As the latest cases and deaths from Covid-19 filled the news, it has been impossible to not think about death. The virus has brought major changes to how we live our lives. Those who have lost loved ones and the medical personnel caring for the sick are having a particularly stressful time. Our emotional, spiritual and cultural distance from death has been narrowed. Our denial and avoidance in talking about and facing death has been challenged. It is likely that the pandemic will change the conversation around death and dying.
In March of this year, when fears of the virus were reaching their height, I suddenly experienced a strong fear that I could soon die. Along with the visceral fear was a deep curiosity that allowed me to explore my mind. It was clear that if I was sick and dying, I would reach toward refuge and bodhichitta.
The dharma invites us to see our fears and difficulties as a chance to grow in understanding and wisdom. Through looking within, our distress can connect us to the suffering of others and our innate kindness and compassion. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to see our interconnection with everyone and to be transformed in our efforts toward expressing our inner awakened qualities and living in peaceful coexistence with others.
As I thought of the teachings and practices of taking refuge, generating bodhichitta, and remembering the kindness of my teachers, my fears dropped away. When we take inner refuge, the Buddha is inseparable from our own heart and mind. Through our inner refuge, we shift from seeing the Buddha as separate from ourselves to experiencing our own buddha nature and the empty clarity of our own pure awareness. The duality of experiencing ourselves as separate from Buddha and our buddha nature dissolves.
The pandemic invites us to contemplate our own impermanence and death. With practice, taking outer refuge leads to the experience of inner refuge. Ultimately, we come to rely on our own buddha nature and awakened qualities. In our daily lives, we integrate these qualities, which helps us to be happier and free from suffering. At the end of our lives, we enter the death transition free of fear, filled with peace and love.
–Lama Pat Berube