First Thoughts on the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Buddha taught, “sabbe sankhara anicca”—all compounded things are impermanent.  The Buddha wasn’t the first to teach this. About a century before the Buddha, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “panta rhei”—everything flows. He was also not the last to teach this. A few centuries later, the Roman poet Ovid noted, “omnia mutanur”—everything changes.

Sometimes things that seem like they will last forever vanish in the blink of an eye. That happened with the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” lasted a dozen years.

Sic transit gloria mundi—so passes the glory of the world.

We are now in the midst of one of those moments when, as Karl Marx wrote, “everything solid melts into the air.”  I’m still trying to come to grips with the magnitude of how quickly our lives have changed, and how much more they are likely to change in coming weeks and months.  A week ago I still had a full calendar: grandchildren’s school plays, an opera, medical appointments, my Zen sitting groups, my library philosophy reading group, my hospital pastoral care visits, an upcoming sesshin.  Now my calendar is completely empty.

We have seen stock portfolios dwindle; churches, synagogues, libraries, schools, and recreation centers have closed; many businesses—airlines, cruise lines, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, concert halls, gyms, casinos, bars, bowling alleys—may go bankrupt. Supply chains shortages will slow and close factories. People who work at all these places will suffer lay-offs and lost wages and be unable to meet their basic expenses. Countries around the world have closed their borders. Political rallies and conventions will no longer be held.  People who hold or are running for public office will be hospitalized. The world economy will plunge into deep recession. Our health care system will be overwhelmed—and many will die or live to grieve the loss of loved ones.

How can we hold this all in our hearts?

This is what Zen practice is for. Our Zen patriarchs and matriarchs lived and practiced through hard times before—civil wars, famines, plagues, and the reigns of bad emperors. Practice is the same in good times and bad: wash your bowl and sit up straight.

While we must plan for our future and protect our safety, it’s good to stay as much as we can with the present moment. Now is the moment we can be mindful of not shaking hands. Now is the moment we can be mindful of keeping our hands away from our faces. Now is the moment we can remember to apply Purell after touching a door knob. Now is the moment we can decide to visit a friend or relative by FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom rather than in-person.

It’s good not to get too far ahead of ourselves in imagining all the bad things that could possibly happen that may never occur. We can take each day as it comes, asking, “what’s needed right now?”  Then we take care of it.

Remember to breathe and stop and notice that the daffodils are blooming. Don’t be so sure you know what the future holds. Hold everything in “don’t know” mind. We don’t know what changes may come to be.  It could be—in the midst of all this suffering—that new things will emerge that will be for the best.

Most importantly, remember to hold everyone in your heart. Hard times can cause people to adopt a lifeboat mentality.  May our practice keep us anchored in steadfast compassion. May we remember to look out for our neighbors.  May we get through this together, remembering our vow to care for all beings.

And may we all be safe and well.