by Rev. Kinrei Bassis
We are now all living through the first pandemic in our lives. We are also confronting as a society, the racism that so clearly was evident in the killing of George Floyd. In these difficult times, the Dharma points us to deep truth that we can find a peaceful heart despite all these problems. It is helpful practice to keep trying to bring ourselves back to the stillness of the meditative mind rather than allowing ourselves to constantly be filled with the problems of the world or with our personal problems. This does not mean we are not bringing a full awareness of what we need to do to maintain our health during the pandemic. Nor does it mean we need to ignore the many difficult problems that we as a society need to deal with. Rather it is just bringing a deeper perspective to all these problems so we can see them in their true light.
The Buddha decided to become a monk when he fully recognized the universal problem of old age, disease and death. This pandemic is making us much more aware of our vulnerability to disease and possible death. For most of us, we have usually become accustomed and somewhat oblivious to our normal vulnerability to disease and death. As I write this article, the official Covid-19 death total in the United States is about 129,000. To put this danger in perspective, last year there were 647,457 deaths in the USA from heart disease and 599,108 from cancer. The total amount of deaths in the USA last year was 2,813,503. Right now it seems highly unlikely that Covid-19 virus will cause as many deaths this year as cancer or heart disease. However, one of the reasons the death rate will hopefully be lower is all the ways we are trying to prevent the spread of the virus and all the medical interventions that are saving a large numbers of lives. Without them, the death total could be in the millions.
I wrote the above so we can just have a better perspective on the pandemic. Until modern times, when diseases swept through societies, there was very little medical intervention available and large numbers of people would just get ill and often die. This was a normal part of the human condition. For instance, until the availability of antibiotics in the 1940’s, any minor infection of any part of our body could potentially lead to death. Modern medicine has made us feel much less vulnerable than people in the past and this virus is just reminding us how we are still very vulnerable beings.
We are all witnesses, via the video, of the brutal and tragic death of George Floyd. As appalling as it is to see someone treated so inhumanely, it also brings us the reality that there was nothing special going on in this treatment of George Floyd. This mistreat-ment of black Americans by police is just a reality that a black people have had to live with since slavery. It has been a reality for black Americans our whole lifetime. We, as a society, have been willing, in endless ways, to both mistreat black Americans and ignore the problems that have perpetuated their economic and social woes. I do wish to offer bows and offer merit to George Floyd and all those who have encountered such awful and inhu-mane treatment. Yet I find something positive in that this seeing in the video of the clear and unmistakable way, how George Floyd was senselessly murdered, has opened million of minds to the reality of the prejudice and hate that black Americans are rou-tinely facing.
This recent focusing on racism did point out to me how. although I thought I had a reasonable understanding of the problem of racism, reading and hearing some of the recent personal ac-counts of what black Americans have experienced, made me much more aware of many different aspects of severe problems black people face in growing up and being black in America. I do feel strongly that I and the rest of society should do whatever we can to help improve this situation. And I also recognize that there are deep historical reasons for these racial difficulties, and it is not a problem with a simple solution. How can we change the hearts and minds of people since that is what is needed if we want a real transformation with the problems of race? And it is difficult to know what is the right approach that will help us find a solution?
However, I also recognize that there are many other problems in society and right now, I am undoubtedly oblivious to many of them. For instance, one injustice that I am aware of that receives very little attention from mass media is the conditions of Native Americans. There have only been four visits by American presi-dents to Native American reservations in our US history. This points out how they have been neglected and ignored by our politicians. The reservations generally have living conditions far more appalling than in the worst inner city slum. The poverty rate of Native Americans is the highest of any minority group in the country. I bring up Native Americans only as an example of something that is being ignored by our society. However, al-though we should try not to be oblivious to the wrongs in society, it is inescapable that we will not be open and aware of everything. We need to realize both the limits of our awareness and try to have the intention to do our best to stretch those limits and open ourselves to seeing deeper into what needs to be done and what is good to do.
The Buddha emphasized that we should be at peace. The question for all of us is how to find this peaceful heart in a world with filled with delusion like racism and frightening difficulties like pandemic disease. One way we find peace is recognizing the problems but not allowing the problems to fill and obsess us. We need to be responsible and deal with the difficulties from the pandemic, both health difficulties, practical difficulties and financial difficulties. We need to try to do our best with racism, both in our personal lives and in our political choices so we can help positive change to happen. But we also need to learn to keep letting go of all these problems and bringing ourselves back to the mind of meditation, of just trying to being present and to be grateful. For instance, as we eat dinner and wash our dishes, we do not need to be filled with worry but instead work at letting go of all our worries and just try to be present and grateful for what we are being given right now. Suffering does not come from the arising of difficult conditions, it comes from our unwillingness to let go of the difficult conditions. We need to fill our hearts and minds with the Dharma and not just with our problems. We find a peaceful mind by trusting that there is nothing to fear in the unfolding of our karma and the unfolding of the world’s karma.
The nature of the world is good and evil; delusion and enlightenment always exist. We can wish for a realm in which there is only good and enlightenment but that is not this world. If we strictly focus on just the racism or other evils in our world, we can blind ourselves to all the good in the world. I was listening to accounts of medical staff dealing with Covid-19 patients and it was heartwarming to learn about all these real life Bodhisattvas doing all they can do in order to help these seriously ill patients. We should try to bring both the people who are doing good and the people who are doing bad, into our hearts and into our minds. In all our lives, we meet, we know, we intereact with many people who are living good lives and doing good for others. We should cultivate an awareness of the many people in the world who are behaving as Bodhisattvas in the service of others. We will also have to personally deal with and hear about many deluded beings who are harming themselves and causing harm to others and living painfully deluded lives. We should be open to their suffering and offer them our goodwill, merit and whenever possible, our help. Buddhist training is not avoiding seeing and confronting delusion, whether it is our own delusions or the delusions of others. Buddhist training is grounded in our intention to help dissolve all delusions, whether it is our personal delusions or delusions in the world that is leading to suffering.
If we concentrate too hard on the news of the world, it can fill us with the problems of the world and make us lose sight of all good in the world. News is about disasters and problems and is rarely about all the people living good non-newsworthy lives. The news naturally concentrates on what is going wrong rather than what is going right. A good example of this is the crime rate in America has been dropping dramatically for the past twenty years but the TV and news media have more crime news than they did twenty years ago and most Americans do not know that the crime rate has been dropping very significantly. And people generally have more fear of crime than they did when the crime rate was much worse. Yet I am not saying to ignore the news but also be aware of the Middle Way, be aware of the news but keep the bad news in perspective and not obsess on all the things in the world that are going wrong.
Whether it is covid-19 or racism — they are all worldly conditions. As long as we live, our lives are going to be dealing with both good and bad worldly conditions. Buddhist training is being open to all these worldly conditions so we can know them, deal with them in a skillful manner but we also know that it is vital for us to keep letting them go, and to keep letting them go. Instead of filling our minds with world conditions, we need to fill our minds with the Dharma. “When you look with the eyes of a Buddha, you will see the heart of a Buddha.” So Buddhism is based on trying to see with the eyes of a Buddha so we can find this deeper place that is not bound by any worldly conditions. And each time we let go of our worries and fears and then open our hearts with trust, we are pointing ourselves to this fearless, unbounded place in our hearts.