Dharma Reflections on the Pandemic

Dharma Reflections on the Pandemic:   Spring 2020

Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

Red Rocks Zen Circle, Sedona, AZ

April 1, 2020:  Lotus in the Fire

It is the first day of April.  We are surrounded by the beauty of an Arizona spring, and at the same time we are in the midst of fear, confusion and suffering from the pandemic.  We see sickness and death, and we see astonishing and courageous acts of compassionate service.  I was reminded of the Buddhist teaching on the fire lotus.  Here are some words from Roshi Enkyo O’Hara of Village Zendo in New York City, written almost ten years ago, but no less timely today.

My world – and I’m sure yours too – is flooded daily with heart-breaking and frightening images all over the world.  How can we stay vulnerable and open to the world, and not be overwhelmed?

The answer reminds me of the Buddhist image of the lotus flower that blooms in the midst of a fire raging around it.  The closer the fire gets, the more fragrant the flower becomes.  The fire represents the suffering that is everywhere, and the flower represents our caring energy that, through our efforts, gives care to a suffering world.

In our meditation practice, is it said that breathing in, you take in the whole universe.  And breathing out, the whole universe breathes out.  You and I breathe the universe, and it breathes us. This is intimacy, and this is compassion.  This practice, this simple practice we have of meditation, helps us train our minds to be present and alive.  It teaches us to be intimate with ourselves and our world, to be intimate with an open heart and mind to the problems of the world.  It teaches us how the lotus blooms in the midst of suffering.

Roshi Enkyo is pointing to the importance of our zazen practice, especially in these difficult times, to stay connected with our intimate mind.  I encourage you to keep your practice going consistently, whether you are sitting on your own or joining us for virtual zazen.  Our meditation practice helps to give us the clarity, equanimity and open-heartedness that is so vital in the world right now and in the weeks ahead.  ~

April 8, 2020:  The Bardo

“Bardo” is a Tibetan Buddhist term meaning “an in-between state.”

The teacher Pema Chodron describes it this way:  “You’ve left the shore but you haven’t arrived anywhere yet.  You don’t know where you are going, you have only a vague memory of where you came from.  You long to go back, but there’s no way back.  Not quite here, not quite there, being in this sort of uneasy space.” 

We too, with the pandemic, are in a kind of bardo.  Our pre-virus life has been suspended.  Many people are eager for the gates to be opened so we can return to “normal” life, but we all increasingly sense that it won’t be that easy, that our life going forward will be different, though none of us know yet what that will mean.

During such a time, it is easy for us to become lost in thoughts, worries and strong mental states such as fear or anxiety, malaise, sadness, loneliness, boredom, irritability, confusion, disconnection.  But our zazen practice can serve us well, when over and over we step out of the narrative and drama in our thoughts, and come back to the simplicity of open awareness, of simply tending to the breath, tasting the tea, and tending compassionately and honestly to the suffering that we are experiencing. 

While we may feel like are on-hold, waiting for “real life” to resume … it is important to remember that this life now, this moment, is just as worthy of our attention and our full engagement, even with the discomforts and dislocations we experience.

Pema Chodron offers some wise perspective on the “inconvenience” we experience when life is not going our way, when we feel stuck in this inconvenient bardo situation.  She says this:  “Again and again you encounter your own uptightness, your own headaches.  But in wholeheartedly practicing and following the Path, you find that inconvenience is not an obstacle.  It is simply a certain texture of life.” ~

April 21:  The Rhinoceros Fan and Finding Wholeness

Each day we see distressing stories in the news about Covid 19 and the devastating costs of the pandemic in both human and economic terms.  We read about the anger and discord, the fear and confusion, that seems everywhere in our country.

There is a koan that speaks to something important for us in a time such as this.  It is Case #25 in the Book of Serenity, “Yanguan’s Rhinoceros Fan”.  As with many koans, it is a brief dialogue between a Zen master and a monk.  The koan goes like this:

-One day Master Yanguan called to his assistant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”

-The attendant replied, “The fan is broken.”

-Master Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros.”

As with most koans, we have to stay open to the possibilities of what could be happening in this exchange.

Yanguan is asking for a fan.  A particular fan, one apparently made from the horn of a rhinoceros.  Such a fan would be highly-regarded, perhaps used for ceremonial purposes.  If it was broken, surely the Master of the monastery would know about it.  So what is Yanguan really asking his attendant, someone he would know quite intimately?

We should also keep in mind that a rhino is an animal something like an Ox, an animal that in Zen is often used as a symbol of our true nature, our original home.

In the next part of the dialogue, the attendant replies that “the fan is broken.”  Is he just talking about the fan?  Possibly.  But perhaps there is something else going on.  Perhaps the attendant is revealing something about himself, about his life or his world that has been broken.

Then here is Yanguan’s reply, and teaching:  “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros.”  Show me what is not broken, show me what is beyond our ideas of broken or not broken, beyond these dualities.

