Dependent Arising and Coronavirus

(the field beyond)

It has been hard to avoid war metaphors in relation to COVID-19. We’re at war with the virus; everyone is enlisted in the fight, to help those at the front line. There is no easing of restrictions while we have not yet won the battle. We pay tribute to the fallen; let’s not squander the sacrifice of those who have died; we gird ourselves against defeat. War metaphors are potent and stirring, and easy to reach for in times such as these. But they are completely inappropriate. Coronavirus is not an enemy but a pathogen. This will be no comfort for the ill or bereaved, but our metaphors are the mood music of our thoughts. It would be better to imagine COVID-19 as a natural disaster, like a storm or a flood, and as deadly and dangerous. You don’t fight nature, but learn to live with it.

In April I was supposed to lead a study and practice retreat on the theme of Dependent Arising, at Dhanakosha retreat centre in Scotland. As I walked in the woods instead of leading that retreat, I’ve thought about the dependent arising of coronavirus. The Buddha’s teaching of paṭicca-samuppāda, or ‘dependent arising’, mainly concerns the way experience works: how unsatisfactoriness arises, and how it ceases through the practice of the way to awakening. But dependent arising is, more broadly, a naturalistic principle, explaining the way the world works without recourse to God or fate. How does a viral pandemic fit into a naturalistic Buddhist worldview? Is coronavirus some kind of karmic consequence of human hubris?

Not at all. In the ancient Indian context in which the Buddha’s teaching arose, philosophical discussions about how the world worked revolved around the nature of the relationship between action (karma) and result (phala). Based on observation, inference and speculation, some held to determinism (niyativāda), the view that what happened in the past determines destiny. Others held to indeterminism (yadṛcchāvāda), the view that things happen by chance, without reference to the past. The Buddha explicitly positioned his teaching of dependent arising between these extreme views. It is the teaching that what happens is neither determined by past actions, nor without a cause, but instead that everything happens due to causes and conditions. We could call this view non-deterministic conditionality. 

It is relevant for considering a broadly Buddhist view on the very possibility of a coronavirus. According to the best explanation now around, self-reflexive human consciousness, capable of love and wisdom as well as much worse, has evolved through natural selection over millennia. The web of conditions at work in the world is evidently capable of producing something as miraculous as the human brain. Likewise the coronavirus. I would speculate that it is the very same creative openness in the fine weave of conditionality that makes room for the blind half-alive striving of a virus to survive, as it makes possible the dense folds of the cortex that somehow give rise to mind.

For this kind of reason, the Buddha taught the first noble truth, that there is unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha). The situation is such that conditioned existence is imperfect. There is this precious human existence and there are viral pandemics. But this is not the end of the Buddha’s teaching. The second noble truth is that this unsatisfactoriness has an origin, which is craving (tṛṣṇā). This little word ‘craving’ does a lot of work in Buddhist doctrine. It stands for everything that goes on in experience which takes for granted that there is an ‘I’, a ‘self’, a ‘me’ and a ‘mine’, a really existing subject of experience, who believes in his or her own thoughts about what is going on. The word ‘craving’ also stands for the root afflictions of greed, hostility and confusion, which are evolved emotional and cognitive distortions of our experience. According to this way of thinking, the problem with reality is how to relate to it based on a distorted perspective.

Egocentricity and distortion manifest in thoughts about how lucky one is not to have the virus, or how unlucky one has been to catch it. They also manifest in frustration at no longer being able to do what one wants, and also in the idea of waging a war against germs. The third noble truth is that things that arise on causes and conditions cease when their causes and conditions cease. The fourth truth is the eightfold path. The first part of the path is right view. This might mean paying attention to the way the creativity of life, the very source of this conscious awareness that can appreciate beauty, is at the same time the source of the virus leaping from bats to pangolins to us. There is room for some insight here into the contrary tendencies of our untamed emotionality and raw egotism. Such insight can bring letting go, and letting life be. Then there is room for compassion for all beings, all striving for happiness in the same mixed conditions as us.

Up against a deadly virus, we may fear for our lives. The Buddhist attitude towards the situation is illustrated in a contrast between two poems. First, Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle, ‘Do Not Go Gentle’. The poet stands firm in the land of the living, evoking a heroic resistance to the dire threat of death:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It’s brave and somehow honorable, but it has made death into an enemy. The other poem is Rumi’s ‘What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?’, in a version by Robert Bly:

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a mineral,
And then I died and was reborn as a plant.

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a plant,
And then I died and was reborn as an animal.

I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as an animal,
And then I died and was reborn as a human being.

What have I ever lost by dying?

Rumi’s attitude is one of an ecstatic self-surrender to a bigger process at work. This is no excuse for passivity. Rather, it is a call to ride the creativity of the situation into whatever comes next.

