Viruses: The Invisible Enemy, or Our Fellow Passengers on Spaceship Earth?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Nous sommes en guerre.” We don’t expect to hear these words, “We are at war,” coming from the leader of a country, except when it is actually involved in a war against another country. In fact, France is not involved in any war against another country in 2020. Yet, these are the words President Emmanuel Macron used—not once but multiple times—in his televised address to the French people on March 16 in which he announced a nationwide lockdown enforced by police. Why did President Macron use these words? It is because, as he put it, “The enemy is there,” and “The enemy is invisible and it requires our general mobilization.”

We all know by now what the enemy is that President Macron is referring to. It is the coronavirus that is spreading around the world, claiming many human victims. With patients infected with this novel virus found in well over 100 countries around the world, and with the number of deaths climbing every day, the World Health Organization (WHO) was compelled to issue a warning on March 11, saying that COVID-19, the name given to this novel virus, is a pandemic that threatens the lives of people all around the world. It actually took a few months before the WHO finally decided to use the word “pandemic” because initially COVID-19 was an epidemic that threatened the lives of people living in one region of a country when it started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

It was 2018, just two years ago, that we marked the centenary of what is now known as the Great Pandemic of 1918. What was initially a local outbreak of influenza among farmers in Haskell County, Kansas, the influenza spread worldwide from the US to France, to Spain, to countries on the African continent, and even to New Zealand, a country in the Southern hemisphere. Though estimates vary, some put the number of human lives lost in the Great Pandemic as high 100 million, or 5% of the world population at the time.

Like the Great Pandemic of 1918, which is believed to have started from hogs in rural Kansas, COVID-2019 is also believed to have started from animals—the live and slaughtered animals sold on the Wuhan seafood wholesale market. Scientists now know that a virus can jump across species from animals to humans. The 2013 outbreak of influenza, H7N9, in China is believed to have started from contact with birds. The 2013-2016 outbreaks of Ebola virus disease in West Africa are suspected to have started from contact with bats.

How a disease initially started becomes less of a concern once it begins to spread around the world and becomes a pandemic. Once a virus jumps from animals to humans, it begins to be transmitted from one human to another in a variety of ways. Hence, the key question in our fight against “the invisible enemy” like the coronavirus is whether we can figure out the transmission mechanism among humans.

History tells us many examples of human-to-human transmission of viral diseases. One well-known example to historians was the Smallpox brought over to the New World by Spaniards after the initial expedition by Columbus opened up the sea route from the Old World to the New World.1 It was in 1519 that Cortez landed on the coast of Mexico with 66 Spaniards. One slave infected with Smallpox who arrived in the following year from Spanish Cuba spread the virus, resulting in the death of nearly half of the Aztecs. A similar devastating effect on the native population also occurred with another Spanish expedition a decade later. Pizarro arrived on the coast of Peru in 1531 with 168 men. By then, Smallpox had wiped out much of the Inca population with the virus traveling overland from Mexico to Peru.

It does not take much imagination to see that human-to-human transmission of diseases is facilitated by the development of transportation networks, whether overland or over the seas. Smallpox outbreak known as the Plague of Antoninus that killed millions of Romans between 165 and 180 CE is an example of overland transmission due to the development of world trade routes by the Romans. On the other hand, Captain Cook’s expedition to the Pacific islands is another example of transmission of diseases by seafarers, similar to the Spanish expeditions. Smallpox did not reach Hawaii until 1853, but the population of Hawaii had already plunged from about half a million in 1779 when Captain Cook arrived to about 80,000.

We are now living in the age of global travels, with transportation networks covering the entire globe. Globalization of human activities, for business as well as for pleasure, facilitated by the development of global transportation networks has opened up many channels of human-to-human transmission of viral diseases. What is worrisome is the fact that most cases of transmission take the form of what researchers today call “stealth transmission” in which people without symptoms of a viral disease unwittingly spread the virus to people around them. This is certainly the case with the novel coronavirus that is spreading around the world.

Is the coronavirus the enemy to be conquered and destroyed, as President Macron suggests? While the threat to humans is real, answering this question is not as simple as defeating the enemy in a war against another country. It is not because there are so many viruses in the world around us. It is because there is no consensus among scientists as to whether viruses are life forms or not. Viruses, though they possess genes and evolve by natural selection, cannot reproduce themselves as they lack their own metabolism and cell structure. Hence, they need host cells for reproduction, and thus infect all types of life forms, animals and plants, as their hosts to replicate themselves. In the sense that they depend on other life forms for their reproduction, viruses are part of the intricate web of life on our Planet Earth.

