“Everything changes.” —Suzuki Roshi
When the World Health Organization first named this disease COVID-19, I lay in bed, awake, and wondered if the letters spelled out a dark reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The next morning I looked up line 19: Cold things fight with hot things, wet things with dry things, which wasn’t quite as sinister as I had, for some strange reason, hoped. (The Latin, Frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis, sounds more foreboding.) Still, upon further consideration, I realized it was a pretty good description of what happens in a body that is sick—the internal battle of hot and cold, dry and wet; the shiver of fever; the lungs either drowning or pressed upon by the dry-cough frog—everything out of balance, in upheaval.
I’d forgotten, but that’s what the beginning of Ovid’s classic is all about: the chaos of the unformed universe, the mucousy mass of creation before everything divided, multiplied, grew unchecked, became life. This singularity he describes—the one that comes before Taoism’s proverbial two (i.e., the Yin and Yang, whose interaction brings about the ten thousand things)—I imagine it’s what comes after, too. The Tao is not only the beginning, but the end: it is death, what we and everything else will return to. Whether it’s COVID-19 that does it or a falling grand piano is, from a certain perspective, irrelevant. There are, after all, so many ways to die. Tomorrow, struck by a bus; the next day, choked by a chicken bone; Tuesday morning, mauled by a bear. Later today, I could just totally and completely and once and for all die—and unfortunately, so could you.
The great Japanese mystic and founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, Dogen Zenji, wrote that reality is created and destroyed 6,400,099,980 times a day, or around 70,000 times a second—life arising and perishing every micro-instant, impermanence a kind of constant. To put it another way, somehow, we are always dying. With my overactive imagination, I have a similar theory: that every way we can die, we are dying. Every microsecond, I am getting flattened by a Mack truck, or slipping on the wooden stairs in my socks and breaking my neck, or sitting on the john and suffering a massive stroke. The life we perceive is just the one universe where we somehow manage to avoid those infinite calamities. And so we live on, maybe forever, or so it would seem. But this is just seeming. The truth is we really do live in such a fragile, tenuous state—in the end, of course, any old moment could be our last.
The other night, I was awakened by my son calling out to me from the dark in his room.
“What’s wrong, bud?” I said, kneeling down next to his bed, pulling the covers up around him, and tucking him back in. It was three in the morning and cold in the house.
“I had a nightmare,” he said—“Will you stay with me for a minute?”
“Sure, Ollie, but just for a minute. It’s really late.”
“What was the nightmare about?”
“I dreamed I lost you and mommy.”
“What, that you couldn’t find us?”
“Mommy and I will always come back for you,” I said, even though I knew as I said it that it couldn’t finally be true.
As I sat there in the dark, waiting for my son’s breathing to calm, I remembered the morning my stepmom called to tell me my father had passed away in his sleep. “We’ve lost George,” was how she put it, which could have meant anything. My dad was an adventurer of sorts, absent-minded, too, and might have gotten side-tracked while off seeking a rare woodpecker in some distant jungle; or maybe he had been riding his bicycle home through the city streets—his mind wandering off into one dream or another, his silver hair in the wind—and taken a wrong turn, ended up in the distant barrens of Queens, or of New Jersey. Anything was possible. Except this time where we had lost him to was the one place from which he was never coming back.
When I say my dad’s never coming back, I of course cannot actually know this. Perhaps he’s already back—a gawky adolescent with a penchant for daydreams; or a long-necked bird standing among the reeds of a marsh, hunting for frogs. All we can say for certain about what happens after death is: we do not know. Anything else is pure conjecture. Perhaps this is part of why Zen—always a practical philosophy—doesn’t seem to me to focus too much on reincarnation: on past lives, or future ones.
Every night at the zendo where I practice, the jikido (or timekeeper) recites the evening gatha (verse):
Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life.
The day after his nightmare, I spoke to my son about death. “Some people think you go to heaven,” I said. “Some people think you come back as a bird, a butterfly, a tiger. But the real truth is, no one actually knows what happens after we die. And do you know what that means? It means that as far as anyone knows, this life is all there is. But look at how amazing it is! There’s you, and me, and mommy. There’s love. Outside, the sun is shining and the trees are green and blowing in the wind. So that’s what death means. It means we have to appreciate this life, because it’s all we’re sure to get.” I was really getting going now and my eyes were shining with the significance of it all. Ollie smiled at me and said, “You’re talking a little silly, Daddy.”
