This past fall, a remarkable group of women teachers participated in a lively discussion on our theme of fear and fearlessness. The meeting was sparked by the visit of Tenzin Palmo, of the Tibetan Buddhist Kargyupa lineage, to the San Francisco Bay Area. Originally from England, she ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1964 and undertook eighteen years of retreat, twelve of them in a Himalayan cave. Welcoming her and hosting the discussion at Goat-in-the-Road Center in Muir Beach, California, was one of America’s leading Zen teachers, Yvonne Rand, an ardent spokesperson for the feminization of Buddhism. Two Theravada nuns joined the group from nearby Abhayagiri Monastery: French native Ajahn Sundara was one of the first four women novices at Chithurst Monastery in England in the late 1970s, and Australian-born Ajahn Jitindriya took anagarika ordination in 1988. This forum was convened by Inquiring Mind editor Barbara Gates.
Yvonne Rand: In my experience, at the bottom of virtually all reactive emotions is fear. It’s really the fundamental obstacle emotionally if people drop down deeply enough to uncover what’s fueling or triggering other emotions.
Tenzin Palmo: Yes, fear is the last boundary of the ego. Particularly since September the 11th, fear has been on everybody’s mind. In the question-and-answer sessions following my talks, again and again people raise questions about how to deal with their own fear. When they ask what they should do physically to feel safe, this is difficult to answer. But when they ask how to respond emotionally, it is easy to answer. We should all respond with compassion.
Personally, I feel sad that when the United States itself was threatened, what came about was more insularity, more paranoia, more of an us-against-them mentality, adding to the violent intentions in the world. Instead, we can use these events to awaken us to how awful it must be to live in a country that is continually under bombardment, and to live in fear of civil wars and attacks from outside. Instead of reacting with violence, we might use that opportunity to open our hearts.
Inquiring Mind: What are some practices to allow us to move from anger or fear into compassion?
YR: For a long time, I’ve been teaching a meditation on five aspects for working with strong, highly energized, reactive emotions. The whole practice is really contained in the first step: to hold the emotion and accompanying body sensations at the heart chakra with the tenderness of a mother with her only newborn child. You let the attention rest on the breath as it rises and falls, and with that attention on the breath include awareness of the emotion and the accompanying physical body sensations that are arising in the moments of the breath coming in and the breath flowing out. Hold the emotion with tenderness, with the hands held at the heart-center. If the emotion is particularly strong, as it is with both anger and fear, I find that it works best, at least initially, to do the practice during walking meditation instead of while sitting. When I do this practice without forcing it, I experience that the emotional state has the mark of impermanence. This experience can affect my relationship with the emotion itself. I can then slowly cease to take the emotional state quite so seriously. Then I may begin to have more interest in the causes and conditions for the arising of that emotion. Doing this practice, I am struck by the capacity to uncover, and to be with, what one has previously thought one couldn’t stand. That shift can be extraordinarily powerful.
TP: Such a meditation gives an emotion space to come up and provides an opportunity to just look at it. Sometimes I say to people, “Hold yourself like an injured animal.” In dharma circles there’s a lot of talk about the evils of self-cherishing and how we have to drop the ego. But for many people, the ego is fractured and in pain, and we can’t just drop something which is injured. So first we have to heal. After we are balanced and healed by holding ourselves in compassion, then we can see through the ego and learn to go beyond it.
IM: How might an average person unfamiliar with techniques of meditation move from that fear reaction into compassion? After all, compassion is not something that you can impose on your heart.
TP: Take the response to terrorism, the fear of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Even people who don’t meditate can use their imaginations to see themselves as ordinary Iraqis at this moment. They and their families are just trying to live and enjoy their lives. How would we feel if we knew that the greatest power on Earth was about to attack us? Although we hadn’t personally done anything wrong, how would it feel to know we might get bombed because other countries don’t like our leader? All we have to do is put ourselves in other people’s shoes; then we can imagine their plight. That is compassion.
Ajahn Sundara: In addition to compassion, I found that patience is key to understanding how fear affects us. Usually we refuse to experience fear. We try either to get rid of it or immediately resolve the situation that triggers it. So with patience, we can witness the mind running through its reactive, patterned responses to fear. And by opening to the pain those patterns cause, both the patterns and the fear itself will eventually end. Fear is so deeply embedded that we have to be clever in relating to it. It often tricks us into believing that it doesn’t belong as part of our conscious experience. Then we can spend a lot of energy trying to avoid fear or keep it at bay.