This koan speaks vividly to our lives today.  It is easy for us to feel that the fan is broken.  Our world, our normal lives, have been broken apart.  People are suffering all over the world from sickness, quarantines, loss of employment, anxiety for the future.

At the same time, Yanguan is reminding us of something vital about our wholeness, the completeness of each moment, even in the midst of change and confusion.  The way things are today is not how it used to be.  To live in constant comparison with the past is to suffer.  To step forward moment by moment in the completeness of the present moment is to find freedom.  The completeness of the moment includes our own suffering, grief and fear.  It includes the taste of the tea, the spring breeze, and the feeling of a mask across our face.  Can we be awake to the living reality?  Can we meet it with our full presence and an open heart?

May 3:  Tending the Sick

Here’s a koan for us to consider this week.   It is Case #83 from the Book of Serenity, “Daowu Tends The Sick.”  It is a dialogue between two of our Zen ancestors from 8th Century China.

-Guishan asked Daowu, “Where are you coming from?”

-Daowu said, “I’ve come from tending the sick.”

-Guishan said, “How many people were sick?”

-Daowu said, “There were the sick and the not sick.”

-Guishan said, “Isn’t the one who is not sick you?”

-Daowu said, “Being sick and being not sick have nothing to do with the True Person.”

-A later Zen master commented, “Even being able to say it misses it entirely.”

What is this koan inviting us to consider?

Today our minds are often consumed with the sickness of Covid-19.  The news is full of distressing stories about what is happening in our country and around the world.  There are new scientific discoveries about the virus, and it is also revealed how little we still understand about it.  The economic impact of the virus continues to take a heavy toll, as does uncertainty for the future.  The entire world reels from this sickness, and from the anger and animosity it has generated. 

Understandably, in times such as this, most of us guard our health.  We may wear masks, stay home, or practice social distancing to protect ourselves and those around us.  Our vigilant minds also begin to make rigid distinctions about sick and not-sick.  We can come to see others as threatening, both by their appearance (masked or non-masked) and by what we perceive they do or do not do.

This koan is inviting us to look at sickness through a different lens.  From a Zen perspective, all beings have sickness.  All beings experience suffering and sickness from the pain of the world … from the nature of our bodies, which are prone to illness and aging … and from the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.

Even more so, we suffer the fundamental sickness of believing in, and acting from, our separateness, losing sight of our capacity to be open and intimate with life.

To be a bodhisattva citizen of the world is to recognize that we always tending the sick in our everyday life – in how we respond to each moment, in how we respond to those around us, and in how we care for our own sickness as well.  Each of us caring for others and simultaneously receiving their care for us.  Who are the sick and the not-sick?

“Being sick has nothing to do with the True Person!” proclaims Daowu.  This True Person  is the inclusive and expansive mind we touch in zazen, that can be intimate with each moment, where the dualities of self and other disappear, along with good-and-bad, sick-and-not-sick.  There is simply what is arising in this moment, precious and complete, and how we will meet and take care of it.

May 18:  Planting The Fields

Here is a koan for us to consider this week:  “Dizang’s Planting The Fields”, from the Book of Serenity.  It is a timely case that addresses the concepts we may hold about the self, about the world, and about suffering.  It is a much-loved koan in Zen circles.

Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”

Xiushan said, “From the South.”

Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”

Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion.”

Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”

Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”

Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”

In the first part of the koan, we see Master Dizang asking some opening questions to a new student.  There is nothing wrong with how the student replies, but these questions – where do you come from? How is Buddhism? – are tests.  The teacher is looking to see if the student can go beyond the conventional and show any Zen understanding.

When the student comments that he comes from the South, and that “there is extensive discussion of Buddhism”, it prompts Dizang to give a strong response.  How can intellectual debates on fine points of Buddhist doctrine compare to the actual embodiment of Zen, of a person whole-heartedly engaged in their work or the task at hand, in this case planting rice for the community to eat?

The student still doesn’t quite get it.  So he says, in effect, well, what about the world and mess it is in?  What about all the suffering out there?  How will you save it when you are just here in this remote monastery, standing in muddy water in the rice field?

Dizang’s response, “What do you call the world?” immediately wakes us up to look at what we may call “the world.”  Do you see the world as something “out there”, as something outside our own field of experience?

It is easy to make “the world” something we read about in the news, something about which there is extensive discussion, and something we can feel powerless to change.  But again and again, Zen calls us back to our world, our life, right here, to the reality of our moment-to-moment experience.  How are we taking care of it?  Right now some of our sangha are working in hospitals, schools or with people in need.  Some of us are gardening, doing a home project, sewing masks, enjoying an outdoor walk, caring for family members, checking in with neighbors.  What do you call the world? 

As a capping phrase for this koan, I’m reminded of a teaching by Mother Teresa:  “In this life we cannot always do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”  This is planting the fields.  This is taking care of the world.”

June 15:  Stepping Forward

Here is a koan for us to consider this week, from the Mumonkan:  “Step Forward From the Top of a Pole.”

