Embracing the truth of Dhamma to rise above the COVID catastrophe


by Randima Attygalle

As the entire world is clouded by the COVID-19 fright, Vesak full moon poya falling on May 7 brings a beacon of hope to Buddhists all over the world beckoning them all to revisit the timeless truth of Lord Buddha's words transcending ethnic and religious differences, that 'every human being is the author of his own health or disease' and 'health is the greatest gain.'

As a nation with a heritage nourished by the Buddhist philosophy for thousands of years, braving similar epidemics and pandemics in the history, we Sri Lankans are blessed with the gift of Dhamma to sustain us holistically through these testing times-physically, mentally and economically.

As custodians of a value system crowned with 'ayubowan' (may you live long) which is validated more than ever before and even acknowledged by the West in the wake of the present pandemic, time has dawned for us to rise once more as a resilient nation as we had done many a time before, drawing strength from the 'best Sri Lankan practices' which have stood the test of times and in the spirit of Buddha's words, sabbe saththa bhawanthu sukhithaththa or may all living beings be happy and free from suffering.

The multi-pronged solutions entailed in the teachings of Lord Buddha to enlighten us all during these turbulent times are many. We spoke to Ven. (Prof.) Wijitapure Wimalaratana Thera, former Head of the Department of Economics, University of Colombo and the Vice President of the Sri Lanka Economic Association (SLEA) to reflect on them. Following are the excerpts:

Q: How does Buddhism explain and bring insights to the current plight of life and uncertainties while enabling the world to see things as they are?

A: Buddhism maintains that the cosmic principles or natural laws (Niyama) regulate everything in the universe including pandemics such as COVID-19. The natural laws are brought under five clusters as weather (Uthu Niyama), foods or seeds (Bija Niyama), actions (Kamma Niyama), mind or knowledge (Citta Niyama) and physical and spiritual matters (Dhamma Niyama). The origin and the spread of the COVID-19 can also be analyzed applying those five laws. The widely accepted cause of the origin of the ongoing virus is the food consumption in Wuhan, China. Similarly, human actions, physical and spiritual matters, mind or knowledge and weather contributed to the spreading and also the successful management of the pandemic.

The good health (Nirogi) is highly appreciated (Arogyamada) in the Buddhist texts. The high life expectancy is considered as an important achievement in modern economic development indicators including the well-known Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The blessings for longevity (Ayurarogyasampaththi), absence from sufferings (Nidukkho), happiness stemming from good health (Nirogananda), and freedom from all illness (Sabba roga nivimuththo) are a few concepts visible in Buddhist texts.

The following verse highlighting the good health in Dhammapada (Verses of doctrine), a section of the Khuddaka Nikaya, is popular among the Buddhists in almost every country:

"Arogya parama labha-santhutti paramam dhanam vissasa parama nati- Nibbanamṃ paramamṃ sukhamṃ"

The English translation of the Pali verse renders as 'health is the ultimate profit, happiness is the ultimate wealth, a trusted friend is the best relative, Nibbana is the ultimate bliss. '

Q: How best can Sri Lanka be placed in this situation in the world map reflecting different kinds of maturity, considering the concept of discipline associated with the Buddhist philosophy?

A: The Sri Lankan government took early preventive measures with the consultation of several specialists from diverse disciplines, so that it was very successful at the beginning of the crisis. There was no resistance from people against the lockdown and other measures taken by the government. There have not been large social and religious gatherings after government announced of the coping mechanism against the pandemic. People were also ready to maintain the minimum consumption levels as ordinary supply chains had been broken or interrupted.

Dedication and spirit of the frontline workers have also been very high. They were not complaining of the minimum facilities they had in discharging their duties. This was a major plus point in implementing national level policies to address the unexpected problems created by the virus. Lord Buddha said that if someone cares for a sick person, he is the one who cares for the Buddha (Yo gilanam upateyya, somam upatteyya).

Donations have been flowing for needy people from the very beginning. Buddhist priests, different types of societies and individuals including those with moderate means were engaged in welfare activities for the needy. There was not a single report on starvation related deaths in our country. The public utilities such as water, electricity, gas, sewage, and telecommunication have been provided uninterruptedly up to this point of time.

