Jul 11, 2020
Jenny Hall

Verses from the Dhammapada 378

Strife brought on by the every-changing nature of the world causes turbulence in our hearts. What did the Buddha teach about attaining equanimity, to establish peace at heart?

Over the last weeks the media has been dominated by one topic: the coronavirus pandemic. We are told there may have to be a complete lockdown. Already a few schools and many offices have closed. There is a ban on mass gatherings. Some flights have been cancelled. It is times like these that offer valuable opportunities for discovering the calm strength beyond ‘I’.

The situation clearly points to the Buddha’s teaching that everything, including ourselves, is constantly changing. All is ‘coming to be’ and ‘ceasing to be’. Change in the form of emerging spring flowers delights us. Change in the form of, what is for some of us, a deadly virus fills us with dread. In the following parable, Kisa Gotami’s initial desire that her child should be brought back to life mirrors our own reluctance to accept transience.

One day a woman called Kisa Gotami appeared before the Buddha. Hugging her dead child, she was distraught with grief. She pleaded with the Buddha to restore her child to life. He agreed on one condition. He said she must bring him back a mustard seed from a house in which no one had ever died. With joy Kisa Gotami began the search. She went from house to house asking the same question, “Has anyone ever died here?’ Over and over again, she received the same answer “Yes’. Loath to abandon the quest for a mustard seed, she continued to walk from village to village but to no avail. By nightfall Kisa Gotami realised that she wasn’t alone. No one escapes death. She went home and tenderly wrapped her child in a funeral shroud. When she returned to the Buddha, her face was calm. She knelt and thanked him for opening her eyes to reality, the Dharma.

Kisa Gotami deeply desired that her child should be resurrected. The Buddha taught that this clinging to the transient causes our suffering. He taught that craving and anger drive our thoughts and actions. These actually make up the idea of ‘me’ which is ultimately a delusion.

A Bhikkhu who is calm in body…

The churning and burning of desire and anger is very uncomfortable. We often attempt to escape their inner turmoil by channelling it into selfish, inappropriate action. Walking into the supermarket last week, it was noticed that the toilet roll aisle was completely empty. Customers had been panic buying because of the coronavirus. No, I didn’t have toilet rolls on my shopping list that day but as soon as I saw that they had sold out, craving arose. This was followed by irritation. ‘How could people be so greedy? Now I’ll have to traipse around more shops looking of some!’ It wasn’t actually the toilet rolls I desired. I was clinging to the idea of maybe not having enough in the future. It was the uncertainty that disturbed me, the discomfort of ‘not knowing’.

The Zen training helps us meet such emotional turbulence. We are shown the correct posture. This helps the energy to work on us. We invite it to burn ‘me’ away. Then it is transformed into the calm energy of the Buddha Nature, a spaciousness that Krishnamurti called ‘choiceless awareness’.

Gratitude arose that I did, in fact, have enough toilet rolls. There was also compassion for those who had been afflicted with the same anxiety that led to panic buying.

… calm in speech

The attempt to assuage such anxiety can also result in compulsive discussing and listening to the latest news updates. Although information is helpful, the media coverage of the coronavirus is relentless. Interviews and ‘stories’, accompanied sometimes by dramatic music, almost makes the crisis into an entertainment. It is only too easy to be drawn in. All this serves to exacerbate alarm. Before a local yoga class the participants were busy chatting about the latest developments. In their excitement they had missed reading the sign on the studio door exhorting them to wash their hands before entering. If anxiety is met and allowed to burn, the clear seeing of the empty heart can be relied upon to respond calmly in each moment.

… calm mind.

Elderly people with an underlying health condition are particularly vulnerable to the virus. They have been advised to isolate themselves completely. One day, I reflected that, not only my husband but also other relatives and friends fall into this category. One of Ven. Myokyo-ni’s stories was remembered with gratitude.

She told of a retired chamberlain who came to Master Taian asking if he would take him into the temple. The chamberlain’s wife had died, their children had grown up and now had spouses of their ownand he was alone and lonely. Pondering what to suggest to help him, Taian realised zazen would not help. As a chamberlain the elderly gentleman had already spent hours on his knees during court proceedings. He knew contemplating nature wouldn’t help. As a cultivated gentleman, the many poems about nature he knew by rote would only cloud direct perception. Instead the Master told him that whenever he felt lonely to go to a place, alone, and to prostrate himself nine times with the trust of a small child. A month later the elderly gentleman returned with a smile on his face. He warmly thanked the Master for his advice. He asked again permission to enter the temple. The Master remarked that he looked rather happy. The old man agreed. The Master said to him that perhaps he did not now need temple training but to live what he had found.

… and has turned from the worldly…

Not only the elderly have been advised to self-isolate. Those with mild symptoms have also been told to stay at home. There may be feelings of resentment concerning such restrictions. Again, allowing this energy to work on ‘me’, it isn’t wasted but transformed. ‘I’, made up of all my plans and ‘what I like to do’ is emptied out. Choiceless Awareness opens. Compassion flows for the vulnerable. With goodwill social isolation is embraced for their sake. Retreating for a while into our homes offers a precious opportunity to renew commitment to keeping a set daily timetable including zazen and chanting. It gives us a supportive framework for wholeheartedly giving ourselves into whatever emotion or situation is arising. As we wholeheartedly give ourselves into a task such as washing our hands we become one with the soap and water. The scent of the soap and the rainbow bubbles in the water fill the Heart. We are no longer separate. Gratitude opens as it is seen that everything around us offers the opportunity for self-forgetting. All is handled reverently. Such care ensures nothing is wasted.

… is known as the peaceful one.

Text copyright to Jenny Hall.

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