Chan Phap An: From Corona to Karuna | A spiritual journey through COVID-19
Leading by example, Thay Phap An (pictured) wore a mask when speaking
with EIAB monastics on the importance of strictly following the government’s measures
and guidance to protect the health of ourselves, each other,
and the community during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has aroused our species’ primal fear, releasing a wave of suppressed energy across the world. In this article, EIAB Director and Dean of Studies Thay Phap An helps us look deeply into the roots of our fear, how we can take care of it and how we can become more stable and secure. By engaging with those around us and by applying the Buddha’s teachings and practices, we can radiate the energy of peace, love, and compassion to an increasingly turbulent world.
Our teacher’s courage
As a young monk, following the example of his own teacher to step out of the monastery and call for religious freedom, our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh courageously led a movement for radical change within Vietnamese Buddhism in the early 1960s. He inspired monastics to go beyond the relative isolation of their monasteries to engage more deeply with those suffering from civil upheaval and the escalating war in South Vietnam. Thay’s students gladly followed him out into society, risking and even losing their lives.
Recently, EIAB was plunged into total physical isolation at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany – an isolation from which, happily, we are now emerging – because of government restrictions on social interaction and mobility, to protect lives and curb the spread of the virus. But, strangely, we have never felt more engaged.
Throughout lockdown, technology has helped us keep up with developments across the world. We have been able to reach out to friends from Europe to Asia via our website and WhatsApp. Zoom has made it possible to hold wonderful “meetings” with Sangha members in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Sweden, some joining from confinement in their basements. We were able to listen to their pandemic stories as we tried to address their fears and concerns.
It seems that, everywhere, a wave of suppressed energy is manifesting. It is as if the pandemic has disturbed a deep block of painful energy in humanity, sending the whole world into a state of agitation. We can observe this in how violent protests in the United States rapidly spread across the world after the shock killing in May of an unarmed black man by a police officer who knelt on the man’s neck for nearly eight minutes, and in Stuttgart’s sudden night of violence in June.
We can see extremist groups taking advantage of social disorder to pursue their own agenda of violence and racial hatred. Pandemic blame games, some involving populist leaders, seek to manipulate people’s minds and stir up division between nations. The widespread circulation of conspiracy theories and sensational news, consumed without fact check or independent verification, is only adding to the confusion. There is a danger of being swept along by a belief that the “collective view” – no matter how misinformed or misguided – validates our own false sense of reality.
In a new era of global unpredictability, geopolitical frictions are intensifying across spheres ranging from economy and trade, to technology and weaponry, including new weapons for cyberspace, the deep sea, and outer space. As arms limitation agreements falter, as the language of diplomacy degenerates, and as telephone hot lines between world leaders go cool, the risk of nuclear conflict – whether by accident or intent – is once more on the rise.
It is increasingly clear that the world is, in fact, in the grip of two pandemics: one of viral origin and one of fear; fear that is deeply embedded in our species, in us as individuals, in our families, our societies, our politics, our ideologies and in international relations. Unfortunately, neither pandemic is likely to end any time soon.
In the mysterious ways of the cosmos, though, COVID-19 presents each of us with a chance to look more deeply into our fear so we may understand its roots and learn to take care of it. We can become more stable, anchored, and secure. The suffering caused by the pandemic has also re-energized EIAB to deepen our engagement with the increasingly turbulent world beyond the Institute’s tranquil grounds, and to follow with fresh vigor the courageous path of our teacher, within our Vietnamese spiritual lineage of Engaged Buddhism.
A time of extremes
In nature, fear has a lot to do with our survival and evolutionary success as a species. Whenever our mind perceives we are in danger of being destroyed, fear instantly activates a physical mechanism in our brain. Fear for our life quickly bypasses those parts of the brain where thinking and emotions are located, and goes straight to the “reptilian” brain where our central nervous system releases neuro-electrical signals and neurochemicals for the “fight or flight”, or “frozen” response.
That is why we hear stories like that of my father whose life was saved when he ducked a bullet during the war in Vietnam, even before he was fully conscious of what he was doing. From a physical aspect, this fear mechanism to secure our immediate survival is most beneficial. But emotional and perceptional fears, coming from a higher order of cognitive abilities and skills, can also cause a lot of confusion and distortion in how we perceive and live our life.
