Saturday, April 25, 2020

Between the Frying Pan and the Fire

When the first inklings of a pandemic started brewing in late January, I was in Bodgaya, India, the place where the historical Buddha attained enlightenment while mediating under a bodhi tree. Around 260 BCE, a few hundred years after his passing, an impressive temple was built on that spot by the Mauryan emperor Asoka, who converted his empire to Buddhism. Today, as one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists, the Mahibodha Temple draws thousands of pilgrims from around the world, particularly during the winter months when the weather is pleasant.

At the beginning of my stay, China was the hot spot for covid-19 and given the official stance of the US government, there was no understanding of an imminent threat. Luckily, I had worn a face mask when submerged in that sea of humanity coursing around the Mahibodha Temple, not because of covid-19 but because my Buddhist teachers warned me of "super bugs" that could invade my system and wreak havoc, given the diverse population converging in that one small area renowned as the cradle of Buddhism.

It was only when my departure date of March 11 drew near that a sense of urgency began to dawn on me. By then, cases of the virus were being reported in Delhi, the hub through which I would pass on my way back to the US. Nonetheless, I did not wear a face mask in the airport, nor did anyone else. There was no such notion of social distancing going through Indian customs, where we were packed in like sardines. And my flight was full.

As a distinct counterpoint, when I landed in the US, customs was deserted and the baggage claim area of LAX was empty, even though it was high noon on a weekday. On March 12th, I had a checkup at my doctor's office and since then I have not left the house. Going from a seven week period of massive immersion in humanity - to quarantine in a very quiet neighborhood - has been more of a shock than expected, mainly because of the situation in which we find ourselves.

On the one hand there is the fire...the spread of a virulent disease that no one has yet to understand and which has the potential to kill off broad segments of humanity. Lockdown is the current solution for containing the fire. On the other hand is the frying pan...we may save lives from the virus but we will lose them to loss of income, loss of safe housing, loss of ability to afford the basics, and the loss of social gatherings of all stripes that are the glue of our cultural identity. In short, a loss of security on all levels will be as devastating as the disease itself.

Thus our choice - the frying pan or the fire. On that external level we are at an historic conundrum. The only thing left is to maintain our basic sanity and will to overcome the tidal wave of  disruption and change. This requires some mighty inner resources, and find them we must.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Power of "No!"

Our planet is exquisitely designed, an interconnected masterpiece of cause and effect. Recalling an example based on quantum physics, the flap of a butterfly's wings in Rio de Janero can effect the weather in Moscow - and if continued logically, that gentle beating of fragile wing material will effect the "all that is" in this universe and beyond. 

Everything that "is" exists because of a near infinite multitude of factors that support its physical manifestation, albeit a temporary, ever-changing and impermanent existence as that particular form.

The exquisite beauty of Mother Nature brings forth a dazzling display of animate and inanimate forms - many yet to be discovered and some to face extinction. But interconnection is a neutral process; the good, the bad and the ugly all have a part to play in the grand design. Which brings us to this point on Earth, an uncharted time in global history. 

Technology has caught up with the evolution of homo sapiens as we spread across the planet. A message can be sent from one side of the earth and received on the other side in 1 second or less. In a mere 24 hours, a well-scheduled airplane route can drop you on the other side of the world. And if that plane route ceased to exist and ships were moored, you might never get home again, a stranger in a strange land.

The intricate web of technology that allowed for the creation a global village now teeters on the edge. Our vital supplies come from lands near and far. Governments either have fragile alliances, neutral partners, or enemies. The plunder of our Mother's resources has created an unsustainable population of consumers and their insatiable viral counterparts.

It's time to say "no"to all those who use power to line their coffers. It's time to say "no" to all those in leadership who would turn a blind eye to the needs of their countries. It's time to say "no" to people who walk around with impunity endangering their lives and those of others.

When we say "no" to what we don't want it paves the way to "yes," what we do want. It will be up to us to define that future. Those who sit complacently on the sidelines will lose their vision to the more aggressive, restless forces. What choice will each one of us make?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Will the Real Buddhists Please Stand Up?

At the heart of Buddhism is the notion of compassion, balanced with innate wisdom. Nelson Mandela (who is not a Buddhist, at least in name) got it right when he said, "A good mind and a good heart are a formidable combination."

Fast forward to Bodgaya, India, the place where the historical Buddha Siddartha sat beneath a bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. Given that India is an ancient country with written historical records, it is possible this lore is based on a real event.

Every year on a certain date in February, calculated on the movements of the moon, 10,000 Buddhist monks, nuns, lay practitioners and others gather at an enormous temple erected around the bodhi tree to pray for world peace. The spectacle is impressive. Aside from an array of people dressed in robes of many colors, the grounds are adorned with literally thousands of flowers arranged in mandala-like designs, as well as gold statues of Buddhas with attending saints, and an array of traditional Tibetan religious items that are a veritable feast of eye candy.

Upon leaving the sprawling grounds of the Mahabodhi Temple and descending into secular India, one encounters an array of beggars who are counting on the entering or exiting faithful to spare some change. Yes, these unfortunates are the legendary horrors of India. A teenage boy with his hands cut off holding a cup in his forearms. An emaciated man sitting on the ground with a withered leg that runs permanently parallel to his upright torso. Yet another teenager with no legs scraping his torso along the ground, sweat pouring down his face at the effort, pulling at the robes of a monk who pays him no mind. An old woman so thin she looks as if she is about to shatter, being screamed at by an Indian policeman. "Move," he bellows from his tall height as the clearly disoriented woman looks up helplessly. I think to intervene but decide that challenging an Indian authority might not be wise. All the while, a group of Tibetan women look on with sympathy. No one, including me, helps her.

I do give a few of these hapless beings some rupees, but by the time I reach my hotel I have run out...too many on the five minute walk to manage.

The next morning on my way to the temple to film - and meditate, I pass a group of monks eating at a makeshift table by the dusty roadside. Although it is humble fare, they are happy and fresh in the early morning light. I stop to buy a chocolate bar at the store where they eat, and as I unwrap it I notice a small girl in rags looking wistfully at the food the monks are consuming. I take a third of the bar and hand it to her. Then I wonder why none of the monks offer a part of their breakfast -  or even notice this mute wraith standing behind them.

So where is all this going? Not sure. But the complete indifference to these wretched human beings by the seemingly well-fed is shocking. The seeming callousness cruel. Apparently,  overwhelming poverty is discouraging, generating a hopeless inaction, a determined avoidance. Although it is easy to point a finger, in reality they are me and I am them.  

What to do next?

Between the Frying Pan and the Fire

When the first inklings of a pandemic started brewing in late January, I was in Bodgaya, India, the place where the historical Buddha attai...