My thoughts on the recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic
May all who are sick and ill Quickly be freed from their ailments. Whatever diseases there are in the world, May they never occur again.
⏤ Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra, India, 8th century
I have been told that some teachers recommended reciting mantras and dharanis, while others suggested nyungné, Chenrezig, and also taking blessed pills in the morning. Most of you already have practice commitments, such as shiné, so some of you asked me personally what is my best suggestion? It’s a valid question.
I will not add more in the list of recommendations, but draw your attention to the basics of all mantras, dhāranīs and taking jewel pills and other types of pills. What are those basics? And why is it so important to have these basics to refer to? Well… the above mentioned recommendations presuppose that you, the audience, are seasoned Buddhists, very well versed in the basics. If you listen to the language of these recommendations, you will notice that these recommendations are not aimed at all of mankind. Please revisit the recommendations to discern for yourselves.
These suggestions are generally meant for those who have deep trust in the Three Jewels and know the context of these recommendations. What is the context? It is the philosophical principles, specifically the Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna framework, that posits that the three sources of inconceivable powers can produce inconceivable outcomes. They are substance, mantra, and samādhi or meditation. Substance here can refer to ALL the matters in all different states, i.e., solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Take for instance the samaya substance, colloquially known to many Westerners as lama-pills, as an example: the substance itself is a collection of medicinal substances. It is then placed within the practice-mandala. This part is known as ‘accumulating’ – mantra recitations are accumulated – while maintaining the ideal samādhi state. The combination of these three aspects, substance, mantra, and samādhi, culminates in the notion that a substance can carry a blessing, this is how the samaya substance works. For that matter, the same is also true for the blessing of sacred items, such as a mala or other practice objects, or the consecration of a building.
Let us dig deeper. The underlying principle as to why these blessings work is the teaching of dependent origination. For instance, COVID-19 happened because: a) we know it is a bio substance, and b) we know it dependently originated, so it is an outcome of ‘dependent origination.’ We can trace the origin of the virus to various factors, and Buddhists may agree with whatever the scientific findings about its causes might be, but beyond that, a Buddhist might say, there are also further causes, such as humans’ reckless behavior, insatiable greed and aversion, all arising within the ignorant workings of our minds – our negative karma. For that matter, according to Buddhism, the entire world including ourselves in it, is our collective karma, not just this one elusive, replicating bio-organism.
Relating to this, you can contextualize the following words from Karmapa:
Even though right now our actions, speech and thoughts may be born from afflictive emotions, karmas and tendencies, our real self is superior to emotions, karmas and tendencies.
With this reasoning, Mahāyāna principle states that substances that come together through dependent origination are potent, especially when the parts that the given substance is composed of are perfect in their relation with each other. Today, we like to use the term ‘chemistry’ to describe how things come together. In parallel to the power of the virus, we can also think of a different, but equally powerful substance: medicine. Its potency lies in its chemistry too, and medicine is also dependently originated. And above all, WE are dependently originated. Our existence is dependent. We are not independent. We came, and therefore, we will go, at some point. This is how we should understand the following words of Karmapa:
The core sickness is, in my opinion, both a mind filled with anxiety about the disease, and a tendency to wrongly think that we should never become sick or die.
Having arisen from the fabric of dependent origination, old diseases disappeared. New diseases took their seats. For the new diseases, the old medicine fails to provide a cure. So new medicines are needed. We, along the way, have grown older. We have gotten sick before. We can get sick. And we can die. This line of thought is consistent with Buddha’s teaching. It is consistent with the empirical facts, and lived experiences. When our mental attitude is consistent with the empirical facts, there is no room for fear and anxiety. That being said, we must put up measures to stay healthy and live long. But we do not need and we easily can discard the unnecessary ‘extra’ pandemic of fear and not bring that upon ourselves, by being cognizant of reality, with the help of the teachings, and the teachers.
How does mantra work? Some aspects of the principles explained above also apply for mantra recitation. A mantra is a sound or a series of sounds with one or more syllables that carry layers of cryptic meanings. When repeatedly said, together with the associated samādhi, they can produce powerful outcomes. They can heal the wounded. They can bless the unfortunate ones. They bring great merits. They can also bring about changes in nature, such as rain, hail, snow and much more. But when these powers are used wrongly, they can bring about heavy karmic results. Therefore, proper guidance is crucial. If we recite a given mantra, in conjunction with its associated samādhi, with the proper attitude of renunciation and Bodhicitta, we can produce the desired outcome of preventing the infection. How so? The simplest way to understand that is ‘chemistry,’ one could say. It works because it has all the necessary components for it to work. Out of all components, the important ones are all related to the mind, such as renunciation, bodhicitta, and samādhi. Note that ALL types of samādhis contain the element of non-distraction, one-pointed concentration, and sustaining the particular notion of śūnyatā or emptiness. For example, one can accumulate the Parnaśavarī mantra – a mantra that is recommended by many teachers during this outbreak. The recitations must be done with the prescribed samādhi in order to receive the full benefits. And to conduct the recitation and samādhi PROPERLY, one should also be aware of and subscribe to the Vajrayāna framework, i.e., the Three Roots, initiation, and samayas. Not to mention, being fully committed to the refuge and bodhicitta vows. Without knowledge of these, the understanding of mantra is limited, I must say. Now, that said, mantra recitations do carry benefits, so therefore, by no means am I shunning the practice of recitation of the mantras, at whatever standard they are practiced. And standards are defined not by the types of mantra or its enunciation, but by the mental capacity and attainment of the person reciting the mantra. This is an essential point.