When it comes to the novel coronavirus, there is so much that remains a mystery. (This is perhaps the only wise thing President Donald Trump has said about the situation: “We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”) Not only do we not know where this whole thing is going, we also still don’t know where it came from. Apparently, the virus that causes COVID-19 has been traced back to the wet market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals were being bought, sold, and slaughtered. Probably, the virus originally found a host in bats, then jumped to an intermediary animal—possibly the ant-eater-like pangolin, whose armored scales are used by the ton in traditional Chinese medicine—and then from there into humans. But this remains unsubstantiated.
The other two deadly coronaviruses also began in bats: SARS crossed over into civet cats and then into humans, MERS into camels and then into humans. Bats are a common sanctuary for viruses, including some of the world’s deadliest, like Ebola, Marburg, and rabies. But when it comes to transmitting disease, all sorts of other animals are named as culprits, too. Various strains of influenza are thought to begin in birds; the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed an estimated 20-50 million people, was transferred to us from pigs; HIV was thought to originate in chimpanzees; and the hantavirus is found in several different rodents, including the innocent-sounding white-footed mouse.
This cross-species transmission reads like something out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, indeed. Viruses jumping, evolving, morphing, blooming. (Apparently, coronaviruses are themselves particularly susceptible to mutation, which means that potential vaccines will have to be continually adapted to keep up with the latest version, much the way they are for the flu.) There’s even a sense in which viruses are like Ovid’s ancient gods—shape-shifters, appearing now in one guise and then in another, wreaking havoc on innocent maidens and not so innocent civilizations. Also like the gods, viruses seem to inhabit a strange gray area between living and nonliving—without body or imagination to play host, they are completely dormant, with no unique life-force of their own.
I am reminded, too, of how permeable the boundaries between creatures are in Ovid, how fluid. I love the way nymphs and gods and humans so easily slip into one form and then the next, as if bodies are nothing more than temporary vessels, hermit crabs’ shells. Throughout the text, characters are transformed into crows, swans, sea eagles, owls, and woodpeckers; they wind up as spiders, horses, lions, and stags; statues become creatures of flesh and blood, creatures of flesh and blood become trees; fishermen morph into sea-gods; doomed lovers are given redemption as constellations in the sky.
How will the novel coronavirus transform us? Not just on the inside—injecting its genetic material into vulnerable cells, which will then reproduce the virus, attacking our hearts, our lungs, our immune system, replicating, replicating—but in our behavior. Who will we become? Already the backs of my hands have turned lizard-like—scaly and itchy and red—from all the soap, the scrubbing. Already we are wooden as trees, covetous as squirrels. Already so many faces are hidden behind masks. Already the isolation begins. How long before we all just stay inside like moles, hidden away in our hovels, afraid of fresh air, blinded by sunlight? And what will become of all those communal events that make us who we are—concerts, weddings, baseball games in the spring?
Then there’s this: How will it change you if you lose someone you love?
While my mom lay on her deathbed, sick with pneumonia, able to listen, but no longer really able to talk, I read her my favorite passage on dying. It was written in the fourth century BCE by the great Taoist philosopher and storyteller Zhuang Zhou (or Chuang Tzu), who is perhaps most famous for admitting he could not be sure if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.
All at once Master Yu fell ill. Master Ssu went to ask how he was. “Amazing!” said Master Yu. “The Creator is making me all crookedy like this! My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me. My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head, and my pigtail points at the sky. It must be some dislocation of the yin and yang!”
Yet he seemed calm at heart and unconcerned. Dragging himself haltingly to the well, he looked at his reflection and said, “My, my! So the Creator is making me all crookedy like this!”
“Do you resent it?” asked Master Ssu.
“Why no, what would I resent? If the process continues, perhaps in time he’ll transform my left arm into a rooster. In that case I’ll keep watch on the night. Or perhaps in time he’ll transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet and I’ll shoot down an owl for roasting. Or perhaps in time he’ll transform my buttocks into cartwheels. Then, with my spirit for a horse, I’ll climb up and go for a ride. What need will I have for a carriage again?
