Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche talks to Kuensel about Coronavirus and what we can do to steady our rising anxieties and fears, and why Bhutan is lucky to have a visionary and an empathetic Monarch to assure and guide us through such turbulent times.
What do you make of the Coronavirus pandemic in the world today?
I’m supposedly a Buddhist who has heard thousands of times about the impermanence and uncertainty of our lives. I’ve even written and taught that through a lot of my life. But when Covid-19 hit, I saw those teachings hadn’t really entered my heart, and that I’d been teaching them without totally believing them,
Covid-19 has made us feel very small. We always thought our lives were in our own hands. That’s why we go to school and make money, thinking that will give us control of our lives. But apparently not. When a tiny bug hits us, we are down to our knees and to the most primitive solutions like washing our hands. Even mighty countries and formidable systems are falling.
It’s interesting that even the most powerful and supposedly sober and well-established nations and institutions are now busy blaming each other for not producing correct counts of infections and deaths, as if that’s possible in such unexpected circumstances. If we’d known about Covid-19 a year earlier, we’d have better tests and could produce more accurate counts. So what this blame-game shows us, both individually and at the national level, is how quickly we resort to blaming others whenever we feel threatened.
It’s so sad and unfortunate that so many lives are being lost due to Covid-19. But even scarier is the uncertainty it produces and our seeming inability to learn from what’s happening and move forward differently.
From New York to Siliguri, everybody seems to be talking about the economy and getting life back to business as usual. But instead, this could actually be a turning point in the state of our world where we’re brave enough not to think in terms of business as usual.
For the first time in memory, Delhi has blue skies and clean air, greenhouse gas emissions are way down, the Ganges water is clear, and other species can survive and be themselves. Statistics show these will save far more lives than those lost to Covid-19. So instead of cranking up the old economy, it may be high time to think of a different kind of economy.
Ours is a very small nation and we’re very fortunate that, under our caring and dedicated King, the administration has done and is still doing an incredible job protecting our people.
But it’s now also high time for nations big and powerful enough to send people to the moon – nations that can really make big differences – to be more humble and less arrogant, to stop having the mentality of ruling the world, and to do things differently. Small though we are, our nation could be an example of a new way forward.
Understandably, there is a lot of fear and anxiety going around. People are afraid of contracting Covid-19 themselves, or dread that someone they love might contract it. Is there anything you can share that can help people deal with such emotions and thoughts?
Initially, this is going to be difficult for a lot of people. But it’s also something that, in quite a short time, we can train ourselves to handle.
It’s difficult because there is a clear and present danger, with the virus infecting a lot of people and the whole world collapsing in many ways. In such situations, our minds always tend to filter the news and choose the negative bits.
But while the situation is certainly very precarious, there’s a lot we can do. First, we can simply take precautions. Doctors and other experts have told us many ways to take care of ourselves. And we can remind ourselves that a lot of infected people are also getting cured.
At a deeper level, we can notice how we so often look at problems in our life from just one angle. But we don’t have to pick such a very narrow and limited approach.
Part of learning in our lives is always learning how to adapt to new situations. And here that means dealing not only with the pandemic situation right now but also with what will happen after the pandemic.
So we don’t necessarily have to think how this is going to hit our economy and hurt our way of living. Instead, we can always think that this will change the way we live. And we can be sure that a lot of those changes can be quite positive, not only individually but also for all the earth’s inhabitants.
In the past few decades, we have lost a lot of awareness of how to take care of ourselves and how to take care of the earth – mainly because we just have this incredible and unreasonable greed. Many of us may even have become what we call “wealthier” – in other words that we may have a bigger bank balance or a bigger house.
And yet, we have not managed really to appreciate our lives. Forget the richness of our simple present moment-by-moment life. We have never even managed to read the books that we’ve always wanted to read or to listen to the music that we’ve always wanted to hear.
For now, I am sure that anxiety and worry will come. But often, when that happens, we’re not even aware that it’s anxiety. Instead we are always to trying to fix, to sort out, and to find an answer to a problem that we think is causing the anxiety.
Instead, we could just simply watch that anxiety without looking for an answer or solution, and even without looking for why the anxiety is there or judging whether it is valid or invalid. If we can just simply look at and watch the worry and anxiety we feel, we will find in it the treasury of our rich and infinite so-called ‘life’.
Most of us in Bhutan are Buddhists, and some of us are Hindus. Whichever spiritual tradition you follow, take advantage of having that wealth of faith and devotion. Pray to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the gods and goddesses. Pray not just to overcome this present crisis. Pray that whatever happens – may it lead us to a greater good – not just for ourselves but also for the generations to come.
As Buddhists, how do we strike a balance between accepting how little control we have in this kind of situation and not letting acceptance turn into hopelessness?
Quintessentially, the Buddha taught us to be mindful of the truth. Knowing the truth, living with the truth, accepting the truth, and surrendering to the truth free us from all kinds of expectations, assumptions, hopes, fears, and planning. That begins individually with us.
So we can begin by accepting with humility that not everything is within our own control, and not everything that we now value so insatiably is actually that valuable. By doing just this, we will already know how to live on this earth humbly, harmoniously, reasonably and healthily.
As a nation and citizen of the world, how should we respond to the Coronavirus pandemic?
As a nation we are lucky we have a very visionary, caring and dedicated King. I am sure that we will get out of this present crisis. But I am also certain that we all must now think ahead to how we will continue post-Coronavirus in an already very changed world. So maybe this is a good opportunity for us to re-emphasize, recharge, and re-jumpstart the vision of Gross National Happiness.
Rinpoche is currently under lockdown in India in Bir. What do you do to kill time?
I spend my lockdown life with the anxiety of the unknown, and hopeful every day and every moment that someone has found some sort of solution. As a Buddhist, I practice, contemplate, and pray to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to free us not just from this particular calamity but also from all outer, inner and secret calamities happening now and that are going to come in the future. I’m also managing to read books that I’ve never had time but always wanted to read.
Contributed by Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)
The writer is a former editor of Kuensel.