At the beginning of a long retreat some years ago, Ajahn Sumedho said in one of his teachings, “If you think you have a problem with fear, you will keep recreating fear.” I had been struggling with fear for weeks, and as he said this, I understood how much I had identified with fear as “my problem.” At one level, I already knew how to be mindful of fear, but my habitual ways of “practicing” with it seemed to be recreating it. I had not seen the backdrop of the many layers of identification and aversion fueling it.
So this time I vowed that if fear arose, however convincing it seemed, I would not try to resolve it, “let it go,” or anything but simply be aware of it. By the end of the retreat, as the fear came and went, my heart was at peace with it. The anticipation, aversion and desire to control it had been the real causes of suffering, not the fear itself. This was when I learned the importance of patience in uncovering all the layers at the root of my fear.
TP: Did the fear come back?
AS: Oh, it’s there; this body is a fear body. The fear comes back but not in the same way.
Ajahn Jitindriya: Adding to the need for patience is the need to develop our capacity to open up to the pain. For me, there’s always some deeper pain that I find myself resisting. Again and again, I see my own hatred of pain, whether it comes up in meditation, in response to what our government is doing, or in response to something that happens on the freeway. For example, when you’re driving along and someone cuts you off, you get frightened because there could have been an accident, and you begin to hate the person that cut you off, maybe even abuse them. What’s been triggered is the hatred of the pain that comes with fear, and the hatred of the fear that comes with pain. They are compounded. Can we be with that pain and not expect ourselves to be feeling something different or not judge ourselves for experiencing it? Can we be present with the fear rather than be unconsciously forced into action by it? That’s the seed of compassion. Whether it’s about something happening internally or the Bush government declaring war on Afghanistan or Iraq, wherever or however that fear is ignited, it’s coming up in our own hearts. In my own practice, I try to encourage myself by saying, “Can I open to this?” If I can open to my own pain, then my compassion for others grows. If I can come into full presence with pain, then transformation occurs.
IM: To bear with the pain of intense fear can take a lot of courage. Isn’t there a relationship between compassion and fearlessness?
TP: Yes. Sometimes people imagine compassion as being passive and kind of wimpy, but genuine compassion is fearlessness. The other side of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is the fierce-looking Tibetan deity Mahakala, who is anything but wimpy. The flames coming from Mahakala’s head are the flames of wisdom, and his heart is compassion itself. There are times when compassion means standing in strength, but it’s not ego power and it’s not based on anger. Compassion is actually the most fearless emotion in the world.
AJ: I once heard Pema Chödrön say , “Being fearless is not being without fear. Being fearless is feeling the fear and stepping forward anyway.”
IM: As a mother, I can identify with how compassion could be expressed as fearlessness. I tend to be very fearful in a lot of ways, but if I felt that my daughter was going to be harmed in any way, I would be totally fearless. Nothing could stop me. Maybe that’s another reason why it is so useful to visualize oneself holding a newborn child or an injured animal. What are some other practices that help transform fear into fearlessness?
TP: In the Tibetan tradition, we have practices in which we try to arouse a strong emotion like anger, greed, lust or fear, bring it up, and then look at it until we really see it. If we look at it with a relaxed but penetrating awareness, instead of appearing solid, the emotion becomes quite transparent. On the Vajrayana path, that’s what we mean when we talk about using our negative states as the path. That doesn’t mean we indulge them. It means that underlying fear, anger or lust is a very powerful energy, and if we can tap into it at the moment of its arising, it self-liberates into a clear, penetrating insight.
AS: In the Thai forest tradition, the teaching encourages us to go to the body itself, to witness and to feel those emotions—anger, greed, hatred, fear. These emotions manifest in the body because the body is, in a sense, our biggest receptor and our most solid karmic formation. After facing a fearful situation, the mind may be able to dispel the mental energy, but physically, we may still be shaking. The body carries the memory of our fear. If we can stay with the sensations of fear in the body, we don’t have to follow our compulsion to run away or struggle with fear. As we bear with fear with kindly acceptance and awareness, we can let it go and free the mind.
