In the Time of Coronavirus . . .

By Mark Unno, University of Oregon
This article was originally published in the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, April 2020 newsletter.

When we look back upon this time, say a decade from now, it will likely have left an indelible impression on our minds, hearts, and unfortunately, even our bodies. For many of us living in ‘developed’ countries, as I do, the massive disruption due to the spread of Novel Coronavirus will have been the biggest societal shock we experienced. 

In response, we are in the midst of the greatest mass mobilization since the end of World War II. In hot spots like New York City, first responders and medical professional – doctors, nurses, orderlies – are exhausted, risking and sacrificing their lives. We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for the rest of our lives. Ironically, the most important mobilization for the average citizen is: “patience.” Stay in place, place yourself in physical isolation from others, and practice public safety as much as possible.

Yet, paradoxically, this relative physical and social isolation gives us a rare opportunity: the space to reflect, be contemplative, and go deeply inward. This does not necessarily mean just sitting on a meditation cushion, reading sacred scriptures, or chanting and bowing alone in front of a personal or home altar. It might be that we have time to take a walk and notice the beauty of nature because our minds are not focused on the destination, the busywork we need to complete, only to go on to the one after that. It allows us to become more aware of the undercurrents of our minds and hearts – thoughts and emotions – that we typically ignore or even suppress. What am I really thinking about, feeling, placing priority on? Am I agitated, anxious, fearful; allowing for feelings of concern, sorrow, joy to arise from deep within? It is within the spaciousness of our minds and spirits that we can become more fully aware of the flow of our lives, and thus to be more fully human.

In my own tradition of Shin Buddhism, this simultaneous awareness of the surface turbulence with the more spacious, deeper tranquility within is referred to as the dynamic of blind passions and boundless compassion, of
the foolish being and Amida Buddha, the awakening of infinite light, the ocean of limitless light of Great Compassion. Whereas in Zen Buddhism, one attains this awareness through silent, seated meditation, in Shin Buddhism, it is
attained through chanting, Namu Amida Butsu, which means, “I, this foolish being filled with blind passions, is led to entrust myself in the awakening of infinite light.” In this awareness, we can not only be more attentive to ourselves but others as well, other people, creatures, the sun, the stars, and the moon.

With this, I leave you with the following poem:
In the Time of Coronavirus . . .
The vast shimmering sky blue
Outlines delicate pink petals
Cherry blossoms, early this year
So calm and beautiful
This day in March
Yet so eery and unfamiliar
In the time of Coronavirus
Streets empty of cars and people
Except the lonely few
In the time of ‘social distancing’
We find ourselves turning within
Anxious thoughts, concerns
Unfurling against the background of
The limitless Ocean of Light of
Great Compassion
Home again, in deep silence
I am led to bow, palms together
All beings are one with me, I am led to become
one with all beings
Amida Buddha
Her Heart of Great Compassion opening,
Illuminating, enveloping, and dissolving
Deep within
My heart, in Her heart
-Namu Amida Butsu