A recent article by the conservative political journalist Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York magazine, succinctly states what I’ve been thinking for some time:
“Tribalism is now not just one force in American politics, it’s the overwhelming one, and tribalism abhors reality if it impugns the tribe. But you can’t have both tribalism and public health. When you turn wearing a simple face mask into a political and cultural symbol of leftism, when you view social distancing as a concession to your enemies, you deeply undermine the power of millions of small impediments to viral outbreak.”
A commonsense approach to public health always seemed to me to be about ‘the public’s’ health, contrasted to a person’s individual health. As such what benefitted society at large would ultimately benefit the individual by decreasing social exposure to infectious disease. Identifying factors that contributed to disease and disabilities, including such things as, environmental exposure to toxins, food purity, and multiple other influences, is good for the individual as a member of society.
An article in Vanityfair by David Duncan states in the headline: If 80% of Americans Wore Masks, COVID-19 Infections Would Plummet, New Study Says. The proof he uses is from a study by De Kai, along with his team, in which they built a computer forecasting model they call the masksim simulator. Duncan goes on to state:
“If you’re wondering whether to wear or not to wear, consider this. The day before yesterday [May 8th], 21 people died of COVID-19 in Japan. In the United States, 2,129 died. Comparing overall death rates for the two countries offers an even starker point of comparison with total U.S. deaths now at a staggering 76,032 and Japan’s fatalities at 577. Japan’s population is about 38% of the U.S., but even adjusting for population, the Japanese death rate is a mere 2% of America’s.”
When Shumon and I lived in Japan, starting over 30 years ago, many people wore masks in public. It was not a statement; it was simply prophylaxis to the public and a comfort to the wearer. It was no big deal, only those with a cold, flu, or allergy symptoms, bothered to do so. Tamami and I were in Japan last February visiting Ichishima sensei and his wife. When asked if we had masks, we replied no. Sensei’s wife said they were in short supply in Japan because of ‘Corona’ and gave us a supply of masks that we are still using. We used the masks for the rest of our travels. Over 95% of the people we saw in public in Japan and Korea at that time were wearing masks. Masks are simply seen as a courtesy, in an epidemic, a public health necessity. A totally apolitical convention.
Identifying as a responsive communitarian (see writings by Amitai Etzioni, Joseph E. Stiglitz, and others) rather than liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, socialist or libertarian, in this context, I thought I was/am apolitical regarding public health. That was/is naïve. Everything is political, not just today, it has always been so. Today politics is more in your face than it was a few years ago in order to influence perception.
Politics is not a game, as often portrayed by political gurus, with winners and losers, tactics, and strategies, apart from real world consequences. Politics is a profoundly serious enterprise that costs people’s lives and their wellbeing.
COVID-19 (officially SARS-CoV-2) has magnified societal fissures already present before the outbreak. Trust in education, confidence in evidentiary medicine and science, tribalism, and social inequalities, to name a few, are targets of this fracture. This all adds to the miasma of discontent resulting from isolation and uncertainty that is our current existence.
Taking a news fast periodically; no newspapers, social media, screens of all sizes and types, no radio, is not just a short-term remedy, it is a survival tool. At the same time, we have a need to be informed. In isolation we need to feel connected to other people and the world at large. Balancing these two ‘needs’ requires some discipline.
A Joy – Today (5/25/20) The Times Union newspaper reports, “No one has died from COVID-19 in Albany County since Thursday, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy’s office said Monday morning. It is one of the longest stretches without a death from the virus since it first appeared in the county on March 13.”
A Concern – Today (5/26/20) The Times Union newspaper reports that Sheriff Craig Apple said, “Right now heroin deaths in the Capital Region are far outpacing covid deaths and that’s something we have to pay attention to.”
Every morning at the temple we chant the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya) as the centerpiece of the Daily Service. It begins, “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva doing deep Prajñāpāramitā clearly saw emptiness of all five conditions, thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.”
To expand on its meaning – Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva (Jpn. Kannon Bosatsu) is the heavenly deity of mercy and compassion. Deep Prajñāpāramitā is deep meditation that leads to “Perfection of Wisdom”. In so doing she is spontaneously aware that the five conditions, the conditions of human existence (skandhas): form, feeling, volitions, perceptions, and consciousness, lead to duḥkha (suffering and discontentedness). This indispensable recognition releases her from misfortune and pain.
In the next sentence Avalokiteśvara informs Śāriputra (Shakyamuni Buddha’s first disciple), “Form is Emptiness (śunyata). Emptiness is Form”, then affirms the other skandhas to be equally empty-that is, dependently originated.
These words are especially poignant and fitting while we are experiencing an existential time in our lives. Rupa (form, our bodies) is made up of the four elements (earth, water, fire, and wind) of which we are composed. It is duḥkha. The other four skandhas are by products of this corporality. These five’s skandhas give rise to our personalities, our provisional self. The ‘suffering’ right now is discontentedness that leads to our fear for our lives, our safety and the safety of others, our distress at being apart from family and friends, and the misery we experience from our pleasant expectations being dashed. This is all about our sense of self, projections into the future, and expectations for what is right. Adding to this maelstrom is the sociopolitical struggles going on around us that exacerbate the existential threat.
Reciting these words give me license to let go of my need to control. There are the things that I can do, and things over which I have no power. The verse puts it into context for me.
All of us, myself included, seek and can experience sukha, an authentic state of contentment within a being that is lasting. This is how it begins. We do not do it by ignoring inequalities, racism, injustices, and adversarial environment we are in. When there is something we can do about it, we do it. We do not concede to structural racism. We do not contribute to the innate inequalities in our society. We do not tolerate injustices. We do not stand passively by as we face our adversaries. In fact – by doing what we can, when we can, we feel a sense of meaning and purpose. We do these things because they need to be done not because of the ego gratification, sense of power, or sense of recognition that doing it might entail. This assists us in the next step.
Each of us must find that which eases our struggles not merely a coping method. We must each let go of our ego, our provisional self, our projections of what we want, and the contentment to be, just to be during this unstable time.
This is a time for us to learn these lessons so that we can apply them in the future. We do these things together. We feel this togetherness and we gain strength from it.
All things are pure by nature, therefore you to are pure by nature. Blessings be upon you and all those you care for. You are genuinely loved.
Love and gassho . . . Monshin