Back in January, I wrote a post than included this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm: “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.”
I was writing about a memorial concert for musician Lou Reed who died in October from liver cancer after receiving a transplant. I wrote, “As I face the same situation he [Reed] did, I think [the quote] should be my mantra.”
Some folks may have a natural sense of fearlessness. For others, like me, it is something that requires cultivation. I’ve had to get close to fear in order to let it go. I have learned that fearlessness is not necessarily synonymous with courage. It’s more a product of mindfulness, understanding how to live in the peace of the present moment.
The Sanskrit word is abhaya. It means “not fearful,” “undaunted,” “security,” and “peace.” Fearlessness is represented by a hand gesture, the abhaya mudra that you see in paintings and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (right). The abhaya mudra is the “gesture of fearlessness and granting protection.”
Fearlessness is a virtue of the Bodhisattva’s practice of giving, and as Lama Anagarika Govinda points out in Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, much more than that:
Fearlessness is the quality of all Bodhisattvas and of all those who tread the Bodhisattva-Path. For them life has lost its horrors and suffering its sting, for they imbue this earthly existence with new meaning, instead of despising and cursing it for its imperfections, as many do, who in the teachings of the Buddha try to find a pretext for their own negative conception of the world.”
Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions. Fear can be positive when it protects us from danger. Fear can also be negative, a danger in itself. Negative fear can produce unhealthy emotional and psychological states. Fear is often irrational, for instance fear of death is natural enough, but fear of survival?
Fear of samsara (this world of suffering) has led some Buddhists to think only of escape, imaging nirvana to mean extinction, an end to the cycle of birth and death. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism teaches that samsara is nirvana.
Our fears originate in thoughts about the future, the worry that something unfortunate might happen to us . . . at some future time. The present moment, however, seems peaceful because it provides a certain sense of safety. Within the present moment, there is freedom from fear. Something unfortunate is not happening to us now.
Actually, the future never arrives; it is not real. From the ultimate view, time doesn’t exist. For the past, present, and future to be real they would have to exist independently. Past, present, and future is a continuum of thought-moments. In this sense, the present moment is timeless. What we’re talking about here is a quality of timelessness.
In Foundations, Lama Govinda quotes Krishnamurti:
As long as the mind is tethered to the idea that action must be divided into past, present and future, there is identification through time and therefore a continuity from which arises the fear of death, the fear of the loss of love. To understand timeless reality, timeless life, action must be complete. But you cannot be aware of this timeless reality by searching for it.”
What Krishnamurti meant by timeless was “something that cannot be disturbed by circumstances, by thought or by human corruption.” “Timeless reality” strikes me as an appropriate way to describe the present moment. If Krishnamurti had been Buddhist, he might have used the word emptiness.
In the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti asks the Buddha how to quiet his mind and fare on the bodhisattva path. He feels a need to search for the stillness in his mind and receive direction on how to proceed in the future, not realizing that what he seeks is already present. He poses this question in the second chapter, the remaining thirty chapters is just the Buddha answering this one question, and a single sentence in chapter 14 sums up his answer:
One should develop a mind that does not dwell anywhere.
In other words, cultivate a timeless mind. A mind that does not dwell anywhere is already quiet, and unafraid of the sufferings of the world. Because this timeless, quiet mind is undisturbed by thoughts of the future, it does not need to escape to some other place. Undaunted and peaceful, it becomes intimate with fear, and then recognizes that as the Heart Sutra tells us, within emptiness there is no fear.
This is the ultimate side of the problem. From the conventional side, it would be a mistake to dismiss the future and live unprepared. But the point is to be unattached to the idea of the future, and to control fear, not let it control us.
In a post last month, I quoted Shantideva, “Mind, be strong.” Fearlessness is another aspect of the patience Shantideva was discussing. The past is gone and the future does not arrive. The strength of fearlessness is the strength of the patience and equanimity that comes from quieting the mind. The path of fearlessness is the path of the Bodhisattva, and Bodhisattvas are joyful in the knowledge that suffering are nirvana.
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Sources: Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, HarperOne, 2012, 6; Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1969, 270-272; Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known, HarperSanFrancisco, 2009, 9