(Overleigh cemetery)

Ripples in reality

crochet ripples

There was a nearly mystical sense of revelation last Thursday, when it was announced that gravitational waves, predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, had finally been observed. What seemed almost unbelievable, merely fictional, was now the objective reality of our universe. How to celebrate? I wrote a poem:

Gravity Waves

The world had never yielded to him
its inner life; he worked,
he walked about the city, he ate,
looking after himself but waiting.
Sometimes he forgot he was waiting
or what he was waiting for,
and the world became a stranger
rushing past on the street.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her
at the supermarket, and then at the gym.
They talked. And they talked,
and ate, and fell in love.
His heart’s machinery bloomed into vision,
and he could see the world’s secret workings.
On the day they said gravity waves
were now proved, he bought flowers
for his wife, and they celebrated the love
that ripples through the universe –
shaking the loom of our woven moments,
that might seem unreal, but exists.

Congratulations to all those physicists at LIGO and Virgo, and in praise of neo-Platonism.

Love and Separation: Sonnet 64

Wriothesley

It’s all very well to write about experiences of beauty, of encountering the beautiful, and about how poets have managed to capture and even communicate their experience of beauty in the form of words. And it’s all very interesting to connect beauty and poetry with Buddhist practice, even with the teaching of the Buddha. But our actual human lives are by no means necessarily always characterised by vivid experiences of beauty, and our Buddhist practice may not be so sweet either. In this post I want to explore how poetry can nevertheless help us understand and engage in practising the Dharma, right at the cutting edge of life’s difficulties.

In the Pāli canon we find a teaching of the Buddha called ‘Five topics for frequent recollection’.[i] They are five simple reflections, and, as the Buddha says, they are for men, women, householders and renunciates. They are for everyone. They go like this:

  1. I am of a nature to age; I am not free from old age.
  2. I am of a nature to get ill; I am not free from disease.
  3. I am of a nature to die; I am not free from death.
  4. I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, joined to my actions, and actions are my refuge. Whatever actions I might do, good or bad, of these I will be the heir.

These are extraordinary sober reflections. Indeed, they do not end there. The Buddha also recommends that we consider these five topics in relation to everyone else as well as ourselves. But why should any of us reflect in this way? What is the point? The Buddha goes on to explain that, while we are young we are often intoxicated with youth, to the extent of acting in brash and heedless ways; but reflecting on age undoes this. Similarly we are often intoxicated with health and life, taking them for granted, and acting heedlessly. The fifth and last reflection is a vivid reminder that, as we act, so we become. This may seem obvious but is sometimes difficult to remember.

But the fourth recollection – that I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me – is not so simple either to state or even to understand. The Buddha explains that, because of desire for those who are precious to us, we act badly, and this reflection corrects this. But I personally find this hard to understand. In fact, I find this recollection the most difficult. It slips out of my grasp, my heart rejects it. But then I came across the following sonnet by Shakespeare:

Sonnet 64

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

The sonnet is addressed to that same mysterious young man as most of the sonnets are; possibly a patron, not necessarily a lover, certainly a friend. Or perhaps it is unhelpful to think of Shakespeare’s sonnets as if they represent the feelings of a particular man toward some other particular man. Perhaps they work rather on their own literary level, creating in the reader an empathic feeling of love from their form and grammar, then exploring various details of passion and loss. The reader, reading Sonnet 64, imagines his or her own most precious love, as subject to time as anything else in this sublunary world.

But somehow the very beauty of the poem, the enduring grandeur of its rhymes, the power of its diction, allows a difficult thought about inevitable loss the space to move and gain momentum: I will be parted from all that is precious and pleasing to me. The poem gives courage. Rather than allowing the small-minded conclusion that, if all love is passing, there is no point – a conclusion that another part of us will always reject – the sonnet allows the larger, almost heroic conclusion that, indeed, love is nothing that we can hold on to, but a great heart can know this and yet still love. The poem allows this conclusion, but the love that results will perhaps not be so intoxicated by exultation. It will be more capable of a true appreciation.

Also based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[i] From Aṅguttara-nikāya 5:57. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the entire discourse is available at https://suttacentral.net/en/an5.57.

Dharma, Beauty, Poetry: ‘The Bright Field’

Cézanne landscape

The Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is often described in the Pāli texts as ‘lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle and lovely at the end’.[1] Many of us have experiences of intense beauty, when the world in some way reveals itself as lovely: a landscape, an act of kindness, the slant of light through the blinds. These experiences, I believe, are immensely important for our spiritual lives, for they give us a sense of how things are not what they seem. Our preoccupations, and the way our lives are buffeted by the ‘worldly winds’ of gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, pleasure and pain,[2] can make the world seem jaded, though perhaps occasionally pretty. But when beauty breaks through we might experience the world anew, afresh, in all its innermost glory, as the theatre of divinity and liberation.

It seems that the Buddha was familiar with the potential of such experiences of beauty to liberate. The third of the eight so-called ‘liberations’ (vimokkha) makes this explicit. It is described simply enough: subhan’t’eva adhimutto hoti, ‘One becomes focused only on the beautiful’.[3] The word for ‘beautiful’ here (subha) also means splendid, pleasant, auspicious and good.[4] Just like the English word ‘beautiful’, the subha (or in Sanskrit, śubha) is an aesthetic experience that reaches deep into our moral lives. The ‘liberation’ alluded to here is not the final release of nirvāna, but a temporary state of liberation from the defilements that is a tremendous encouragement on the way.

