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The third noble truth is nirvana—the fact that it is possible to become permanently free of suffering and yet not dead. Many people in America think they're going to be permanently free of suffering just by dying, but the third noble truth tells us that it is possible to be free of suffering and also be alive. That is ultimate fearlessness. And the Buddha offered us a means to realize this in the form of the fourth noble truth, which describes an educational process involving study, concentration, meditation, and changing your lifestyle.

If you follow this path, you can reach a stage where you're connected to your own nobleness and the nobleness of others. You realize there is no absolute self, and therefore the self is a flexible, relational thing, like an aikido master of reality. You understand yourself as interwoven with the universe. You have diminished your sense of isolation and alienation from others, your disconnectedness from the world. You have increased and intensified your sense of connection to the world. You do not fear that connectedness.

It is said that out of ignorance we fear what we should not fear, and we are not afraid of what we should be afraid of. Normally we fear the connectedness, but it is in fact the disconnectedness that we ought to be afraid of. Starting out with the right kind of fear is the way to fearlessness.

Robert A. F. Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. Author of many books, he is president of both Tibet House and the American Institute of Buddhist Studies.

The Gesture of Fearlessness and the Armor of Loving-Kindness


I think this was the first Buddhist story I heard when I began practicing thirty years ago. A fierce and terrifying band of samurai was riding through the countryside, bringing fear and harm wherever they went. As they were approaching one particular town, all the monks in the town’s monastery fled, except for the abbot. When the band of warriors entered the monastery, they found the abbot sitting at the front of the shrine room in perfect posture. The fierce leader took out his sword and said, “Don't you know who I am? Don't you know that I'm the sort of person who could run you through with my sword without batting an eye?” The Zen master responded, “And I, sir, am the sort of man who could be run through by a sword without batting an eye.”

It took me many years to warm up to that story. I thought it inconceivable that I could undergo such a thing without batting an eye. If they were doing startle tests when I was young, I’m pretty sure I would have failed miserably. Another reason I didn’t like the story was that it seemed so offhanded about life. I thought the story meant that it was all the same to the Zen master whether he lived or died. And it’s not all the same to me. I'd much rather live.

I don't actually know whether the story is meant to imply that the Zen master had so much insight into the absolute that he really didn't discriminate between living or dying, but I don’t think that matters so much. The point, as I understand it now, is that he understood there was nothing at all for him to do. In the face of being killed, you have two possibilities. You can fight with the moment, either physically or mentally, and create more turmoil in your mind. Or you can say, this is simply what's happening. That’s what happens where something as final as death is in sight. The mind gives up its usual hope for another reality, and when it gives up that hope, the mind relaxes. It doesn't have to look for something else to do. So even though it is the end, it’s without suffering.

It was very important for me to learn the difference between suffering and pain. Suffering is the extra turmoil in the mind over and above the pain of body and mind. The absence of that tension is the absence of suffering. The Zen master could let go of that tension. Even those of us who haven't been doing decades of practice can let go of that tension when we are faced with the inevitable. This is not theoretical. I have seen this with friends of mine who are dying of cancer.

The gesture of fearlessness is a simple gesture of accepting whatever there is. It’s not the “whatever” of adolescence, which combines “couldn't care less” with a little bit of aggression. This “whatever” is the whatever of truth. Things happen because other things have happened. Karma is true. This is what's happening in this moment. It can't be other than this. This is what it is, and that truth is always soothing.

Fearlessness also comes from benevolence and goodwill in the face of whatever oppresses you. You are afraid, but instead of fighting what faces you, you embrace it and accept it—you develop loving-kindness as a direct antidote to fear. This is expressed beautifully in one of the famous images of the Buddha depicting the night of his enlightenment. The Buddha is seated under the Bodhi tree, looking relaxed and contemplative, and apparently surrounded by a protective shield. Surrounding him are the maras, all of the afflictions that assail the mind. Some have spears aimed at the Buddha and some are disguised in erotic imagery, aiming to disrupt the Buddha's concentration, trying to generate the fear that comes from being attacked. But the Buddha sits unmoved, with one hand on the ground, as if to say, “I have a right to be here.” The shield that surrounds him, that protects him from these afflictions, is his benevolence. His own loving-kindness shining out from him is the dissolver of all afflictions.

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