Creating Fear When There is Nothing to Fear

Creating Fear When There is Nothing to Fear

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 03, 2008 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

One of my favorite teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh is about the three types of gifts we can give to others:

  • material gifts, such as giving food to person in need.
  • gifts of know-how and technology, such as giving people the skills and tools they need to support themselves.
  • the gift of non-fear, helping people let go of their insecurities and fears, enabling them to lead a peaceful and serene life.

When I was explaining the three gifts to someone this week, I was challenged about the desirability of non-fear. "Some fears are reasonable," she said. It led me to think about my 20-year-old daughter. When she is home and has gone somewhere on the subway, if she is to come home after dark, I ask her to call me so that I can meet her at the Metro station. In our neighborhood people have been assaulted walking home from the station. I am happy to meet her at the station, if that would reduce the chance of something bad happening to her.

If I had more non-fear, would I not meet her at the station? I don’t think so. I don’t believe non-fear is the same as being foolhardy.

So what is the gift of non-fear really about?

In an early Buddhist text called “The Discourse on Fear and Dread”, a Brahmin comments to the Buddha that if a monastic went to the forest all alone, if he were without concentration, he would go out of his mind. The Buddha agrees, and adds that if the monastic were to go out without concentration, then “unwholesome fear and dread” would arise. The Buddha adds, however, that he has concentration, and for him the solitude of the forest brings him great solace. The discourse continues with a list of mind-states and attitudes that allow one to live in the forest without “unwholesome fear and dread,” including being purified in bodily and mental conduct, having a peaceful and loving mind, having few wishes, being energetic, and so on.

I take from this discourse that “unwholesome fear and dread” arises not because of what is really there, but because of the inner qualities we bring (or fail to bring) to the situation.

So the gift of non-fear is not about taking unnecessary risks with real dangers. It is about reducing our tendency to create fear when there is nothing to fear. It is about developing our mindfulness, concentration, and insight so that we are better able to understand who we really are and how we fit into the universe.

In The Heart of Understanding, a commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara practices this kind of non-fear.

In the Heart Sutra, he teaches us the way to transform and transcend fear and ride on the waves of birth and death, smiling. He says that there is no production, no destruction, no being, no nonbeing, no increasing, and no decreasing. Hearing this helps us look deeply into the nature of reality to see that birth and death, being and nonbeing, coming and going, increasing and decreasing are all just ideas that we ascribe to reality, while reality transcends all concepts. When we realize the interbeing nature of all things — that even birth and death are just concepts — we transcend fear.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will discuss the gift of non-fear and explore how it relates to our own fears. I hope you can be with us.

Another excerpt on Non-Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


The Practice of Non-Fear, from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

When a cloud is about to become rain, she is not afraid. She may even be excited. Being a cloud floating in the blue sky is wonderful, but being rain falling on the fields, the ocean, or the mountains is also wonderful. As she falls down as rain, the cloud will sing. Looking deeply, we see that birth is just a notion. Nothing is born from nothing. When we touch the cloud deeply, when we touch our grandmother deeply, we touch the nature of no birth and no death, and we are free from sorrow.

Nirvana means extinction, above all the extinction of ideas—the ideas of birth and death, existence and nonexistence, coming and going, self and other, one and many. All these ideas cause us to suffer. We are afraid of death because ignorance gives us an illusory idea about what death is.

We don’t have to attain nirvana, because we ourselves are always dwelling in nirvana. The wave does not have to look for water. It already is water. We are one with the ground of our being, once we touch God or nirvana, we also receive the gift of non-fear. Non-fear is the basis of true happiness. The greatest gift we can offer others is our non-fear. Living deeply every moment of our life, touching the deepest level of our being, this is the practice of non-fear

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 03, 2008


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