The commentary relates the third liberation to meditation practice, specifically to concentration on an attractive meditation device (kasina), and also to the practice of the brahmā-vihāras or ‘divine abidings’, of benevolence (mettā), compassion (karunā), gladness (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā).[5] While it might be perfectly true that Buddhist meditators have vivid experiences of the beautiful in meditation, I don’t think that we need to limit the scope of the beautiful to formal Buddhist practice. What if the beautiful breaks through as we are riding along a sunlit cycle path? Our minds and hearts may be, for some moments, liberated by such a powerful aesthetic experience.

So, what is this beauty? Somehow it is an experience that is attractive and pleasing, but at the same time, and most importantly, an experience that takes us beyond what we know. There is a transcendent dimension to the experience of beauty, a dimension that is deeply mysterious really, though probably not unfamiliar to most of us. Perhaps it is most familiar for us when listening to music, that art form that seems at once most abstract and most directly in touch with the heart.

Poets also sometimes try to translate such experiences of beauty into poems, hence attempting to evoke through imagination, in words, something of what they have seen and known. Readers might not only be reminded of their own experience of beauty, but be inspired not to forget that such experience is possible. My favourite poem of this sort is by R.S. Thomas:[6]

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Thomas (1913–2000) was a priest in the Church of Wales as well as lyric poet. His poetry is infused with Christian imagery as well as the sense of his native Wales. It is easy to imagine him travelling in the Welsh hills, perhaps visiting one of his parishioners, a sheep-farmer, and him seeing the sun break through to briefly illuminate a small field. Such are our experiences of beauty: attractive, ordinary, transient. But Thomas returns, in this poem, to that passing aesthetic experience, and goes deeper into its significance.

That experience was ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the one field that had / the treasure in it’. These are images from the Gospel of Matthew (13:44–6). Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field with treasure hidden in it, like a man who finds a pearl – someone seeking the Kingdom will sell everything they have to buy that field, to buy that pearl. But Thomas radically shifts the message. Now he realises that he must give up everything he has for the sake of aesthetic experience. He must centre his life on beauty, rather than seeing the bright field and then going on his way. Why must he do this? Because ‘Life is not hurrying / on to a receding future, nor hankering after / an imagined past.’ The poet realises that the normal human way, of living in a thin and jaded present, thinking of the future to which we hurry, or the past which now seems more attractive than it ever did at the time, is a mistake. The bright field holds the key; the aesthetic experience is the gateway to the living present moment, in which we go beyond our thoughts, preconceptions, proliferations, into a realm of meaning and significance we could characterise as divine.

Vivid presence in the moment – this is the gift of beauty, beyond the narratives of the ego, rather like mindfulness practice, but depending here on beauty rather than awareness. And this vivid presence in the moment ‘is the turning / aside like Moses to the miracle / of the lit bush’. This is a reference to the story in Exodus 3 of Moses hearing the voice of God in the burning bush, the miracle that led Moses to become a prophet. In this way, Thomas compares the lit field to a divine encounter and the beginning of prophecy. And this miracle of the lit field is a brightness that has the radiance of youth. It is the essence of those youthful experiences of beauty, of love, of vision, which we perhaps look back upon as adults as an enjoyable phase, but one that inevitably gave way to adult concerns with things like career and family. But, says R.S Thomas, the beauty of the lit field is not transitory as youth was, but rather is the eternity that is possible in this life.

The Buddha often described nirvāna as the ‘deathless’ (amata), the ‘undying’. This does not signify eternity in the sense of a state of infinitely prolonged life, but rather a state that is beyond time. And this is perhaps what R.S. Thomas too was hinting at – the way that the aesthetic experience of beauty contains within it, as it were, in its nature as being an encounter with the divine, a hint or taste of what is beyond time, beyond this arena of consecutive minor events.

I’ve used ‘The Bright Field’ as an example of a poem that brings to life the experience of beauty, like lighting a candle, reminding us perhaps of the great flashes of light we have ourselves experienced or could. This experience of beauty is connected at its root with the deep meaning of the Dharma. May we all remember to value our experiences of beauty.

Based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[1] In one of the formulas that we find in the Pāli texts, it is said that a good report has been heard about the Buddha: so dhammaṃ deseti ādikalyāṇaṃ majjhekalyāṇaṃ pariyosānakalyāṇaṃ, ‘He teaches the Dharma that is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the end’. ‘The end’ (pariyosāna) means ‘conclusion’, as in, the conclusion of one’s Dharma practice, which is the realisation of nirvāṇa.

[2] These are the lokadhammā, ‘qualities of the world’, described at Aṅguttara Nikāya 8:6 etc.

[3] The formula is found in the Mahānidāna sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, and elsewhere.

[4] Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. śubha.

[5] For instance, in the commentary on the Mahānidāna sutta, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Great Discourse on Causation.

[6] This poem is from the 1975 collection Laboratories of the Spirit, and also in Collected Poems 1945–90.