The government has also provided a relief package in cash for needy households despite certain shortcomings of the programme. Generosity or charity (Dana) is the first among the ten royal virtues (Dasa Raja Dhamma). It says that the government has to look after the welfare of the needy people. This principle is practiced by the government of Sri Lanka.

Q: In what ways can the economics principles of Buddhism help us overcome this situation individually, at organizational and at national level?

A: The mainstream economics highlights that the modern free societies are driven by the maximization of utility (self-welfare, gains or happiness) either through increased production or consumption. It focuses on a society dominated by rational people with maximizing behavior. The center of gravity in such a society is consumerism and the economy is driven by this behavioural pattern with a huge social, spiritual, economic and environmental cost.

The locking down strategy of the country was only a second option to the administrators of free economies. Even people were agitating against the lockdown in some countries as they lose their free moment and consumerism practices. As we know some countries paid a huge cost as a result of this behaviour.

Buddhist economics challenge the self-interest maximization behaviour as it focuses on no-self (Anatta) principle and minimizing of sufferings while ensuring the wellbeing of all living beings and protecting the living environment.

The rational people of the mainstream economics concentrate on material wealth and income inspired by growing desire or avarice. Buddhism accepts needs of life such as clothes, food, shelter, health, education, transport etc. but it does not promote insatiable wants of life. Buddhism emphasizes sustainability and happiness of life rather than pusuing materials.

Q: How could we capitalize on the Buddhist philosophy in order to brave the challenges in the post-COVID era?

A: Society needs sustainable happiness through community participation. The rulers, community leaders, clergy as well as those who are affluent and privileged, should give examples to the ordinary masses through their daily behavioural patterns rather than preaching or making public speeches. A collective voice will reduce the cost of waste, corruption, mismanagement, over consumption and the breeding of poverty. The message of Buddhist texts should be a part of the practical life to achieve this noble goal.

The world experienced the influence of isolation, uncertainty, fear, anxiety and sudden departures of loved ones. The physical and mental implications of the COVID Virus will remain in the human society for a few generations.

The moral conduct of Buddhism is centered on the individual. Self- discipline is highly endorsed in Buddhism. Dhammapada endorses that 'good is restraint in deed; good is restraint in speech; good is restraint in mind; good is restraint in everything. The monk, restrained at all points, is freed from sorrow.'

Q: What are areas we should be focusing on in order to raise from this catastrophe as a nation?

A: There are a number of areas in this exercise including the health sector itself. Re-commencement of the economic activities which are currently at a standstill both at personal as well as national level, education, infrastructure development, social sector, tourism and international sectors, private sector issues of the country etc. should all be focused on.

Sri Lanka records a high literacy rate; it is just to read and write. Still many people do not have sufficient health literacy, economic literacy, and political literacy. Making good health related decisions are essential even after the COVID. There are so many issues relating to our consumption and behavioural patterns. The level of non-communicable diseases may have gone up as people are confined to their houses. Similarly, ordinary health services carried out by the public and private sector have been disrupted during this period of time, so that certain health related matters such as treatments, surgeries have been accumulated now. It is essential to clear up the accumulated cases as one cannot postpone health concerns unlike any other commitments.

The country has to initiate strategies to regain most of the micro, small and medium scale COVID affected enterprises. Similarly, large scale enterprises need certain strategies to bring them back to operational level. Economic stimulation packages are being introduced by many countries in addition to short term handouts to selected households. Sri Lanka should also prioritize the key economic sectors which generate more income, employment, government revenue and foreign exchange to the country.

Unemployment and poverty that the pandemic will entail will require expeditious channels to address them. Moreover, some of the Sri Lankan migrant workers are back in the country while many others are still waiting to come back. Their unexpected presence will aggravate not only the unemployment problem but also the decreasing foreign reserves of the country due to decline of foreign remittances. In addition to that, the Middle East job market is shrinking along with the unprecedented low global crude oil prices.

The biggest casualty would be the tourism sector in the country, so that industry specialists should formulate novel strategies to resurrect the main driver of the economy. There is a huge unexploited potential in the sector which can be exploited with the collaboration of local and global investors.

