From Samvega to Pasada: Buddhist Practice in the World of COVID-19

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Buddhist practitioners today are familiar with such words as dukkha, sati, and panna, as these words are frequently mentioned in dharma talks by Buddhist masters and appear often in magazine articles and books on Buddhism. In contrast, samvega is likely to be an unfamiliar word for many practitioners, for it is rarely, if ever, mentioned in dharma talks and appear in magazine articles and books. Nevertheless, samvega is an important word for Buddhist practitioners whose role in our practice needs to be re-examined, especially in the unsettling world of COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to inflict a heavy toll on families, communities, and nations.

One reason why the word samvega is not as widely known as other Buddhist words is because it is a Pali word that is difficult to translate into other languages, including English. Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is well known among practitioners for his accessible English translation of the Pali Canon, admits as much when he says that there is no English equivalent to samvega. What he proposes as an English translation is a makeshift word like “a sense of urgency.” In his commentary on Anguttara Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi offers this explanation: “Samvega might be described as the inner commotion or shock we experience when we are jolted out of our usual complacency by a stark encounter with truths whose full gravity we normally refuse to face.”1

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Abbot of Metta Forest Monastery, concurs with Bhikkhu Bodhi in admitting the difficulty of translating samvega into other languages. For him, it is a hard word to translate “because it covers a complex range—at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of dismay, terror and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complicity, complacency, and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.”2 Since he does not know any single English word that adequately covers all three clusters of feelings, what Thanissaro Bhikkhu recommends is that we simply adopt the word as it is as an English word.

While it is difficult to find a good English equivalent for it, it is not difficult to see that it was samvega that the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first encounter with aging, illness, and death. It was indeed “a stark encounter with truths whose gravity we normally refuse to face.” It is not difficult to imagine how this encounter led the young Prince Siddhartha into “a chastening sense of [his] own complicity, complacency, and foolishness in having let [himself] live so blindly.” Driven by “a sense of urgency,” as we all know, the young Prince Siddhartha decided to leave his comfortable life in the palace in search for an answer to the question of why there is aging, illness, and death.

The answer the young Prince Siddhartha found when he became the Buddha, an enlightened one, can be captured by another Pali word anicca, which is usually translated as “impermanence.” In one of the discourses recorded in Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha offers this simile in explaining the limited and fleeting nature of human life: “Just as a drop of dew on the tip of a blade of grass will quickly vanish at sunrise and will not last long, so too, Brahmins, human life is like a drop of dew. It is limited and fleeting; it has much suffering, much misery.”3 Given the limited and fleeting nature of human life, it becomes important for Buddhist practitioners to develop “mindfulness of death”: “Bhikkhus, mindfulness of death, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and benefit, culminating in the deathless, having the deathless as the consummation.”4 The deathless the Buddha is talking about can be captured by the word pasada, which Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates as “clarity and sense of confidence,” though it, too, covers a complex range of feelings. As referring to the mental state that keeps samvega from turning into despair, pasada can perhaps be replaced by more familiar Pali words, samatha and vipassana, or “serenity and insight.”

As Buddhist practitioners, what we are asked to do is to cultivate samvega, or a sense of urgency about the meaningless cycle of birth, aging, and death, and develop it into pasada, or a sense of serenity and insight, so that we can find our way towards nibbana, or liberation. For us Buddhist practitioners, suffering that accompanies illness, separation, and death is the first noble truth, the reality of our existence in the world. The unsettling world of COVID-19 pandemic is indeed an opportunity for us Buddhist practitioners to cultivate samavega and develop it into pasada. As Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, said it clearly, “Realizing that the cycle of birth and death is nothing but nibbana, do not reject the circle of birth and death as something to be abhorred, or seek nibbana to escape from it. Only when we succeed in this do we gain insight that enables us to transcend the cycle of birth and death.”5

  1. Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.
  2. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega and Pasada”, Noble Strategy: Essays on the Buddhist Path, Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 1999.
  3. Anguttara Nikaya 7:74.
  4. Anguttara Nikaya 6:19, 20.
  5. Dogen, Shobogenzo 92: “Life and Death”.

