Fearlessness

At eleven o’clock on the morning of Thursday August 9, 1945, the world’s second atomic bomb exploded 1,625 ft. above Nagasaki, one of Japan’s westernmost cities, located on the island of Kyushu. Nick-named “Fat Man,” a reference to Winston Churchill, it completely destroyed the city. More than 73,000 people died.

Nagasaki after the bomb.
Nagasaki after the bomb.

At that very moment, the Japanese Supreme War Council was meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Unaware of what was happening at Nagasaki, Premier Suzuki was urging the council that in light of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima three days before, Japan could not possibly continue the war. Still, it took six more days for the Japanese to announce surrender.

Thus, the Atomic Age began.

I grew up with the Atomic Bomb, the constant threat of nuclear war. Although I don’t recall ever receiving instruction on how to “duck and cover” as has been shown in some famous newsreels, I do remember clearly seeing those orange and black Fallout Shelter signs almost everywhere you went.

Ah, nostalgia.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Fallout Shelters were quite a phenomenon in the U.S. Most were makeshift, just basements in existing buildings. However, many people built their own backyard underground bomb shelters. In Kansas, where I lived at the time, they doubled as tornado shelters.

It was a very real fear for some. But, I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to resort to nuclear war. After all, as P.J. Sloan wrote, and Barry McGuire sang, in “Eve of Destruction”: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away/There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave.”

That doesn’t mean that as in the subtitle to Stanley Kubrick’s 1965 film, Dr. Strangelove, I had “Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” I didn’t love the Bomb. Who could? I just didn’t worry about it.

The late, great Slim Pickens on that wild ride to oblivion in "Dr. Strangelove."
The late, great Slim Pickens on that wild ride to oblivion in “Dr. Strangelove.”

I do now, though. That a terrorist could carry a dirty bomb into an American city, perhaps my city, and set it off is a possibility that seems frighteningly real. Terrorist groups are not like nations. The mutually assured annihilation that held the superpowers in check is not a consideration for terrorists.

I don’t fret about it all the time. But it’s there. Fear. One of our most basic, innate emotions.

Not all fear is negative. Some fears are useful, as survival mechanisms. A healthy fear of fire, for instance, is a good thing to have. But some fears are not helpful. Theses are the fears we learn, and whether rational or irrational, for some people they can be overwhelming.

In Buddhism, fearlessness is often touted as a quality of life obtainable through Buddhist practice. In The Heart Sutra, we read that because bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, they have no fear. This shouldn’t be taken literally. The sutra was composed in what we might call shorthand, so “no fear” actually refers to having no fear of emptiness.

In his Precious Garland, Nagarjuna describes four flawed ways of pursuing dharma practice. One is when we are held back by inhibition or fear, in that we feel threatened by emptiness. This fear comes from clinging to substantiality, to the idea of “I” or “mine.” For the wise, however, there is “no fear” because the teaching of emptiness shows that there is a way to transcend the concept of self, and unlearn certain fears.

Fearlessness is really a state where we have cultivated mindfulness to such a degree that fear cannot overwhelm us. Using meditation, the path of Transcendent Wisdom, we stabilize our mind by maintaining a focus on the present, lessening the possibility of influence from thoughts about experiences from the past or anxiety concerning future events, where fears generally arise.

One benefit that comes from accepting emptiness is the understanding that many of the things we fear have no real substance, they are ultimately unreal. I’ll admit that it’s hard to accept the idea that a terrorist threat is empty. Or that fire is. But as far as the conventional everyday world is concerned, we have this wonderful tool of mindfulness at our disposal to loosen the grip of fear. We can master fear, instead of letting it master us, and in that sense, we become fearless.

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
But to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
But to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
But hope for patience to win my freedom. 
Sarvamangalam! Blessings to all!

– Rabindranath Tagore

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