Stay home, says the hashtag, social media, governments and the neighbors. At the outset of this unprecedented experiment, we found a sense of heroism in our confinement and we shared snapshots of our seclusion, punctuated with heart emojis and flexed biceps. We shared videos of doctors holding up signs imploring us to stay put so that they could better protect us and themselves. We asked each other, with a mix of astonishment and pride, how often can you help to save the world by sitting on the couch? And meanwhile, the memes poured forth, and we shared those too.
After more than five months of staying home, our emotions have run the gamut, as we digest an ever-expanding realm of possibility (the world at a stand-still, refrigerated trucks packed with bodies, unprecedented scientific collaboration, gross mismanagement, minor triumphs) from a fixed vantage point. What we initially embraced as an extreme and short-lived measure has now become a way of life. For the majority of us, work is remote, school is in the living room. Where I live in Argentina, at times we aren’t even allowed to go outside for walks (unless you’re lucky enough to have a dog). We have been granted sudden access, however, to the inner sanctum of other people’s homes as we attend virtual meetings, conferences in Zoom, and “dinner parties;” we scroll past posts on social media in which people share the pajama bottoms they were wearing beneath an office-worthy top, forgetting that their co-workers also follow them on Instagram. We are all the “BBC Dad” now, flapping our hands at children to be quiet when they burst into a meeting, turning off the video to wash dishes while the virtual parade goes on and on and on.
Some of us live in tiny apartments. Others enjoy the generosity of a house and garden. Our external physical conditions exert increasing power over our inner state. Those who live alone feel very alone. Parents with young children never feel alone. It’s a fact that domestic violence has surged frighteningly across the globe and alcoholism (along with a host of other addictions) are another of the pandemic’s woes. This magnification reminds me of something a friend said when I was pregnant with my first child; “A baby reinforces everything that’s good and bad about your relationship with your partner. If you were doing well, you’ll be even better. If things weren’t going so well, you’re screwed.” Quarantine casts a similarly revealing light on inequality, emotional well-being, pre-existing conditions, economic vulnerability and financial security. But unless we are essential workers, these realities unfold within the constant landscape of our homes, and they have become a round-the-clock restaurant, schoolhouse, office, yoga studio, bank, theater, boxing ring, hideout, bar, multimedia banquet, the room where it happens.
In my house in suburban Buenos Aires, everyone staked out their territory on the first day of lockdown and, just as students tend to sit all year in the spot they chose on the first day of school, we have stayed our ground. Justina set up her virtual 5th grade class in the living room, and now the dog goes to school with her, though she sticks her head under the sofa when the teacher is speaking. Oli, 13, stays in his room with the blinds drawn and only emerges when he’s starving; his brown curls have grown around his headphones and his personal hygiene is on par with the golden retriever’s. My husband set up a well-appointed café table in a corner of our bedroom and spends most of his day on planet Zoom. Sometimes he is just taking advantage of the quiet, but often he is in conversation with leaders across Latin America and I have to remind the kids not to interrupt the UN. I vacated my office (too close to Justi’s classroom) and have claimed a specific spot at the kitchen table, which makes the constant cooking and cleaning less frustrating; I can translate a few paragraphs while the water boils or the cheese melts. But to be honest, the kitchen is comforting, and I enjoy sitting at the solid wood table where we eat, fight and laugh. Just as Mount Meru symbolizes the spinal column in yoguic texts, the kitchen table is the strong back that holds up any family.
My perception of the house shifts from moment to moment, though — of course — the house remains the same (albeit a little dirtier every day). If it rains throughout the morning, I feel grateful for the walls around me. But if it rains for two days straight, I feel trapped and sullen. The sun comes out, and I admire the play of light through the windows. The sun comes out and I yearn to run through the streets. Washing the dishes takes my mind off the news. Washing the dishes saps my soul. I recognize that the mere existence of my comfortable house is a blessing; I’m exhausted by its sameness and heartsick for my “old life.”
This isn’t the first time that I’ve experienced such swings of emotion in relation to where I live. When Justi was three months old, she suddenly stopped sleeping in her crib or stroller and would only nap in my arms. I tried everything, but she would wake within seconds if I set her down. I remember spending long afternoons in my bedroom, moistly joined to her tiny body, afloat on hormones and the notion that the room was a palace of love; our breath linked together as golden light bathed the walls. On other afternoons, I remember feeling that that the room was a prison, that the baby weighed a ton and all I wanted was to pee. But anything was better than waking her up.
When Juan and I were students, we lived in London in a studio apartment on the ground floor of a Council Estate. Juan had rented the apartment while I was still in Buenos Aires and I’ll never forget the flat gray morning when I arrived in London, weary after the 14-hour flight. Juan took me to our new home in the housing project, and I remember rolling my suitcase past ten-year-olds who turned slow murderous circles on their bikes. The apartment was tiny, with a curtain that divided the bed from the living room and one person could fit inside the bathroom (standing up). But soon the flat became the center of our London life, the place where we shared long dinners on the floor with friends, where I studied and practiced while it drizzled outside, where we found refuge at the end of long days at large in the city. After two years, we loved every centimeter, and its 25 meters comprised an entire world.
