through denial, but behind denial lurks fear, and we can become paralyzed by our efforts to keep the things that scare us out of our conscious awareness.

Milarepa, the 11th-century mass murderer who became a great saint and one of the founders of the Kagyu lineage, described his experience of confronting his fear of death directly over many years in his mountain retreat:

In horror of death, I took to the mountains —

Again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death,

Capturing the fortress of the deathless, unending nature of mind.

Now all fear of death is over and done.

In order to come to a deep understanding of a teaching, we are taught to contemplate it thoroughly, and then internalize it through meditation. Contemplation means that we think deeply about the meaning of a teaching and how it applies to our life and our conduct in the world. Repetition and memorization are also useful contemplation tools. You could recite the four ends a few times as you study it, write it down on post-it notes or as calligraphy practice, or embroider it on a cushion. A teaching committed to memory is always available as a reminder whenever you need it.

Meanwhile, some practical measures for coping with coronavirus: As of now, it looks like the best ways to protect ourselves from infection are to wash our hands well and frequently, and to avoid touching our face as much as possible, especially when out and about amidst lurking germs. Many people are hurrying to buy protective face masks (and in some cases, buying so many that there are none left for others), but we are cautioned that even if you snag some face masks before they disappear from the shelves, they do not offer much protection against getting sick, are often used in ineffective and even counterproductive ways, and in fact should be reserved for those who are actually sick, as they do (when used properly) help prevent germs from spreading outward. So if you think you might have coronavirus, or you’re caring for someone who has it, stay home as much as possible and wear a mask according to official guidelines when needed. If you don’t have any symptoms or known exposure, this is a great time to work on developing the hygienic habits mentioned above that will help ward off not only coronavirus, but also the flu, the common cold, and other contagious illnesses.

The four ends is a pretty concise text — it takes me three slow repetitions to time 20 seconds of handwashing. Also useful for this purpose is the hundred-syllable purification mantra of Vajrasattva, if you know it. That takes me 20 seconds recited at a moderate pace, and for good measure I throw in a few short Vajrasattva mantras (OM BENZA SATO HUNG) at the end, as the practice prescribes. As you’re doing this, you can imagine being purified of all illness and negativity, including any karmic causes of illness. There are no guarantees, of course — none of us fully knows what karmic causes we are carrying around with us, or what conditions will bring about their ripening. But based on the guidelines so far for avoiding coronavirus, it’s apparently more effective than wearing a mask.

Other posts in this series:

Part 2: Mind training in two words: “others first”

Part 3: Five practices to empower your life and your death

Related posts:

From Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation: Impermanence of the composite

A beautiful day in New Hampshire: In a Nutshell

From the 37 practices: Verse 4: to let go of attachment to this life

Ways to work with fear itself: Some Buddhist ways to work with emotional overwhelm

Bonus reminder from Western literature: Ozymandias