The Pandemic Sutra

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Last week, I finally caught COVID-19 for the first time.

Over the past three years, there have been many times when I was sure I would catch the virus, after being around people who had it, and each time I tested negative. So it was a bit of a surprise, especially since I received the Novavax vaccine a few days before showing symptoms; not enough time for it to reach full power. I admit that in those few days during and after my vaccination, I neglected to wear a mask in indoor public places. This was a mistake and is not how I usually behave during the pandemic. It doesn't take much to make me understand the benefits of masking. I'm usually one of those people who never fails to wear a mask in grocery stores and other public places.

I've thought a lot about this virus over the past three years: the lessons it has offered us that we usually don't heed, and how it intersects with a Buddhist way of living life. The virus and I had an intimate relationship. In January 2021, my mother and father, who lived in an assisted living facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico, were exposed to COVID-19. By the end of the month, they were both dead. They were just a week away from being vaccinated when the exposure occurred.

So this virus has wreaked havoc on my life and has been a heartbreaking way to deepen my understanding of impermanence. Still, I do my best to train myself not to think of him as “the enemy.” This is a lesson I learned from my beloved friend Katya, who was diagnosed with stage IV cancer just weeks after my mother passed away. In the seven months I watched Katya live with cancer, she never used the phrase “fighting cancer.” For her, it was a “journey”. She did not view the cancer cells in her body as something to be fought against, but rather with a spirit of inquiry to understand why they might have been "confused" and how she could support their healing. I bring this up because I think Katya's approach illustrates what it means to look at this virus through a dharmic lens.

At the heart of this pandemic is a virus called SARS-CoV-2, a new coronavirus. Over the past three years, we have learned to adapt our entire reality to the threat posed by this virus. Or at least some of us did. But thinking back to January 2020, when it was a small piece of news out of Wuhan, China – just a flash in our consciousness – many of us may have thought it would end quickly and that we would continue to live our lives normally.

Around mid-February 2020, I remember seeing an alert from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something like: Anticipate significant disruptions to activities of daily living and start preparing. I remember how ominous this warning was, like something that should not be ignored. But most people downplayed it. It felt like a tsunami was building at breakneck speed in the ocean, even though the water right in front of us was calm, and our human tendency is to cling to the appearance of calm. Our dependence on the way things happen is very strong.

Once we realized that COVID-19 was indeed a tsunami and was claiming the lives of many people we loved, many of us went into fight mode. Our common association with viruses is to view them as an enemy invader that destroys our bodies and that we must fight to eliminate. For many, the vaccine became the savior in this scenario – not for everyone, but that's another story.

But is there another way to understand this virus? What happens when we view our life as not being in opposition to anything, not even something that seems to be destroying our body?

I remember a rally that took place in Union Square in New York shortly after September 11, 2001: a large group of people standing in a circle, many holding signs reading: "Our grief is not a cry for the war. » What happens when we can sit with our loss, our grief, our anger, when we don't react and turn it into a battlefield for "the other", whoever that may be? or whatever this other could be?

Consider this passage from the Chinese master Chan Hongzhi Zhengjue, as it appears in Cultivate the empty field, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton:

All the Buddhas and all the ancestors without exception testify that they all arrive at this refuge where the three times (past, present and future) cease and where the ten thousand changes are reduced to silence. Straight on, without opposition from the slightest atom, the mind of the Buddha, intrinsically illuminated, subtly penetrates into the original source. When recognized and realized comprehensively, (this mind) shares and responds to situations. The doors sparkle and everyone sees the lights. Then they understood that from this place, the fulfilled self springs. The hundreds of blades of grass all around are never imposed on me as my causes and my conditionings. The entire body, from head to toe, unfolds smoothly.

(A Buddhist library)

Or, as my friend Roshi Joan Halifax likes to paraphrase, not a single atom stands against us. What changes when we approach COVID-19 – or any other disease – from this place?

Consider this alternative view: Viruses can serve as catalysts for evolutionary processes. Viruses have been with us since the dawn of time, and we are no longer the same humans we were, in many cases because of viruses.

A 2016 article in Discover the magazine Nathaniel Scharping develops this point:

Every time a viral outbreak ravages a community, some are fortunate enough to possess mutations that make them immune to the disease. If the outbreak is large enough, this mutation may become embedded in our genome, both because of its protective powers and because those affected will be over-represented in the surviving population.

Many genetic alterations caused by viruses are still present in our genome today, and in a new paper, researchers at Stanford University suggest that up to 30% of the adaptations observed in our proteins since the separation from chimpanzees millions of years ago could be the direct result of viral infections.


Mind you, I'm not trying to do a spiritual bypass here. I have paid a terrible price because of this pandemic and many of you have too. But what if we broadened our vision beyond our personal losses and tried to find another meaning in what is happening?

The changes that viruses can cause are not only biological, but also social, cultural and even spiritual. Mainstream media have tended to highlight the more negative developments in the wake of COVID-19, such as deepening social divides. But what else emerged? Increased opportunities to work from home, creative dining arrangements, and community outreach efforts to care for each other outside of government or nonprofit structures are some of the gifts of this pandemic. We have had to learn to live differently and many of these adaptations have been positive.

Over the past year, there has been a lot of talk about “returning to normal,” but what does that actually mean? Of course, the virus itself, along with early shutdowns, took a toll on our economic and emotional health. But did we live in some sort of great world before COVID-19? What did “normal” look like? Here are some pre-pandemic statistics for the United States:

• There was no state or county in the United States where a person earning the federal minimum wage could afford a two-bedroom apartment.

• More than one in seven children – or 10 million – lived in poverty and in food insecure households.

• 40 million people were expelled.

• More than 2,2 million people were in prison, more than any other country.

If it's normal, I don't want it. COVID-19 has offered us a moment to step back and reassess what our systems and structures have created. Most of the time, we have declined this offer of reflection and change. But there may still be opportunities. We are invited to think: what would it mean to live on this planet and with each other in a way that does not cause harm, but does good?

Finally, the very essence of a virus is that it relies on our interdependence. To be transmitted from one person to another requires our connection with each other. Small acts have huge consequences. I think about my mother and father, and the possible chain of actions that led to their infections and deaths. We are one body, this earthly body. Simple steps we can take, like wearing a mask, can reduce this transmission. But many refused or forgot to take these measures, including me.

This will probably be a mild case of COVID-19 for me. Yet this is not the case for everyone, especially those who are older and vulnerable in other ways. All we need to do is be aware of the impact we have on each other, and we can take steps to reduce the spread of disease and harm. can we do this? Will we do this? I sincerely hope so. Let's grow together.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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