Rather than just representing some nuisance or hindrance, a pandemic can channel our spiritual work to greater breakthrough. Anyone who practices Zen in the Korean tradition actually owes a huge debt of gratitude to a mass sickness and death. Modern Korean Zen Buddhism bloomed out of the terror experienced by a young scholar-monk, Kyong Ho Sunim, as he was crossing the countryside on foot during a cholera epidemic. Seeing rotting corpses in the street of a little village near Chonan, he was overcome with fear. Many young children lay where they fell in their mothers’ arms. Kyong Ho Sunim was completely overcome, gripped with intense terror. His vast knowledge of the Buddhist sutras could not help him. No understanding could save him before the fear of death.
So, he stopped his journey, turned around, and headed back to the Kyeryeong Sahn mountains. Arranging a little cabin for himself in the hills above Dong Hak Sah temple, the young monk immediately entered spiritual lockdown, bolting the door against visitors and sitting deeply inside his question, “Why are we born? Why must we die? What is this? What am I?” He was so deeply immersed in meditation that he refused to lie down for sleep, preferring instead to completely break through. Only don’t knowwwwwwww…
After some weeks or months of hard training, his mind opened. He attained his True Nature, beyond words and speech. His great awakening is the root of the great lineages flowing until today. It started during an epidemic, its stark matter of life-and-death actually not much different from our own situation except we have better WiFi. It shines a light on where the real light is achieved in this epoch of gathering darkness: “What am I?”
So, our pandemic is our retreat. It is our seat of potential and awakening, no other place than right now. Only the muckiest mud gives birth to a lotus flower, among the most beautiful flowers in nature.
We entered lockdown-lite here in Athens three days ago. Now, this coming Monday, a further tightening of the screw. You will need to send an SMS to a central authority stating reasons for needing to be outside — only food-shopping, or needing to move for work, or for care of an older person, or exercise are among the four acceptable reasons — and then you receive an SMS which allows you out for a window of time. Everything is rapidly closing down again. I don’t know when we will experience group retreats together again. The pandemic now enters winter. There is this sense of tired gloom everywhere settling in.
Things these days are complicated by the political shaking in America and the slow, creeping constitutional crisis with its nihilism and division. Everywhere we look, there is some screaming need for “wake up”! And we nearly forget that the climate crisis sails speedily past tipping point after tipping point.
Only practice. Only practice. Only waking up. Use your pandemic well.