We can cope with the COVID-19 crisis by “Being Resilient”

With Bhutanese youth asking many questions during the COVID-19 crisis, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche talked to Bhutanese students on January 14, 2021. With Rinpoche’s permission, Kuensel is printing this edited summary of the talk which is available in full at https://youtu.be/EMvFZkOg7Dw

We do have a challenge – to say the least (COVID-19 crisis). The world is definitely shaken. Just about 50 years ago, if this happened in London, it may not have much impact in places like Samtse. But, thanks to globalisation, advancement of technology, travel, whatever … we in Bhutan also feel this. We’re also very much shaken. Although I must say that, due to the very very dedicated and incredible efforts by both His Majesty and the government, for a country like ours, I think we should feel quite proud and happy. We’re doing good but, nonetheless, we’re shaken. And we’re very much bothered by this. Unfortunately, this may go on for another … six months … if we’re lucky. Perhaps much longer. 

I’ve heard that the word for crisis in Chinese also means opportunity. (This crisis could be) an opportunity for us. This becomes an opportunity to rethink, reevaluate… rethink our goals, rethink the way we value things, rethink our aims, and rethink our lifestyles. And not to forget – to be resilient.

 To be resilient is a very Bhutanese thing, very much in the Bhutanese bone and Bhutanese blood – this sort of perseverance. We have words like tsagen (persevere)… I think it’s important we don’t lose that. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to lose this. We still have people in Bhutan who prefer to walk barefoot in the mud, in the snow. I remember we were travelling in Eastern Bhutan, and there was a guy who was wearing flip-flops. After a while, he took off his flip-flops, his chappals. He said it’s much better to walk bare feet… I’m not suggesting that you guys walk barefoot now. More importantly, we need to be mentally resilient, and emotionally resilient.

 Now the big question is can we be resilient? And, as a Buddhist, here I can say “yes, absolutely”. We all have the mind. Apart from this laptop that’s sitting right in front of me, whoever is listening to this, you have cognisance, you have something that is so unique, something so powerful, something that no education system can make, or science or technology can come up with. Which, in Bhutan we call sem, which very loosely translates to “mind” in English. Anyway, if you don’t have a mind, you’re just like a pebble, just like a piece of wood. But you do have a mind. 

This mind does not have a hierarchy. It does not have, you know, “some minds are lesser than others”. It does not have that measure. And this mind that we have is so receptive. Given the chance, it can really accommodate a lot. Like the sky, you can really fit a lot. The mind has this quality or the character of accommodating. This is something that you do not have to download. This is something you don’t have to acquire or buy… you have it. And this is the base of your resilience. In other words, you all have the ability or capacity to be resilient. You don’t need God’s intervention. And this is something that no one can take away from you. This mind is not something that someone gave you… you just have it. So as a foundation, I’m assuring you that you have the capacity to be resilient. So what do we need now? Next? You need to want to be resilient. This is something that you need to train yourself in. You need to actually educate, train, and tell yourself that you want this resilience. You need to have the aspiration to be resilient, you need to have the motivation to be resilient… and this can be trained. This can be habituated.

You can start with something very small, but consistent – wanting and needing to be resilient. Many of you may not be that religious, which is fine. Some of you may consider yourself religious – Buddhists, Hindus. If you are doing prayers, if you’re chanting mantras, if you’re doing pujas, if you’re lighting a lamp, if you’re offering incense, do it so that you will become resilient – mentally or emotionally resilient. Emotional or mental resilience is the highest blessing you can ask for, and this is actually achievable. And this is a more realistic blessing you can ask for. To live long, that is not realistic. 

Now, after that, two things I’m suggesting here to be resilient – that you can think about – is to be creative and to be authentic. And when I say creative I’m not only talking about painting, or writing, or photography. Of course those things are wonderful and good. And not necessarily just that, weaving, singing… but I’m talking more about being creative. Right now we have a real challenge at the doorstep with this pandemic situation. But the actual virus, we can protect ourselves by doing social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands so on and so forth. But more importantly, how can we be creative in becoming resilient when you face the challenge of loneliness, paranoia, anxiety? How do we outwit the anxiety? How do we hoodwink (the English expression) how do we always stay one step ahead of our anxiety? One step ahead of the challenge? This is something that we can challenge ourselves with – contemplate and train ourselves.

