For many of us, it's been a month or more of lockdown. And new openings. Volunteers offering help, free-will gifts from businesses, flinty-hearted ministers whisking credit out of previously empty hats. Screen-shy samanas such as myself have climbed over their techno-fear and produced online Dhamma sessions. (Lay teachers and Dhamma centres, more savvy about this way of operating, are now offering online retreats.) Quite an opening. I wonder if any of this can be sustained.
It would be wonderful if in the future, 'government' could be an activity, shared among a broad range of responsible people, rather than a power-attuned elite. It was notable how the more the governing bodies were led by 'strongman' figureheads, the less agile and flexible they were and still are (compare Germany's record against that of the UK, US or Brazil). I wonder if our societies might reset to increased local governance and a more consensus-oriented rule.
Some economic laws have also been seen as unreliable. Decades of operating according to fiscal standards rather than addressing the commonwealth through a balanced distribution of resources and increased social cohesion depleted our ability to look after each other when businesses closed down. It would be a salvation if the current economic model, based on consumption of the Earth's dwindling resources, could be reset. We didn't need to fly, use oil as much as we were led to believe. Unfortunately, it could be the case that in the interests of the consumer economy, the selling of the next generation's future will again be seen as normal, inevitable, and even our right. But there may be a broader recognition of the economy of giving and sharing – materials, services, healing, and wisdom. We look after each other: it's always been the safest and most crash-resistant socio-economic model.
What is more likely is that the value of mental/spiritual and relational well-being has become evident: on one hand the rate of domestic violence increased; on the other hand, so did the neighbourliness. So with that comes an incentive to cultivate the heart. And the Dhamma teaching has extended into people's homes. I hope that for many, this has been an opportunity for clear thinking, meditation, and a review of priorities. To notice what and who you can rely upon when things go upside down. Even more worthy of note is that things – no, all conditioned things (even my well-intended Zoom sessions) – do break down. In accord with the Buddha's last utterance: 'whatever is conditioned is subject to decay, practise with diligence'. So the myth of invulnerability, of being beyond Nature is foolish, and it was through hanging on to that that leaders of nations made failed or flustered responses. On the other hand, working in accordance with Nature, and acknowledging our vulnerability can make us more sensitive, flexible, and compassionate. For these reasons, co-operative dependence and vulnerability epitomised the lifestyle chosen by the Buddha and the great disciples.
Life at the time of the Buddha was risky in a manifest way: here you might see someone dying, here a worm-infested corpse. Brutal kings ruled, meting out savage punishment to those suspected of crimes. There was no state welfare; famines and little medicine; and thieves and brigands lurked in the wilderness, living off travellers who ventured onto the unpoliced roads. And yet, in the face of all this, some people went forth from the modest shelter of town life to live in those wildernesses, dependent on such offerings as might be made at a nearby village. Some went forth deranged by grief by the loss of a son; some with a spiritual aspiration that burned with such intensity that the life of the body was worth the gamble. To realize 'the Deathless', these few headed very fully into vulnerability – because with less shelter, there could be fewer ways of turning away from the naked truth of birth and death. It was not a suicidal wish, but one based on the understanding that through meeting how things fundamentally are, in a way as free from human contrivance as possible, a breakthrough could come around. But for that, one had to 'go forth': to move where there's nowhere else to go.
An understandable response to being apparently locked into a fragile and mortal existence, might be terror and depression. But the awakening memo is: it is risk, not security, that brings us together – individually and socially – in the richest way. It reminds us of where we really are, and asks heart and mind to bring forth their strength. Then with skilled attention, guidance and persistence, the contraction around holding on can be relaxed; the tendency to fear can be rolled back, and a heart so opened and revealed can rise up. With the shift to deep attention that this brings about, one can view the conditioned process as it is – and not as me, mine, a fixed or personal reality. That's a vital change of view. Just flip the pages of anyone's life book; get beneath the story line, and what do you notice? Changeability, the unpredictable, the unforeseen (good and bad): to recall that brings forth faith – be open and alert. A human life is also marked by an ongoing quest to find fulfilment – which hasn't quite arrived (and maybe isn't even near). Seeing that brings attention back to the present: what do you really want, and where will that be found? It's never in that ongoing flow of continuity that the Buddha called 'becoming' (bhava). What about if the mind stepped out of that, into the immediate openness of an awareness that isn't craving or dreading becoming anything? When you even review that tide of 'now I'm this and I should be that, and I might get there' you realize that this goes on irrespective of circumstance and identity. So there's nothing intrinsically personal about this book, and you don't have to throw it away and get a better one. The advice is to study it from a different viewpoint: it's written in personal handwriting, but bear in mind and take it to heart, that the marks of change/risk/unpredictability (anicca), of incompleteness and the unresolved (dukkha), and of impersonality (anatta) are universal marks. Through bearing these in mind, there can be a breakthrough to the unconditioned, the secure, the sorrowless, the place of peace. One can step out of the book.
As to how to get that point ... Motivation (chanda) and resilience (viriya) are part of it. And also faith: you stopped, or were stopped – perhaps in crisis or in inspiration – and something, or someone came your way. Attention was opened and made alert. So that, either through your own deep attention or the voice of another, you poked one eye out of the conditioned rolling on. With that eye you can see the danger of conditioned existence, and you look to building resources. And among the cluster of factors that you gather is mindfulness: which in the suttas is not a meditation technique, but an ongoing cultivation of 'bearing in mind an essential meaning'– whatever that may be. Most universally, the meaning is encapsulated in right view: there are skilful qualities, there are unskilful qualities and through non-clinging, there is liberation. Skilful qualities rise out of greed, aversion and delusion and attune to the essential openness of awareness. This will give you the right kind of strength – not the brittle shell of the strongman, but the strength of a deep tap root that's merging into the ground.