Contemplating the First Noble Truth in the pandemic

The arrival of this threatening pandemic came very suddenly. As if out of the blue we became aware of the spread of a very contagious and unpredictable virus, of thousands of people succumbing to serious illness with many dying, of shortages of hospital beds and respirators, masks and hand sanitizer. Globally we have been rudely awakened to the fact that we are not well prepared for this kind of situation.  Following very quickly on the news of the spread of the virus, especially in China and Italy, came news of the lockdown – a new and oddly peculiar situation for most of us who have not yet experienced anything like this in our lifetimes.  Most of us have only ever read of historical global events of widespread disruption to normal life.

We find ourselves thrown unexpectedly into profound uncertainty. What will happen? Will the hospitals, doctors and nurses cope? Will we become infected?  How will our bodies respond?  Will we become seriously ill?  Will we die? Will our loved ones die? How will we cope with isolation? What will happen to the global economy?  Will we lose our income, our jobs, our livelihood? How many people might become destitute?  Will there be widespread social unrest? How will we respond?

And in the midst of this, for most of us, unprecedented situation, we witness the emergence of great beauty, resilience, giftedness, creativity, generosity, willingness to sacrifice and be of service, initiative, care, thoughtfulness, mindfulness, desire to protect and support one another, learning and adaptation.  We are inspired by one another. It makes one wonder if what we call normality is really normal at all?

This is a very fitting situation in which to contemplate the first noble truth in the Buddha’s teaching: simply that there is suffering.  And that that simple truth is one that is ennobling.[i] Is this not exactly what we are so manifestly witnessing now?  A kind of awakening out of the apparent predictability of the routine of our lives into a sudden stopping in our tracks.  A time to pause. A time to reflect. A time to give and share and comfort – to bring something forth from ourselves to support one another in the face of spreading sickness and death.

“And what, friends, is the noble truth of suffering?  Birth is suffering; ageing is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; not to obtain what one wants is suffering; in short,” (and here follows my free translation) every kind of experience that is relied upon for support and sustenance[ii], is bound to lead to suffering.

Why does the Buddha say this is so?  Because one of the fundamental characteristics of all existence, of all phenomena in existence, of all conditions, is perpetual change – uncertainty, impermanence, instability.  All things that arise are bound to change and cease.

We are so inclined and habituated to ignore this, to push it right to the back of our minds in pursuit of our desires, plans, and projects and our avid avoidance of all that displeases and impedes us.  This the Buddha talked about as being at the root of all suffering. When we are forced to stop and focus our attention on the change around us, especially death, we wake up a little bit out of this delusion. We become more mindful, more present, more aware, and more compassionate.

This is why the Buddha highly recommended contemplating death. Not to be morbid, but to be constantly aware of the precariousness of our own and others’ lives:

“Short is the life of human beings, limited and fleeting; it has much suffering.  One should wisely understand this, and do what is wholesome, for none can escape death”.  Human life is like a drop of dew on the tip of a blade of grass that vanishes at sunrise; like a water bubble, like a line drawn on water with a stick, like a torrential river that rushes on and doesn’t stand still for a moment, like a cow doomed to slaughter. (A. VII, 74)

We are in the perfect situation for deepening this practice of mindfulness of death.   The Buddha taught that when mindfulness of death is cultivated, it is of great fruit and benefit, ‘culminating in the deathless’.

What is this deathless?  It is the peaceful, the calm, the island amidst the floods, the unshakeable deliverance of the heart that reveals itself when we let go of all holding on to anything, any condition. For those who hold on to anything, depend upon anything for support, there is agitation, unsteadiness; for those who do not hold on to anything, any condition, for support, there is serenity, peace, tranquillity, steadiness.  It is the unconditioned, the free. Or, as T. S. Eliot put in the Four Quartets:

“Quick now, here, now, always-
a condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

At the beginning and end of each day, one can consider the many ways in which it is possible that we might lose our life and considering that, our resolve to develop the wholesome and abandon the unwholesome strengthens. The keenest development of mindfulness of death is being mindful of the possibility of the ending of this life with each in-breath and each out-breath. We may not be quite there yet, but in the current situation we are certainly reminded several times each day of the possibility and presence of death in our reality.

So we can rise to this occasion, mindful of the ever-present possibility of death, mindful of those who are suffering anxiety, agitation, illness, loss of loved ones, and give what we can to contribute to the easing of the suffering and the cultivation of wisdom.

[i] ‘Noble’ means showing high moral qualities or character; insight into this truth develops moral character.  In relation to gases, ‘noble’ means non-reactive, which is quite a good description of moral character too.

[ii] The English translation of the Pali canon is ‘The five aggregates affected by clinging’.

Written by Louise Stack (Chandasara)