Is Coronavirus an Illusion (a.k.a. Is the Material World an Illusion)

Yesterday I made a video titled “Is Coronavirus an Illusion?” The title was sort of “clickbait,” I guess. But I thought it was a good way to make some points. 

In that video I wanted to address how Buddhist philosophy has been part of my own personal way of dealing with the pandemic and panic.

I believe that our current collective experience of this pandemic can provide us with a clear, concrete, and useful way of understanding why the Zen philosophy is the way it is. This way of looking at things can also help us through the very real stuff we’re all dealing with right now.

In my video, I was not saying something like, “Your nose is real. Your toes are real. But the coronavirus is a hoax.” Rather, I was asking, “How do we deal with our thoughts and emotions in this pandemic if we believe that the entirety of the material world — including the coronavirus — is an illusion?”

In order to understand this, I think it’s important to establish what we mean when we say that the material world is an illusion.

Sometime in the 1990’s, I was having a conversation with my Zen teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi, in which he told me, “The material world is an illusion.”

This came as a shock because, up until then, I’d never heard him say anything like that. In fact, I would have expected him to say the opposite. He certainly acted like he believed the material world was not an illusion. He didn’t think he could walk through walls, or manipulate matter with his mind, or any of the kinds of things I’d have expected someone who believed the material world is an illusion would do. 

That’s why I posted that excerpt from my book Don’t Be a Jerk in which I tried to simplify Dogen’s essay One Bright Pearl from Shobogenzo. I think it’s a good example of how the Zen tradition deals with this idea of the material world being an illusion. 

One way of understanding the story that Dogen tells at the beginning of One Bright Pearl goes like this. Gensha started out being a regular guy who understood the material world the regular way. Then he studied Buddhism and gained a clear intellectual understanding of the philosophy that the material world is an illusion. He figured he had that worked out and was ready to move on. Then, as he was leaving the temple, he stubbed his toe on a rock. His newly acquired intellectual understanding was challenged by his real experience of physical pain. 

Gensha might have, at that moment, decided he had been deceived by the philosophy he’d been studying. In fact, his answer, “I see that I cannot be deceived by others,” might sound like that was his reaction. But, in a surprise twist at the end, his teacher says Gensha is correct. Then Gensha returned to his study of Buddhism, not just intellectually, but practically as well, and he became one of the great revered Buddhist masters.

This story illustrates the way the Zen tradition addresses its own philosophy. It’s a big contrast with the way earlier Buddhist traditions like Yogacara addressed it. 

The Yogacara school created a vast and complicated intellectual framework for explaining this philosophy. I’ve tried to read some of that stuff and it made my head spin.

The folks who created the Zen tradition noticed that, no matter how good any explanation is, it’s always incomplete. A philosophy is a map of reality. And, in order for a map to be useful, it has to eliminate most of the real world details. If the maps you got on GoogleMaps were fully detailed, you could never use them. Just try using “satellite view” to navigate your way to a place you’ve never been to before. And even “satellite view” already eliminates a lot of details.

Because they knew they could never explain Buddhist philosophy completely, the Zen folks decided to try another way. Rather than explaining everything in detail, they tried to indicate the philosophy through brief stories. This requires those who study the philosophy to do the bulk of the work themselves.

This is the same situation we all find ourselves in regarding the current pandemic. Even if you’ve been reading and listening to as much reliable information as you can find — like I have — you’ll notice that it’s impossible to understand what’s going on. The statistics and estimates and predictions that the best experts out there are giving us are all over the map. No matter how good any prediction is, no one knows the future. It’s also too early for even the best statistics to be very reliable.

This inability to know what’s going on and what will happen next is extremely disturbing. In the wild, the only real defensive weapon human beings have is our ability to know what’s going on and predict what will happen next. When we don’t have that, we’re like a lion that’s had its teeth and claws removed or a bull without its horns. We feel vulnerable, maybe even helpless.

The solution to this feeling of vulnerability is to realize that our natural ability to understand what’s going on and predict what will happen next was never meant to extend very far into the future. We’ve been able to extend our natural abilities to understand and predict things to an incredible extent. But, in order for that to work, we had to create a very stable society, free from much of the chaos that characterizes the natural world.

Now, a lot of the systems we have relied on to keep chaos at bay seem to be breaking down, or at least undergoing drastic and rapid changes. So we’re being flung back into a primitive state in terms of our abilities to understand things and predict future events. But I think this, too, will change and get better.

Personally, my reading of current events is that things probably are not as dire as certain experts and thought leaders are saying. But remember that a lot of the population is really stupid. You might have seen the photos from the other day of people partying in Florida like nothing is wrong. That’s the kind of people who have to be told that everything is going to be a total disaster unless they start taking the proper steps to protect themselves and others. 

Unfortunately, we’re dealing with stupid people. Lots of them hear this and, instead of taking sensible steps, they hoard toilet paper.

The threat of coronavirus is real. COVID-19 can be dangerous to older people and those with health problems. It can also be dangerous to younger, healthier people, but that’s fairly rare. Our health care system could get overwhelmed. Flattening the Curve seems like a good idea to me. 

Personally, I am cooperating in full in my personal life. We’ve also taken the Angel City Zen Center online, and we’ll continue to keep our physical space closed until they say it’s OK to open again.

But I also think there’s a trick that the current statistics are playing on us. 

We don’t really know how many people out there have been infected with the virus but are showing only mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. This makes the percentage of people with severe symptoms look much higher than it probably actually is. We are seeing more severe cases and fewer mild ones because a lot — maybe even most — of the mild cases aren’t being reported or even recognized.

Think of it in terms of fractions. 1/10 is a much larger number than 1/100 or 1/1000. I believe that, as more testing becomes available, the bottom number of the fractions people are using to determine how dangerous COVID-19 is will get bigger much faster than the top number. After a while, we’ll get a more realistic picture of how dangerous this stuff actually is. 

I am no expert, of course, so I could be mistaken. But I have read and listened to experts who are saying this, and their voices seem more reliable to me than those other experts who are making scarier predictions.

When I take in information, I look at not only the information I take in, but also at the tone with which that information is delivered. Agitated people are rarely able to think clearly. This is one of the reasons I practice zazen every day. It keeps me from being too agitated and makes me able to think more clearly. So I look for sources of information that are presented in a calm, clear voice. 

But I’m also aware that it’s possible for an agitated person to imitate a calm person. Zazen practice has, I believe, improved my ability to judge when a person is actually calm as opposed to pretending to be calm. I can tell within a sentence or two which is which, even when the information is in print and I can’t actually hear the person’s voice. This has been a useful skill that has been highly valuable for the decade or two since I began to acquire it. When we say “zazen is good for nothing,” that’s not entirely true.

In any case, that’s how it seems to me. I hope it’s useful.

Stay safe and stay healthy, friends!

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