The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, ‘We suffer more in imagination than in reality.’ What did he mean? With too much-unfounded information leading to too many ‘what-ifs’, the convoluted thoughts we unwittingly generate often prevent us from seeing things as they really are.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a classic example of how humans can easily be swayed by online fake news. On 7 February 2020, within hours after the Singapore Government raised the DORSCON level to orange, local supermarkets were flooded with people grabbing food and toiletries. This phenomenon also occurred in many other countries. While spreading of the virus was swift, it was still not as deadly as Ebola, MERS or SARS. On March 3, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died so far. However, most cases of death were due to pre-existing illnesses or lack of medical facilities.
Before the number started going up, fear escalated. Fake news embraced out of fear tend to penetrate deep into the mind. With the help’ of (anti-)social media, things can worsen, and on certain occasions, bring out the ugly side of people.
This makes one wonder — Are we fighting a viral disease or viral fear? Dr. Tedros during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 said, ‘Our greatest enemy is not the virus itself, it’s fear, rumours and stigma and our greatest assets are facts, reason and solidarity.’ As the confirmed cases started to climb, more fake news kicked in. Without checking sources of concocted information, folks forwarded them around, escalating the climate of fear. Ironically, those too eager to share made others more ill-informed. Creating such stress that might cause mass hysteria is unethical.
Things did get a little worrisome when several senior government officials had to make assuring announcements. In Singapore, there were even actors on commercial breaks urging all to remain calm and considerate. There will not be shortage of necessary supplies if everyone buys only what is needed. With selfish hoarding and mindless wasting, there will never be enough for anyone.
In the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, he taught us to see the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering. This is about training the mind to see the truth. If we do not do so, there will be no difference with repeatedly subjecting ourselves to an endless roller coaster ride, like one of the crowd.
The truth is, we will eventually die, now or later. The earlier we accept this truth of impermanence, the sooner will we be at ease with life’s happenings. ‘Anyone’ could die from COVID-19, Influenza, a traffic accident or simply by falling. There is no random bad luck; only exacting karma. While COVID-19 can spread fast, it is not as lethal as fear, that is also more contagious. Regardless of status, education, age or gender, fear blinds judgement, which triggers unmindful actions. Panic-buying leads to empty store shelves before supplies can be replenished fast enough, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that there is ‘really’ shortage of goods. Let us keep calm, and do what we were advised — buy only what we need, have social distancing and maintain personal hygiene.
In the Dhajagga Sutta, the Buddha taught forest-dwelling monks how to overcome fear by recollecting the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. By doing so, ‘there will be no horripilation, terror, or fear’. Similarly, in the Pure Land Tradition, we practise mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha (Āmítuófó) with reciting of his sacred name. In Mandarin, we call this Niànfó (念佛). Beyond being a name, it is also the most powerful mantra one can chant. As stated in the Sūtra In Which The Buddha Speaks Of Amitābha Buddha’s Fundamental Esoteric Spiritual Mantra《佛说阿弥陀佛根本秘密神咒经》:
‘Within the three words of “Ā-Mí-Tuó” Buddha, are the ten directions’ and the three periods’ all Buddhas, all Bodhisattvas, Śrāvakas, Arhats, all sūtras, dhāraṇīs, spiritual mantras and immeasurable practice methods. Therefore, that Buddha’s name, is the same as the unsurpassable true and most ultimate Dharma of the Great Vehicle (i.e. Mahāyāna), the same as the unsurpassable excellent, pure, definitive and wonderful practice, the same as the unsurpassable most supreme, subtle and wonderful dhāraṇī.’ “‘阿弥陀’佛三字中，有十方三世一切诸佛，一切诸菩萨、声闻、阿罗汉，一切诸经、陀罗尼、神咒、无量行法。是故彼佛名号，即是为无上真实至极大乘之法，即是为无上殊胜清净了义妙行，即是为无上最胜微妙陀罗尼。”
By reciting Āmítuófó’s (阿弥陀佛) name sincerely, it is also a form of mindfulness meditation. In fact, according to the Mahāsaṃnipāta Sūtra《大集经》: ‘If a person is only mindful of Amitābha Buddha, this is named as the unsurpassable, profound and wonderful meditation.’ “若人但念阿弥陀，是名无上深妙禅。”
As we verbally or silently utter each character clearly and hear each character clearly, this forms an unbroken loop, and by staying focused, we will be able to align our Buddha-nature with the Buddha’s blessings.
With such a powerful mantra, it is able to resonate deep within our minds with the effect of purification. Since fear is created in our minds, when we substitute fear with mindfulness of Buddha, calmness and clarity will arise. As the name fills our minds, it purifies our speech and deeds too. Thus is it a very powerful and effective way to get a hold of ourselves in the face of fear.
The Abhaya Sutta explains that we have fear because of attachment to sensuality and our bodies. It also arises from knowing that we have not done any good skilfully, such as by not giving protection to those in fear. Instead, the evil, savage and cruel was done, with doubt and confusion, while being uncertain of the True Dharma. The Sutta teaches us to be less attached, do good, avoid evil and practise the Buddha’s teachings to be equipped to face fear. While we have to recognise that fear is merely a reaction and suffering is a choice, it takes devotion to practise to attain fearlessness.
In this Dharma-Ending Age, ordinary people like us have many obligations and distractions, making it challenging to practise seriously. Sadly, our minds are just not as sharp as those of ancient patriarchs and practitioners. If with failing ethics, the next human life is difficult to guarantee too, much less liberation. With much odds against us, why not aspire to be born in Āmítuófó’s Pure Land, where we can practise tranquilly yet swiftly all the way to Buddhahood? There is obviously no wiser choice.
In Āmítuófó’s Pure Land, there is no suffering; only with receiving of bliss. Those yet to attain any fruit of enlightenment will still get to experience the splendid benefits of Eighth Ground Bodhisattvas. Among many other great advantages, through it, we will also get to learn from immeasurable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, unrestricted by space and time, with ability to traverse worlds instantly and recollect all past lives.
Thus, we should recognise the roots of our fear, have refuge in the safest destination to reach eventually, and prepare ourselves with Three Provisions of Faith, Aspiration and Practice. Have Faith in Āmítuófó’s Pure Land, his immeasurable compassion, wisdom and merits; have immaculate Aspiration to be reborn in his Pure Land; and have sincere Practice of mindfulness of Āmítuófó’s name to do so. With the Three Provisions complete, all Buddhas will be able to protect us. What engulfs us will not be fear but great peace and bliss. In times of fear or even when dying, forgo fear. Choose Niànfó, choose Āmítuófó.
(First contributed to TheDailyEnlightenment)