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Smile at Fear
by Carolyn Rose Gimian
Spiritually speaking, I come from an
eccentric family. The patriarch of my family was the Indian mahasiddha
Tilopa who, while spiritually accomplished, was not motivated by worldly
success. He held humble jobs: grinding sesame seeds into oil during
the day, and at night, procuring clients for a prostitute. Later in
life, having attained the supreme realization of the Vajrayana, he became
a wandering yogi, known to feast on fish entrails left by fisherman
down by the lake. At least, that’s the story passed down to me, told
with a great deal of family pride.
His spiritual son, Naropa,
was a renowned scholar at the greatest Indian university of his era,
Nalanda. After realizing that he didn’t understand the inner meaning
of the texts he was studying, he left the university to study with Tilopa.
Naropa was subjected to a series of difficult trials by his teacher,
such as jumping off buildings or lying in leech-infested water. Eventually,
he attained complete, stainless enlightenment when Tilopa whapped him
across the cheek with his sandal.
The next forefather, Marpa,
owned a farm in Tibet and was married with children. From time to time,
he travelled to India to study the dharma. There he found Naropa. Marpa
had brought a bag of gold dust to make offerings to the teachers he
encountered. When Naropa demanded the whole bag, Marpa didn’t want
to part with it, but he gave in. At that point, Naropa scattered the
gold dust into the air, singing: “Gold, gold, what is gold to me?
The whole world is gold to me.” This was the beginning of Marpa’s
training with Naropa, which led to his ultimate liberation.
The next spiritual son, Milarepa,
studied black magic and sent a hailstorm to destroy the farm of his
aunt and uncle, who had made him and his mother into servants, but the
vengeance did not fundamentally satisfy him. Eventually he found Marpa,
who asked him to construct a series of buildings in exchange for receiving
the teachings. Milarepa had to carry large boulders and shove them into
place by himself, but Marpa would show up, often drunk, and ask Milarepa
just what in the name of heaven he was doing. Ordered to dismantle the
edifice, he would have to put up another somewhere else. Finally, when
Mila was completely broken down and close to suicide, Marpa give him
formal initiation. Mila eventually left to pursue meditation in solitude,
spending the remainder of his life in caves, surviving mainly on nettles
(to the point of developing a green glow). Milarepa sang to anyone who
came by his cave, leaving thousands of songs of realization for us to
These are some of the early
forefathers of the Kagyu school of Vajrayana Buddhism, a lineage that
has continued in this manner down to the present day. It is currently
led by the His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, who had to make a dangerous
escape from Tibet in order to receive thorough training and education.
These life stories of the great figures of the Kagyu lineage show us
what extreme human beings they were. The wisdom that comes from this
family tree is extreme wisdom, and it may be just what is needed
for the current situation.
This article is not intended
to make you long for the “fish-entrails diet.” Nor does it prescribe
the “sandal-whap facial,” the “throw your money in the air”
freeing-therapy, or the “if you build it, you will tear it down”
theory of insight. Rather, it asks: What helpful insights can we glean
from the teachings of people like these? Why would we turn to such people
Because they were all
fearless. They were not intimidated by external difficulties. In
fact, they approached their lives with spontaneity, humor, and a sparkling
sense of dignity and decorum that were completely independent of outside
circumstances. They were not preoccupied with themselves or their problems.
They were concerned about others; in fact, they embodied compassion,
either ruthless or gentle depending on what was called for. And they
were very, very wise, in the ways of the world, the ways of the heart,
and the ways of the spirit.
In tough times, we need wisdom
that is not dependent on conditions. When things are falling apart,
we need wisdom that is not propped up. The basis for this wisdom is
freedom—freedom from confusion, freedom from fear, and interestingly
enough, freedom from extreme views. Extreme views in this context means
eternalism and nihilism, the belief in either existence or nonexistence
as ultimate reality or saving grace. The origin of this wisdom is simplicity,
or nonattachment, which is a bit less threatening than calling it “riding
on the razor’s edge,” which might also apply.
Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Mila,
and all their descendants exemplified the freedom of profound simplicity
or naturalness of mind, which can adapt to and transform any external
circumstance. Their lifestyles might look extremely unconventional to
us, perhaps even unspiritual, but in fact these were people completely
at ease in their world, having nothing more to attain and nothing more
to give up.
How can we, as beginners
on the path, relate to this way of being? To follow their example does
not mean mimicking their behavior. Rather than trying to imitate or
adopt something external, which will never be a thoroughly satisfying
solution, we need to emulate their inner practice and, ultimately, their
state of mind.
This may seem like a tall
order, but to begin, at least, it is not that complicated. In the beginning,
we need simply to examine what’s taking place; we need to familiarize
ourselves with ourselves. As long as we are in a state of panic, it
is very difficult to actually see what is happening to us, to others,
or to the world altogether. So in the beginning, developing simplicity
means making friends with our fear. When the situation in the world
around us inspires panic, we may regard that panic as something unusual
or extraordinary. But actually, we are panicked all the time. Fear is
already an old friend.
However, fear is so ingrained
in us, as anxiety and denial, that we generally don’t recognize it.
We try to suppress our awareness of it. But in extreme times, this becomes
harder to do. To keep ourselves from feeling panicked, we have to build
a much denser wall of denial and self-deception, which we construct
from the building blocks that the Buddhist teachings call the three
poisons: passion, aggression, and ignorance.
On the other hand, we could
take the approach that an extreme time is an opportunity as well as
an obstacle. We could even celebrate and encourage the chance to bring
fear to the surface, into the open. We could welcome our fear for the
opportunity it brings us to develop fearlessness. Fear is not the enemy,
unless we allow it to become that. Instead, fear can be conquered. But
that requires that when we see fear, we smile—an image imparted to
me by my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.