Jul 10, 2006

Fear and Fearlessness

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."


Anonymous said...

Fear is an interesting subject, particularly as many people who become interested in Buddhism do so because of their experiences of it. People around the world have different reasons for their fears. In the West, it might arise through their work situation, their spending habits, or simply from the prospect of growing old. In a more basic environment, then people fear wild animals, disease, and robbers or bandits. Therefore, people fall prey to fear no matter where they live.

From a Buddhist perspective, people fear because they lack direction in their mindfulness, and here it is interesting to note where people actually experience their strong fears, i.e. in the abdominal region.

According to the oracles (Ajarns) then fear cannot even be remembered, let alone experienced, at the first level of establishing some direction in their minds, namely stream entry level, which coincidently also occurs in the abdominal region. This development occurs due to unraveling the illusion of self through understanding the mental elements that give it substance, therefore, fear can be rightly described as aversion and being connected to the idea of self.

However, to have aversion to something one must have prior experience of a phenomenon, you cannot have aversion to things you have no experience of. Therefore, there are natural reactions that may be viewed as fear but are in fact just natural reactions. If you take the case of a very young child that is still in the process of learning about the world we live in, and here I mean on a very basic level such as what the different shades of light and dark and colors represent, then waking up in a dark room without sensing its mother and beginning to cry is not an expression of fear, it is just a natural reaction to something unknown.

The oracles (Ajarns) also tell me of another interesting phenomenon, something, which I am told, took them years to work out. This occurs in a dreaming state. Normally, Ajarns with some development of awareness do not dream, unless they are contacted by another being while they are asleep. Interestingly, if they are contacted by a being from this realm they will experience the dream much as anyone would do, except that they have the capacity to switch it off and wake up instantly. Therefore, they retain some level of awareness.

In the case of beings not of this realm, sometimes a former abbot of his temple who still looks after it (not so strange in Thai culture, where an abbot who stays in his temple all of the time is predicted to become a ghost who looks after it when he dies) will contact them, and sometimes a being in distress from lower realms is attracted to their state of mind. In these situations the beings are seen as they are, whereas perhaps such an encounter may manifest itself as a nightmare to others. What the Ajarns discovered is that although they have some awareness in dreaming, not surprisingly they do not have the usual complete awareness found in a fully awake state and they automatically react to the difference in the basic feeling of the being, their energy, and wake up.

In a sleeping state, the mind is in bhavanga consciousness, an empty state not connected to the senses, and here the usual mind is also one of the senses. As for what dreaming is, then it is just another form of experience for the mind arising through contact. The Ajarns say that even though they do not find such things fearful, they cannot control their reaction because they lack the usual awareness in dreaming. At first they thought that such a reaction was due to fear, but it is something beyond their control, and gradually they pinned it down to the limited awareness in dreaming. As for the beings that they avoided in the first encounter, they sleep the next night fully expecting to meet them again, and do so without any reactions. What do these beings want? They want to be near the Ajarns, they like the energy, just as a moth is attracted to a flame.

Therefore, not all reactions that could be interpreted as fear are in fact fear, particularly when something has never been experienced before. However, real fear can certainly be pinned to thinking, aversion and the illusion of self.

As for fearing the unknown, not possible, people simply fear the things they know and think about.

Anonymous said...

For the record the oracles pointed out to me that in dreaming sannya (perception, memory) is severely limited, making it difficult to recognize things in dreams and also to remember all the details of what happened in them. From their experiences they say that thinking or cetana, mental formations, is not possible but sometimes other sense faculties like smelling works very well.

Anonymous said...

As I understand fear in reference to the 5 hindrances it belongs to the second: aversion.
Because being in an sitation you do not want to be in is the same then feeling something you do not want to feel.
Maybe you see something, you really don´t like it and want it to go away. It´s not the thing you see but the very unpleasant feeling that comes along with your visual.
Maybe in modern society it is not what we actually see in front of us like e.g wild animals. But, maybe we fear things we have to deal with and feel not ready to or capable of dealing with them.
A very unpleasant feeling we want to "go away". So, it is not the situation but the very feeling we get when thinking about the situation.
And this is in the present, even when it is caused by a projection of the mind.
It´s always a projection what might happen in the future, nowadays.
We alwasy try to control everything and be save, so the very exeption of not being able to control something means fear.
This is the reason for controlling things, too.