Protecting oneself, one protect others

by CW Leong, The Buddhist Channel, June 5, 2021

Petaling Jaya, Malaysia - The current by-words used in our combat against the Covid-19 virus has a surprising use. Can you believe that it can be applied equally as an effective standard operating procedure (SOP) for those seeking to become Buddhists? Almost everywhere, we see three key Covid-19 SOPs being displayed prominently: wear (protective) masks, keep your distance and wash hands regularly. Let's see how they are applied as SOPs for Buddhist newbies.

Wear (protective) masks, taking refuge

This is the first thing you do in the Covid-19 SOP - put on protective masks. Let's call this SOP#1. These ubiquitous, blue surgical apparatus are almost everywhere, with some places making it mandatory when venturing outside the home. The apparatus helps to prevent droplets which may carry the virus from entering our nose and/or mouth. Should we already have the virus inside us, but are not aware of it because we have not shown any symptoms, wearing the mask helps to prevent spreading it to others.

The Buddhist equivalent of this SOP#1 is to take refuge in the Triple Gem. Why is this equivalent to wearing protective masks? This is because that is the first thing newbies to Buddhism do. In fact, even seasoned Buddhists do this regularly in their daily ritual. By accepting the Triple Gem, the person accepts the Buddha as the teacher, His teachings (Dhamma) as the spiritual elixir for personal transformation and members of the holy order (Sangha) as living guides.

By taking refuge in the Triple Gem, it is akin to putting on a protective shield against the three evil roots, namely greed, hatred and ignorance. At the point of taking refuge, one should already be made aware of these negative roots, and how detrimental it can be to oneself and to others if it infects one deeply.

Keeping the distance, keeping the precepts

The second Covid-19 SOP relates to keeping a safe distance of between 2 to 3 meters apart when in the company of others. This SOP#2 also implores staying away from large gatherings, and even small gatherings when indoors, especially in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. As the Covid-19 virus is airborne, it becomes imperative to practice social distancing.

For a Buddhist, SOP#2 is akin to keeping the five precepts. It is interesting to note that the precepts are not a list of commandments about what's "not-to-do", rather they are advisories for one to undertake training to abstain from detrimental activities which may cause harm to oneself and to others. These activities are abstaining from: the taking of life, taking what is not given, committing adultery, indulging in false speech and the partaking of intoxicants which poisons the mind.

The abstention from these activities enables one to keep a guard on the three doors of communication and interactivity, namely thoughts, speech and bodily actions. Abstention means to stay away, or to keep a distance from negative traits. These negative traits, when practiced often enough without mindfulness, lead to the development of harmful habits. Karmically, this is not helpful for one's well being because it sets up an unbalanced persona, one who is always consumed by negativity, anger and is always dependent on external stimulus to attain personal satisfaction. When one's personality is unbalanced, fear, anxiety and violent tendencies may spring up. This is where one becomes a menace to society.

By keeping the precepts, one stays away from harming oneself and others. By distancing oneself from moral and spiritual harm, we help build a world of giving, love and truthfulness.

Regularly washing hands, keeping oneself (mentally) sanitized

The last of the three Covid-19 SOPs ends with hand washing. The idea of this SOP#3 is to inculcate a habit of cleanliness. It is by no accident that during this pandemic times, the flu has virtually disappeared. Where did the flu virus go? SOP#1 and SOP#2 helped somewhat, but because we now washes our hands more regularly, it has helped us to avoid an even more common ailment, the flu virus. Prior to Covid-19, it was ubiquitous and in some places, killed many as well.

The Buddhist SOP#3 is about mind training and the cultivation of a mindful way of life. We do this by giving some time for meditation. For beginners, simple meditation can start with just slowing down our pace of life, by being more watchful over our thoughts, speech and bodily actions. Slowing down and being watchful over our daily habits can help us to build a sense of clarity, with regards to making decisions that helps us to create balanced spaces and persona.

Moral abstention such as keeping the precepts can only help us go so far, but without the cultivation of mindfulness and mental clarity, we will not be able to develop an understanding why we are doing these things. Without understanding, wisdom will not arise and we could be stuck with a moral baggage that we carry along with us. Understanding and wisdom is the key to our release from the grip of the evil roots (greed, hatred and ignorance).

The SOPs and Buddhist wisdom

It is ironic how the global Covid-19 battle cry of "Protecting oneself to protect others" mimics so closely with Buddhist teachings in general. The Buddha emphasised the importance of personal development first, as saving oneself from the grip of the three evil roots results in the release of one's being from the rounds of birth and death (samsara). In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says, "Avoid  evil, do good and purify the mind" (Dhp 183).

When oneself is well taken care of, there is one less person to menace society. In fact, society gains from our well being as we now can reach out and give help to those who needs it. As the Buddha says, "One should act as one teaches others; only with oneself thoroughly tamed should one tame others. To tame oneself is, indeed, difficult" (Dhp 159).

As clearly demonstrated in the Covid-19 SOPs the world over, these three protective steps were simple and basic. Yet, many did not comply, resulting in the pandemic that has caused global havoc. Many could not cope with a new normal for restrictive behaviour, simply because we got so used to our previous habitual traits. Some even finds these traits sacrosanct, that up to a point, they refused to admit the presence of the virus.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that authoritative instructions will matter little without personal discipline. Fighting this pandemic requires personal sacrifices, some understanding about the way the virus behaves and then some modifications in our social behaviour. We can pray all we want for the virus to go away, but in all honesty, the surefire way to get rid of it is to keep a personal discipline and comply with the SOPs. Except for vaccination, there is no other way.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left us with a valuable situation which is indelibly marked by the three SOPs. Buddhists would do well to use these three SOPs in their advocacy to introduce the Buddha teachings to newcomers. It is simple, basic and easy to follow. Whether it is an effective approach depends very much on one's personal drive and motivation. After all, everything boils down to personal choices and one's own initiative for self transformation. Nothing can be forced.

May the Buddha's SOPs live long and lead us towards our own personal salvation.
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