“I received life because the time had come; I will lose it because the order of things passes on. Be content with this time and dwell in this order and then neither sorrow nor joy can touch you. In ancient times this was called the ‘freeing of the bound.’ There are those who cannot free themselves, because they are bound by things. But nothing can ever win against Heaven—that’s the way it’s always been. What would I have to resent?”
Suddenly Master Lai grew ill. Gasping and wheezing, he lay at the point of death. His wife and children gathered round in a circle and began to cry. Master Li, who had come to ask how he was, said, “Shoo! Get back! Don’t disturb the process of change!”
Then he leaned against the doorway and talked to Master Lai. “How marvelous the Creator is! What is he going to make out of you next? Where is he going to send you? Will he make you into a rat’s liver? Will he make you into a bug’s arm?”’
—From The Complete Works Of Chuang Tzu, translated by Burton Watson
At this point in my reading, I looked over and saw my mom wrinkle her face into an expression of distaste, as if to say, I don’t want to be a rat’s liver…. That doesn’t sound nice at all! and so I said to her, “Don’t worry, mom, knowing you, the creator will probably reincarnate you as a baby bird.” At which point, her eyes brightened, and she said, weakly but clearly, “Baby bird?!”—which was one of the last things she would ever say.
The truth is, she had become a baby bird already, my mom—all frail bones and useless, dormant wings. For years now, sick with emphysema, she had been shrinking away, getting slighter and slighter, disappearing before our eyes. By the end, she may not have weighed even 80 pounds.
The morning she passed on, my sister was there with her, holding her hand. By the time I arrived, she had left her old, tired body behind, and the nurses had cleaned her up and put her in her favorite pajamas: the white ones with the little red cardinals on them. Her hair was combed back over her forehead, and her eyes were nearly closed, but her mouth was agape as if at the wonder of it all. I touched her forehead and it was still warm.
Just before my mom died, my sister had opened the window to let her spirit out, and minutes later, it was done. Outside the window a garden lay buried in the quiet of snow but for the sounds of birds. A rabbit had been out there that morning, and when I trudged around the building through the snow to look at the garden—because I knew that’s where my mom had gone—I could see the rabbit’s tracks around the perimeter, the only marks in the pristine snow. My plan had been to walk to the center of the garden, perhaps to sit for a while on one of the benches that lay half-buried, but when I turned the corner and saw how untouched it all was, I froze in my tracks. And when I saw the red cardinal perched in a tree on the other side, I fell to my knees.
Soon enough, I stood back up and took a deep breath. The sky was so open and bright and endless, and there was the red cardinal in the tree, chirping, and the sounds of other birds—the sun was out and there had been a thaw—and there were mourning doves sitting on the benches, and closer by, chickadees, flitting up to the feeders and giving their little chirps, and when I turned away from the garden a whole storm of crested birds settled before me in a tree for a brief moment, tilting their heads curiously, as if with a hint of motherly concern, before they set off in a bending cloud and disappeared into the great sky.
There is no way to sum all this up in a comforting way, and I don’t want to try. I do believe in the lesson of Zhuang Zhou—that we can cultivate a certain trust in our life, and in our death—but as with all great wisdom, this is so much easier said than done. The plain fact is that a lot of people are dying right now; their suffering, and the suffering of those they leave behind, is inconsolable. In the end, there is nothing I can say that will make it any better.
My dad died 17 years ago, my mom five years ago, and it all still hurts so much. A few months back, my wife’s mom’s dog Toto passed. Even though Ollie had been bitten by him several times, he considered Toto his best friend, and when my wife and I told him that Toto had gone to Heaven, he began to cry—and helplessly, so did we. “But I’ll never see him again,” Ollie said, and of course this is the crux of it. The absolute finality of death. When we lose someone, they are gone, and they are not coming back. The world is emptier now, missing something, and that specific empty spot will never be filled. And these emptinesses, they just keep on piling up.
My mom never met Ollie. But she did know he was coming. In fact, when we traveled up to Vermont to see my mom before she passed, we’d just found out Ollie was going to be a boy. We shared the news with her, and she beamed. Still, it’s a great sadness for me that they never got to know each other. He would have called her Nana, and she would have loved him so much.
Now, it is spring, and, as happens every spring, the earth is being reborn. In the backyard, a bright red cardinal appears every now and then, flitting about the trees with his mate. For a while there, Ollie called all the cardinals he saw “Nana-birds.”
But this one he’s named “Red.”
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