If you don’t tend to one another, who then will tend to you?
~ The Buddha
What can a Buddhist do during the COVID-19 pandemic? Or, what can they do during any viral pandemic, such as pandemic Flu (H1N1), Ebola, MERS, etc.?
Currently, the novel coronavirus is ravaging the world (“COVID-19“) which the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed a Pandemic. In response, there have been quarantines, ‘social distancing’, closures of non-essential businesses, to help slow down the spread of the disease. This in turn has resulted in people creating various actions such as standing in long lines to strip store shelves bare of food, toilet paper, and other supplies.
But what does this all mean to a Buddhist? We are, of course, human just like everyone else. But how we act is within our control. This article will help you, as a Buddhist, in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and any future pandemic that may occur.
Buddhist Planner for the COVID-19 Pandemic
To aid Buddhists with their practice during this time, I teamed up with Venerable Sanathavihari Los Angeles to create this 14 day planner. You’ll find a practice for each day, links to online Dharma/Dhamma services, related articles, activities for children, and more. This planner took over 40 hours to complete and will be updated if we need to add more information/resources. It’s completely FREE, or you can donate whatever you feel it is worth to you:
This article is meant to be complementary to the planner, although anyone can use the planner by itself.
So, what can you do? While public health and other medical professionals are your best source on health matters, the Buddha provided us guidance on how we interpret, understand, and react to things.
Your practice during this time can focus on three things:
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness is going to be your focus during this entire pandemic. I am not talking about secular mindfulness, but Buddhist mindfulness. As Buddhists, we are practicing ending Dukkha so we can realize Nirvana and end the cycle of rebirth. This pandemic is making dukkha very apparent in all our lives! Your daily practice, and really, I mean every moment, is to be mindful. While that sounds straightforward and easy, it can be challenging. Often, we go on ‘autopilot’ and let feelings, impermanence, non-self, and impurities take control. Start by pausing before you just react or respond so you can consider the suffering of the other person, why you are feeling a certain way about a thing, or how you are feeling. When we look at the Buddha, Arhats, and Bodhisattvas, they are practicing mindfulness in every moment. Be on guard to all these conditioned things that are there to attack you, so you start having unwholesome thoughts, which turn into unwholesome actions.
- Noble Eightfold Path: The Buddha’s Eightfold Path is something that we aim to practice every day and in every moment. There is a reason it’s in the shape of the wheel, and why Dukkha is referred to as suffering or dissatisfaction. How would it feel to get in your car and have an unbalanced wheel? It would be an unpleasant drive. And that’s Dukkha. The opposite of that is Sukkha, and that is this perfectly round wheel that is balanced. The ride is smooth, comfortable, and essentially “Nirvana”. When you practice the eightfold path correctly and completely, you transform Dukkha into Sukkha, and can achieve Nirvana. So during this pandemic, Dukkha is having a field day. Use the Buddha’s eightfold path in everything. It’s OK if you don’t have them all completely figured out…pretty much all of us don’t! We may be more skilled in meditation, for example, but maybe not in right speech. This is a time where you can work at transforming your suffering. An effective way to think about achieving this, especially for Mahayana Buddhists, is to be a Bodhisattva. When you encounter a stressful or negative situation, think how a Bodhisattva would interpret it, and respond. Or you can think of how the Buddha would interpret and respond. This is not to say it won’t be challenging, but this is just like going to the gym…it takes practice!
- Loving Kindness: Finally, loving-kindness or metta. We need that during this time. This is true love and kindness for yourself, for others whether you know them or not, and all sentient beings. One part of this is building up wholesome seeds in you, and this in turn helps your interactions with others. It’s also important that we continue to safely connect with others and even a kind word or asking how someone is or how you can help can spread wholesome karmic seeds. You may soon find yourself responding in a way you may never have done before. Loving-kindness helps us with giving unselfish thoughts and actions that all sentient beings are safe, healthy, peaceful, and happy.
Imagine if you started every day and every moment doing all these three things?! It does not mean you will not feel sad or scared sometimes, or not get sick, or not have unwholesome thoughts. Instead, it gives you a way to deal with these mental afflictions we create in the way the Buddha taught. As you slowly can see things as they truly are, you start to gain control over your mind while helps make that wheel of your life “round”.
What Would the Buddha Do?
