Hi Lam, I strongly believe that whatever happens in life can be used as a teaching, and so I’m wondering what kind of things we can learn from the pandemic, and also how we can prevent future pandemics from occurring. Could Lam share your thoughts on the matter? Thank you la.

TD, Thimphu 

Yes, I agree that with an open and curious mind, whatever we encounter can be a teaching. In fact, as a Buddhist practitioner, even the most difficult circumstances can serve as a means to gain insights and wisdom. As Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche has stated: “Your practice should be strengthened by the difficult situations you encounter, just as a bonfire in a strong wind is not blown out, but blazes even brighter.”

So, what can the pandemic teach us? Well, I think primarily it offered us a reminder that everything is in a constant state of flux and that situations can change rapidly. In this respect, we should reflect that relying on the outside world for security is like leaning on a wobbly chair for stability. When it moves we move. Therefore, instead of investing time and energy in careers, relationships, or even in our own health with the expectation that these things can lead to long-term happiness and wellbeing, it would be best to develop wisdom through contemplating the fundamental truths regarding existence, such as those that teach that all things are compounded and impermanent. If we can reflect on these truths in the context of our lives, we will become more resilient to change and things falling apart. That is not to say that we just allow relationships to collapse or our health to decline – in contrast, we should do our utmost to repair damaged friendships and to maintain our health. However, at the same time, we should remain acutely aware that no matter how much effort we devote to these matters, at some point they will collapse, either through a change in the conditions that created them or, ultimately, our demise. 

Interdependence or shuyata can also be contemplated in the context of the social response to the pandemic. How are these things related? Well, take our human bodies as an example. Now, our body only functions due to the individual organs and vessels working together, and so when these parts, such as the heart, kidneys, liver, etc recognize that they exist interdependently and are not separate objects that live in isolation from the body and other organs, they naturally cooperate, with the heart supplying blood to the liver and the kidneys sending fluid to the heart. As a result, the body and organs remain healthy. In contrast, if the organs lack understanding of their innate connection, they are likely to become selfish and refuse to work together, which, in turn, causes the entire body to get sick and finally die. Now, in the context of the pandemic, I think it was very obvious that the countries that traditionally recognize that, like the organs in the body, our overall wellbeing is dependent on others and society as a whole, such as Bhutan, Taiwan, Japan, people were more willing to forgo conveniences for the greater good. As a result, the virus inflicted less harm and they had a low mortality rate. In contrast, countries where individual rights are prioritized and people are less willing to cooperate, refusing to wear masks in public places and even rejecting to follow basic Covid protocol, the pandemic had a far more devastating effect. Now, as shunyata is a complex subject, I’m not in any way suggesting that this simple reflection on social attitudes towards Covid protocol offers profound insights into the subject. However, in the context of your question, a rudimentary look at how the societies that functioned in sync with the truth of interdependence faired in comparison to those that emphasized individual rights, which are based on the fallacy that things exist independently, should at least cause us to consider how shunyata is the underlying principle of existence. Then, when we acknowledge this truth and work in accordance with its principles, there is greater stability and less disruption. In contrast, when people fail to recognize this truth, but instead merely work for their own benefit without concern for the planet and others, chaos prevails, as it did for the body in the above example when the organs failed to grasp how they exist interdependently.        

Now, this leads to a related concept – that nothing appears from nowhere, but only comes into being due to a number of causes and conditions joining together. With regard to the pandemic, Covid didn’t just appear out of thin air, but arose due to certain factors combining and creating a result. When we recognize this truth, we can then attempt to put in place the causes and conditions that counter those that give rise to viruses such as Covid and so prevent similar pandemics from developing in the future. Actually, Covid-19 is classed as a zoonotic disease, which means that it originated in animals. Other zoonotic diseases are HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Mers, H1N1, and Sars, and some of the reasons why we are seeing an escalation in the number of such viruses appearing in recent times is primarily due to increased deforestation to plant commercial crops, which puts humans at greater risk of contacting virus-carrying wildlife, and also because of lack of legislation in certain countries that outlaws the sale of wild animals for consumption or, otherwise, there is weak enforcement of such legislation.    

So, what can we, as individuals, do to prevent future pandemics occurring and also to curtail global warming? Well, obviously the main responsibility lies with governments to rein in industries under their jurisdiction that burn fossil fuel, destroy forests, and profit from the sale of wildlife. However, companies will also respond to consumer pressure, and so if we become savvy shoppers and avoid items that have been produced using petrochemicals or manufactured by industries that destroy forests or pollute the planet, it can cause a change of direction. Of course, one person modifying their shopping habits will have no impact on global warming or pandemics, but in the same way that individual droplets of water bonding together can create a powerful tsunami, so we can be a strong force for positive change when we join others of like mind. So, we can research which products and companies are identified as major contributors to global warming or are responsible for deforestation and then, together with lakhs or crores of others, avoid these items and the industries that produce them. Even without research, from today you can refuse single-use plastic bags and reduce or totally stop meat consumption, which, incidentally, is a major contributor to global warming. In short, if we desire a clean and healthy environment in which to live and raise our children, we need to put in place the components that will enable this desire to become a reality. Otherwise, merely hoping to avoid future pandemics and forestall global warming without putting the right measures in place would be like trying grow papaya trees without adding fertilizer to the soil or ensuring that the plants get sufficient sunlight and moisture. It won’t happen.