Pandemic Sutra on the Concept of Change in Buddhism

The Buddha wasn’t perfect, and he knew that, regardless of the speculations of some later Mahayanists and their need for transcendent divinity of which the earthly manifestations are just that—nasty, mean, brutish, and short, like life with the sea serpent Leviathan of Hobbes without Calvin. Why else would he have referred to us as no-soul ‘heaps’ of inconsequential ‘skandhas’ with little to commend us but the causes and conditions to which we are subject and of which we are so much a part?

Zen troublemakers took the Mahayana transcendental position a step further by claiming perfection for all of us, but I’m not sure how that works out except as a point of convergence with some Christian transcendentalists who also think similarly, and so might actually save the world from its own self-destruction if enough people from enough different places could ever agree on any one thing for long enough for us to stop fighting and allow the world to heal from our destructive abuse of it.

But there’s no shame in the Buddha’s imperfections, and the clean-up details nastily and hastily ensuing, those little snafus almost proof of their authenticity, if nothing else. After all, who could fake Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount or his comments to a ‘teacher of the law,’ when on one hand, Matthew 6, he implores his followers to have no worries for tomorrow, because birds ‘don’t build barns,’ and then at Matthew 8 pushes aside his well-meaning law professor, because “birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” At best he’s mixing his metaphors, and at worst he’s guilty of total BS.

And it’s the same for all prophets great or small, whether Jesus or the Buddha, Plato or Wittgenstein, Einstein or Hawking, Alan Watts or Eckhart Tolle (especially Tolle, since Watts made few claims to absolute knowledge). Einstein had his Cosmological Constant and Tolle has his ‘energy fields,’ all of which may yet turn out to be true, but which have trouble holding a steady spot on any blackboard without further verification by peers and their reviews. We all have our ‘greatest blunders.’

The Buddha would certainly blush today, I’m sure, at the way Buddhism treated women, even if he often gets credit for their inclusion in the Sangha. But that is a Pyrrhic victory at best, considering the insults and cheap shots to which they were subjected in the process, something about the Dharma losing most of its value in the conversion of currencies from male to female. And subsequent high-level monks have doubled down on that historic double-take, asserting that if a woman is lucky, then she will be reborn as a man—ouch!

But that is a matter of the historic social conundrum of patriarchy, to which we are all subject by subconscious slights and diminutions by forces which few of us understand. Anicca, or impermanence, often referred to as ‘change,’ is more fundamental to the Buddhist doctrine, and, if fundamentally misguided, could have lasting repercussions to its fundamental conclusions, if carried to those logical conclusions.

For this very principle, one of the three ‘Marks of Buddhism,’ which I acknowledge and support, is often listed as one of life’s greatest causes of suffering, after craving, which is by far the worst cause, and listed in the Four Noble Truths because of it. If that means that all change is bad, then my support for that principle would have to be only limited, at best. Because it takes no great scientific proof to illustrate the fact that many, if not most, changes, are in fact quite good, in that they can make people’s lives better.

This is best illustrated in the ‘Ascent of Man’ from brutal ape to high-flying human in barely a blink of the geological eye, and in which the population of this planet has fully tripled in my own short lifetime. So you have to take the good with the bad. And the quality of life may come in inverse proportion to quantity. Or maybe impermanence does not necessarily mean change at all, in the first place. Because the word anicca literally means only ‘impermanent,’ much like anatta means ‘non-self,’ a concept with which it fits nicely.

I’m not sure that the Buddha even meant ‘change’ when he referred to ‘impermanence,’ especially when referring to it as a cause of suffering. Because death, our own impermanence, is certainly a cause of suffering, but I’m not sure that any and all forms of change are. And the current pandemic is a good object lesson. Because, while it has certainly caused much change AND suffering, it may also spur many good changes, which may reduce suffering, such as that brought by Global Warming. If we can effect that cure, then wouldn’t that be a good change? Of course it would.

And so forth and so on, since our appearances can be deceiving, and final judgments are best left to the historians. Because the only thing certain is the past, and the more distant is the more accurate, in direct proportion. So if we need an infallible Buddha, then it might be best to assume that he never meant ‘change’ when he talked about ‘impermanence.’ Or we can just assume that he was human, which he was, and humans all make mistakes. God knows that is true.

But the moral of the story is that even if a vengeful God didn’t send a pandemic to punish his sinful bastard offspring, the cause of it and the causes of Global Warming are related, and the successful defeat of one condition might help with the successful defeat of the other. And so it is with all changes, real or imagined. Few changes are random, totally unpredictable and unforeseen, out of the blue and into the brown earth and gray details of our lives. Most have causes that are connected to thousands of other conditions and thus subject to the cessations for which Buddhism is famous. And that is cause for hope, if not celebration. Impermanence is a reality, but change is not necessarily bad.