A single house displays a similar elasticity of form and function in the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, a famous Buddhist text from the Mahāyāna tradition. This celebrated sutra tells the story of a visit the Śākyamuni Buddha makes to the ancient Indian city of Vaiśālī and the subsequent encounter between a band of bodhisattvas and the sage Vimalakīrti. From the tale’s outset, the Buddha and his enlightened colleagues display supranormal abilities, although they maintain that true power grows from direct perception of reality and not magic tricks (not unlike Patañjali’s conclusion in the Vibhūti Pāda of the Yoga Sūtra).
As was his custom, Buddha stays in the garden or grove of the first person to invite him. In Vaiśālī, he is met by the local actress Āmrapālī, an unlikely host in a sacred text, but he respects her generosity, not unlike the geniality Eddie Stern has shown students all over the world since the onset of the pandemic, offering donation-based classes from the stairwell of his apartment building in Manhattan. Wherever you go there you are, writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, but now that we are no longer going, who we are becomes more visible. Great teachers only require a sincere invitation, not a golden dais. Vaiśālī’s inhabitants come to venerate the Buddha bearing jewel-encrusted parasols, which they lay at his feet in reverence. With a single gesture, Buddha transforms the parasols into “a single precious canopy so great that it formed a covering for this entire billion-world galaxy.” This act of transforming discrete objects into a cosmic vision is a hint of wonders to come, and we are constantly reminded that our world is only a facet of a vast and mysterious system.
After his initial Dharma talk, Buddha asks some of the bodhisattvas to visit the ailing sage Vimalakīrti, who lives nearby. One by one, the bodhisattvas explain that they would rather not go, because the invalid is a fierce theoretician and often admonishes them with his insightful teachings. His powers of argumentation are unparalleled: “his eloquence is inexorable, and no one can resist his imperturbable intellect.” Despite the forbidding depth of Vimalakīrti’s wisdom, the crown prince Mañjuśrī, a great hero of the Mahāyāna, agrees that “although he cannot be withstood by someone of my feeble defenses… I will go and converse with him as well as I can.” Assuming that their conversation will be something like a scrimmage between Messi and Ronaldo, no one wants to miss out, and a throng of eight-thousand bodhisattvas, five-hundred disciples and an assortment of celestial and divine entities follow Mañjuśrī. Using his telepathic abilities, Vimalakīrti anticipates the approaching horde and magically empties his house of all furniture and extraneous elements — a bit like the whirlwind clean-up my husband achieves in the chaos of our bedroom before inviting hundreds of people in for a conference in Zoom.
Upon his arrival, Mañjuśrī asks after Vimalakīrti’s health, and the invalid explains that his health is not a personal misfortune but rather a state he shares with other beings:
“Were all living beings to be free from sickness, I would also not be sick. Why? Mañjuśrī, for the bodhisattva, the world consists only of living beings, and sickness is inherent in the living in the world…. The bodhisattva loves all living beings as if each were his only child. He becomes sick when they are sick and is cured when they are cured. You ask me, Mañjuśrī, whence comes my sickness; the sicknesses of the bodhisattvas arise from great compassion.”
Anyone who’s had a serious illness knows the empathy it can inspire for others who suffer (though the bodhisattva takes a vow to include all beings in the scope of his or her compassion). During a pandemic, it’s also easier to understand that we are intimately linked to others. Their sickness has become our own, and perhaps ours has become theirs. The microbes responsible for Covid-19 have journeyed from Wuhan towards the majority of human communities. Every day we see maps that connect cases, hot spots and less-affected areas. “Contract tracers” are being deployed across the world to connect the dots between the infected and their radii. But, as often happens with human ingenuity, in order to understand one narrative, we exclude many others. We can lay down multiple transparencies over a world map to understand our connective patterns: from the flight paths of airplanes to the shipping routes of global commerce, the confluence of religious peregrinations or the flow of fake news. But understanding occurs when we stop looking at just one pattern.
Currently we recognize our interconnection through the lens of the coronavirus, and this disease underscores the dynamic fact of relationship as the essence of reality. We are a mobile map, with cell phones pinging our locations as we expand and contract, bouncing against each other like electrons, impossible to separate into a single unit — despite the efforts of certain politicians. We’ve heard a lot recently about the epidemiological term “herd immunity,” which is based on collective and not individual health. Anyone who pays attention to climate science understands that the habits of every being on this earth affect the entire planet’s ecosystem. One country may reduce its emissions, but only a global effort will make a difference for everyone. The death of honey bees is not just an apiary tragedy but an existential threat to humans, animals and plants. But the climate, like the Buddhist notion of emptiness, is impossible to fix or isolate. It shifts, escaping any attempt to be held fast. Even the pronoun “it” gets us into trouble; perhaps using the non-binary “they” would be more accurate. “We” would be even better.
