Faith in a Time of Crisis
by Benny Liow Woon Khin
A Muslim neighbour, who isn’t very religious in normal times, told me she spent her time in quarantine praying five times a day and working with members of her mosque to find ways to help the less fortunate during these difficult times.
“This whole ordeal brings us closer together and deepens my faith in Allah,” she said. “Spending time praying and being with Him is comforting.”
A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in the summer of 2020 in the United States revealed that more Americans are saying the pandemic has bolstered their religious faith and the faith of their compatriots. Nearly three in 10 Americans (28%) reported stronger personal faith because of COVID-19, and the same survey suggested that the religious faith of Americans overall has strengthened.
Psychologists generally believe that faith can help people transcend stressful times by enabling them to see these as opportunities to grow closer to a higher power or to improve their lives. Faith in their religion also fosters a sense of connectedness, making them part of something larger than themselves. This can happen through prayer or meditation, or through participation in religious discourses, listening to spiritual music, or even taking a walk outside to admire nature.
So how should Buddhists, in the same predicament, manage their anxieties of adjusting to life in the midst of a global pandemic, and respond with their faith in the Buddha’s teachings?
FAITH, CONTEMPLATION AND PRACTICE
Dan Harris, the famous ABC News anchor who wrote 10% Happier, asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama the same question on his news programme Nightline in May 2020. The Dalai Lama offered the following advice to those who are having a difficult time dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:
(a) Practise meditation — be it one minute, five minutes or 10 minutes each day, especially when we wake up. This basically involves training our minds to be positive so that we adopt a positive approach to life. Whatever type of meditation we follow, the main purpose should be to calm the mind so that we can respond to a situation mindfully, rather than reacting with thoughts of fear, worry, or doubt.
(b) Practise compassion — this will lessen our attachment to our ego as we look out for those around us who may need help. The Buddha taught us that we live in an interconnected world, so we should not just think of our own well-being but that of others too. It is when we cultivate thoughts of loving-kindness and compassion for others, that we too will benefit from such wholesome thoughts. As the Dalai Lama said to Dan Harris, “Taking care of others is actually taking care of yourself.”
We can say that the essence of the Buddha’s teachings is all about how to develop our minds. When we cultivate a positive attitude, we are able to respond to difficulties in life by being more relaxed, calm, peaceful, and equanimous. This is the exact opposite of having a negative mind state when we react to difficulties or a crisis with anxieties, worries, fears and frustrations.
In the Buddha’s own words, he said that for one who contemplates wisely, anxieties and troubles that have not yet arisen do not arise, and those already arisen will cease. As for those who do not contemplate wisely, anxieties and troubles that have not yet arisen will arise, and those that have already arisen will increase. (Sabbasava Sutta, MN 2).
When we understand the Buddha’s teachings, we realise that the pandemic vividly illustrates a core Buddhist principle: That we are all equally subject to birth, ageing, sickness and death. All things — physical and mental — are in continuous change, not remaining the same from one moment to the next. Consequently, although we crave stability and pleasant experiences, there is no real security, and happiness is fleeting. We are just not in control.
This explains why people around the world are feeling rudderless and adrift. As we go through lockdown after lockdown, many fear that they may be infected, retrenched, lose their loved ones, or be unable to get enough food and other essential supplies. How do we move forward with courage and hope? How can faith in the Dharma support us?
This is when reflecting on the wisdom of great masters like the late Ajahn Chah (1918-1992) helps us to gain an insight into the nature of existence better. He taught that whatever our states of mind, happy or unhappy, we should constantly remind ourselves, “This is uncertain.” This understanding of things is always timely and relevant. This is what the Buddha meant by impermanence, the first of the three characteristics of existence.
Therefore, having the understanding that even COVID-19 is impermanent is Right View. When we have faith in the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, we have hope that the crisis we face will not last forever. This is why the following verses from Thich Nhat Hanh inspire faith and hope among Buddhists:
Suffering is impermanent, and that’s why we can transform it. And because happiness is impermanent, that’s why we have to nourish it.
Our worry or fear of the pandemic won’t make the virus disappear. We do what’s required of us to be safe, accept it and then, we let it go!
Psychologists have revealed that 90% of things which we worry about are out of our control, so it’s not helpful to worry about them. However, for the 10% that we can control, we should do something about it, instead of worrying. This is the same advice that the 8th century Indian Buddhist pandit, Shantideva taught: “If a problem can be solved, why worry? If the problem cannot be solved, worrying will do you no good.” (Verse 10, Chapter 6, Bodhicaryāvatāra).
When facing the COVID-19 crisis, it is not only faith and hopes that we should develop but also courage, specifically the courage to change our mindset. For instance, we cannot stop COVID-19 from affecting the world, but it is within our control to prevent it from affecting our well-being. For instance, we identify our habitual, negative patterns of thinking and behaviour, and replace them with positive alternatives that medical science has taught us, to be safe from COVID-19.
Since I began by quoting from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, let me conclude with what he said to TIME Magazine on April 14, 2020, about the nature of the crisis that we are all experiencing now:
“As a Buddhist, I believe in the principle of impermanence. Eventually, this virus will pass, as I have seen wars and other terrible threats pass in my lifetime, and we will have the opportunity to rebuild our global community, as we have done many times before. I sincerely hope that everyone can stay safe and stay calm. At this time of uncertainty, it is important that we do not lose hope and confidence in the constructive efforts so many are making.”
May all of you stay well and healthy!