At the time of publication, the coronavirus has infected more than 17 million people and killed more than 680,000, sadly, with more to come. Lockdowns are being re-imposed in countries and cities where “hotspots” have flared after initial success at containment. People everywhere are afraid for their health but also of losing their job, and for the future, because the longer the pandemic continues across the world, the greater the risk to economic, political, and social stability. So, uncertainty, anxiety, and worry on a mass scale have fueled the energy of fear, globally.
It is an energy that can lead to extreme behavior where we try to protect what we believe is our “self” and to ensure our survival at all costs. Entering primal mode, we do not think of other people, only that “self” and perhaps our immediate family. During the pandemic, we may even see other people as a threat to our health, a slippery slope that can lead to discrimination, hatred or worse. At the other end of the spectrum are people who reject science-based advice for controlling the spread of the virus, turning public health into a political and human rights issue. They demonstrate with anger and violence against lockdowns and social distancing, saying that governments have no right to take away individual freedoms or to force us to wear masks, even for our own protection and that of those around us.
But all is not lost. The uncertainty and suffering brought on by the pandemic are also bringing up the energy of love in people who have a deep desire to serve and to contribute to something meaningful. Modern-day bodhisattvas are helping to save the lives of coronavirus patients, even though they might lose their own lives, as many nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff already have. Theirs is surely a great act of karuna which, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the capacity to remove other people’s suffering. More broadly, it is translated from Sanskrit as “compassion”. Countless compassionate volunteers have looked after the practical needs of the elderly and vulnerable in their local communities during lockdown.
So, the energy of fear touches both sides of us, bringing out open-hearted karuna as well as closed-minded selfobsession. How can we practice in a way that calms the energy of fear in and around us and that enables us to be – and do – our best?
The roots of fear
It helps, first, to understand how fear comes about. In the school of Mahayana Buddhism to which we belong – the Manifestation Only School of our teacher – there are 51 mental states but, interestingly, there is no mental state called “fear”. That is because fear is a compound energy made up of different mental states, different elements. When the Buddha attained full enlightenment, he looked deeply into the process of the human mind as well as the working of human psychology and discovered three roots or energy sources that can cause a lot of disturbance within us. The Buddha called them the “Three Root Poisons”, or root afflictions.
The first is greed or desire or attachment. It means we have the tendency to grasp on to an object whether external or internal. For example, our object of desire could be food, sensual pleasure, physical invincibility, sex, money, power, position, security, authority, or control. The moment we are afraid of losing that object of attachment, fear comes. It is another layer of response to the energy of attachment.
The second source of energy is the tendency to push things away, to deny, to resist, to fight. Sometimes, we resist or fight without any reason. We meet someone and instantly feel an aversion.
Even though he or she has not done anything, has not expressed him or herself in any objectionable way, we feel a sense of hostility. That is the second source of energy. The Buddha called it anger, hatred, or aversion and enmity.
The third root energy the Buddha discovered is confusion. As humans, we have limited understanding, a limited view about the world. For example, we think we see the sun rising, but in fact it rose eight minutes and 20 seconds earlier, for that is the average time it takes for the sun’s light to travel to earth. Like the blind man of folklore who thinks an elephant is a broom after touching only the whisk of its tail, we constantly misperceive the true nature of reality. We lack the capacity ever to see it and, instead, project our limited understanding onto it. The strong emotion of fear comes when we are unable to perceive and accept reality the way it is.
And, so, in the Buddhist tradition, fear is a compound mental state, a secondlayer reaction to the first-layer mental states of greed, hatred, and confusion which, themselves, are reactions to ultimate reality, which manifests naturally when conditions are sufficient. These three roots of affliction exist because, as humans, we do not live in a perfect world. The unexpected, such as the pandemic, is always happening. That is because reality is impermanent, and life is always changing – not always in accord with our wishes. While we may each respond differently as individuals, human psychology is such that our responses have common roots in greed, hatred, and confusion. If we do not calm down these three sources of energy, fear can easily arise.
We see this happening every day during the pandemic. For example, we are queuing at a supermarket checkout and someone behind us stands less than the required distance away. We move forward and they edge even closer. Immediately, we feel irritation and in our unconscious mind, the energy of aversion is activated. We feel hostility towards that person. If we are not mindful, we might say something that triggers a hostile reaction, then an angry exchange may follow.
