7.4.6 COVID and Impermanence

COVID and Impermanence [1]

COVID-19: A Lesson in Impermanence and Loss of Certainty

The untrustworthy Lord of Death
Waits not for things to be done or undone;
Whether I am sick or healthy
This fleeting life is unstable.

– by Shantideva


Covid-19 has really put impermanence and uncertainty in the front of our minds, where it should have been all along of course.

But so many things happen daily, things that have nothing to do with Covid, experiences that are unexpected, for example, the end of a relationship we thought would last for ever. Whether I am sick or healthy, I meet what I don’t want and what I didn’t expect. According to the Buddha, that is the very nature of this life: unstable, unpredictable, impermanent. I could die at any time.

Definition of impermanence

When we talk about impermanence, we need to be careful. Why? Because the Buddhist definitions of permanence and impermanence are slightly different from the understanding we rely on in everyday English speech. In Buddhism, permanent means not changing moment by moment. Impermanent means changing, and decaying, moment by moment.

Furthermore, we can talk about ‘gross impermanence’ and ‘subtle impermanence’. Gross impermanence is seen in growing old, rusting away, flowers wilting and dying. A healthy person becoming infected with Covid-19, developing serious symptoms, feverish, unable to breathe, and dying, is an example of gross impermanence. It is ‘gross’ in the sense that we can see it happening over time.

Whereas we cannot see ‘subtle impermanence’; we have to use reasoning and inference to understand that gross impermanence follows from the moment to moment changes and decay of phenomena.

Of course, there are many ways of getting sick and dying, but somehow this coronavirus, because it has spared no person and no country, has captured our imagination, and set in train fear and anxiety, and the sudden realization that life is fragile and I could die at any time. Yet this has always been a fundamental truth of the Buddha’s teachings; it’s just that we don’t really and truly believe it.

So on the one hand we have the anxiety of wondering if we will catch the disease, and trying to prevent that happening, and on the other hand we have the nightmare of trying to plan anything in the future.

For example, twelve months ago my niece set a date for her wedding here in Perth. At that time New South Wales, where her parents and brother and sister live, was coasting along, so her close family looked set to come to Perth for a wedding so far ahead. Not so! At the moment that’s just not possible. The wedding will go ahead without them.

Great mountain ranges are not permanent, they erode over millions of years to become a flat plain. Almost all phenomena are impermanent, including pain, jealousy, anger, pride, relationships, marriages, friends, enemies, scientific theories and so on.

The basis for gross impermanence is ‘subtle impermanence’ the moment by moment change (and decay) of things. There is no magic cure. The magic is in accepting this and using the mind to deal with it. Relationships that form will break apart, even happy marriages that last a lifetime are eventually broken by sickness, dementia and death.

When we are exposed to the coronavirus, and it enters our body, a great battle ensues as our immune system tries to ward off the intruder. Over days or longer, the war rages until we repel the invader or succumb to the disease. Moment by moment things change. The level of pain changes. The severity of the fever changes. Our breathing changes. We might get better; we might not. We need to be comfortable with and accepting of the idea that this is the very nature of life.

The risks of dying from Covid-19 are admittedly small, but we read of people dying every day and we know that in this last outbreak in NSW over 200 people have died. Unless we have a strong sense of the impermanence of all things, all relationships, all ideas – for example Newton’s Theory has been replaced by Einstein’s theory – then we can become quite fearful of the future, even depressed.

If Covid-19 helps us to realize the truth of impermanence and death at a deep level of our being, then that is a positive outcome of this disease.

All the things that display gross impermanence have come into existence due to causes and conditions. Everything that arises dependent on causes and conditions is impermanent.

Nothing has the power to remain the same from its own side. All the power for its survival comes from things other than itself, other causes and conditions. Things exist due the power of other things, the things that created it.

Example of the Bell

For me, one of the most powerful examples of impermanence is the sound of a bell. Listen carefully and try to fit what you hear with the definition of impermanence we have just talked about.

Firstly, the sound comes and goes, it doesn’t last, which is gross impermanence. The sound changes continuously, moment by moment, which is subtle impermanence. It never remains the same. Furthermore, the sound decays until it disappears. It doesn’t stay constant and it doesn’t increase; it decreases.

Where does the sound come from and why doesn’t it last forever? It comes from the action of hitting the striker against the side of the bell. I give some energy to the striker to make this happen. When that energy runs out there is no more sound. We can say that the sound is an ‘other-powered phenomenon’. It has no power of its own to sustain the ringing of the bell. If I didn’t contribute that energy, there would be no sound. The bell can’t ring itself.

In the same way, we are other-powered phenomena. We don’t have the power to make our life last forever. The span of our life is determined by the force of the throwing karma that propelled us into this life. Then from the second moment of our existence onwards, our remaining lifetime decreases. When our karmic life-force is exhausted, we die.

That is why in plane crashes most people die but some will be miraculously saved for no obvious reason. We can say that they were ‘lucky’ but the Buddhist teaching is that there is no such thing as random luck, that everything we experience is a result of causes and conditions. You can have the karma to survive; you can have the karma to die.

This does not mean that our life is predetermined. What we are choosing to do with our time, such as coming here tonight, creates positive karmic imprints on our mindstream, that will influence what we experience in future lives.

And in addition, if say today, through an act of genuine generosity, I place positive karmic imprints on my mindstream, they could, given the right conditions, even ripen in the remainder of this life as a happy experience. Or that positive karma may ripen in a future life. It is never lost.

We previously created the causes for what we are experiencing now; how we respond to those current experiences and the actions we take, act as causes for our experiences in the future.

Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche on Preparing for Death

As we are told again and again to be prepared for any eventuality, I would like to share the following story with you.

Some years ago, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche and his attendants were visiting Israel, and after some five days of diarrhoea, Rinpoche was taken to hospital. While undergoing various checks and answering general medical questions, there was a commotion and everybody seemed to be glued to the TV screen that was reporting some sort of news bulletin.

They could see from peoples’ faces that something serious was happening so Rinpoche’s attendant asked someone to translate the news for him. He was told that within the last 6 hours Israeli airplanes had started bombing the southern suburbs of Beirut and in effect war was declared between Israel and Lebanon.

The situation was developing rapidly because they were very close to the border, and the hospital was put on high alert. At the same time the doctor told them that the blood tests indicated that there was something more serious than diarrhoea and they were advised to have more tests done. They quickly made the decision to do these tests in a hospital further south, putting some distance between them and the Lebanese border. Within the next 24 hours, Rinpoche was told that he had a large tumour in his liver and that southern Beirut was almost destroyed.

A couple of days later Rinpoche said this to us: “You should always be prepared. You never know where you will be in the next 6 hours. These Israeli pilots who were asked to bomb Beirut at such short notice were only able to do it because of their previous training. As Buddhists, we have to be prepared for death.

Look at my case for example: I thought I came to the hospital to treat a simple case of diarrhoea and now I am told that I have advanced liver cancer. Like an Israeli pilot, I do not know where I will be in the next 6 hours. But if I am prepared, then I can go anywhere. It is very important to train and prepare yourself for the time of your own death. Then, it will be easy to go at short notice.”

[1] Talk given at the Dhammaloka Centre of the Buddhist Society of WA, Friday 24 September by Len Warren and Sue Lee, The Pure Land of the Indestructible Buddha, Incorporated.

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