To Keep Our Hearts Tender

a nun rings a bell

On June 1, Sravasti Abbey dedicated our bi-monthly Guru Puja especially for the deaths related to COVID-19. Ven. Tsepal led a motivation that encompassed the many situations to grieve in the US and the world right now. She drew from many sources to weave a motivation for our practice. She urged us to use this time to practice Buddha’s teachings, echoing Ven. Chodron’s recent guidance to see current events as a teaching on the path to awakening. She said:

The National Council of Churches, the Sojourners, Faith Action Network of Washington, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors representing over 1,400 mayors across the country, declared June 1 a National Day of Mourning for all the deaths related to COVID-19 in the US.

On this National Day of Mourning, we are joining and uniting in prayer with people of every different faith—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists—to mark the immense loss of lives to the coronavirus. We are called to name, to remember, to honor, to grieve, and to mourn the family, friends, neighbors, community members and essential workers who have succumbed to the virus.

As a nation, we are comforted by rituals of mourning and remembrance, marking a spot where a life ended with candles, teddy bears, flowers and consoling words.

In the absence of national leadership, faith traditions are providing much needed courage and leadership to bring people together to mourn our great loss of life—and to acknowledge that many people died alone without the usual loved ones gathered around them. The pain of that has been overwhelming for some of those left behind.

Although we’ve passed the 100,000 threshold in the US, using the latest CDC data, a Harvard professor calculated an additional 30,000 American deaths, suggesting that the actual toll caused directly or indirectly by COVID-19 is now at least 130,000. With over 371,000 deaths worldwide, just imagine the actual count.

130,00 US lives is the equivalent of a small US city, around twice the number memorialized at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.

It is difficult to truly comprehend the magnitude of our collective loss—the mothers and fathers; the sisters and brothers, the favorite aunt, grandparent or best friend.  As much as we can, let’s try to imagine each one, not just as a statistic, but imagining each one of these lives lost as the multifaceted complex individual that they were.

Our prayers today take on additional meaning as we also pray for the healing of our nation and the inequality and injustice that this COVID virus has revealed as evidenced by the ongoing protests let loose by the police killing of George Floyd and other people of color. As Roxane Gay said in The New York Times, “Eventually doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait for a cure for racism.”

Many things make America a tinderbox ready to ignite: high unemployment, health and economic inequalities revealed by the pandemic, police brutality, unchecked white supremacists and a president eager to incite violence at every turn.

As Venerable Chodron advised in her talk on Sunday, we can use everything we witness externally and experience internally around the pandemic—including our feelings of grief—as a profound personal lamrim teaching, as support for our bodhicitta aspiration and development of wisdom. I know for me that requires consciously slowing down, and asking myself again and again, How do I keep my heart tender, open and soft to what’s in front of me?

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