How do we interrupt this chain reaction? By bringing the practice of mindfulness into every moment of our life. We stop. We become very attentive to the energy within us. We feel the energy coming up and we say: “Coming back to myself, feeling my whole body, I breathe in. Embracing my whole body with my love and care, I breathe out. Feeling my whole body, feeling so much love for my body.” So, we need to go back to our body, learn to embrace ourselves, be with ourselves, and to sink the energy down into our center of our gravity, which is within our lower abdomen.
When we stop, and hold our breathing in our field of awareness, we do not let go. Once we hold the awareness long enough, a miracle happens: there is a transformation in our mind. We can come back fully to the present moment and get in touch deeply with what is going on now. This helps us go beyond ourirritation or anxiety, beyond the energy of fear because when we come back to our inbreath and our outbreath, we find a reality that is pleasant and safe right now; one where there really are no problems. Our tendency to project into the future – a tendency that leads us into fear – naturally stops.
This is the most basic practice. But at the same time, it is the main practice because when we sink the energy down, we have another chance. The moment we embrace the energy of greed, the energy of hatred, we have greater clarity and can begin to see a way out of our confusion.
“Us” vs. “them”
During the pandemic, some politicians and commentators have played upon people’s doubts about the benefits of lockdown versus damage to the economy. An “us” versus “them” mentality has emerged, pitting individuals against each other and against “authorities” seen as responsible for turning people’s lives upside down.
But who, really, has been making all the decisions to protect public health during the pandemic and to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed? Is there someone to whom we can directly point a finger? On the surface we have the feeling: “Yes, there is someone in our government who is responsible and accountable for making these disruptive decisions.”
In the Buddhist tradition we look at things differently. We recognize that a decision is a collective manifestation of energy within us as well as around us. It is a manifestation of the total energy of our community or society. This total connected energy is the energy responsible for a decision or outcome of an event. There is no separate energy that is completely isolated from the other energies, so there is no one specific to blame. We are all responsible, to a certain degree, for what is happening in the world right now. That is the Buddhist teaching of inter-being, inter-connectedness, the teaching of inter-penetration, inter-embracement.
From this perspective, we also see that countries and governments have been doing their best during the pandemic, conditioned by their scientific knowledge, their politics, their media, their economic and social circumstances, their educational background, cultural background, collective memory and so on. Many elements come together to manifest in a single decision. And once it manifests, we try our best to support that decision.
Should a decision turn out to have been wrong, then slowly, slowly with our practice of calmness, peacefulness, of true communication, of deep listening, of true love and loving speech, we express our concern in a calm, peaceful way. Perhaps the collective energy will change again, and a different decision will manifest.
If we practice well during the pandemic, we shall have more clarity, less fear and shall be better able to support the whole society. There is no point in expressing the energy of violence to impose our views on others because the more we express our violence the more we confuse the situation and the worse it becomes. We need to communicate, we need to share, but we need to do so in a way that is peaceful and, in whatever decision we take, we need to think of the other person in a sensitive, compassionate way.
Our Institute has been going through exactly this process. For months, our brothers and sisters have been debating when to close and when to re-open, subject, of course, to official health restrictions and guidance.
When the coronavirus was first spreading in Europe, and before mandatory lockdown came to Germany, some brothers and sisters felt we should continue to offer courses and go out to help the community, while taking appropriate measures to protect ourselves.
They looked to the example of our teacher and his close collaborator Sister Chan Khong during the Vietnam War. Thay continued his peace activism despite an assassin’s attempt to kill him with a grenade, and Sr. Chan Khong carried a wounded child to safety under a hail of bullets. Yes, it was possible we could be infected by the coronavirus. But Thay and Sr. Chan Khong risked being killed by grenades and bullets, yet this did not stop them from stepping out.
On the other side of the equation, brothers and sisters expressed valid concerns that if an outbreak of coronavirus did occur at EIAB, the Institute’s reputation for safeguarding public health could be irreversibly damaged. Friends might be wary of coming to the Institute and we might be forced to close permanently.
Actually, to open or to close the Institute was not the question. Rather, the energy of the entire monastic community was manifesting in a certain direction to produce an outcome. We all contributed ideas and opinions to this necessary discussion. We gathered monthly to revisit the situation and consider our next steps. Finally, we agreed upon 15 July as the date for re-opening EIAB to the public, following the strict guidance of local authorities and shortly after the lifting of other restrictions. We also decided to go ahead with a visit to Munich and other cities to lead retreats, days of mindfulness, give public talks and engage in religious dialogue.
