Please also read the followup piece on the outcome of his daring challenge to the global technological community:
Well, go! It’s OK, I’ll wait.
Then come back for a discussion about what this incredible dharma talk has to do with our simple ordinary lives, right here and right now.
Back? A brief review:
You will recall that the aptly named Dr. Brilliant first detailed how the terrifying scourge of smallpox (or any terrible contagious disease) can spread so rapidly. First there is a tiny outbreak in one place, followed by another tiny outbreak, but because of the speed of travel now, those little outbreaks quickly spread around the globe, grow larger, and soon engulf the world in catastrophic losses. He showed graphic photos of the progression of smallpox in humans. He spoke movingly about how smallpox has been declared completely eradicated in the world; he actually witnessed the last case.
How was it eradicated? It had been eliminated everywhere in the world except one place—India, with her 21 states and teeming millions of people, many of them living in poverty and lack, illiterate and out of reach of most forms of communication. Dr. Brilliant and 150,000 people went door to door to every single house in India, carrying pictures of smallpox symptoms and finding every single case. He demonstrated how many different deadly diseases could spread this way, but also how the catastrophic epidemics can be stopped. The secret, he said, is early detection and rapid response. Then the disease can be contained, until ultimately, it dies out completely.
What does this fascinating talk reveal about our practice? As it is without, so it is within. The epidemiology Dr. Brilliant described might just as easily be applied to our inner environment, and the diseases of greed, anger, and ignorance. They begin with tiny outbreaks, annoyance, a little indulgence beyond what is needed, turning a deaf ear to a problem. But because of the way our neural networks form, these outbreaks can propagate until we find ourselves in a global catastrophe of rage, lust, and massive delusion.
The terrible photos of the children with smallpox reveal that early on, the bumps are few and might be easily concealed with a hat. We can cover over our own little symptoms too, with our busyness, distractions, and efforts to look good. But as the disease spreads, it soon takes over, and the photos show in gruesome detail the inexorable progression that leaves those who survive disfigured and scarred. So too, the progression of untreated greed, anger, and ignorance leaves us horribly disfigured and scarred inside.
There is no vaccine for greed, anger, and delusion—these viruses are ubiquitous, infinitely adaptable, and affect all humans. How do we address this pandemic, within ourselves, in our closest relationships, and around the world? Brilliant has asked the world’s most advanced technologists to create a system for early detection, rapid response, and containment. And they have responded enthusiastically to this challenge.
In our practice mindfulness is our technology for early detection, rapid response, and containment of the three poisons. Just as Dr. Brilliant and his tireless team went door to door to every single house in India, we must be as tireless in our practice in addressing every single outbreak of greed, anger and delusion, moment by moment. Notice too that the effective response is not killing those afflicted with the disease, but containment.
We first observe and accurately diagnose the symptoms of our afflictions, respond with awareness, and contain the energy so that the pathological expressions of greed, anger, and ignorance can ultimately die out completely for lack of a host. Leave even one case alone, and it can spread and multiply, so to fully and wholeheartedly meet the situation we must be vigilant and persistent.
Our “team” is our sangha and teachers. The India within is too vast and teeming to be able to do it alone. We need resources: teachings and teachers and sangha to help us identify the diseases, meditation to cultivate mindfulness and support containment. As we contain these deadly contagious diseases, they lose their epidemic proportions. This is true not only within us, but it is also true beyond, even impacting global levels, which create so much suffering and despair.
So what about Dr. Brilliant? Is he a saint? No more than you or I. Does he get angry? I’m quite sure he does, when it is appropriate. But what does his anger serve? It serves life and the relief of suffering, not his egoic identifications. Does he have greed? I am quite sure he does, in the service of his aspiration to benefit all beings. Does he have ignorance? Almost certainly he has the ignorance of someone who goes ahead with the impossible realization of his aspiration.
Can we practice in our ordinary, everyday lives, with the intensity, passion, and determination of Larry Brilliant? It is only in this way that we can fully awaken to the luminous well-being of a healthy life, free of suffering for ourselves and for others.