In a recent post, I wrote something about how we need to be vigilant to avoid being manipulated by fear. In this post, I'd like to explore a little about the Buddhist teachings around fear.
To start with, it has always struck me as curious that fear is not listed in any of the standard lists of defilements; it is not classed as a hindrance (nivarana) nor a taint (asava) nor a root defilement like ignorance, ill-will or desire. In fact, it is not even listed in the abhidhamma among the cetasikas (mental factors) unless we count hiri (moral dread) which is not at all what we usually mean by fear.
Why is this? It can only be that fear is a complex mental state composed of other factors, or perhaps reducible to other factors. I have heard, for instance, fear described as aversion projected into the future. This captures one important aspect of fear; it is a mental state that is not grounded in the now. In the present moment, there is nothing to fear. We fear what may be coming; the approach of unpleasant sensation (dukkha vedana).
Doesn't it always reduce down to that? We fear many things, but if we examine the reasons why we fear them, it is always because we imagine that they are going to hurt. This is the exact flip side of desire; we desire many things but in the end, it is because we think or imagine that they will yield us a hit of pleasant sensation (sukha vedana.) Sukha and dukha truly make the world go round.
Fear also has an aspect of ignorance. Often we fear most that which we don't know. But there is a deeper aspect here too. Fear is always related to the self. One fears loss or damage to the self or that which belongs to the self. Since the self is an illusory mental construct, there is really nothing to fear. Indeed, one of the qualities of the arahant is that he or she is abhaya, free from fear.
So insight into the true (void) nature of phenomena brings fearlessness. Metta, loving-kindness, is also given as a powerful antidote to fear. So is sila, or virtuous behaviour. One of the benefits of keeping the five precepts is freedom from fear. Once, I was in a jungle area of Thailand, being driven along with four monks and a layman to a forest monastery. The truck got stuck in the muddy road and the driver opted to stay with his vehicle and wait for rescue, and the rest of us walked the few miles left. It was just getting dark. The layman had previously in his life once made a living as a hunter in the jungles of Malaysia. As a result of that karma, he saw the darkening forest as a place of fear and dread and was afraid the whole time. None of the monks seemed to be concerned.
There is one sutta where the Buddha talks about fear and dread specifically; the Bhayabherava Sutta, MN 4. There, he lists 13 causes of fear, among them sensual desire, lack of mindfulness and "being a drooling idiot." (click on the link to read the whole list) His suggested antidote is not to surrender to the fear. If the "fear and trembling" comes upon one while walking to and fro, one should continue to walk to and fro until the fear subsides. Likewise if it comes on one while sitting.
This can be taken at face value; don't change the posture if fear arises, don't run away. But it can also be understood on a purely mental level - don't run away from that which you fear, but face it full on. One writer on Dharma (E.E. Harding) put it like this; "the way out is down and through." Running away (suppressing) only strengthens negative mental states.
(A short digression; when I first came across this sutta I asked one of the elder monks whether the advice not to change postures would apply to other defilements as well. He thought about it a moment, and said I don't think it would always work. "I'll just continue to lie here until the sloth and torpor subsides.")
Another place fear appears in the canon is in the Vinaya texts where the Buddha counsels the Sangha against making such decisions as electing sangha officers based on desire, ill-will, delusion or fear. This can be extrapolated to a general principle for making decisions in life.
The final reference that comes to mind (and I am probably not being complete by any means) is in the list of Insight Knowledges. This the description of the states the mind passes through on the way to full awakening, as insight matures through the practise of vipassana. One of the later stages is called Knowledge of Fearfulness. This is when the mind encounters, possibly for the first time, the naked reality of samsaric existence. The horror of seeing clearly how everything, one's mind, one's body and the external world, is in a constant state of break-up and destruction can lead to an experience of fear. Some meditators go through this quickly, and come out the other side. Others get stuck for a long time. The difference is whether one has the steadiness of purpose to keep going. "The way out is down and through."