Q: What are the opportunities we will have in view of all the changes taking place around the world in terms of lifestyle, new thinking patterns and economic powers?

A: The world economic power will be shifting towards Asia, especially the East Asia led by China and to some extent by Japan and other regionally growing economies such as South Korea. It is widely accepted that this is the 'Asian Century' and the region will be generating more than fifty percent of the global income by the middle of this century. India is the economic power house in south Asia and some of the massive western companies are planning to invest more and more in India.

The western life style will not change markedly in the future even though COVID remains in the world for quite some time and consumerism society will be back on the track after sometime. Even though it is not the best economic system for the global sustainability in the future, Sri Lanka has to exploit her warranted opportunities in the global economy while emphasizing unutilized and underutilized resources of the country.

Subsistence economies or self-sufficient economies are outdated coins and no country will go back to the old system. However, many countries, at least in the short-run, will reformulate their economic policies to guarantee their pride and survival with the COVID experience they are faced with during this troubled time. When it comes to medical supplies, even the most advanced countries are facing difficulties in procuring certain essential items to run their health services smoothly.

Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on drugs and other related medical supplies from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Health Ministry is the biggest importer of those items to maintain its free medical services in the country. Imports have been the long standing norm due to unexplained factors even though local private sector and the public sector is in a position to produce high quality medicine in the country. Now it is high time we promoted these products locally along with the other suitable products such as buses, railway compartments, and agricultural equipment with the support of local or overseas private sector rather than importing each and everything to the country.

The country is maintaining cordial relationships with many global economic power houses. The post COVID environment will provide global investors to reformulate their investment strategies. Sri Lanka is in a good position to exploit the emerging opportunities, if investor friendly environment is guaranteed. This will be a game changing opportunity for the country, if it is exploited prudently.

COVID has incidentally taught a lesson to Sri Lankan migrants and the diaspora that their country of origin is the best. It seems that some are contemplating their return either to live peacefully with their savings or to earn profits out of investments in the country. Sri Lanka has to guarantee a congenial atmosphere to attract them back to the country.

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka took a wise decision to attract foreign currency trough tax free Special Deposit Accounts (SDAs). When we mooted this strategy a few years ago, the official response was 'what to do with this money?' Depending on the availability of the quantity of foreign currencies, the country can go one more step further by allowing banks to invest in reliable international bonds.

Q: What are the unique strengths we have as country to be among the strongest in the emerging new post-COVID world?

A: We can exploit our strategic location, educated labour supply and untapped resources such as uncultivated lands in dry areas. The potential areas would be pharmaceuticals, high quality handlooms production in rural areas catering to unemployed women in rural areas. The migration dream of young people has been shattered by COVID to a great extent and such youth could be channelled towards employment in their own neighbourhoods if decent salaries are offered. It is also essential to introduce Professional Diploma Programmes with the participation of the private sector not only for industries but also for agriculture and other services.

Q: Finally, how can we change the Sri Lankan mind set from the survival mode to that of a growth mode to lead the others, from a Buddhist perspective?

A: The people of Sri Lankan had neither the ‘survival mind set’ nor the ‘dependent mind set’ well before political independence. The incumbent governments spoiled the mind set of people by introducing different types of universal welfare policies without targeting the qualified people for them. Within two-three decades, Sri Lankans developed the 'dependent mentality' described in literature as the 'dependency syndrome'.

Under native monarchs, ordinary people paid taxes either to the monarch himself or to the nobles appointed by him in addition to looking after family responsibilities by themselves. They did not have the expectations of government support and worked hard to build irrigation systems, temples, pagodas and other artistic master pieces.

Buddhism encourages hard work rather than dependency. The self-liberation can be achieved by one's own hard work. The minor collection (Khuddka Nikaya), the last of the five collections of Sutta Pitaka, describes ten noble qualities (ten perfections) associated with Bodhisatvas. The diligence (Viriya parami) is the fifth noble quality of Bodhisatvas. Similarly, the noble eightfold path, the path for ending the suffering of life and achievement of self-awakening, emphasizes the right livelihood. It says that ‘ do not earn your living by harming others, and do not seek happiness by making others unhappy.’

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