A difficult year is coming to an end. I have been fairly safe throughout this year, so far. However, the Buddhist concept of impermanence (vô thường) has never felt as close by as in many moments this year: how precious yet vulnerable a life can be. One may have to leave this world in any moment. With the demise of many people around me this year, either of those whom I deeply admired intellectually or family members of my closest friends, death has never felt as nearby as nowadays.
Somehow, this year has made me return to a book that I read many years ago by a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist nun, Thích Chân Không (释真空): Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War (1995). This pandemic is indeed like a war. Nonetheless, by being aware that many of my older family members went through years of separation and destitution from wars, I have a hope that I can go through this pandemic with as much perseverance and strength that I have fortunately inherited from them. But while Buddhism during wars was about social actions (even sacrifices by death) beyond praying, the latter is what I can do at most during today’s conditions of isolation and restrictions on physical movements. Lately, I have also been devotedly listening to the podcast series: “Finding peace in turmoil” (also available as a radio show) launched in the early days of the pandemic by a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thích Minh Niệm (释明念). This series touches upon many mental health issues experienced by people during the pandemic, with a fundamental reminder to live in the present moment. Such a wonderful initiative with an approachable and youthful style that I am sure has helped many people, including myself, to stay calm and optimistic during these pressing times.
Vietnamese Zen Buddhism is a cultural gem to appreciate, yet also universally accessible. Every morning and evening these days, I try to say a prayer in front of my small statue of Lord Buddha – a statue small enough for me to bring wherever I go in the world – for everyone’s health, safety, and right to cry, mourn, remember, and transform this year’s continuing hardships.
What Happens After Coronavirus? On Community Memory and Repeating Our Own Mistakes
“In the predictable near future, as the nation celebrates its victory against this national battle that is the (Covid-19) with music and song, I hope that we will not become empty and hollow writers who echo along, but people who are simply living authentically with our own memories. When the grand performance comes, I hope that we will not be one of the actors or narrators on stage, or one of those who applaud for the sake of being part of the performance—I hope that we will be the reserved and forlorn ones who stand at the furthest corner of the stage, looking on silently with tears in our eyes. If our talent, courage, and mental strength is unable to turn us into a writer like Fang Fang, then may we not be among the people and voices who doubt and ridicule Fang Fang. Amid the eventual return to a state of calm and prosperity while surrounded by waves of song, if we can’t loudly question the source and spread of (Covid-19), then may we softly mutter and hum, for that is also a display of our conscience and courage. Writing poems after the Auschwitz concentration camp period was indeed barbaric, but it is even more barbaric if we simply choose to forget it in words, in conversations and in memories—it is indeed much more barbaric and horrifying.
If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories. Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of (Covid-19), let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.”Yan Lianke, 21/02/2020