At the time of writing, the UK has just gone into semi-lockdown due to the coronavirus. Global cases are approaching 200000, travel is being banned, and the financial markets are in meltdown. We are in the middle of a pandemic, an unprecedented event in most of our lifetimes. By the time you read this, who knows where we’ll be?
I have witnessed a variety of responses to this situation – on social media, amongst my friends and Buddhist colleagues, and in my psychotherapy practice. People seem to be tending towards one of two extremes, or flipping between the two – denial (‘it’s not as bad as everyone’s saying’, ‘I’ll be safe’, ‘I’m going to carry on as normal’) or hysteria (people are clearing out the supermarkets, experiencing overwhelming anxiety, becoming addicted to checking the news every ten minutes). I recognise both of these responses in myself as well.
I’ve also witnessed a lot of selfishness. I just watched a video of a young mother in tears, as she couldn’t afford the few huge packs of nappies that were left on the shelves after panic buying, and was worried about how she’d keep her baby in diapers. I’ve heard reports of Buddhist sanghas discussing how to ‘look after their own’ without any energy for talking about helping the broader local communities. I have noticed selfishness moving through me too – the buzz I get from watching the dramatic news unfold.
At times like these, my Pureland Buddhist practice is supremely helpful. We have only three dogmas in Amida Shu, my school of Buddhism. The first is that we are bombu – a Japanese word that foolish beings of wayward passions. The second is that there is such a thing as a Buddha – embodying qualities of limitless wisdom and compassion. The third is that we can take refuge in the Buddha, in our case primarily by saying the name of the Buddha, and that the Buddha will accept us just as we are.
The longer I live, the more true the first of these dogmas seems to me. I notice bombu nature in others, and I notice it in myself. We are often like corks, helplessly bobbing around on the currents of our greed, hate and delusion. Sometimes we are all too aware of our selfishness, as when we find ourselves stockpiling more chocolate than we will need for many months, emptying the shelf of every single bar. Sometimes our selfishness is more sneaky, as when we tell ourselves we are staying in our house to protect the more vulnerable people in our community from getting infected, whereas we are actually more worried about getting it ourselves.
It is a relief for me to hear the first dogma, as it gives me permission to be bombu, and for others to be bombu too. I feel less alone, and I feel less of an awful person. If we ended here, however, this would be a dispiriting spiritual paradigm. Our selfishness runs deep – what can we do about it? Luckily, the second and third dogmas help – first by reminding me how it is to look at this selfishness through the eyes of a Buddha.
When the Buddha watches us being selfish, he gets it. He sees that we are stockpiling food because we are afraid that we won’t be able to feed our family, or because we use food as a comfort and we can’t imagine staying psychologically stable without it. He sees that we indulge in compulsions as a way of distancing ourselves from old emotions that threaten to flood and overwhelm us. He sees that we hide from our fragility, our impermanence, in a myriad of creative ways – many of them resulting in trouble for us or for others. He sees the depth of our wounds, and he gets why we do what we do, even when we don’t. He smiles wryly and fondly at our exploits. He accepts us. He loves us.
I have been trying to see those acting selfishly during this time through the eyes of a Buddha. It’s not always easy – it if was, I’d be a Buddha already. I find myself condemning people’s behaviour, feeling outraged, thinking I’d never do such a terrible thing, writing them off. I also feel that way about my own behaviour some of the time. There is a part of me that is convinced I am the most awful and selfish person ever to walk on the planet, and when I notice myself being selfish, this is final confirmation for this part and it feels terrible. It is very helpful for me to take refuge in a Buddha that sees and accepts me exactly as I am – when I can’t manage it myself, he does. Even if I can’t feel the truth of it, I know that it is true – like the sun behind dark clouds.
When I come into contact with this truth, then something magical happens. I see others with tenderness, and I stop berating them and begin to offer them patience, warmth and understanding. They sense that I have stopped judging them, and they often find themselves more able to reflect on their behaviour, or to be more honest with me about their struggles. They change. The same thing happens with my own selfishness – I trust that the Buddha understands, and so I can approach these selfish parts of me with more curiosity, and as I learn about them I also find self-compassion welling up. These selfish parts begin to relax, and again change happens.
What can we do as Buddhists when we witness the selfishness of others, or our own selfishness? We can trust that the Buddha will accept us and these people exactly as we are. This doesn’t mean that he will approve of our behaviour – he’d also rather that we were kind to each other – but that he gets why we’re not able to be more generous in that moment. We can experiment with seeing ourselves and other people through the Buddha’s eyes. This is an advanced practice!
We can also trust that, as our refuge deepens and as our faith grows, we will be able to make sense of more and more of other people’s ‘bad behaviour’ – behaviour which usually leads us to judge them, push them away or polarise with them. This steadiness will be of great value to others in our community as we move forwards into uncertain and frightening times. We can hold our ground, being held by the Buddha, and be conduits for the Buddha’s love.