Faith in times of COVID-19
by Venerable Kwang Sheng

The COVID-19 pandemic continues relentlessly even today, causing great disruptions to our daily life, society and economy. In particular, it is causing immeasurable psychological distress to people, who are experiencing anxiety, worries and fears. As Buddhists, how should we strengthen our faith and adapt ourselves to overcome this current calamity?

Faith is the gateway to enter Buddhism and the basis for sustaining the Buddha Dharma. According to the Avatamsaka Sutra: Faith is the foundation to cultivate the Way, and the mother of merit and virtue, because it is capable of nourishing wholesome roots. The Buddha Dharma is like a vast sea; only by faith can it be entered. Therefore, the single word “faith” is the key to escape from birth and death and is the wonderful means for returning to the source.

It is also said in the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra that “the Buddha Dharma is like a vast sea; only by faith can it be entered.” In the immense oceans of Buddhist wisdom, the prerequisite to obtain tangible benefits from the Buddha Dharma is to possess the Right Faith. The Right Faith is the abode for our mind and the basis for the three Dharmic, karmic and wisdom bodies. Only with Right Faith in Buddhism will we derive the impetus and motivation to study the scriptures in depth, and sever the roots of our doubts and ignorance, thereby putting the teachings into practice, and thus experiencing first-hand the joy and bliss that comes from having our mind purified with the radiant light and cool cleansing water of the Buddha teachings.

In Buddhism, “faith” refers to the unity of body and mind, an alignment between our inner and outer activities to pay homage and apply the Buddha’s teachings so as to attain liberation. By imbuing and manifesting these teachings personally, we purify our minds, enact good moral values, improve the quality of our daily living, and discern the truth of our existence.

Buddhism objects to blind or unquestioned faith but promotes Right Faith based on wisdom and understanding. The Buddha cautioned in the Nirvana Sutra that “Faith without understanding fosters ignorance; whereas understanding without faith breeds the wrong views.” In other words, having faith without the correct understanding gives rise to ignorance and worries. Moreover, the activities of such a person may not be in accordance with the Buddhist teachings. On the other hand, having understanding without faith generates false or mistaken views. Therefore, the basis of faith in Buddhism is wisdom. Buddhists should strengthen their faith through wise discernment and cultivate their religious piety through wise practice, which would result in their faith deepening with growing wisdom. That is why the Buddha emphasised the paramount role of wisdom in the Avatamsaka Sutra: “Of all the teachings, wisdom is foremost.”

The Buddha taught four ways to keep Right Faith steadfastly.

➊ Seek and keep spiritual guidance. We should surround ourselves with a spiritual community. We do this by getting acquainted with learned practitioners with the right views and understanding, namely the Buddhist Sangha. As noted in the Avatamsaka Sutra: “All Buddhist teachings achieve fruition through the efforts of conscientious practitioners, who are the pillars.” Moreover, “One who seeks the Bodhisattva path, who wishes to attain the Perfect Wisdom, should diligently seek out good company. Seek them out without fatigue; and when one encounters them, do not grow weary or complacent; comply instantly with their teachings without defiance.” Thus, it can be seen that seeking and keeping good spiritual guidance is the first step in practising Buddhism.

➋ Listen to the true Dharma. This means that we should listen frequently to the teachings of the Sangha. As stated in the Verses about Hearing (Srutivarga):

Through much hearing, one understands the Dharma. Through much hearing, one distances oneself from wrongdoing. Through much hearing, one discards what is meaningless. Through much hearing, one attains Nirvana.

Only by listening extensively to the right teachings can we gain insight into the true empty nature of phenomena and discern the ultimate reality of our existence.

➌ Ponder wisely: After listening to the teachings, we must continually reflect on them based on the correct understanding of Buddha Dharma, to deepen our understanding and truly grasp the spirit and meaning of the teachings. This is in sharp contrast to thoughtlessly or superstitiously following what is said.

➍ Apply the Dharma in our daily life. This means that we apply to real life what we have learned or understood about the Buddha Dharma, achieving unison of thought and action. All four methods are interconnected. Starting with seeking out spiritual guides, we get to hear the true Dharma as a result, thereby leading to us acquiring right views and understanding, which we then put into everyday practice.

The current pandemic is a common crisis confronting humanity. In this scenario, Buddhists should strive even harder to enact the Buddhist values of compassion, gratitude, wisdom and rationality. We should steady ourselves, reframe our mindset, strengthen our faith and deploy the right understanding to overcome this challenge together. During this pandemic, the medical front-liners have stepped up selflessly to answer the call of duty, the cleaning staff have worked tirelessly without complaints, volunteers have served willingly, and the law enforcement officers have discharged their responsibility admirably. They are demonstrating the goodness inherent in human nature and spreading warmth to all others around them. Due to their staunch commitment to forge ahead, we can have some respite and sense of security. Therefore, we should be grateful and show our appreciation.

Only people who are grateful can face the daily grind with optimism and positivity, accepting life’s challenges. As the pandemic rages on, all Buddhists should start with themselves by maintaining Right Faith and views, unite and collaborate cohesively, comply proactively with safety measures, so that we can surmount this challenge together.

Self-discipline will lead us to freedom, and having a common goal will allow us to march forward in tandem. I sincerely pray for strength and protection for all beings to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and that the pandemic will end soon so life may return to normalcy. May everyone stay healthy, happy, safe and blessed.

Ven Kwang Sheng 16.