What should our attitude be towards viruses as Buddhist practitioners?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

As the threat of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread around the world, claiming many human lives, scientists as well as the rest of us are now paying more attention to our relationship with viruses on our planet. Virologists whose specialty is to study viruses tell us that viruses are the most numerous biological entities on Earth. It is estimated that there are 10 nonillion (1031) viruses on Earth, which are to be found in almost every ecosystem—in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and in the soil. According to Professor Curtis Suttle of University of British Columbia, looking at the number of viruses in the oceans alone, viruses outnumber stars by a factor of 10 million.1 Given such over abundance of viruses on Earth, it is not surprising that one science writer was prompted to write a book with the title of A Planet of Viruses.2

Viruses are regarded as biological entities because they carry genetic material, some using DNA, some RNA, and some both to pass on genetic information during their life cycle. While we tend to focus our attention on those viruses that cause the flu, Ebola, SARS and other diseases among humans, viruses are also known to play an important part in evolution. As a matter of fact, viruses have been a part of human lives for so long that we are actually part viruses, with the human genome containing more DNA from viruses than our own genes. And viruses also bring benefits to humans. As Dirk Schultze-Makuch, a Professor at Technical University Berlin, puts it: “Most of the genetic information on Earth probably resides within them, and viruses are important for transferring genes between different species, increasing genetic diversity and ultimately enhancing evolution and the adaptation of various organisms to new environmental challenges.”3

Given that viruses cause diseases in humans as well as confer benefits to humans, what should our attitude be towards them? Answering this question is not as simple as conquering the enemy on the battlefield, which is what President Macron suggested to do in his televised address to the French people on March 16 to fight the invisible enemy SARS-CoV-2, which is the seventh coronavirus to infect humans. For one thing, it is not just that the enemy is invisible to our naked eye, but it is also that there are so many of them. For another, 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 widely entangled in the web of life that keeps evolving on our Planet Earth.

If viruses are widely entangled in the web of life that keeps evolving on our Planet Erath, what should our attitude be towards them as Buddhist practitioners? The answer depends on whether viruses are “sentient beings” from the Buddhist perspective. Are viruses, then, sentient beings? The following statement by the Dalai Lama gives us a hint to answer this question: “In Buddhism, since the definition of ‘living’ refers to sentient beings, consciousness is the primary characteristic of ‘life’.”4 From the Buddhist perspective, we can thus say that viruses are not sentient beings, meaning that they are not objects of our metta, or loving-kindness. Yet, as the most numerous biological entities in the living environment around us, there is no question that viruses are our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth that navigates itself in the vast ocean of cosmic evolution.

To the extent that viruses are our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth that co-evolve with all sentient beings including humans, we need to treat them as objects of our ksanti, or patience, which is 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.”5

As non-sentient beings, viruses may not be conscious of the harm they do to us humans. Yet viruses are dharmas, or sankharas, as much as we humans are. Lynn Margulis, an American evolutionary biologist known for her theory of endosymbiosis, concurs with this Buddhist view when she says: “We can no more be cured of our viruses than we can be relieved of our brains’ frontal lobes: We are our viruses.”6 Given that we are our viruses, it is now clear what our attitudes should be towards viruses as Buddhist practitioners. To the extent that viruses are dhammas, or sankharas that possess genes to pass on genetic information, the following words of the Buddha give us a guidance as to what our attitude should be towards viruses: “When through wisdom one perceives, ‘all sankharas are transient,’ then one is detached as to misery. This is the path of purity. When through wisdom one perceives, ‘all sankharas are suffering,’ then one is detached as to misery. This is the path of purity. When through wisdom one perceives, ‘all dhammas are without self,’ then one is detached as to misery. This is the path of purity.”7 Some of us may lose our loves ones to the novel coronavirus. Ultimately, however, we Buddhist practitioners need to always remind ourselves of the true reality of our existence in this world, which the Buddha expounded as the Four Noble Truths in his first discourse at the deer park in Isipatana.        

  1. Suttle, Curtis A., “Do Viruses Control the Oceans?” Natural History, Vol. 108, 1999.
  2. Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  3. Schultze-Makuch, Dirk, “There are more viruses on Earth than there are stars in the universe”, https:// www.airspacemag.com, March 17, 2020.
  4. The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom, New York: Morgan Road Books, 2005, Chapter 5.
  5. Master Sheng Yen, The Six Paramitas, Elmhurst, New York: Dharma Drum Publications, 2001, pp. 21-24.
  6. To see the context in which this statement is made, see, for example, Carrie Arnold, “The Viruses That Made Us Human”, NOVA, September 28, 2016.
  7. The Dhammapada, Chapter XX: 277, 278, 279, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.