During the Buddha’s time, he was no stranger to the harsh realities of life. His community faced famine, and he cared for a monk with dysentery (click here for the story and commentary). Things we take for granted now, such as vaccines, antibiotics, anti-viral medicine, and other medical therapies were not available. Was there suffering? Absolutely.
I bring up the Buddha first in this article because he can be a guide to show us how we should think and act during this time. The Buddha was a human being just like the rest of us, however, he was able to become enlightened and dwell in the natural state of Nirvana. But there are a few things we can take from his life that we can reflect on and use during this situation:
- What he did not do is important: he did not panic, let emotions dictate his actions, and did not put himself over others. As humans, we can quickly regress to actions that we deem necessary to protect ourselves (and family) when a scary situation arises. While fear does have an important survival instinct, we must also factor in the situation. Our actions (Karma) have consequences.
- The Buddha understood, and taught, that we are not only a frail and temporary grouping of things that make us “us” (known as the Five Aggregates), that exist due to causes and conditions (dependent origination), and that we are also all connected. There is nothing separating us from any other sentient being. The ego makes us believe it is so. Love of “self” is what keeps us attached to things (includes ideas/notions), that result in our unwholesome actions, thinking, speech, etc.
- So how can we be more “Buddha-like”? It’s all laid out in the Buddha’s teachings, specifically the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha did what any of us can do also! We see what the Buddha did every day in his life as extraordinary, but it is everyone’s true nature.
- During this period, think about what actions you are taking and how the Buddha would act. This is a straightforward way to ‘ground’ yourself in the moment before you act to see how our teacher would act.
It’s important to understand that the Buddha was practicing at every moment. I’ll repeat that…he was always practicing. By being mindful in every moment, the Buddha was a “Buddha”. Because he was enlightened, he was keenly aware of the truth of our world and how our actions shape it.
This isn’t to make you feel like you have a large hill to climb immediately. The Buddha took countless lifetimes of effort to actually get to this point! But the point is, all the past existences of the Buddha he was determined, focused, and displayed the actions of a Bodhisattva. We will talk about Bodhisattva’s later in this article, but this is something you can express in your everyday life. You don’t have to be a Buddha to be on the Bodhisattva path, or at least to practice right actions and thinking!
Mindfulness During a Pandemic
Often “mindfulness” gets very commercialized in our western society. In fact, it seems like everyone is doing it! While this is great for health reasons, the type of mindfulness being practiced is typically not Buddhist mindfulness.
When a Buddhist practices mindfulness, as one of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, they are a Buddha at that very moment. Think about that for a second! Not only is this an uplifting and empowering thing to know, but it also shows that you also can progress on the path. What a beautiful thing!
We like to think the Buddha becomes enlightened and… boom…that was “it”. However, the Buddha was constantly practicing…specifically mindfulness. While his eyes were “open”, so to speak, his practice of mindfulness was easier than what we must do (of course). When he saw greed, anger, delusion…he saw it for what it truly was and could act in a way that is in accord with the Dharma. His “dharma wheel” (think of the Noble Eightfold Path) was always perfectly round, in alignment, and in accord. There is nothing preventing us from doing the same thing (as shown by the Buddha’s many followers who become arhats). The only thing that stops us, is us!
Mindfulness is something we need to do in every moment of our life, and especially during this time. Here are some examples:
- You are in the store needing supplies and see a mad dash of people for toilet paper. Are you practicing mindfulness and see the reaction, or do you flow immediately with your emotions?
- You see someone cough next to you. Do you immediately suspect COVID-19, or do you instead remember the Five Remembrances. That everyone will get sick (and die) one day. That you have no idea if this is just allergies, or something else. And that you feel compassion for this person, and everyone else.
- You finally find bottled water in the store. You see an elderly person coming up the aisle. Do you quickly take the remaining bottles, or do you see if they want one also?
Being “mindful” is not about us, it’s about all of us. When we are mindful, we are generating wholesome karmic actions (and merit). When we are not mindful, we are producing unwholesome karmic seeds that later ‘bloom’ with intensity and consequences for yourself and others whenever the conditions are right. The ‘water’ that allows that unwholesome seed to bloom can come at any time: a negative remark by a boss or friend, someone cut you off while driving, no more toilet paper(!), etc. When you are mindful and have right thinking and action, you can prevent that seed from being watered and blooming (into an ugly weed).
