With our routines upended by this week’s public health efforts to contain the coronavirus-covid-19 pandemic, this may be a good time to revisit the profound Buddhist teaching that all our experience is ultimately no more real, solid, lasting or reliable than a dream. Last week we were complaining about going to work, our kids were complaining about going to school, restaurants were packed, Disneyland was open, March Madness was about to begin, and you could buy toilet paper in any supermarket. This week — it’s all gone. Just like last year’s winter and last night’s dream.
We have a song for this, and so does the Buddhist tradition. First, ours:
Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily: life is but a dream.
This may have seemed like just a silly song when we learned it as children, but it embodies a profound truth about reality. What’s here today is gone tomorrow. What we take as fact, as solid reality, is mostly not. We tend to appreciate this only when something we counted on without even thinking about it suddenly vanishes — a beloved person or pet dies, we get a dreadful diagnosis, we lose our job, our significant other breaks up with us, our car doesn’t start, our flight is canceled, a tornado strikes, our candidate loses. Or it could be positive: pinch me, I must be dreaming!
This is one of those moments. We could spend it wringing our hands and wishing for things to get back to normal, or we could use it to help us wake up to the fact that this is the way things always are. Anything can change at any time. Nothing lasts. People of the early 20th century (and the Stone Age) were just like us, with lives every bit as vivid and detailed as ours. Where are they now? Where will we be in 100 years? Ten thousand?
The Buddha defined three categories of suffering: the suffering of pain (which feels like suffering); the suffering of change (which feels like pleasure but is going to end in suffering); and the all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence (which generally isn’t even on our radar). This last category is addressed in my first post on this topic: the four ends. Everything, including us, is falling apart at every moment, inexorably and imperceptibly. The longer we live, the more this truth is right in our face.
So what can we do about it? Just recognize it. If we understood our reality at any given moment to be fleeting, dependent on causes and conditions we have no control over, and dreamlike in nature, like a rainbow, it would change everything. We wouldn’t bother to argue about trivial issues, or maybe even major ones — we would just take whatever action is needed and/or let it go. When something we value gets broken, we would remember, as Toni Bernhard puts it, that “it was always broken.” We would fully appreciate the good things we take for granted and the people we love, knowing that we and they won’t last forever. We would have a lot less stress and strife in our lives. In the end, we would be free.
Here’s the Tibetan song, from the third-century Buddhist master Nagarjuna’s Knowledge Fundamental to the Middle Way, via Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, translated and given a tune by Ari Goldfield:
Like a dream, like an illusion, like a city of gandharvas:
That’s how birth, and that’s how living, that’s how dying are taught to be.
When we’re trapped in a dream, it feels completely real and our actions have consequences within the dream. So even as we step back and disinvest from our experience as solid and stable, we still need to observe the rules of the dream as long as we are subject to it. To stay healthy and avoid risk to others, we need to wash our hands, maintain social distancing, eat nourishing food, get enough sleep and exercise, and avoid actions that might spread germs to more vulnerable people. But at the same time, it’s helpful to keep in mind that however real the damage from covid-19 (or any other illness or adversity) turns out to be in our shared conventional reality, eventually we will wake up from this dream too, and be on to the next one.
Previous posts on how to bring fear onto the path:
Part 1: The four ends
Part 3: How to live and how to die
Part 5: Advice from contemporary masters
Other related posts:
From Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation: Impermanence of the composite
A beautiful day in New Hampshire: In a Nutshell
From the 37 practices: Verse 4: to let go of attachment to this life
Ways to work with fear itself: Some Buddhist ways to work with emotional overwhelm
Bonus reminder from Western literature: Ozymandias