Just to give some ideas, examples, analogies. How to be creative… How about being creative in how you define things? You know, definitions? How you value things… Okay, let’s say wealth – to be rich. Right now a lot of us have a certain definition of wealth – richness, prosperity, and our definition is what is found in supposedly general ideas, but I think we can be quite creative about this. For some, yes, having many cars, many buildings, many assets, a high bank balance, may be the definition of being wealthy. But maybe for others this is not, and this is where you have to be creative. Maybe for some we can define wealth in terms of thinking “Oh okay, this is enough”. A sort of contentment, right? This may be the definition of wealth. And similarly, how do you define health? I think physical health – you don’t want high blood pressure, you don’t want to have ulcers – is fairly easy to understand. But especially mental health – many times, we become unhealthy emotionally and mentally because we are trying to fit in. We are trying to win some sort of competition. We are trying to not get left out. So there again I think we can be creative in how we define what is healthy mind.

Same thing again, how do we define “happy”? Happy is a very subjective, very general term. How do we define it? So on and so forth, we really need to be creative.

It is really not wise to rely on definitions and meanings imposed by schools, advertising agencies, big companies. Basically, we don’t have to be uncreative by following definitions imposed by others. And also, be authentic. We don’t have to be sucking up to definitions and values that someone else has imposed upon us. This is also what I call being creative in managing our life. This goes with everything. How we look? Not everyone has to look like K-pop stars. That’s just one definition. That’s just one way of looking at it.

I know a lot of you are students here, listening. Not all of us have to finish degrees. I am probably saying something that is contrary to what teachers and parents say, but the fact is things like degrees and diplomas are things created by British or some other people whose aim is to create jobs… And some of these definitions and some of these values are so outdated. I’m talking really outdated. I think we should not lose our creativity and authenticity when it comes to defining these things. 

So, how do we do this? Now, this is the point I wanted to share with you. We want to be creative in managing our life, we want to be creative in outwitting our challenges, but how do we do it? And, here, I want to share something very, very simple. So simple that the simplicity itself will probably be challenging for you, but is something that you should really give a try.

And that is – simply observing. Simply being aware of your body, your mind, your feelings, simply being conscious of them – your body, mind, feelings. And when I say this, let me explain … simply observe and simply be conscious. I am not asking you to observe something very exotic, something that is mythical or mystical. You have a body, you have feelings, you must be feeling something right now… and you have a mind, you have thoughts, and whatever the thought, or feeling, mind – be aware of that. Be aware of that emotion. I am not even talking about being aware of it for hours and hours. I am talking about… how about a minute a day? And when you are aware of your thoughts, body, feeling, you are doing this not to judge if you have some hideous thoughts or heavy emotions. You are doing this to simply acknowledge… just as how babies would look at Fresco paintings… just watching and observing… not analysing where are these thoughts coming from? Definitely not judging. If a good thought comes, not to be excited. If a bad thought comes, you don’t have to be rude about it. Just simply observing the thoughts and feelings. 

Many of you are probably in a lockdown situation, and I am sure you are bored and lonely. How about taking this chance and, for the first time, look at your boredom. There is a great master who said “boredom is like the dawn… If wisdom is a sunrise, boredom is like the dawn.” If you can appreciate this boredom and loneliness, just watch it and observe it. It leads to wisdom. Usually what happens is, when we are lonely or bored, we try to numb ourselves with some sort of entertainment – reading a book, calling or texting somebody, browsing social media, eating or drinking. This time, how about just observe? Observe this boredom, observe this loneliness. There is a treasure in it. It is like a gold mine, a treasure mine. 

Of course, for a lot of us, especially beginners, it will take time. You have to train yourself. But here, this time, as I said earlier – these crises, challenges, obstacles, can be opportunities. And there are a lot of other opportunities we don’t have time to talk about. This is a really good time to consider the way we think about our life ahead. What kind of education should we really have? What kind of planning? I am not just talking about that, I am talking about preparedness or being prepared. 