Creating a Daily Practice
For Buddhists, familiar activities such as attending a Dharma service at a temple or group may now be unavailable. And with the uncertainty and fear in the air, more support is sorely needed in daily practice.
The guide we produced (click here) can take you through 14 days of practice. The 14 days were decided upon because most people are ‘quarantined’ for that amount of days, and most ‘stay at home’ orders appear to be around that time as well. However, this is just a recommendation. After the 14 days, simply go back to day one and start over again!
You will need a few things to get started, although not all are required:
- A Meditation App: Insight Timer is a great (and free) app that can aid you with being accountable to yourself with meditating/chanting daily, and also a fun way to connect with a larger community of mediators locally and worldwide. There are other apps out there, so find one that works best for you if you decide to use one.
- A Sanctuary: You don’t need a special “Buddhist” cushion, mat, altar, or anything else like that. Find a quiet spot (if possible) where you can attend to your practice each day. Even a kitchen table and chair works! You can place a picture of the Buddha or a small statue on there, along with a flower, plant, etc., to aid in your practice as offerings.
- Patience: This is a period that has stress, fear, and uncertainty. You may desire ‘instant’ results or want to find something else to do. Buddhist practice requires faith and commitment.
- Commitment: A “practice” means you routinely do something, not just when it is needed. Meditating just once a month, or practicing mindfulness when you are anxious, maybe a pleasant thing to do, but it doesn’t build resilience, skills, and insight. Just as if you do not go to the gym, you won’t get “strong” in Buddhist practice if you are not actually practicing! We have made each day into practice, so you have both a schedule and an uncomplicated way to incorporate the practice. Ideally, your practice should continue for as long as possible that day (you may need to build up to this level), and we provide some guidance on how to do that. There will be times where you do not feel like practicing, but this is something you should be determined to continue doing.
For daily practice, the Noble Eightfold Path is a perfect thing to incorporate and is found in our planner for the first eight days.
But you won’t always be “at home”. So, incorporate your practice everywhere with a few suggestions (this list is not all-inclusive):
- Shopping: Be mindful as you go shopping and think and act as the Buddha would. Don’t spend any longer than necessary and keep social distancing. People can be asymptomatic (including yourself!) so minimizing time out is important where others (or you) might be infected.
- Online: Nerves are frayed, so me mindful of your speech (it’s not always verbal!). There is no need to belittle anyone, laugh at them, etc. Find words of support, comfort, and encouragement and spread it with them.
- At Work: Many are deemed essential and must work. Be mindful of your actions, to include social distancing, ensuring your workspace is cleaned routinely, and that you stay home when sick.
- At Temples: If your temple is open, be sure to remember social distancing. And if meditating, also have adequate spacing between yourself and others. Be sure to check with your temple to see if they have online Dharma/Dhamma services, meditation sessions, or even classes online. You’d be surprised by what is becoming available!
What about masks? Although masks are recommended for those who are sick, we are learning those with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic initially and possibly spread through air droplets from your mouth/breathing. If you will be near others, a mask may be advisable (and since this article was first written, has become mandatory in many locations). Ask your physician, workplace, or temple if they believe you should wear a mask, what type, when, and where.
Online Dharma/Dhamma Services
Since you are not able to attend a service at your temple our group, this list can help. This list is not meant to be all-inclusive. Let me know if there are any I should include in this list. You can also find links in our planner.
- Chinese Buddhism (Ch’an & Pure Land)
- Pure Land
Isolated at Home
If you find yourself isolated at home (such as a quarantine or stay at home orders), what can you do?
Again, our planner is perfect for this type of situation! However, there are some additional things you can incorporate/be aware of:
- Read a Book or Listen to an Audiobook: I’m going to recommend one of my favorites: Old Path White Clouds – Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha (By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh): https://amzn.to/39ntVd9. This is a novelized biography of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) drawn from numerous Buddhist scripture by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m recommending it because it can become a daily ritual for yourself and your family. Not only does it teach about the Buddha’s life and his teachings, but can give you a wholesome ‘distraction’, and provide guidance on how to behave and think as the Buddha did.
