by Rev. Kinrei Bassis
Right now we are in the midst of a new scary situation, a worldwide pandemic. It is frightening to think of the possible serious illness that we and all our family and friends and the whole world are facing. Another aspect of this pandemic is not just fears and worries about our health but also fears for our finances as we face this severe economic upheaval which threatens or eliminates many jobs, reduces savings and creates an uncertain future. However, as they teach in Buddhism, “the Dharma is the real medicine for all suffering”. Buddhist training is really about how we can better relate to all the various difficult conditions in that life offers us. In the Litany of the Great Compassionate One, we chant “Om to the One who leaps beyond all fear”. Buddhist training is pointing all of us towards finding this place in our hearts that knows there is nothing to fear.
The arising of fear is a normal and functional way of relating to whatever threatens us. This self, this body of karma, is very vulnerable and can easily be hurt and damaged. Our fear is pointing us to the First Noble Truth, suffering exists. As long as we live, we will often be given conditions that we find threatening. My little self, this little me called Kinrei, is very vulnerable and so are all our little selves. The Second Noble Truth is that all our fear and suffering is due to attachment, and our main attachment is to ourselves, the way we make this little me into the center of our world. The Third Noble Truth is, there is a freedom from fear and suffering, that Nirvana exists, that we all can find freedom from all fear and suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth-the Eightfold Path is the way to finding this freedom from suffering and all fear. The Eightfold Path starts with Right View and having Right View of our fears is that which will point us to how we can find the freedom from all our fears.
As long as we live, fear will arise as it is helping us to protect ourselves from whatever we perceive as posing a danger. The feeling of fear is just giving us information that there is something that we really need to pay attention to. The arising of the fearful feelings is fine and is a normal and functional way of relating to a changeable and uncertain world. It is the way we cling to these fearful feelings that is the problem. We can easily live our lives with an undercurrent of fear and worry. We can hold onto our fears and identify with these fearful feelings and thoughts. In Buddhism we free ourselves from fear by looking at the fear with Right View. The Dharma teaches us that the fear is just a passing feeling, like a cloud blocking the sun. Our True Self, is like the sun, no clouds can affect its radiance. When we stop grasping our fearful feelings and thoughts, there is within us, a still and boundless place which knows there is nothing to fear. The less we allow our fears to fill our minds, the more our hearts will find this fearlessness heart.
The word Buddha means awakened and Buddhist teaching is telling us to wake ourselves up from our fearful dreams. What we are experiencing is not a dream in the sense it is not real but it has a dreamlike aspect in that it does not have the meaning and importance are we are giving it. Frequently I meet people who tell me that what they feared most had happened and often, to their amazement, despite the hardships and difficulties they had undergone, it turned out that the real problems was their fear and was not those difficult conditions. Often they experienced a sense of liberation by realizing that the real problem was the fear filling their minds and they no longer need to maintain this fearful mind. People go through dreadful bouts of cancer, they lose their job, they become disabled, and yet they often they tell me with great sincerity, they are fine and they are actually doing much better than before this disaster. Our encounters with what we deeply fear, can be a gift rather than a problem. Experiencing our deepest fears can be liberating, as it can help us to see through this fearful mind and find, to our amazement, a heart and mind filled with gratitude.
Often people will look at fear as something they need to conquer. In Buddhism, we are not battling with fear, we are just accepting it as a feeling which has no substance and will just arise and pass. Suppressing fear, telling ourselves that we are not afraid, does not work. It will just be there, under the surface, ready to bubble up and overwhelm you. Much of Buddhist training is allowing all our feelings to be fully felt and acknowledged but then allowing our thoughts and actions to be driven not by our strong feelings like fear, aversion, or desire, but rather, to be driven by the Buddhist Precepts, by what is right action, by what will bring a good result into our life and the world.
The proper way to deal with fear is not to judge it, or reject it or embrace it. Just be still with it and be aware of how it generates a tense feeling within ourselves. When we are not mindful, we can easily be overwhelmed and consumed with fearful thoughts. The Dharma is telling us to be mindful and try to see clearly whatever it is that seems threatened when we are afraid. There is a profound teaching in Buddhism that all we need to do is see all our fears and desires clearly and they will eventually dissolve. The Dharma teaches us that there is nothing to fear. It is seeing with deluded eyes that has us grasping our fears. The Second Noble Truth is suffering is due to desire. When we are afraid, what underlies all fear is some desire. All fear is being generated because our desires are being threatened. It is important that we see that desire and fear go together, that they are inextricably joined. All you have do to clearly see this intimate relationship is think of anytime your desire was strong, you really wanted this relationship, this job, this medical diagnosis and if the outcome seemed uncertain, you would automatically have the arising of fear.
To live without fear means to live without desire yet that can seem to be not humanly possible. It will also seem impossible when we look at desire and fear in absolute terms, as if they should never arise. It is a deeply mistaken view if we think we can live without desire and fear arising. They will always arise since they are one of the ways we need to relate to the world and the conditions in our life. But the liberation comes from learning not to cling to them so they can flow through our life like the weather. Buddhist training will fail if we try to make the self into something perfect, such as having no desires. Instead we have to accept whatever desires we are experiencing and then work at letting them go. This will lead to having less and less desire and this, in turn, will lead to having less and less fear. This is something we all can do. For instance, in Buddhism there is the teaching that we should not get caught up in the Eight Worldly Conditions, gain and loss, fame and disgrace, pleasure and pain, praise and blame. Yet every day, I have the natural arising of my normal desires for gain rather than loss, for fame rather than disgrace, for comfort and pleasure rather than pain and discomfort, for praise rather than blame. And this preference is generally true for all of us. Yet the arising of desire and the arising of fear are not the problem anymore than the arising of all our preferences and desires. However, we can try to be mindful and work at not cultivating and clinging to these preferences and desires. Can we find our still and peaceful heart in the midst of fear and desire? Can point ourselves to a deep spiritual trust, that in a deeper sense, all these preference and desires have a dreamlike aspect, and they do not matter, in a deeper and more fundamental way? The reason we practice meditation is so that we can cultivate a stillness that can allow all our difficult thoughts and feelings to be present without us being driven to react. Within this still and open mind, we can experience the unreal nature of our fears and desires and find that there is something solid within us that is not being affected by these waves of strong karmic emotions.
Suffering always involves getting lost in the difficult conditions we are experiencing, whether it is pain, loss, criticism, failing at something, making mistakes, etc. One way I use Right View to help me deal with the suffering is to just tell myself, it is good to be here. This is true for whatever this present situation is. And if I am not feeling it is good to be here, it just means I am looking at these present conditions with deluded eyes. The Buddha can be found in all places, at all times and in all situations. When I am afraid, the problem is not the fearful condition, it is my deluded views and perceptions.
It is normal that we want better conditions in our life, because all sentient beings want to be happy. The Dharma points us to a peace and happiness that is unshakeable, one that is not dependent on getting life the way we want. This is the liberation that Buddhism promises if we follow the Buddhist path, a peace and a joy that cannot be taken away from you. We can face old age, disease, pain, mistreatment, criticism and still have a heart that is not being bound by these conditions. When our mind and heart are not feeling bound by difficult conditions such as fear, this means we can open our hearts to the world and embrace ourselves and everything in our life with deep compassion.