Where All Can Savor the Joy of Being Alive (Times of India, May 3, 2022)
While COVID-19 continues in one way or another to impact all sectors and aspects of society, the nature of that impact differs significantly depending on the conditions in which people find themselves.
Our real priority now is to face head-on the issues the pandemic has exposed, such as the need to rebuild the economy and livelihoods and reweave the social fabric so that it can support people’s lives in the years and decades to come. In considering this challenge, I think it is worth mentioning the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres last June: “We heal together when we all get the care we need.”
Here, I sense a commonality of spirit with the way of life that is the ideal of the Soka Gakkai International—a commitment to realizing dignity and happiness for both oneself and others. The teachings of Mahayana Buddhism include an episode that resonates with this worldview and sensitivity to life.
On one occasion, Vimalakirti, a disciple of Gautama Buddha deeply respected for the way he interacted with people in various conditions of life with no sense of difference or distance, fell ill. Learning of this, Shakyamuni had some of his followers visit Vimalakirti. They asked Vimalakirti how he had fallen ill.
Vimalakirti replied: “Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick,” and offered the following analogy to fully communicate what he meant: “It is like the case of a rich man who has only one child. If the child falls ill, then the father and mother too will be ill, but if the child’s illness is cured, the father and mother too will be cured.”
As it turns out, Vimalakirti was not actually suffering from any specific illness. Rather, his empathy—his feelings of shared pain that could not be extinguished so long as others suffered without relief—manifested itself in the form of illness. For Vimalakirti, this sharing of pain with those in distress was evidence that he was continuing to live as his authentic self. He was attuned to the vital truth that our individual security cannot be realized in isolation from the conditions of privation faced by others.
When we consider the COVID-19 crisis in the light of this Buddhist perspective, it naturally leads us to question what it means to live in happiness and health at a time when so many people throughout the world are being severely impacted by illness and its accompanying effects.
This year marks seven years since the adoption by the UN of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In order to accelerate the recovery from the pandemic, it is important to flesh out the core spirit of the SDGs—the determination to leave no one behind—by adding a further vision of building a society where all can savour the joy of being alive. The feelings of relief and even joy that well up in a person who is aided in passage to safe haven after having been caught in the undertow of life’s trials and having given in to despair.
We must aim to construct a society in which such feelings—the palpable sense that it is, indeed, good to be alive—are shared by all.