Bringing fear of coronavirus (and all other fears) onto the path Part 4: “If it is better for me to be ill…”

It turns out that our old friend from the 14th century, Togme Zangpo, the author of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, had something to say about how to deal with fear of coronavirus (and all other illnesses) in the 21st century:

If it is better for me to be sick,

May I be blessed with sickness.

If it is better for me to recover,

May I be blessed with health.

If it is better for me to die,

May I be blessed with death.

Ken McLeod begins his commentary on the 37 practices, Reflections on Silver River, with these words. Ken says that when he first encountered this prayer in the 1970s, “It was the strangest prayer I had ever seen and it made no sense to me. Why would you pray to be ill? Why would you pray to die?”

Years later, beset by illness, physical pain, and emotional distress, he ran across it again. “Now it spoke to me. Physically I was beyond miserable, and emotionally I was in even worse shape. I was afraid, too, because I did not see how I could go on…

“The prayer did not alleviate my physical or emotional distress. I just said it again and again, struggling to accept what was happening in me. I [also] continued the practice of taking and sending because it is a practice you can do even when you are extremely ill or upset or both…

“One spring day I stumbled out of my room for some fresh air. I could barely stand and had to lean against a tree for support. The warmth of the sun dispelled the chill… As I looked around, I felt quiet in the joy of the moment and at peace in the pain. Then it hit me. This was the point of practice — nothing more! Every experience has infinite dimensions. Can you experience all of them without struggling against any of them? If you can, then the suffering comes to an end — so obvious, so simple, so deep, and so wonderful.”

According to both Ken McLeod and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in his commentary The Heart of Compassion, Togme Zangpo wrote this prayer near the end of his life, when he was extremely ill and all efforts to alleviate his illness had failed. When his students begged him to keep fighting to prolong his life, he responded, “I have reached the limit of my years and my sickness is severe. I am happy, and I shall take whatever happens onto the path without trying to change anything.”

This is the take-home lesson of Togme Zangpo’s prayer: it’s not about wishing illness and death upon ourselves, but about relaxing into our present reality, whatever it may hold, rather than focusing on hopes, fears, and expectations that take us out of the present moment and into a state of anxiety, foreboding, depression, anger, or despair.

It’s important to note that this method of bringing illness onto the path does not conflict in any way with taking whatever measures are at our disposal to avoid illness and to recover from it. It’s an inner attitude we can maintain even as we avoid crowds, wash our hands diligently, and take medicine when it’s needed. With this attitude, we bring whatever we fear and whatever befalls us onto the path of awakening, and train our mind over time to rest easy no matter what.

The same idea is expressed in a Tibetan saying that Lama Norlha Rinpoche often quoted:

Whatever happens happens.

Whatever comes, comes.

I don’t need anything at all.

Previous posts on how to bring fear onto the path:

Part 1: The four ends

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

Part 3: How to live and how to die

Other related posts:

Resistance is futile

18 ways to catch ego-clinging in the act!

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