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Recognizing and Remedying the Aggregates of Attachment in a Time of Uncertainty

By Carlo Barlaan

June 9, 2020

            These are exceptional times. America faces its most challenging public health crisis since 1918, its most serious economic crisis since 1929, and its most violent civil unrest since 1968. In times of political, economic, and social uncertainty, it is easy for society’s members to make sense of their situation in a black-and-white, dualistic, moralizing lens. The most common lens: that we are involved in a struggle between good and evil. How many leaders and experts have utilized the language of struggle to lead or even mislead their constituents? How many ads, press briefings, news reports, and even office memos refer to beating, fighting, war, enemies, and justice? The most expedient way for society’s leaders to mobilize public opinion and allocate resources on a grand scale is to harden people’s sense of righteous self and wrongful other. In Buddhist terms, this means to radically enhance their attachment to form.

            With all the uncertainty around us, we see the consequences of attachment; we see each of the five aggregates of attachment at work. In the case of the pandemic, we have forms such as the virus itself, media images from abroad of the sick and dying, and shortages of sanitizing supplies. The other four aggregates – sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness – come into play immediately. Citizens feel threatened, assume the worst, point fingers, perceive each other as enemies, hoard supplies, price-gouge, and engage in displays of national fervor and even outright ethnic discrimination.

            In the case of civil unrest, we have forms such as police, victims, and video imagery of brutality. Again, feelings of anger and the perception of threat to the individual and collective self are heightened. Demonstrators turn out on the streets and freeways. Confrontations erupt between them, the police, and passing motorists. Property is vandalized. Businesses are looted. Buildings are set on fire. People die. Retribution is rationalized. It’s good vs. evil, systemic victims vs. systemic oppressors, justice vs. injustice, absolute right vs. absolute wrong. State actors, social agents, and other participants live in the illusion of their own justification and reality, and the suffering goes on and on… How do we extricate ourselves from this seemingly unceasing cycle of suffering, from this realm of human misery?

            We free ourselves by exercising wisdom and compassion – the wisdom to recognize the emptiness of the forms that surround us, and the compassion to treat all sentient beings with as they live in a state of interconnectedness. Wisdom and compassion cut through all notions of independent reality. All minds, now freed of form and illusion, settle in a land of purity.

            When I see representations of Shakyamuni Buddha, Amida Buddha, and the Boddhisattvas Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara, when I hear or read the words of our teachers, I am reminded that by freeing our minds and practicing wisdom and compassion, the pure land can be here and now in our minds and hearts, in spite of all the uncertainty and passions that have arisen around us.