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.

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