Around our interconnected world, we have all been dealing with a shared threat from the COVID-19 virus.  We share this world with many other forms of life, whose over-exploitation seems to have triggered the virus spreading to humans, so this situation was predicted by scientists to arise at some time, and will probably do so [...]


Drawing on Buddhist practices to help deal with pandemics


Around our interconnected world, we have all been dealing with a shared threat from the COVID-19 virus.  We share this world with many other forms of life, whose over-exploitation seems to have triggered the virus spreading to humans, so this situation was predicted by scientists to arise at some time, and will probably do so again, if we are not more careful.

Of course access to vaccination is very important, but we also have to be heedful and mindful. As the slogan used in the UK says, be alert to ‘Hands, Face and Space’. Be careful what you touch, and keep cleansing your hands with soap and/or alcohol gel; be careful to minimise touching your face, especially mouth and eyes. As the virus spreads mainly through particles in the air breathed out by infected people, wear a face mask and try to avoid being closer than two metres to people, other than those in your own household.

Mindfulness and heedfulness are qualities emphasised by Buddhism, so this should help us be careful of what we touch etc., as a kind of mindfulness of the body practice. We should be mindful of the air we share with those around us; indeed wearing a mask helps one be more mindful of one’s breathing! We should also be mindful of the space round us, in which we and others move.

Concentration on such things as breathing, or qualities of the Three Jewels, of course aids calm, which is always beneficial, but especially in these times, which can bring anxiety. Chanting also has a calming effect on the body and mind. And patience and equanimity can also help us deal with the long-haul of repeated lock-downs.

We can also draw on metta and karuna, loving kindness and compassion, to encourage us to take care of the health of family members, friends, and others we interact with and often depend on – as well as ourselves. In the Sedaka Sutta (Samyutta-nikaya V.169), an acrobat says to his assistant, who stood on his shoulders: ‘Now you take care of me … and I’ll take care of you. Thus, guarding one another, taking care of one another, we’ll show off our skill, receive our reward, and come down safely from the bamboo pole.’ But the wiser lady assistant replied: ‘That’s not the way to do it, teacher. You take care of yourself, and I’ll take care of myself, and thus with each of us guarding ourselves, taking care of ourselves, we’ll show off our skill, receive our reward, and come down safely from the bamboo pole.’

The Buddha agreed with her point and said: ‘Monks, the establishing of mindfulness is to be practised with the thought, “I’ll take care of myself.”  … (and) “I’ll take care of others.” Monks, one who takes care of himself takes care of others, and one who takes care of others takes care of himself. How, monks, is it that one who takes care of himself takes care of others? It is by training development and cultivation (of wholesome states). And how, monks, does one who takes care of others take care of himself? It is by patient acceptance, by harmlessness, by loving kindness and by compassion.’

This emphasizes that mindful cultivation, in oneself, of wholesome states of mind and action is an effective way of benefiting others, while kindly care for others in turn benefits oneself. What an individual cannot do, though, is directly control others.

Now contemplation of the dukkha of illnesses etc. can aid liberation – it helped spur the Buddha’s renunciation, so in this sense the presence of illness can be indirectly beneficial. Contemplation of the various kinds of illness that the body can suffer are amongst those recommended to the gravely ill monk Girimananda (Anguttara 10.60), along with e.g. contemplation of impermanence, and of breathing,  in the hope that, hearing of them, his illness would subside, which it then did. Girimananda’s mindfulness of certain key perceptions would naturally lead to investigation of what they are about, and on from this to the third of the health-giving seven factors of awakening, viriya, ‘vigour’ or ‘mental strength’ suggestive of an enlivening energy and strength of will. Of course, one of Girimananda’s curative contemplations is mindfulness of breathing, which certainly can induce an enlivening energy.