Many years ago, before becoming interested in Buddhism, I was struck by Krishnamurti’s statement: “Thoughts are fear.” This resonated so deeply that it prompted me to investigate for the first time my own thoughts. To my surprise, most of them were the result of some form of fear—fear of losing the comfort of my habits, fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of the future. I began to recognize the compulsion of the mind to think ceaselessly and how little control I had over it. So I would ask myself the questions: What am I thinking? Are my thoughts really fear? It was fascinating to witness thoughts directly and the way the mind related to fear. This interest was one of the main factors that brought me to this path.
TP: The practice of taking refuge also creates protection. In the Tibetan tradition, before we start any practice, first we take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. Then we take the Bodhisattva Vow, meaning that we are not doing this practice for ourselves but in order to benefit all beings. We follow this vow with Guru Yoga, meaning that we visualize the lineage starting from the primordial Buddha all the way down, master to master, each one handing down the flame, until we see our own teacher above our head. Then the lineage absorbs into the teacher, who, in the form of Vajradhara, the cosmic representation of our Buddha mind, absorbs into ourselves. We realize that our own mind and the Guru’s mind are one. We are not his personality, but we are his genuine realization, which is Buddhanature. From that sense of oneness with what is at the core of our being, we begin meditation. Whatever comes up, we know it’s okay; we are protected.
AS: In Theravada Buddhism, taking refuge is not described in such great detail, with visualization of the lineages or being surrounded by these wonderful forces—which I’m sure must feel like an incredible protection. We emphasize the protection that comes from taking refuge in the Buddha, dhamma and sangha. We are taking refuge in the qualities of wisdom, truth and virtue that are inherent in all of us. My teacher often pointed out that mindfulness is our real protection. When we encounter fear and simply know it as it is, fear is transmuted. The experience is transformed into one of strength and confidence.
IM (to Tenzin Palmo): In the chapters of your biography describing the twelve years you spent in a Himalayan cave, your remarkable fearlessness comes through. One might expect that great demons of fear would have been aroused, or that you might have experienced a realm of pure terror. However, that was anything but the case.
TP: Living in a cave, there’s not a lot of time for fear. For one thing, we have to be in physical reality. For six to eight months of the year, it’s snowing, so we have to clear snow. We have to chop wood. We have to melt the snow to get water. We have to cook food. So we’re not spacing out while we are there. We are dealing with common, everyday realities. Also, in the Tibetan tradition that I study in, we do certain set practices four times a day; there are three-hour sessions, and we don’t vary from the routine.
Living completely alone, I gradually began to shed layer after layer of identities I had held when relating to other people. I worked with the questions, Who am I? Which bit of this experience is me? The more I went inside and looked, the more my identities fell away. One of the first that went was a sense of gender, because when you’re all by yourself, male or female, what’s the difference? Of course, later these identifications came back.
I was also very happy. People always imagine, Oh, living in a cave all alone! What austerity! How frightening! But I stayed there because I couldn’t think of anywhere nicer to be. As to the lack of fear, I myself was surprised—especially after a week long blizzard when the cave was completely buried under snow, and I was sure that I was going to die. It turned out that there was enough oxygen in the cave, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was in a tiny, completely black place, and I was convinced that I was going to be asphyxiated. But strangely enough, it didn’t worry me. I just got myself prepared. I thought back to things in my life that I had done wrong and said I was sorry. I aroused gratitude for myself for the things that I had done right. Then I really took refuge. I realized that in the end, the only thing that mattered was the Lama and that the Lama was really a part of my deep mind. I was surprised at how ready I was to die. Of course, I don’t know how I would have reacted in the last moments.
Another time, I woke up in the night and felt a big, black, evil entity trying to suffocate me. My immediate reaction was, “Excuse me! I am protected by all the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the universe. What are you thinking? Get away immediately!” [Laughter] I felt humorous indignation—that this naughty little third-class evil entity was trying to frighten me. At that, it went “shoom!” and shrunk from a huge heavy presence into a tiny little black spot and flew out the window. I just laughed: “Cheeky devil!” You just can’t know how you will react.
