Discussing Buddhist conversion from a historical perspective in his book Unmasking Buddhism, renowned Buddhist scholar Bernard Faure writes,
It was not the expectation of Awakening that convinced Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese leaders to convert to Buddhism but rather the protection that Buddhism appeared to offer them against evils of all kinds, both individual and collective (epidemics, invasions, etc.).”
This was also true of the common folk who took refuge in the Buddha’s dharma. Protection of both the state and the individual was a major appeal for Buddhism in earlier times, perhaps still today. Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacarim – “the dharma protects those who follow the dharma” is supposed to be a saying of the Buddha. The idea is that those who follow dharma cultivate goodness and this goodness will provide inner and outer protection, or from their practice of dharma they may receive protection from mystic forces.
The fears we must grapple with today are not different from the fears people have faced throughout history. A quick review of the news reveals what? Jihad, the Ebola epidemic, and something new but which has been long in the making: deadly climate change. It would be nice to think that if everyone just became good, it would all turn around and we’d be safe. Or that merely by practicing meditation or chanting a mantra we could invoke the protection from those mystic forces. You don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t work like that.
Goodness manifests through thoughts, words, and deeds, but stems from feeling. I don’t mean emotion so much as I mean a sort of pervading awareness, a deep-seated state of consciousness that permeates our entire being. A good person feels goodness. Meditation and mantra are tools for developing a total feeling of goodness.
Meditation, ethics, and wisdom are three components of the Eightfold Path, which in turn is one of the four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. Wisdom is known through meditation, calming and observing the mind, and is then displayed through ethical living rooted in compassion. My feeling is that the Buddha believed that whenever a crisis arose or a threat appeared, a person who had cultivated tranquility and ethics was equipped with a presence of mind that would deliver him or her to emotional, mental, and perhaps even physical safety.
Ultimately, the practical view of dharmic protection is that those who follow and most importantly practice the dharma are able to protect themselves from unwholesome thoughts, harmful speech, unwise actions, key factors in the spread of epidemics and war. Put another way, we protect ourselves from ourselves, and then because we have wisdom and compassion we know that we have to protect the human beings around us and our planet.