Sunday, August 29, 2021

Nondualism and the Pandemic, Part 2

A representation of Indra's Net

Continued from Part 1...

Dualism and Responsibility 

How did the US come to possess such a set of flaws that uniquely predisposed us to react to the pandemic as we have? There are large cultural and political forces that no one of us is uniquely responsible for, but each of us bears some responsibility for. I don’t deign to know your life, dear reader, so let me think through my own example.


I try to be a good person. I vote. I give money to worthy causes. I do some minor activism (or I used to before I got a bit burnt out). I teach my students to think critically and aim to broaden their horizons. I try to make academia less Eurocentric and more welcoming for everyone. But of course I’m just one person.


When Trumpism erupted in the mid-2010’s, I didn’t really know what to do. I still don’t. I used to try to engage with Trump-inclined people online, but I don’t do that anymore. I just can’t. And now I find myself in a bubble where pretty much everyone I associate with dislikes Trump. They are also all vaccinated as far as I know, so it’s increasingly hard to really talk to unvaccinated people, too, despite the fact that they make up roughly half of my fellow Americans.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the solution to all our woes is to sing kumbaya with virulent Trumpists and anti-vaxxers. Like I said, I just can’t do that. My faith even in Socratic discussion with opposite minded people has been shattered by the last five years. This makes me incredibly sad.


At a deeper level what I think befell America – left, right, and elsewhere – is a deepening of dualistic wedges between Us and Them, Self and Other. 


But some might object: What about genocide, slavery, and their historical legacies? Or racism? Or the treatment of women? Or the poor and incarcerated? These states never have been particularly united when it comes to rights and opportunity of all its people. I grant all that. I’m also not saying these dualisms are experienced the same way by everyone. (For instance, vaccine hesitancy among some African Americans and Native Americans at least makes some historical sense).


But what we need most –whether we ever had this or not – is a sense that we are in this together. As much as we differ and disagree, we need to understand that the very real issues in this country and the world belong to us all.


To go back to my Trumpism example, as satisfying as it is to attribute that movement to some Other (and I admit I find this mighty satisfying), what really saddens me is that Trumpism is a nasty symptom of deeper dualisms for which we are all responsible.


I don’t mean “responsible” in some narrow, personal legalistic sense, like something for which you could be held legally liable. I mean “responsible” in a larger moral sense, something you might do something about whether you personally caused it or not. This vaster sense of responsibility is forward-looking: “What can I do about it?” as opposed to the backward-looking “Is it really my fault?”

Can a Virus Teach Responsibility?


It’s this moral sense of responsibility that we need, for example, to confront systemic racism And by “we” in this particular context I do mean primarily white people. As long as we continue to reduce all sense of responsibility to the personal, legalistic sense, you’ll get white people saying asinine things like, “I’m not racist, so racism isn’t my problem,” while they force people of color to do all the work on racism.


But racism, like the pandemic, is our problem. Every one of us. None of us stand apart from the rest of humanity in our own bubble of solitude. Our actions can hurt people, or they can help them. To riff on a famous saying from Martin Luther King, Jr., a threat to public health anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere.


You’d think the pandemic would have made all of this more obvious. The Coronavirus doesn’t care about borders between states or nations; it doesn’t care about cultural divides, real or perceived. People in the Northern states pretend that the surges in the South won’t reach them, while anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers pretend their haughty defiance will protect them and many young people continue in youthful delusions of invulnerability. The Delta variant was first detected in India and is now ravaging Florida, while we pretend that the low vaccination rates in many countries resulting from centuries of political and economic exploitation won’t affect us in wealthy, powerful countries. 


Your existence is the result of innumerable causes—and your existence is in turn part of the innumerable causes of everything else. It’s a trippy bit of metaphysics for sure, but it’s also one that’s just true if you think about it. Ratnakīrti thought a lot about it, and he caused me to write this ten centuries later. 





My larger point: this pandemic, this country, this world… is ours. We may not be literally part of the same mind as some think Ratnakīrti is saying, but, as I tend to read Ratnakīrti, none of us are causally isolated from each other. Contrary to the toxic forms of American individualism, none of us are walled off from other people or other groups of human beings. 


Like it or not, the pandemic is our problem. The pandemic belongs to everyone, whether you’re a right wing anti-masker disrupting a school board meeting, a haughty leftist posting snarky things on social media, or somewhere in between or off the map. 


I don’t claim to have the answers. I’m not sure where to go from here. But I really don’t think Othering people into vaccination, masking, and taking the pandemic seriously is going to work, because that’s precisely the kind of thinking that got us here. 


A lot of our problems, from vaccine hesitancy to political polarization to global inequality, have deep roots in dualistic thinking. And conversely, I suspect the road out of where we are now is not further enmeshed in dualistic thinking, but a road that is wide enough for both our diversity and our connectedness.


What we need most to get out of this pandemic, and eventually to make a better world for everyone, is not just this or that set of policies, but a radical change in mindset and worldview. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as windowless monads of individualism or factions set apart from some Other and start seeing ourselves as more like the nodes in Indra’s Jewel Net that reflect all the other nodes in the net and are in turn reflected by them (an image from Huayan Buddhists in China who took the nondualistic themes of Indian Buddhism to new, trippier dimensions).


Being caught up in this causal web of interdependence is not always easy. But maybe, just maybe coming to see ourselves as dependent parts of a larger reality, as part of a vast universe coming to know itself, is the shift in thinking we need not just in service of Ratnakīrti’s Buddhist goal of eradicating suffering, but for the public health goal of reducing the suffering of this pandemic.



  1. This observation didn't really fit into the post, but I did think it was funny that my post about nondualism was split into two parts! On the other hand, the two parts are directly connected, so maybe that actually makes my point...

  2. Bravo! Well stated and explained Ethan. I will definitely revisit your blog. I'm feeling enlightened already. 😁