I originally published the following article on February 3, 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic feels a lot like a zombie apocalypse, sans zombies. Much of the nation is already experiencing hoarding, a selfish “I must buy all the stuff so me and mine will be okay. To hell with everyone else.” attitude. Teens still flocked to beaches for Spring Break, flippantly ignoring social distancing recommendations that could save their lives and countless others.
The pandemic is going to get worse. Our behavior doesn’t have to.
Zombies, 9/11 and Buddha Nature
“All the happiness there is in the world arises from wishing others to be happy.
All the suffering there is in the world arises from wishing oneself to be happy.”
As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I am a huge horror fan. Post-apocalyptic books and films are my favorites, because they force me to question what I would do if I found myself in a similar situation.
Inevitably, I find that these books and movies aren’t about monsters, they’re about “man’s inhumanity to man.” Take The Walking Dead for example. This wildly popular series isn’t so much about zombies as it is about human nature. For every flawed but well-intentioned Rick Grimes, whose primary mission is to rebuild a world worth living for, there’s a dictatorial, sadistic Negan, whose sole purpose is to intimidate and manipulate everyone into giving him their resources and unquestioning loyalty. The dichotomy between these two is extreme, and most characters fall somewhere between the two in their goals and behaviors. Some characters evolve, developing empathy and compassion for their fellow survivors, while others devolve, allowing their innate nature, fear and circumstances to erode their very humanity.
If the zombie apocalypse is too “out there” for you, all you have to do is reflect on people’s behavior in the wake of 9/11. In New York, countless people from all walks of life rushed to the World Trade Center to help dig survivors from the rubble. Think about that for a minute… Police, firemen, medical personnel and ordinary civilians made their way to the smoldering debris, putting their lives at risk in order to save total strangers.
While the drama unfolded at Ground Zero, over half a million people were rescued from Manhattan’s seawalls by a motley fleet of vessels manned by fishermen, ferrymen, the Coast Guard and pleasure boaters. Again, they went toward Manhattan Island at great personal risk in order to save total strangers.
Stories of 9/11 bravery and selflessness abound, but, sadly, not everyone was so magnanimous. Profiteers lined their pockets with cash generously donated to charities while some former police officers and firefighters falsely claimed psychiatric conditions related to 9/11 in order to obtain millions of dollars of Social Security disability benefits.
Fictional apocalypses and real-life disasters showcase the best and the worst of human nature. But we can see similar examples every time we turn on the news. The good: cops delivering babies in elevators, researchers tirelessly searching for a cancer cure, neighbors beautifying rundown urban areas, people donating kidneys to strangers, volunteers working to place all shelter animals in “forever homes”… The bad: robbery, rape, murder, bullying, Ponzi schemes, crooked politicians…
As tempting as it is to dwell on what’s wrong with people, it’s far more productive to realize that all people have the seeds of compassion and goodness within them. In fact, a major tenet of Mahayana Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha Nature, the potential to become enlightened. One of my favorite mantras is from the “Heart Sutra.” In Sanskrit, it reads, “Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.” There are countless translations, but the one that resonates most deeply with me is, “Om, gone, gone, far away gone, all the way gone, we’re all buddhas now [emphasis mine].” I often recite this mantra in my mind when I’m faced with someone I find challenging. Who am I to judge them when they have Buddha Nature within? If they do something that I find to be particularly annoying or even injurious, my perception may well be delusional. If not, surely they are behaving that way because they are identifying with the delusion of their “self-cherishing” nature — that part of us that causes us to value our self above all others — rather than with their Buddha Nature.
In a couple of recent meditation classes, my teachers described Buddha Nature as being the “golden nugget” that is our true potential. Sometimes our nugget gets buried under the “dirt” of our delusions causing us and those around us to suffer.
Last Wednesday, I attended my first Foundation Program (FP) class at NYC’s Kadampa Meditation Center. These classes are designed to help students deepen their knowledge of the dharma through a systematic overview of key teachings. Part of this week’s homework, based on last week’s reading of The New Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, is to practice cherishing others. (The rational behind cherishing others is rich and complex and I only have a rudimentary grasp of it. But this webpage provides a good overview.) In essence, whenever I’m around people I reminded myself that, “I must cherish all living beings because they are so kind to me.” I don’t always remember to do this, and I don’t do it perfectly, but I try. I may never do it perfectly, but I will continue to try, because I know that making a conscious effort will lessen my suffering as well as the suffering of everyone that I encounter. And, hopefully, when the zombie apocalypse happens, as you know it will, I’ll be a Rick Grimes, not a Negan.