It should be noted that the Buddha said that only some illnesses are caused by one’s past karma (Anguttara 4.87, 10.60, Samyutta 36.21), though of course any illnesses that humans can get depend on being reborn as a human, which comes from karma. If all illnesses were seen as caused by karma, one might wrongly think that Buddhists would therefore not seek medical help. Of course the Vinaya refers to many medical treatments used by monks, in line with the need for members of the Sangha to look after their sick fellows. As the Buddha said: ‘Monks … if you do not tend to one another, who then will tend to you? Monks, whoever would tend to me should tend to the sick’ (Vinaya I.302).

What, though, of the protective power of the chanting of pirit/parittas? They are said to work only for a person who has some term of life remaining, who is virtuous and with confidence in the Three Jewels, and cannot cure a person of an illness if it is due to their past karma (Milindapañha 150–54).

How might they be seen to work? Firstly, to chant or listen to a paritta is soothing and leads to self-confidence and a calm, pure mind, due to both its sound-quality and meaning. As the mind is in a healthier state, this may cure psychosomatic illnesses, strengthen the immune system, and make a person more alert and better at avoiding the dangers of life. Secondly, chanting a paritta, especially one which expresses loving kindness to all beings, may calm down a hostile person, animal or ghost, making them more well-disposed towards the chanter and listeners. Thirdly, as well as generating new puñña – ‘merit’ or  karmic fruitfulness – paritta-chanting may stimulate past karmic fruitfulness into bringing some of its fruits immediately. Fourthly, chanting or listening to a paritta is thought to please those gods who are devotees of the Buddha, so that they offer what protection and assistance it is in their power to give. Finally, the spiritual power of the Buddha, and of the truth he expressed, is seen as continuing in his words, with its beneficial influence being liberated when these are devoutly chanted.

The Ratana Suttaparitta is said to have been given as an aid to a community in overcoming a sickness. It begins by wishing peace of mind to any assembled deities, asking them to have loving kindness for, and to protect, humans who bring them offerings, especially by sharing karmic fruitfulness with them. Twelve verses describing the excellences of the Three Jewels then follow, each one ending with ‘by this truth, may there be well-being’ (etena saccena suvatthi hotu). Finally, three verses, said to be from the deva Sakka, request the assembled devas to praise the Three Jewels. Uttering significant truths about the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha is seen to have a great power of influence over those that hear them, such as these devas, and sometimes the physical world.

The commentary says that the Ratana Sutta was given by the Buddha when a drought had led to famine and death in Vesali. The stench of rotting bodies had then attracted non-human beings (harmful spirits), who brought more deaths, which were also brought on by a sickness. The Buddha was asked to come and help, and when he was met by representatives of the city at its edge, heavy rain began to fall, which swept away the dead bodies. Sakka and other devas also arrived, at which most of the non-humans fled. The Buddha then told Ananda to learn the Ratana Sutta, and that he and the city leaders should recite it as a paritta as they walked around the city. This they did, after contemplating the perfections of the Buddha. Ananda carried the Buddha’s bowl, sprinkling water from it as he chanted, and as soon as he began the verses containing certain ‘truth-utterances’, the water drove away the remaining non-humans and started to cure the sick. The Sutta was then recited for seven days until the plague was ended.

As I see things, the protective power of parittas largely comes from the good states of mind they help induce, and the harmonious energy that these and the chant infuse through the body. I would certainly not see parittas as preventing one catching the virus, except through helping one be more careful. Nor would they necessarily prevent serious illness, or even death, from the virus. However, they may well help strengthen a person’s general level of health and so help their body fight the virus and lessen its effects, especially if this in addition to having been vaccinated.

Of course our heedfulness as regards the threat from the virus also needs to be exercised in Buddhist contexts. Communal chanting, even of parittas, could spread the virus, unless it is done outdoors, and with good spacing between people. One can of course chant them oneself, in the home. Offering of dana to monks would also need to be done very carefully, so as not to transmit the virus.

(The writer is Emeritus  Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Sunderland and meditation teacher in Samatha Trust)

Translations of the Ratana Sutta (Khuddaka-patha VI): Piyadassi Thera:

Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

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