Monthly Archives: March 2020

Bringing fear of coronavirus (and all other fears) onto the path Part 7: Advice from Situ Rinpoche: “Don’t panic. Don’t give up.”

A few days ago Guru Vajradhara Tai Situ Rinpoche shared advice about how to manage our safety and our fears and remember the dharma during the covid-19 pandemic, which continues to escalate. This video, embedded below, has been widely shared on social media, but I wanted to also preserve it here. Guru Vajradhara Tai Situ Rinpoche is the spiritual director of the worldwide Palpung network of Karma Kagyu monasteries and dharma centers, which includes Palpung Thubten Choling and its affiliated centers.

Rinpoche begins by reminding us that this pandemic is not an extraordinary or unique event in human history. “Many things like this have happened, and this is happening.”

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Bringing fear of coronavirus (and all other fears) onto the path Part 6: Pinch me, I must be dreaming

With our routines upended by this week’s public health efforts to contain the coronavirus-covid-19 pandemic, this may be a good time to revisit the profound Buddhist teaching that all our experience is ultimately no more real, solid, lasting or reliable than a dream. Last week we were complaining about going to work, our kids were complaining about going to school, restaurants were packed, Disneyland was open, March Madness was about to begin, and you could buy toilet paper in any supermarket. This week — it’s all gone. Just like last year’s winter and last night’s dream.

We have a song for this, and so does the Buddhist tradition. First, ours:

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily: life is but a dream.

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Bringing fear of coronavirus (and all other fears) onto the path Part 5: Timely advice from contemporary masters

A vintage dharma quote popped up in my Facebook feed this morning with what turns out to be an excellent suggestion for constructive use of our social distancing time now that covid-19 has been declared a global pandemic and we are all urged to stay home to help contain it (though if you are a healthcare or other essential worker, overwhelmed with WFH, or have kids home from school, you may have to find your moments). As dharma practitioners, this may be the very best thing we can do with whatever extra time we have:

I feel that it is absolutely important to make the practice of meditation your source of strength, your source of basic intelligence. Please think about that. You could sit down and do nothing, just sit and do nothing. Stop acting, stop speeding. Sit and do nothing. You should take pride in the fact that you have learned a very valuable message: you actually can survive beautifully by doing nothing.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Journey without Goal

A message also came in from Mingyur Rinpoche via his Tergar Learning Community (which offers fabulous online courses, in case you do have some extra time).

Mingyur Rinpoche’s video is below, but here are the highlights for easy reference:

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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?”

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Bringing fear of coronavirus (and all other fears) onto the path Part 3: How to live and how to die

In addition to “others first,” another important resource the mind training tradition offers us is a set of specific practices for empowering both our life and our death (point 5 of the 7 points of mind training, Great Path of Awakening page 25).

In both cases we are applying the same five practices, literally called the five strengths or powers, but in a different order and with somewhat different content depending on whether we have entered the bardo of dying or not. According to the Vajrayana teachings, the bardo — or transitional state — of dying begins as soon as we know what’s going to kill us, e.g, when we get a terminal diagnosis, even if we potentially have years yet to live. However, since we don’t always get a lot of notice, it’s good to be familiar with the five ways to empower our dying process even when we are fit and healthy, and especially if we find ourselves facing a fearsome cause of serious illness and death.

I recommend reading this section in The Great Path of Awakening or another book on mind training, but here’s the gist:

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Bringing fear of coronavirus (and all other fears) onto the path Part 2: Mind training in two words

When Lama Karma Samten taught the seven points of mind training at Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery in 2016, he began by summing up the entire path of mind training in two words:

“Others first.”

The worst thing about fear is that it can cause our awareness to contract around our sense of danger and personal vulnerability, and we can temporarily lose sight of our dharma perspectives of putting others first and recalling the emptiness of all phenomena.

However, through mind training practice, the arising of anxiety, fear, anger, or illness can instead become a cue to reconnect with our basic Mahayana motivation of cultivating wisdom and compassion in order to wake ourselves up for the benefit of others in all circumstances, and we can immediately put it into practice wherever we are both by helping others in material ways and by engaging in taking and sending, the meditation practice associated with mind training.

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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.

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