Simply observe, watch and become aware of your thoughts, feelings, or body, or even the table that is right in front of you, or your window. It can be as something as mundane as your doorknob. It doesn’t have to be anything that is sacred, special, or exotic. It can be something that is so mundane and simple, but simply observing, what does that do? When you simply observe, it preempts food for hope and fear. Our mind – we have hope and we have fear. We have a lot of hope, ambition, and a lot of fear. And out of that comes all the other emotions – desire, anger, ignorance, jealousy, pride, and each of them feed the other, leading to entanglement. Then a lot of stories are written in your head, lots of daydreaming, delusions, fantasies. And then of course, never knowing that those are just illusions, they’re just fantasies… in fact, believing that they are true or that they are going to be true. This is what we call delusion. When you have that, you are no longer sober, you are drunk. 

Many of you may think this sounds ridiculously simple but this is how it is. This is not some New Age teaching, this is very much from the Sutras and Shastras… this is taught. For instance in the many chapters of the Bodhicaryāvatāra or སྤྱོད་འཇུག་ … དྲན་པ་དང་ཤེས་བཞིན་ – Shantideva, author of the Bodhicaryāvatāra even prescribed how to wash your hands… as detailed as that. Anyway, observing your body, observing your feelings, observing your mind, observing your anxieties, boredom, loneliness, whatever. And then of course, for a lot of you – new, younger, beginner meditators – it is possible by doing so, you get even more bored, and more lonely. Here you have to be resilient, you have to be mean to your laziness. Just try to get beyond this barrier. Just try to break through this. 

Have I told you anything that is complicated? I have not told you to chant any mantras, I have not told you to do prayers. I have not told you to sit, I have not told you any of this complicated stuff. You CAN observe. I am not even asking you to observe something beyond you, I am simply asking you to observe body, feeling, mind. By doing so you will have a bird’s-eye-view of your life. 

Right now you are looking at your life from one angle. Just like 6-7 blind people touching an elephant and then having different descriptions, that is what is happening. Because we have lost the bird’s-eye-view, we have lost the big picture. We don’t have the vision. When we don’t observe, your hopes and fears entangle you. One hope leads to more hope, which also leads to fear, which then leads to losing the bird’s-eye-view. You also lose objective view because you are looking at your life through all these definitions, yardsticks, that you have learned from schools, books, movies you have watched, through social media you have browsed. And then you lose total sanity. Let’s say you have posted something on your TikTok, even one less thumbs up and you are shattered. This is something really, really simple. You can do this, and I encourage you to all do this. As I was saying, this is a very classic Buddhist method. 

The other term I want to share is མཉམ་པར་བཞག་, nyamparzha there is even a gesture. Nyam means equal, zha – has this connotation of “let it be.” By doing so, I am repeating here, you will have a broader vision. And with this broader vision, you are prepared. Avoiding pain, when the pain arrives, is one thing. But if you are prepared for the pain that is going to come (and there will be pain) … this is what Buddha said, part of the four noble truths, life is dukha but if you can educate yourself so that you will have this attitude towards your life, I think it will bring some sort of sanity or sobriety, some sort of balance, not falling into extremes. And that is what we want. 

I do constantly pray, I grew up as someone who did prayers, and that is something – the only thing – I know how to do. I believe in prayers, because with prayers there is humility, kindness, and some sort of empathy. So I do pray and wish all of you well. I especially pray and wish that you are prepared for whatever the challenges that can come and that you are resilient no matter what comes. 

Concluding…

Please take care of yourself. You know I am a Bhutanese myself, I like socialising, I like partying, and for how long can one be Rigpadrim (disciplined) it gets into the way, it gets boring, it gets painful sometimes. You have to think big and you have to think of others, and it is a matter of if we can, all together, discipline ourselves – social-distancing, etc… I am sure we can definitely relieve ourselves from this pandemic situation. If we do not, then this will drag on and that could lead us into trouble. So please, especially the younger generation here, you have the responsibility to discipline yourself but please spread this word and help others follow the lifestyle that we have to implement for the time being. This is absolutely necessary. His Majesty is really doing so much, I hear and I see, the government is doing so much. But social distancing and washing hands is really for our own wellbeing. Sometimes we tend to think it’s for the government. This is absolutely not true. I am sure you know that. So, please pay attention to this and, as I said earlier, I pray, I wish, and I aspire for wellbeing and good health and prosperity and, most importantly, that you will not lose sight of your life – you will have the birds-eye-view. In regards to suicide as well, if you can have this view, then you will see lots of options, and when you see these options, life can be celebrated instead of cut. 

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