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?”
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:
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.
11. To exchange my happiness for others’ suffering
The source of every single suf-fer-ing / Is wishing for my happiness alone,
While focusing on others’ benefit / Gives rise to buddhahood, awakening.
Because of this to genuinely trade / My happiness for others’ suf-fer-ing:
This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 11 audio above.
For an overview of action bodhicitta, verses 11-30, visit here.
Meanwhile, you are here: Now that we have generated aspiration bodhicitta (verse 10), the wish to bring all beings to happiness and liberation, Togme Zangpo directs us to the specific practices of the Mahayana path, beginning in verse 11 with training in the basic underlying transaction that informs all the activities of body, speech, and mind of a bodhisattva: exchanging our happiness for others’ suffering through the practice of tong len, taking and sending. This will be the main tool in our bodhisattva toolbox, applicable to everything that arises in our experience from now on, and we need to hone it daily on the cushion (or chair) so it will be handy and sharp when we need it. (More on that in verses 12-19.)
The Buddha taught that disturbing emotions, such as anger, fear, jealousy, and attachment, are not to be denied or suppressed but recognized, felt, owned, and thoroughly processed. That process can take time and needs to be respected, but in the meantime, we can do significant harm to ourselves and others if we let strong emotions, especially anger in all its forms, govern our words and actions. Learning to see beyond a disturbing emotion, even in the midst of feeling it, allows us to act effectively, with clear focus and constructive compassion, and without collateral damage.
This morning Pema Chödrön’s Facebook page shared a quote from her book, No Time to Lose: “The next time you go out in the world, you might try this practice: directing your attention to people—in their cars, on the sidewalk, talking on their cell phones—just wish for them all to be happy and well.“
Ha, ha, it’s not really 4:00 a.m. as I write this. I just wanted to echo the title of the first post I wrote, a year ago this month. Normally at 4:00 a.m., we are starting our first meditation session (tun) of the day. Each morning between 4:00 and 5:35, we must complete 100 each of the preliminary practices: prostrations, Dorje Sempa (Vajrasattva), the mandala offering, and Guru Yoga, now that we have finished the intensive accumulation of 111,111 of each of those practices. The other three meditation sessions of the day are devoted mostly to our current main practice.
One of the great things about being a Buddhist is that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, and no matter how bleak—or how perfect— things may look at any given moment, there’s always something you can do to improve the situation. (This is no doubt true of other spiritual paths as well—I just happen to be familiar with Buddhist methods.) Below is a concise guide to a few of the techniques we can pull out in any setting to calm our own mind or send some positive energy to someone in need. Each of them is best cultivated in regular sessions on a cushion or chair; that makes them easier and more effective on the spur of the moment. But if you aren’t able to organize yourself to practice formally, any engagement with them is helpful.