COVID-19: We Need A Vaccine for The Mind

By Kalinga Seneviratne, IDN - InDepthNews/IPS, May 6, 2020

This article is the 40th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, the flagship of the International Press Syndicate. Click here for previous reports.

SYDNEY, Australia
-- Today the global media reports daily about the race to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, but what they fail to understand is that this vaccine may not help us to overcome the severe human security crisis we face today. Rather than a vaccine for the body, we need a vaccine for the mind.

As millions of Buddhists around the world celebrate the triple Buddhist anniversary of Vesak on May 7, it will be an excellent time to reflect on how the Buddhist teachings, known as "Buddha Dhamma", can help to overcome the humanitarian crisis confronting us.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis, but it is also a human security crisis – depriving our freedom of fear, freedom from want and freedom to live with dignity," argued Akiko Fukushima a Senior Fellow of the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, writing in East Asia Forum's security series in March.

"When the concept of human security was introduced in policy discussions in the 1990s, the approach was criticised for broadening security threats beyond war," he added, pointing out that in 2020, we are learning that an epidemic, which has killed over 150,000 around the world undermines our security and safety.

In its latest report on global military expenditures, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says that global spending on arms rose to a staggering $1.9 trillion in 2019 with United States, China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia, the biggest spenders. But, when COVID-19 struck these countries, they were left defenceless, and there was a mad rush to acquire surgical masks and ventilators that costs a fraction of this money to manufacture.

The world leaders, political elites and economic planners need a vaccination to treat their minds.

Mindfulness or what is known to Buddhists as "Vipassana Bhavana" has become popular in the West today. This meditation technique has become a fad in the West today. But, unfortunately, to "secularize" – development of compassion and loving-kindness, a vital element – has been taken out of the practice

It is believed that COVID-19 originated from a virus transmitted from wild animals sold in a market in Wuhan, China. The fear generated by the virus has swooped across the world, locking down virtually whole countries. The economic model based on greed, exploitation of nature, wildlife and even cheap migrant labour has been exposed to be unsustainable.

This economic system – you may call globalization or neo-liberal economics – has created the human security crisis that now needs a dhamma vaccine rather than a chemical or herbal one.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), published a report on 2009 which warned about the possibility of a global health and environmental disaster because of our greed that is rapidly accelerating the decline of the Earth's natural life support system.

"Coronavirus pandemic is likely to be followed by even more deadly and destructive disease outbreaks unless their root cause – the rampant destruction of the natural world – is rapidly halted," they warned, adding, "there is a single species responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic – us”.

“Recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity, particularly our global financial and economic systems that prize economic growth at any cost," the IPBES team warned in an article published by London's Guardian in March.

While scientists talk about a planet marching towards self-destruction because we have put economic growth above protecting the environment, the social scientists are now talking about "transformational behavioural change". But where are the Buddhist scholars? The Buddha Dhamma is exactly that?

Last year, UK commissioned Cambridge University's Professor Partha Dasgupta to do a study on the economic case for protecting nature. In October, China is due to host a major UN conference to draw up new global goals for biodiversity. This conference might be postponed, and that would give time for Asia's Buddhists to mobilise with the support of China and India to bring Buddhist philosophy and perspective to design these new goals.

The three poisons in Buddhism – greed, hatred and delusion – and the concept of dependent origination 'patitya samupada' are essential ingredients for this new vaccine.

Dependent origination in Buddhist teachings describes the causes of suffering and the course of events that lead to it. These events happen in a series, one interrelating group of events producing another. The current COVID-19 is a classic example – the destruction of forests, killing (and eating) of wild animals giving rise to a virus that has no boundaries.

Greed could also be understood as passion or attachment. Whatever you feel good about, you want more of it – both material and emotional things. Hatred can be translated as aggression, anger, aversion – we try to repel anything we believe will hurt or threaten us and are willing to hurt others to protect ourselves, even on a massive scale.

The non-stop wars in the Middle East are an excellent example of both greed and hatred coming together.

The third poison, delusion, could be translated as ignorance or indifference – this is what enables people to prioritize their pleasure over the sufferings of billions of others.

As the global economy is beginning to feel the impact of lockdowns, we are seeing the glaring inequalities that have been created by the global supply chains that have embraced the three poisons, oblivious of the fact that this has been making a delusion of human progress.

There are so many examples we see around the world. But a report on Russian TV channel recently caught my attention as a classic example. British retailers – who were making hefty profits by outsourcing their production to low-cost suppliers – have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by the shutting down of their economy. They have cancelled huge contracts with factories in Bangladesh, throwing already poorly-paid garment workers onto the garbage heap.

The plight of low-paid migrants workers around the world – left exposed to the virus in cramped dormitories and without money to feed themselves – is another example.

Thai Buddhist social critic Sulak Sivaraksa calls these the "structural violence" of the global economic system. "A critical aspect of Buddhist teachings is the non-wholesome and wholesome state of mind", he notes. "so that, we encourage the antidotes of the three poisons – generosity, compassion and wisdom".

Buddhist scholars and learned monks need to inject these three antidotes to the minds of politicians, development planners, economists and business people. Greed needs to be transformed into generosity, compassion into respecting sentient beings, which should transform into national animal welfare laws.

Such legislation would ban slaughtering and consumption of wild animals and factory farming, leading in turn to the protection of nature and economic development that is sustainable – not only in terms of economic growth but also the healthy environment and affordable healthcare services.

Reviving post-COVID societies and economies, thus requires a new vaccination for the minds – Buddha Dhamma. It is sometimes known as "Engaged Buddhism" where the dhamma should be incorporated into the daily economic activities of the people with proper guidance and wisdom. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 May 2020]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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