- Recover: If you are sick, the time is for you and your body to heal and listen to your physician. “Buddhism” is also about doing what is mindfully correct and paying attention to your body as it heals itself is a correct thing to do. Be mindful of your feelings as well as they crop up and recognize them as any unwholesome thoughts as not being helpful, and a product of your mind. If you are caring for a sick loved one, ensure you are also taking all the necessary safety precautions and mindful of your own body and thoughts. Caregivers often forget about themselves, so show compassion to yourself as well.
- Organize/Clean: A cluttered mind may follow a cluttered house! How about tidying up? Now, if you are healthy, is a good time to see what you can ‘get rid of’ (or donate…but be careful especially during this time as donations may not be accepted). You may find this provides your mind relief, as we are often unconscious of the effect a cluttered living space has. It may also aid your practice!
- Buddhist Scripture: There are many Buddhist scriptures that are perfect during this time. Here are a few:
- Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta: This Sutta (teaching) is recommended by Venerable Sanathavihari Los Angeles as one that encompasses all of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. It is a good Sutta to use during this pandemic, as it explains all the major teachings of the Buddha. As we have learned during this 14-day planner, the Eightfold Path is central to us being able to not only find the correct balance in our lives but also to understand our true nature. https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN9.html
- Sūtra of the Medicine Buddha: The Medicine Buddha (Lapis Lazuli Radiance Tathagata) is a popular Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism, along with Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha), and Amitabha Buddha (Buddha of the Western Pure Land). In Chinese Buddhism, you often will find this ‘trinity’ in the main hall where the Buddha is in the center, Amitabha seated on the Buddha’s left side, and Medicine Buddha seated to the Buddha’s right side. You may find this Sūtra comforting during this time and learn about a Buddha and Sūtra that is popular with many Buddhists. http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/medbudsutra.pdf
- Heart Sūtra: The most recited and copied Sūtra in Mahayana Buddhism is that of the Heart Sutra. Because this is a short Sutra, you may find it beneficial to chant especially if you don’t have a lot of time. It is an unusual sutra with a lot of “no” statements, however, its purpose is to have us gain the insight of prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom / ultimate truth). As Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh expounds, this liberates us from and allows us to understand, the true nature of birth and death, being and non-being, etc., so we can reside in the state of Nirvana. He states: “This is a state of coolness, peace, and non-fear that can be experienced in this very life, in your own body, and in your own five skandhas. It is nirvana.”. The Sūtra can be found at the end of this article: https://www.lionsroar.com/love-wisdom-buddha/
Buddhist Hand Washing
Finally, here’s a nice practice you can take to help stay healthy! The CDC and WHO recommend hand washing for at least 20 seconds in warm soapy water. As a Buddhist, you can use parts of the Loving Kindness (Metta) scripture to remind you when you reach 20 seconds (repeat three times slowly):
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
Remember, don’t touch your face (nose, eyes, mouth)! This is one of the primary ways the virus can enter your system per the CDC and WHO.
So, what can a Buddhist do during a viral pandemic? A lot!
The overarching theme of your practice during this time is “mindfulness” and “interconnectedness”. As we traverse our daily lives, which has been upended recently, understanding we are all in this together, and mindfulness is needed more than ever.
As a final thought (and request), ensure you do not leave out your existing Sangha (community of monastics) during this time. They will need your patience and support as their ability to include you in the daily activities of a temple or organization will be impacted as well. Ask how you can help; they will be glad you did.
May all beings be peaceful, happy, and safe. And that includes YOU! 🙏
- Article’s Main Featured Photo: Photo by Lain on Flickr (CC0 License)
- Thank You: To Venerable Sanathavihari Los Angeles for his assistance with the daily planner.
- Questions? If you have recommendations for resources to add to this article, feel free to send me a message!
- Recommended Reading:
- Kucchivikara-vattha: The Monk with Dysentery.
- 3 Small Practices for Living in the Coronavirus Era:
- Living in This Strange Moment Together:
https://www.lionsroar.com/living-in-this-strange-moment-together/In Times of
- Crisis, Draw Upon the Strength of Peace:
- How to Invoke Medicine Buddha:
- The Bodhisattva Response to Coronavirus:
- Creativity, Compassion, and the Coronavirus:
- Practicing in a Pandemic:
- Buddhist Scripture & Articles Related to Illness (from Access To Insight):
- Coronavirus Resources for Children and Schools:
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The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only. Alan Peto assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site. The information contained is provided on an as is basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness, and without any warranties of any kind whatsoever, express or implied. Read full disclaimer here.