Practice in the Time of the Virus

By Ken Tetsuzan Morgareidge

I have on my bookshelf a volume entitled Zen Under the Gun. It records the teachings of four Chinese masters who lived in the turbulent 13th century when Mongol tribes were dismembering China. The remarkable thing about these teachers was that they were unremarkable, in the highest sense. They did not talk about war or invaders or famine or chaos. They simply got on with teaching the Dharma. They realized something that maybe we should consider: This coronavirus is not a unique or unprecedented situation; it simply casts a light on the human condition that we cannot ignore.

Our human life has always been lived in uncertainty, on the edge of the abyss. But if we put our lives and our practice on hold until we are secure, we will never do anything. To compare our lives now with “normal life” is a mistake. Life has never been “normal.” Periods that we think of as normal, if we examine them closely, have always been filled with disasters, emergencies and crises, here and the world over.

There are always plausible reasons to put off life or practice. But as human beings we have the freedom to ignore those reasons. Human beings conduct everyday lives in besieged cities, read and write books on death row, make jokes in the midst of a bombing raid, and care for children during the plague. That is not denial or sang-froid; it is our nature.

The newscasters have given themselves over entirely to the virus, as if it were somehow selfish or morally wrong to think of or do anything else, and therefore they have actually distanced themselves from reality. The coronavirus will not end humanity. The virus cannot absorb our whole attention because it is finite and therefore cannot support the full attention that our Zen practice requires of us. This is not to make light of anything. People have died; more will die. And when has that reality ever been suspended?

If we allow ourselves to be overcome by fear and frustration we have lost the moment, this moment of practice. To let go of your frustration and fear is to save all beings from frustration and fear. The more narrow our focus in time and in space, the closer we are to reality. Narrow your focus to this moment and this place; that is where we are truly free.

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