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“How do you advance fearlessly and without hesitation?”
For this, I will refer to the koan’s capping verse, its poetic expression:
The cave of the blue dragon is ominous.
Only the fearless dare to enter.
It is here that the forest of patterns is clearly revealed.
It is here that the one ripe pearl is hidden.
The cave of the blue dragon is where we store all of our stuff—our psychological bilge, so to speak—and it’s very difficult to go there. It takes a certain degree of fearlessness to do that. The process of zazen engages that. It engages the fear, in order to empower fearlessness. When stuff comes up, we don’t use zazen as another vehicle for suppression. When something keeps coming up in meditation, that's a signal that you need to deal with it. You need to process it. You need to process it thoroughly and fearlessly, to feel it and experience it, then let it go and come back to the moment.
John Daido Loori is a dharma heir of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and the founder of the Zen Mountain Monastery. His most recent book is Finding the Still Point: A Beginner’s Guide to Zen Meditation.
Fear the Right Thing
We all think that fear is awful and painful, yet the Buddhists—the master psychologists for thousands of years—don't include fear in the long list of mental afflictions contained in the Abhidharma, the core teachings on Buddhist psychology. Anger is mentioned. Impatience is mentioned. Many other familiar afflictions are mentioned. But not fear. I’ve always thought that was curious, but if we consider it closely, we’ll see a way in which it makes sense.
Being free of fear is certainly praised in the buddhadharma. One of the three major types of giving is giving someone protection from fear. It's the essence of the abhaya, the no-fear mudra. This is the famous gesture of the Buddha where he holds up his hand, palm out. Indeed, when you become a buddha, you become fearless.
Under normal circumstances fear is not a problem, which is why it’s not listed among the afflictions. Fear is a healthy thing, in general. It is awareness of danger. Fear is protective; it’s what helps us to avoid wandering into a hungry lion's den.
So fear is helpful in that everyday sense. It is also helpful in the Buddhist sense, in the form of fear of suffering, embodied in the first noble truth. The truth of suffering is not a doomsday prediction. It is not expressing an inevitable destiny. On the contrary, it alerts us to the fact that we are not being aware of what we really are. We are deluded about suffering. We ought to be aware of our suffering. We should be afraid of suffering, in fact. Otherwise, why would we have any reason to do anything about it?
Fear will motivate us to try to understand the world and ourselves, and when we do, we will come to appreciate the second noble truth: that suffering is caused by a habit of constructing an absolute self. We go through life being absolute, as if no one else matters, but we can look at that habit and come to learn that it doesn't work. We can develop deep concentration, deep meditation about that and ultimately free ourselves from that gut feeling of being “the real me,” opposed to everything and everyone else. If we don't overcome this sense of self-absoluteness, we will descend into the lower realms of being. That is something it is reasonable to fear.