After the initial conversation between Mañjuśrī and Vimalakīrti, the great disciple Śāriputra tells his host that the other bodhisattvas have no place to sit, so empty has the house become (in addition to accommodating thousands while somehow retaining its original dimensions). In response, the sage replies, “Reverend Śāriputra, did you come here for the sake of the Dharma? Or did you come here for the sake of a chair?” Chastened, Śāriputra answers that he came for the Dharma, of course, and Vimalakīrti gives an extraordinary lesson on the unclassifiable perfection of the Dharma (and proves why the bodhisattvas fear his mastery); in conclusion, Vimalakīrti declares, “Reverend Śāriputra, if you are interested in the Dharma, you should take no interest in anything.” But with his next breath, Vimalakīrti asks the crown prince where to find the best lion-thrones in the cosmos (proving that he is also skilled in what Mañjuśrī describes as “the reconciliation of dichotomies”). Mañjuśrī answers that there is a Buddha in another universe whose body measures eighty-four hundred thousand leagues in height and whose bodhisattvas sit on the “finest and most superb thrones.” Via mental concentration, Vimalakīrti has thirty-two hundred thousand thrones sent from this other world; they descend from the sky and fit perfectly inside Vimalakīrti’s living room without any crowding “and the house seemed to enlarge itself accordingly.” Like Alice’s dilemma with the DrinkMe potion, the bodhisattvas have to grow in order to reach their majestic thrones, which the most skilled do immediately. Śāritputra is only able to achieve the necessary height and take a seat after bowing down to the Buddha who sent the thrones from afar.
Once everyone has taken their exalted seats, Vimalakīrti offers a teaching on the “Inconceivable Liberation” that some bodhisattvas can attain and which allows them to perform incredible feats — such as placing Mount Sumeru inside a mustard seed, but without enlarging the mustard seed or shrinking the mountain. Vimalakīrti elaborates, “Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, the bodhisattva who lives in the inconceivable liberation can pour into a single pore of his skin all the waters of the four great oceans, without injuring the water animals such as fish, tortoises, crocodiles, frogs and other creatures, and without the nāgas, yakṣas, gandharvas and asuras even being aware of where they are….Such a bodhisattva can pick up with his right hand this billion-world-galactic universe as if it were a potter’s wheel and, spinning it round, throw it beyond universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, without the living beings therein knowing their motion or its origin.” Vimalakīrti explains that there are beings who acquire the discipline to live in such a state through “immeasurable periods of evolution” while others who reach the same state in a short time. Depending on their progress, the bodhisattvas can “make of the passing a week seem like the passing of an aeon” or “the passing of an eon seem like the passing of a week.” The longer the period of evolution, the slower time passes. Sound familiar?
But this sutra is not only a conversation between male monks and sages. A goddess resides amidst the many marvels of Vimalakīrti’s house. Engaged by the conversations between the bodhisattvas and Vimalakīrti, she manifests a bodily form and joins the colloquy. As she appears, petals rain down on the assembly, sliding off the bodies of the bodhisattvas but sticking to the disciples. Śāriputra tries unsuccessfully to rid himself of the flowers (which monks are not supposed to wear) and the goddess asks why he’s so preoccupied. Śāriputra replies, “Goddess, these flowers are not proper for religious persons and so we are trying to shake them off.” She takes advantage of Śāriputra’s distress to give a complex teaching on the consummate detachment and wisdom of the bodhisattvas. She then describes the eight wonders of Vimalakīrti’s house:
1. A light of golden hue shines here constantly, so bright that it is hard to distinguish day and night; and neither the moon nor the sun shines here distinctly.
2. Whoever enters this house is no longer troubled by his passions from the moment he is within.
3. The house is never forsaken by Śakra, Brahmā, the Lokapālas and the bodhisattvas from all the other buddhafields.
4. This house is never empty of the sounds the Dharma, the discourse on the six transcendences, and the discourses of the irreversible wheel of the Dharma.
5. In this house one always hears the rhythms, songs, and music of gods and men, and from this music constantly resounds the sound of the infinite Dharma of the Buddha.
6. In this house there are inexhaustible treasures, replete with all kinds of jewels, which never decrease, although all the poor and wretched may partake to their satisfaction.
7. At the wish of this good man [Vimalakīrti], to this house come the innumerable Tathāgatas [Buddhas] of the ten directions…and when they come they teach the door of Dharma called the “Secrets of the Tathāgatas” and then depart.
8. Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, all the splendors of the abodes of the gods and all the splendors of the fields of the Buddhas shine forth in this house. That is the eighth strange and wonderful thing.
After this interchange, Śāriputra cannot hide his surprise that such a wise and discerning being would choose to inhabit a female form; he asks “Goddess, what prevents you from transforming out of your female state?” After a brief conversation, the goddess uses her powers to switch bodies with Śāriputra and asks him, “Reverend Śāriputra, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?” While Śāriputra splutters, the goddess explains, “If the elder could change out of the female state, then all women could also change out of their female states. All women appear in the form of women in just the same way as the elder appears in the form of a woman. While they are not women in reality, they appear in the form of women. With this in mind, the Buddha said, ‘In all things, there is neither male nor female.’” Śāriputra gets “his” body back, and Vimalakīrti closes the goddess chapter by describing her achievements: “She can live wherever she wants on the strength of her vow to develop living beings.”
I had the privilege of studying this text with the magical Robert Thurman: renowned lecturer, friend of the Dalai Lama, founder of Buddhist academic study in the US, celebrated translator of Tibetan and Sanskrit, defender of the planet and Tibetan culture, a brilliant tornado of kindness. He has been teaching this sutra for the past forty years and the translation he crafted in the 1970’s is now in its twentieth edition. I can’t begin to understand the subtleties and intellectual rigor of this scripture (popular all over the Buddhist world), but as life during quarantine has evolved, I have also come to feel that I live in Vimalakīrti’s house: a place where even bodhisattvas tremble to visit for fear of the fierce teachings that await. A place that changes in size and dimension and in which an impossible number of beings seems to fit (either through the medium of technology or the heart). A place where we have to grow in order to fill our current roles and a place where men and women try on each other’s habitual forms — no matter how discomfiting the process may seem.
There are days when my husband and I share our domestic duties with surprising equality. I do lunch; he does dinner; he does the laundry; I sweep the kitchen floor. Under lockdown, men have lost their unfettered access to the outside world (which, let’s face it, they still largely control) and even Prime Ministers like Justin Trudeau have found themselves governing a country with the kids underfoot and no nanny or wife to sort them out. This is a remarkable opportunity. Unlike our traditional work-life imbalance, it’s now entirely visible who does what. We can create a new equality inside of our confinement or we can fall into exhausted and exhausting patterns. There are days when I disappear into parenting and cooking while Juan “works.” I am a writer and editor and my deadlines are more flexible, but that’s only an excuse for the pattern of invisibility I assume while Juan stakes his claim to the greater world. It is a mutual forgetting, an unwillingness to “live wherever we choose to develop other beings,” as Vimalakīrti says of the goddess. What gender-based hierarchy could we possibly sustain with an unfettered mind and an open heart?
Robert Thurman likes to compare Vimalakīrti’s house to Doctor Who’s Tardis, which appears to be a blue London police box, but on the inside reveals an inexhaustible labyrinth of rooms and laboratories. Doctor Who is a Time Lord who trundles through galaxies at will. When the bodhisattvas grow hungry in Vimalakīrti’s house, the sage creates a magical being who travels to another universe to order food. In that world, the resident Buddha lives amidst perfumed bodhisattvas who inhale their samādhis. When the aromatic beings arrive in our world, they are astonished by its rank coarseness. Vimalakīrti assures them that our earth is, in fact, the best possible place for spiritual advancement because only here does compassion flower so quickly from the ground of suffering.
Right now, we 21st century humans find ourselves in a situation as startling as if the takeout came from Mars, but we have to learn to digest this alien food. There are days that fly past and others that limp and crawl. There are days in which I feel bathed in a golden hue when we sit down to dinner at the end of the day, healthy and well-fed and glad to be together; on others, I stumble through a cold fog and yearn for just an hour of solitude; how did my children ever get this spoiled and entitled? These lost days require a rereading of the goddess’s appraisal of Vimalakīrti’s house; we have to look for the inexhaustible treasures, to remember that our teachers are always close, that the gods will arrive if we open the door, that music flows from the voices of those we love, that we are neither man nor woman. If we live in a tiny apartment, we can invoke the breadth of Mount Sumeru, and if we live in comfort, we can remember the modesty of the mustard seed. We can read the newspaper and remember, like Vimalakīrti, that the world’s sickness is our own and that true health can only be shared.
This central axis of Buddhist ethics seems to me like a central axis of mental health: there is no nirvana or samādhi or great society if anyone is left out. “You are all going to be Buddhas one day,” Dr. Thurman likes to say as he looks out into a crowd from beneath his unruly white hair, “because why not?” Then he laughs his mad-scientist cackle and the audience relaxes because they think are off the hook, but really, what else are we here to do?
Stay at home, please, but remember that your house is full of wonders, of sages and masters, of music and undreamt possibilities, that everyone is there, that the whole world fits within your walls.