Perhaps these decisions could yet result in brothers and sisters in our community being infected. At present, that risk seems low, but should there be “a second wave” of coronavirus, perhaps the risk will rise. The point is we must all take decisions in our life and usually there is some risk. We need to have courage and learn to accept the outcome whatever it is, knowing that we have taken that decision with all our mindfulness, attention and understanding, and with compassionate consideration for others.
So, who makes the decisions? Thay Phap An? Sr. Song Nghiem? Or some other brother or sister in the community? No, together – and influenced by our conscious and unconscious heritage – we make our decisions. Together, we as a family, we as a community, as a society, as a nation, we manifest the decisions that affect our lives. We express our view, our position, our opinion, then we open our hearts and embrace the views and concerns of all others. We need to be attentive, to listen and to come up with a compromise.
Practicing all-day mindfulness
- Choose an object for your mind- fulness practice, such as your breathing. “Aware of my inbreath I breathe in, aware of my outbreath I breathe out.
- Choose a second object for your mindfulness practice, such as your body. “Aware of my body I breathe in, relaxing my body I breathe
- Deeply enjoy practicing them together: “Aware of my inbreath I breathe in, aware of my outbreath, I breathe out. Feeling my whole body, I breathe in, relaxing my whole body, I breathe ”
- Sink the energy and cultivate a sense of firmness, rootedness, groundedness: “Aware of my lower abdomen, I breathe in. Sinking the energy down into my lower abdomen, I breathe out. Rooting myself in my center of gravity, I breathe in. Feeling firm, rooted, grounded, I breathe ”
- Stop and come back to this practice throughout the day, or whenever you remember.
It cannot have been easy for families to practice together during lockdown because the energies of anger, attachment and confusion have had a chance to manifest strongly in each family member.
Normally, various family members leave home each morning to go to work. They have a chance to change their environment and get away from whatever block of energy causes pain and sorrow in relationships at home. But people in lockdown have been with each other 24 hours a day for months on end. This has uncovered a lot of underlying incompatibility, stress and hurt in families. Demand for marriage counselling has rarely been higher and divorces are reported to be on the rise.
If we practice coming back to ourselves to embrace the energy within us, if we learn to have a clear mind, learn to see that our view is only a limited view, that our opinion is only a limited opinion, that our version of reality is only a projection from our mind, we can open our heart and embrace the views of all family members. We have a chance to get out of “lockdown syndrome” and to avoid a breakdown in close relationships. As a family, we have a chance to emerge from the pandemic stronger and more united.
Another powerful practice at this stressful time, is to cultivate happiness and joy at home. We have seen friends in Italy doing that beautifully. At the peak of lockdown there, when the coronavirus death toll was surging, Italians were out on their balconies in the evenings, singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, banging pots and pans, and cheering on health workers.
It is possible, too, to recognize that good things have happened because of lockdown, even if these turn out to be temporary. This spring, while humans went into enforced “hibernation” the planet was healing. Industrial pollution was down, air quality improved, and birdsong seemed louder than ever. For the first time in decades, it was possible in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, to see the snow-capped peaks of Mount Everest some 200 km away. In Venice, less boat traffic on the canals meant calmer, clearer water, and swans returned. As the world went quiet, scientists detected a significant reduction in the planet’s ambient seismic “noise” from the vibration of cars, trucks, trains and so on impacting the earth’s crust.
We deserve happiness. We do not deserve sadness, hatred, anger, irritation, anxiety. So, we should worry less and make life as joyful and happy as possible. We should celebrate that friends have been cheering each other up during lockdown by sharing an outpouring of good-natured humor, jokes, and creativity on social media. And as lockdowns continue to ease in many places this summer, we should go to the beach, swim in the sea, and walk in the forest. But when we do, we should – as much as possible – remember to leave the virus behind and commit that time to cultivating happiness.
Towards the way out
Due to our confusion and inability to see the way out, fear gains a deep foothold in us personally as well as collectively. With the pandemic, there is strong evidence that precautions such as frequent handwashing, self-isolating as much as possible, social distancing when out in public, and wearing a mask when around others, are effective at minimizing the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19. These practices cannot offer a complete solution but are good for each of us to follow as one pathway out of fear at this time.
On a bigger scale, the pandemic and its ongoing economic impacts have opened a pandora’s box of challenges not just in homes and neighborhoods but within the global community. Some pre-pandemic norms of life may be gone for good. Floorboards we thought were firm under our feet may no longer be there.
