The teacher asked, “Where are you going?”
Fayan replied, “On pilgrimage.”
The teacher asked, “Why are you going on pilgrimage?”
Fayan replied, “I don’t know.”
The teacher replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
~ The Book of Serenity, Case 20
The globe is being visited by a wandering pathogen, creating a vast field of uncertainty for all of us. In Zen, that is why we practice: to appreciate that the uncertainty of life is actually a beauty, not a bane; a blessing, and not a curse. In knowing that not-knowing, we gain an invitation to great freedom.
The new corona virus outbreak has commanded my fascination since it was first reported. My wife thinks I have been obsessed, so I don’t read her the daily infection numbers anymore. Being a former back-to-the-lander, I can say Yes, I ordered a box of N-95 masks. But that was before the U.S. Surgeon General tweeted last Saturday: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS!”. I have also made sure we have toilet paper and hand wipes to last a month, or so. But until a week ago, “the thing” was far away, and foreign. On Friday, it visited someone only four blocks from our San Mateo zendo. It is no longer distant, but here. “For some reason, now that it has arrived,” a Zen friend recently told me in a conversation, ”It is less scary. I can just deal with it.”
Being a zoonotic pathogen, the virus’ pilgrimage began in a live-animal market in Wuhan, where bats have been implicated (once again) in passing on the newly-hatched virus to some hapless and scaly pangolin, an eight-pound ant eater. Pangolins (only whose mothers think them cute), are used in Chinese folk medicine, and the scales are said to currently fetch up to $3,000 per kilo in the black market. According to a 1938 article in Nature, pangolin scales are dried, slow roasted, ashed, then “cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, boy’s urine, or roasted with earth or oyster shells, to cure a variety of ills. Among these are excessive nervousness and hysterical crying in children, women possessed by devils and ogres, malarial fever and deafness.” It was not clear if the boy’s urine had to be a 1930s vintage; and I would also have to see clinical data on the devils and ogres part; curing deafness would be personally helpful. Seriously people, stop eating the critically-endangered pangolin.
It was Dogen who said we are awakened by the ten thousand things, all of which shine with a kind of light that has no name. Buddha nature. Sickness. Medicine. Corona. Yesterday, I was sitting on the edge of my vegetable garden. My cat joined me, as the afternoon sun broke through the clouds, warming us both. Looking out across the jumble of the garden, I could see there was not one thing out of place: the weeds scattered just so, the onion starts pushing up through the spring soil, the crows making noise in the cypress tree to the south. We don’t know where this outbreak will go, but we do know it is not foreign. It is part of our own pilgrimage.