-Master Sekiso said, “From the top of a pole 100-feet high, how do you step forward?” 

-An ancient master said that a person sitting at the top of a pole 100-feet high, even if she has attained “it”, has not yet been truly enlightened.  She must step forward from the top of the pole and manifest her whole body in the ten directions.”

In commentary on this koan, Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick writes, “The Master is encouraging us to take a step forward, from wherever we may be.  Each one of us is stranded on a hundred-foot pole.  No matter where we are in our Zen practice or in our life, we’re always standing on top of this pole.  But we must not rest there.  We must step forward into the unknown in order to experience the boundless life.”

There are some different perspectives we can have on this koan.

Sometimes this 100-foot pole, this lofty spot, can be understood as a place we may have experienced with our zazen practice:  perhaps the mind seems particularly still and clear. We may not want to leave that mind state, that wide and spacious perspective. But the teachings are always reminding us that we cannot cling to that state, that to serve other beings we must return to the marketplace, to the messiness of life. Whatever our insight on the cushion, it must be given life, through our own life. We must actualize it.

Sometimes this 100-foot pole, this precarious perch, can be understood to refer to a specific situation in which we are making large or life-changing decisions about our family, our career, the direction of our life.  We may feel paralyzed, afraid to take a step.  We cannot ignore or deny our fear, but practice can help us to open to a bigger sense of self, help us to open to what life calls us to do. And with that we may find the way to take that next step.

Today I also see this koan from yet another perspective.  Right now our world is full of turmoil.  The news each day is distressing, exhilarating, inspiring, scary and confusing, all at once.  In these times, what does it mean to step off the 100-foot pole?

Perhaps it is not so much a bold and dramatic step we are asked to take, as much as listening deeply to ourselves and to the world, and having the courage to take a small step, even though we can’t see the way.  Avalokitesvara (or Kwan Yin), the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, is the one who hears the cries of the world.  The healing presence of this Bodhisattva is not found somewhere “out there” but is within us.  Right now the world is full of cries, including our own.  Can we hear these cries with great compassion, and act, stepping off the flagpole, with great compassion?

July 1:  The Conflagration at the End of the World

We come into July with difficult news around us, as the pandemic spreads across Arizona and across the entire country.  All around the world we see the fear, and the suffering and loss, continuing from the virus.  We also see great turmoil as our country has a long-overdue reckoning with racism and injustice.

At such a time, here is a koan for us to consider.  The koan asks us to consider impermanence, destruction, and the nature of the self.

Dasui’s Aeonic Fire, Case #30 from the Book of Serenity

-A monk asked Master Dasui, “When the fire at the end of an aeon rages through and the whole universe is destroyed, is ‘this’ destroyed or not?”

-Dasui said, “Destroyed.”

-The monk said, “Then it goes along with that?”

-Dasui said, “It goes along with that.”

-Later the monk asked Master Longji, “When the fire ending the aeon rages through and the whole universe is destroyed, is ‘this” destroyed or not?”

-Longji said, “Not destroyed”

-The monk said, “Why is it not destroyed?”

-Longji said, “Because it is the same as the universe.”

In the koan, the monk is asking a question about the end of the world.  In Buddhist cosmology there was a belief that across vast periods of time the universe was continually coming into existence and then being destroyed.  So the monk may be referring to this End Time.  But he may also be asking a more personal question about himself, about mortality:  will anything of me endure?

His question is one of deep concern:  is “this” destroyed?  What the monk means by “this” is left ambiguous – perhaps it refers to himself and all he cares about, or his sense of having an immortal soul.  Perhaps it refers to reality itself.  Is “this” destroyed?

And Master Dasui confirms, rather harshly, that yes, this is destroyed.  He adds that “it goes along with it” because we are not separate from this universe.  We are not standing outside, looking in.  Each breath that we take is dependent upon this universe.  What we take as the solid self is actually in fluid and continual relationship to our world.

The monk continues to be troubled by this issue, so he later asks another Zen Master, Longji, the same question.

And, in paradoxical Zen fashion, this time the monk receives a different response.  “Not destroyed.”  And then we have the puzzling last line of the koan, “It is not destroyed because it is the same as the universe.”

Perhaps a way to understand this last sentence, and what Master Longji is pointing to, is to use an analogy:  is a wave destroyed by the Great Flood?  Longji says no, is it not destroyed.  Why?  Because from the start, the wave is of the same nature as water.  At the time of a flood, the water is everything, there is nothing apart from it, nothing outside of it, no past or future, only the now of the flood.  And the wave is that as well.  Seen from this perspective, “destroyed” or “not destroyed” don’t reach it.

The koan, with its two perspectives, doesn’t give us a definite answer as to the monk’s question;  rather, it points us towards Form and Emptiness.  In the world of Form we are separate individuals, while still living in close inter-relationship with all things.  At the same time, from the standpoint of Emptiness or the Absolute, we as the wave have never been other than water.  Both aspects affirm our place in the universe, in the midst of this current time of Aeonic Fire.

~   ~   ~

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