AS: Once in the forest in Thailand, word went out that a murderer was loose somewhere near the monastery. Through the night, alone in my somewhat isolated kuti, I was reflecting on the power of this guy who had killed two policemen, raped one woman, and escaped from a car accident. The next day, when I was finishing my meal, someone suddenly called out. My mind immediately said, That’s him! And it was. I had no idea that by this time over 100 policemen and a helicopter had joined the manhunt. When I opened my door, he was standing there with a jacket covering one arm. I thought he might have a gun. My mind stopped; I was terrified. With my heart pounding, I was aware of myself walking down the steps of my kuti slowly and fully aware of the feeling of shock that I was experiencing. To my surprise, I found myself saying gently to him in Thai, “I’m going to bring you some water right away.” Then I walked down the hill as fast and as mindfully as I could. [Laughter] Mindfulness enabled me to be fully present to the feelings of intense fear in myself and yet to respond from a place of kindness.
YR: Twice I had similar experiences. Once after twilight on the streets in the city, a young man came up behind me and held a knife just under my left arm. My reaction was to clamp my arm down over his knife and turn around and slug him. [Laughter] About a year later, a big hulking eighteen-year-old kid came into the garage where I had been working in a storage container. The young man came in the door just as I was coming out. When I saw him coming toward me I was certain that he was up to no good as far as I was concerned. I started yelling at him, “Don’t you dream of doing what you’re thinking of doing!” What came up for me in both cases was mother-mind. Here’s this young kid about to do something that’s going to get him into a lot of trouble, and I’m going to stop him if I can. But I had no notion that I would react in that way.
AS: To me, that’s a manifestation of fearlessness.
YR: But I’m like you. I’ve always thought of myself as being someone with a very strong propensity for fear. I would never have expected myself to react in those two situations in the way that I actually did. Where did that possibility arise? I like to think that it arose out of many years of doing practices to uncover my relationship with all beings. I also think that having a son was in the mix as well.
AJ: And also as a practitioner, just being able to be present with your feeling of fear allows intuitive wisdom to arise. There is something that overrides the fear, allowing you to be present and respond compassionately.
IM: With each of the stories that you’ve told, beginning with the fierce response to the black presence, we’ve all ended up laughing. How does the capacity to laugh relate to fearlessness?
TP: I always think that the sense of humor should be the seventh paramita. The ability to laugh at oneself and at external events keeps us sane and balanced.
AS: I used to ask my teacher, Ajahn Sumedho, “How can you not go crazy on this path? You are the one who is deluded, and you are the one who has to train this deluded being, all the while knowing that there is really nobody here that is deluded.” [Laughter] It really is hilarious, isn’t it?
AJ: Laughter is a great release of tension. Once you get the right perspective, you can laugh about anything! So much of our suffering is laughable.
YR: After the fact! [Laughter]
AS: The ego only thinks one thing: “I’m the center of the universe.” It’s really a kind of humorous mechanism.
TP: That’s because it takes itself so seriously.
AJ: Fear is the essence of the sense of self. It separates. If there’s no separation, who’s there to be afraid?
AS: Before we end, I do want to say something positive about fear. Fear has a role to play in our lives. It protects us. It comes to say, “Be careful!” It tells us not to go down a dangerous alley. Fear can be a good friend.
TP: Obviously, for the sake of protection, we need fear. The problem arises when the ego identifies with the fear as “I” or “mine”.
AJ: There are two kinds of fear described in the Pali scriptures. There is the fear of wrongdoing, which more positively expressed is like a strong conscientiousness. It’s a very wholesome mind-state and is said to be one of the protectors of the world. And there’s another, more egoistic and deluded kind of fear. The Buddha talks about a time before his enlightenment when he practiced doing standing meditation in a grove of trees in the evening, and if fear arose, he would just continue to stand there until that fear subsided. If he was sitting and fear arose, he would just continue to sit until that fear subsided. He dealt similarly with the walking and lying-down postures. He had a healthy respect for that fear but wasn’t about to be moved by it.
IM: Well, I’m afraid we’re out of time. Are there any last thoughts before we resolve this fear?
AS: Yes. I’d like to express my great delight at being with Tenzin Palmo for a few hours.
TP: It is always good for nuns to get together and share stories from our lives. Perhaps that is why the Buddha started the sangha. [Laughter]