The last in the list of ‘inconceivable powers’ is samādhi. Samādhi is a general term here that covers a broad range of practices, but to summarize them in one point, it would be the following: all Buddhist meditation practices fall into two categories – shiné and lhagtong. After gaining excellence in shiné, one obtains powers, such as clairvoyance. They are ‘power’ only in relation to people who are not clairvoyant. In reality, the so-called power is simply a natural outcome, or byproduct, of a stable mind. Similarly, the powerful outcome of lhagtong would be buddhahood and buddha-activity. Again, it is a powerful outcome, only in relation to unenlightened people. Otherwise, it is natural, our true selves. As Karmapa said:
In fact, these things are all beneath our true selves. All worldly, samsaric actions are beneath our true selves.
In other words, what we conceive of as reality now is mistaken, and we see buddhahood or buddha-activity to be phantom-like. This is where the error lies.
Then there is a list of supplication prayers that are recommended by many teachers, such as to Tārā or Padmasambhava. Again, note that here the audience is expected to be Buddhist, particularly Tibetan Buddhist, both Asians and Westerners, ones who presumably have an affinity to Tārā or Padmasambhava. This is a highly important implication. It presupposes that you have taken refuge, which ideally means that you subscribe to the teachings of Buddha Śākyamuni, such as the four noble truths, the first of which is that there is suffering. So, the recent events, therefore, are not and should not be a total surprise. They should rather further validate the teachings of the four noble truths. And you are expected to be familiar with the fact that this is the case. It is presupposed.
While this is the case, we still have the undeniable problems at hand. People are sick or may potentially get sick. And HERE is where the actual messages of the teachers begin. These messages may categorically be about doing something in particular about the prevention of the contagious infection, and/or drawing your attention to something fundamental to life, to Buddhadharma, which practically does not only help to gain strength, but also reduces the unnecessary suffering, such as fear and anxiety. Out of the two, Karmapa’s recent messages in particular heavily lean on the latter.
Note that recommendation messages are short, and what is described above is presupposed. If, as you read the messages, you understand them in accordance with the principles that I have outlined above, then your ‘standard’ is good. Truly. If you have to some extent been puzzled by forwarded information, I hope this note helps you contextualize the messages.
That said, we must understand that contextualization is partly our responsibility as the recipient. 5-10 minute videos or audios or 1-2 page messages will have as their eminent purpose just delivering the message, not prefacing it. You and I are expected to do some ‘homework’ on our own and connect what we hear to our previous knowledge. We are cognizant people and so the capacity is innately there. Honouring that capacity and efficiently communicating the prioritized points, the messages, hence, are short.
Now, back to my initial topic, what do I recommend? I recommend that you continue relaxing your mind, with the help of shiné practice. Periodically practice tonglen with the reference to the people who are sick and going through the process of dying. This is a tremendous support for maintaining relative and ultimate bodhicitta. Now if shiné IS your primary ongoing practice, then continue with that. If it is something else, such as Chenrezig, let that be the primary practice. By primary, I mean, a practice that you spend 2/3 of the allocated time of the session on. In addition, supplement your sessions with other commitments, such as the renewal of the refuge vow and bodhicitta vow in the beginning. I cannot emphasize this enough. All the so-called ‘advanced practices’ are sophisticated basics. Coinciding with the special days, like full moon day, take a sojong vow for a day or two. If it is feasible for you, then participate in Nyungné practice for a set or two. Occasionally supplement some sessions with mantra recitations, such as Māni and Tārā mantra or closing the sessions with heartfelt Dewachen dedication.
It is not necessary to think of doing something different and unusual all of a sudden. If it were necessary, there might be another issue next year, and, inevitably, you would think you would have to go find another arsenal for that battle, and another, even more powerful, longer range missile for the following year’s problems: “The fiery and furious Mahākāla...now that’ll scare off the adversary. Serene and calm Chenrezig... cool stuff, but no, that won’t cut it. And bodhicitta? Nah! That’s just Mahāyāna stuff. We can move on from that and do better than this with some really powerful methods.” It seems unreal, but some people, despite years of exposure to Dharma, do have such skewed notions, perceiving the practices with the very prejudices that the Dharma reminds us to be aware of. These are mistaken concepts, indicative of failure in grasping the main points, which are, creating merits, purifying negative karmas, and taming our mind and behavior. What we do is already good. Just continue developing that. Why do we feel the need for something new? It could be because of our habit to move on, just like our fickle mind. It could also be because we usually tend to believe that what we are doing is not enough. Or it could be because the ‘honeymoon’ period is over with the current practice, as familiarity develops. Whatever the reasons may be, they are all worth pondering on. There is something to realize here. Be ready to learn from your own mental activities, especially with reference to this note and other notes of mine. More importantly, there are notes from Karmapa, every week, that never fail to highlight the most essential points. Then there is your own knowledge and training, which has helped you to navigate through confusions many times before. That being said, you can pause your ongoing commitments, and do something else temporarily during this COVID-19 phase. That is up to you. But I believe the format I recommended above is the best way to go about it. I have written another text about the format for an individual retreat during periods of self-isolation which you can read on this website. I hope that will be a further help.
This will suffice for now. Please retain what is said here in this note. Please take care of yourself, your friends and families, and be calm, altruistic, and clear. Invoking the blessings of the lineage lamas of Karma Kagyu, and my personal lamas, I supplicate that you are protected. This too shall pass. Anything that comes, is bound to go away. It is just the way it is, and this is the most important takeaway notion of Buddhadharma. Be well! Thank you for reading this and retaining the content.