Buddhist Lessons in Pandemics and Politics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 28, 2021

Coronavirus and Ill-fated Crowns: Buddhist Lessons in Pandemics and Politics

Alexander McKinley
Loyola University Chicago

Synthesizing three retellings of the story about the Buddha curing a plague in the ancient city of Vesāli, this article argues that lessons from the narrative can help us analyze the modern coronavirus pandemic and critique political responses to it. From the ancient Pāli commentary of Buddhaghosa to Sinhala vernacular retellings by a medieval monk named Buddhaputra and a colonial-era layman named Vijēvikrama, the critical force of the story has seemingly grown over time. Along the way, these authors emphasize how the endless expansion of the city due to the material desires of its rulers was bound to exacerbate suffering by their grasping at impermanent forms. This philosophical insight is applicable to current problems, where the limitless materialism of global capitalism has also been overextended, altering climates and ecologies to generate new pathogens like the coronavirus. Countries that promised uninterrupted economic growth during the pandemic have in turn suffered its worst consequences. The story of Vesāli therefore remains ripe for many more retellings in the modern world, teaching that attention to a higher ideal of transcendent truth is more fruitful than material enrichment alone.

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