What should our attitude be towards viruses, then? From the Buddhist perspective, viruses are not sentient beings, and thus may not be objects of our loving-kindness. Yet, as part of the living environment around us, viruses are our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth that navigates itself in the vast ocean of cosmic evolution. Viruses thus become objects of our ksanti (patience) practice, the third of the Six Paramitas. As Master Sheng Yen explains in his commentary on the Six Paramitas, “There are three ways to practice patience: patience with those who wish to harm us, patience with regard to the environment, and patience in enduring the dharmas. If we do not respond in a harmful way when confronted by those who wish to harm us, we can avoid hurting others and ourselves. … Patience with regard to the environment means enduring pain and difficulty when faced with natural calamities. … Patient endurance of all dharmas is regarding all phenomena, including our own experiences of pleasure and pain, as having the nature of emptiness—that all dharmas lack independent self.”2

  1. For this and other examples of transmission of diseases in history, see: Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of Human Societies, New York: WW. Norton, 1998, and McNeill, William H., Plagues and Peoples, New York: Anchor Books, 1976.
  2. Master Sheng Yen, The Six Paramitas, Dharma Drum Mountain, 2001, pp. 21-24.

If Nature speaks in numbers, and so do we humans

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Pythagoras (c.582-497 BCE) is one of those Greek philosophers who, along with Thales (c.624-546 BCE) and Democritus (c.460-370 BCE), made seminal contributions to the rational inquiry into nature that has come to characterize Western philosophy and science. As one who is credited with the statement, “All things are numbers and nature speaks in numbers,” Pythagoras set the stage for the mathematical representation of natural phenomena in Western science. James Clark Maxwell (1831-1879), a Scottish mathematical physicist who formulated the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, echoes the Pythagorean dictum with the following statement in his talk, On Faraday’s Lines of Force, which he gave at the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1855: “All the mathematical sciences are founded on relations between physical laws and laws of numbers, so that the aim of exact science is to reduce the problems of nature to the determination of quantities by operations with numbers.”

As Maxwell and his fellow scientists have succeeded in their endeavors “to reduce the problems of nature to the determination of quantities by operations with numbers,” nature, or the biosphere around us, has been converted into an entity that can be represented by numbers. Indeed, we are reminded every day that nature speaks in numbers, with all kinds of numbers reported in the news. No broadcast of the evening news of the day is complete without weather forecasts about the times for the sunrise and the sunset, the high and low temperatures, and the wind velocity for the following day. With the phenomenon of global warming becoming more pronounced year after year, we are also reminded of the need to pay an increasing attention to the long-run trend in the rising temperatures around the world that threatens our living environment with more frequent occurrences of severe weather phenomena such as extreme heat waves and violent storms, which are also reported to us with threatening numbers.

If nature speaks in numbers, so do we humans! Indeed, we humans have shown an amazing propensity to represent everything in the world around us with numbers, not just by deciphering numbers behind natural phenomena but also by inventing numbers such as imaginary numbers and transcendental numbers. The lines by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), “As yet a child, not yet a fool to fame, I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came,” well illustrate the human passion to speak in numbers. The statement by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) in his Essay on Population (1798), “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio,” is an outstanding example of the mathematical representation of social phenomena. From there, it was just a small step to an explosion of numbers about demographic and economic data in the world around us. Just as the weather forecast is a steady feature of the evening news, so is the financial report about stock market indices and foreign exchange rates.

Private enterprises as well as public organizations cannot operate today without relying on numbers relevant to their operations. For example, economic policy making without the numerical data about production, income, and employment is unthinkable today. This does not mean that policy makers know what they are doing. As David Stockman (1946- ), Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan frankly admitted talking about the US budget: “None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers.”

Why is it then that none of us really understand what’s really going on with all these numbers? The Buddhist response to this question is: “sabbe dhamma anatta,” which is usually translated as, “All phenomena are non-self.” From the Buddhist perspective, all phenomena, natural as well as social, are not entities that consist of fixed and immutable parts but are composite entities that are always being formed and being dissolved. In this sense, everything in the world around us is empty, including we humans consisting of the five aggregates of form, perception, feeling, mental formations, and consciousness, none of which is our fixed self as the Buddha reminds us.

Does emptiness mean that we can neglect all those numbers that bombard us everyday? “Yes,” to the extent that everything in the world is empty in the ultimate world of reality. The answer is, however, “No,” in the conventional world in which we lead our lives. In that conventional world, the statement made by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) in his Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil (1720), “That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers,” should guide our action, which would be the Bodhisattva practice for Buddhist practitioners. This means that we need to keep on paying attention to gruesome numbers such as the number of refugees forced to flee their country due to a civil war and the number of patients who are afflicted with a new disease, and do whatever we can to help mitigate the pain and suffering of these people, just as governmental and international organizations are trying to do.