Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (2)

This is the second in an open-ended series of posts exploring some of the principle teachings of Buddhism for insights into how we might conduct our lives more skillfully during these challenging times of the coronavirus pandemic. For an overview of the entire projected series, please see the first entry.


The Three Characteristics (“Marks”) of Existence:

(1) Impermanence

There are three characteristics (frequently referred to as “marks” in traditional Buddhist texts) that are said to fully describe the nature of our human existence – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.  While each of them is present to some degree in just about any given circumstance, it seems to me that all three of them are manifesting in particularly unique and unmistakable ways in the current conditions that we are collectively living through during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some thoughts on the first of these three characteristics – impermanence.

*          *          *          *          *

While we all know that things are always changing, and that nothing lasts forever, we often act as if we didn’t know.  We do so, of course, for the very good reason that, on a day-to-day basis, the persons, places, and things that were there in our lives yesterday are usually still there today, and (we can reasonably presume) will still be there tomorrow. We rely on this day-to-day continuity for our ongoing sense of identity and purpose.  In its absence, our lives would be chaotic beyond imagining.

The mistake we typically make, though, is to conflate this essential aspect of continuity with the erroneous attribution of permanence.  We naturally expect things to continue on a daily basis as we’ve become accustomed to, because that’s been our lifelong experience.  But our presumption that this will remain the case indefinitely into the future is in fact just that – a presumption.  And this presumption flies in the face of the first characteristic of our existence, the impermanence of all things.

On the first day of social distancing and stay-at-home directives, we awoke to find that so much that we take for granted as permanent features of our experience – commuting to our jobs, seeing our kids off to school, shopping for groceries, dining at a favorite restaurant, taking a stroll through the park, visiting with friends – could practically vanish into thin air, like so many random pieces of paper blown out an open window by a sudden unexpected gust of wind.

Today, more than one month into this new normal, we have an opportunity to reflect upon the tenuous nature of our mistaken sense of continuity-as-permanence, and to correct that erroneous perception with a newfound awareness that every aspect of our experience is ultimately impermanent.

Such an awareness would not only put us in better alignment with Buddhism’s first characteristic of existence, but would also almost certainly change for the better how we experience life going forward.  Imagine what it might be like if, instead of thoughtlessly presuming that whatever it is we’re enjoying today will automatically be there for us again tomorrow, we took the more thoughtful attitude of appreciating today’s experience all the more because we know much better than to simply presume that it will still be there for us tomorrow.  Hopefully, of course, it will.  But now we would know that, perhaps, it won’t.

Embracing the characteristic of impermanence in this deep and lasting fashion would, I think, enhance our experience of every present moment – including each of the very challenging moments we are living through, and enduring, right now.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the second of the three characteristics of existence – unsatisfactoriness.



3 thoughts on “Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (2)

  1. Thanks for this, Tom, Vivid and exact, as usual! The one word ‘identity’ jumped out at me! What I’m currently working with is the idea of how one maintains a sense of identity within a time when instead of ‘counting out our life in coffee spoons’ (a probably inaccurate memory of Eliot in Prufrock) we now find it being counted out for us in terms of ‘daily deaths’. I have the experience of finding that other people in my circle of ‘friends’ are finding self-isolation ‘boring’, ‘impossible to manage’ and so on, imagining it necessary to engage with others via something they refer to as ZOOM, swap poems & music – trying to invent something to take the place of all the external things that lent them a sense of identity in the past. I find it not a lot different from how it’s always been. Letting this sink in, I realise more profoundly than ever before how ‘identity’ depends not on externals or even on what you do particularly but on how & what you are inside – something you carry around with you for the time being. I notice that I only have to look out of this workroom window at the apple tree brimful of blossom to know that it’s a singular factor in my identity and that the Plague is beyond the garden perimeter: I count out my life in bee visits, hoping for a glut of apples this year!

    My father died in 1971 – I think of him at least once a day still. When he died I had his blank signet ring engraved MEMENTO MORI and later discovered that Gurdjieff advised us to be clear about what & who we are by regularly thinking something like ‘today I may die’ which I have found holds me (my identity) pretty firmly together; it has done through thick & thin these fifty years…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can think of few more profound ways to avoid conflating continuity with permanence than your daily reflection of “today I may die”, Colin! Nonetheless, let’s hope that, while life for both of us will surely not be permanent, it may yet continue on for quite some time to come. And may you enjoy that glut of apples over the next few months …

      Liked by 1 person

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