This uncertainty has thrown the world off balance, as reflected in humanity’s unsettled collective energy at this time. But the issues that have been exposed – and aggravated – by the pandemic could yet tilt the world in a more positive direction. Wiser, happier outcomes could begin to manifest from our collective conscious if we learn to recognize and trust the evidence at hand, and to open our hearts to the collective good.
We could see a new era of cooperation, in which the international scientific community comes together out of necessity to develop a vaccine that is as available to the poor as it is to the rich. Cooperation of this non-discriminatory nature could also give a much-needed boost to collective action on climate change.
The pandemic could be a catalyst for overhauling and revitalizing institutions established in the aftermath of World War II to manage conflicts between powers and to advance peace, health and prosperity in the world, bodies such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.
With a different perspective and change of heart as a human family, we may yet pull back from the brink of a new Cold War, such as that which kept Berlin on a knife-edge for decades and which now threatens to embroil Hong Kong. We may also work towards ending proxy wars such as those which, over the past 70 years, devastated Korea, Vietnam and, now, Syria and Yemen.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of such challenges and to ask: “I am just one person, what can I do?” The answer is “a lot”.
By coming back to our self, calming the energy of fear within us, and transforming its roots of greed, hatred and confusion into the energy of understanding and compassion, we can step away from the collective energy of hatred and fear to be part of bigger solutions to the world’s problems.
Our teacher has said: “Peace in Oneself, Peace in the World”. We can be an oasis of peace that offers sanctuary for others. We can show that there is a way forward without blame and conflict. By cultivating non-fear, we can radiate peace and stability to anxious communities greatly in need of hope at this time.
From corona to karuna
During a recent Zoom sharing with friends in Italy, a question came up about karuna. Sr. Song Nghiem smiled when she heard the word because it sounds so like “corona”. Indeed, the difference between the two may be less than it seems. “Because of corona you can practice karuna“, is how Sr. Song Nghiem puts it. In other words, the corona virus is a wonderful chance to show our compassion and to help others reduce their suffering.
So, the pandemic is an invitation to look at our fear, look at our world, and to see how, at every level, in every way, great or small, we can help to reduce suffering. In doing so, we continue the life’s work of our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Like Thay, we can tap into an immense stream of powerful energy from spiritual and blood ancestors who cultivated courage and strength to overcome danger and fear in their own lifetimes, and who had the aspiration to move humanity to a higher spiritual level.
Now nearly 94 years old, Thay stays actively in touch from his root temple in Hue, Vietnam. That is where, some eight decades ago, his spiritual journey began towards the revitalization of Vietnam’s Buddhist heritage, a Buddhism which since the first century B.C. has helped to build Vietnam’s culture, national identity and statehood, a Buddhism that engages deeply with people and society at the most stressful and painful of times, and a Buddhism we can apply, today, to ease suffering on a global scale.
The author wishes to express his deep gratitude to Sr. Song Nghiem for inspiring many aspects of this article, and to Ms. Sarah Monks for her research, input, and careful editing.
 On 23 January 2020, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, set “the Doomsday Clock” at 100 seconds to midnight, “closer than ever”, citing global failures to adequately address two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change. https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/ current-time/. Accessed 30 June 2020.
 At a media briefing on 29 June 2020, the Director- General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “… the hard reality is: this is not even close to being over. Although many countries have made some pro- gress, globally the pandemic is actually speeding up.” https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/ who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at- the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—29- june-2020. Accessed 30 June 2020.
 It includes our family and educational back- ground, our past conditioning, our individual character etc. The latter is also shaped by the culture in which we are raised. For example, German people are widely admired for being disciplined, responsible citizens.
 https://www.ndtv.com/offbeat/kathmandu- gets-a-glimpse-of-mount-everest-from- 200-km-away-pics-are-viral-2232748. Accessed 30 June 2020.
 https://www.classicfm.com/music-news/corona- virus/venice-canals-clear-dolphins-swim-italy- lockdown/. Accessed 30 June 2020.
 https://www.cbsnews.com/video/coronavirus- impact-earths-vibrations/ 8. April 2020. Accessed 30 June 2020.
 https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/no- vel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public. Accessed 2 July 2020.
 This is inscribed in our teacher’s calligraphy over the stone gateway into EIAB.
Source: EIAB MAGAZINE, Contributions from the EIAB and the international Sangha august 2020