Combatting fear and terror
Commentary on Bhaya-Bherava Sutta
It is the second week of the lock-down in the UK, with stringent restrictions on movement imposed by the government in order to contain pandemic. Economy is barely breathing, people are cooped up in their homes, perhaps in cramped space with their families. Or they are alone, self-isolating or because they live alone. Neither way is an easy one. There is hardly anything else in the news but updates on covid-19, with new cases and death statistics not showing much of slow down. Street are empty, and people who take their daily exercise perform a complex dance when they pass in order to keep 2m distance. As of the moment of writing, there is no end to lock-down in view.
Where and how to escape? Not a question that a Zen practitioner would ask. But some guidance is needed to deal with self- and social isolation as we may experience feelings from the whole spectrum of anxiety, worry, fear, terror…only natural. And that we need to handle. Zen does not put much value on scriptures as such. It is what we do with the message that counts. And where better to look that in the treasure trove of sutras? Let’s take a couple of fragments of Bhaya-Bherava Sutta, Fear & Terror as translated from Pali by Thānissaro Bhikkhu.
Commentary: After enlightenment, the Buddha walked through the Indian continent, teaching. In this sutra his teachings are exposed by setting the scene, place (Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove), and having an interlocutor (Jāṇussoṇin the brahman) asking questions.
The Buddha is referred to as the Blessed One or Master Gotama. We should not forget the historical context: men leaving homes in order to become monks, and living monastic life of poverty and purity. The main question posed here is the Buddha a worthy teacher and leader to these aspirants? How can he show it? In Zen we show, don’t tell. Is this a good example for Zennists?
Let’s turn to the text now.
“I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then Jāṇussoṇin the brahman went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, “Master Gotama, the sons of good families who have gone forth from the home life into homelessness out of conviction in Master Gotama: Is Master Gotama their leader? Is Master Gotama their helper? Is Master Gotama their inspirer? Do they take Master Gotama as their example?”
“Yes, brahman, so it is. The sons of good families who have gone forth from the home life into homelessness out of conviction in me: I am their leader. I am their helper. I am their inspirer. They take me as their example.”
“But, Master Gotama, it’s not easy to endure isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. It’s not easy to maintain seclusion, not easy to enjoy being alone. The forests, as it were, plunder the mind of a monk who has not attained concentration.”
“Yes, brahman, so it is. It’s not easy to endure isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. It’s not easy to maintain seclusion, not easy to enjoy being alone. The forests, as it were, plunder the mind of a monk who has not attained concentration. Before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me as well: ‘It’s not easy to endure isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. It’s not easy to maintain seclusion, not easy to enjoy being alone. The forests, as it were, plunder the mind of a monk who has not attained concentration.’”
Commentary: People leaving lay life, often men after they’ve brought up their families and discharged duties to the society, would take monastic vows and repair to forests. There they were supposed to lead ‘holy’ life. But they had to be prepared to leave the secular world, with its pleasures and pains, behind – since they would be severely tested.
One needs spiritual maturity in order to undertake seclusion, that is to have attained concentration. Being alone in a forest – at Buddha’s times forests must have been full of wild animals and terrifying events such as storms or fires. Then fear and terror would arise in those not fully prepared for life of seclusion.
“The thought occurred to me: ‘When brahmans or contemplatives who are drooling idiots, resort to isolated forest or wilderness dwellings, it’s the fault of their drooling idiocy that they give rise to unskillful fear & terror. But it’s not the case that I am a drooling idiot, when I resort to isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. I am consummate in discernment. I am one of those noble ones who are consummate in discernment when they resort to isolated forest or wilderness dwellings.’ Seeing in myself this consummate discernment, I felt even more undaunted about staying in the wilderness.
“The thought occurred to me: ‘What if — on recognized, designated nights such as the eighth, fourteenth, & fifteenth of the lunar fortnight — I were to stay in the sort of places that are awe-inspiring and make your hair stand on end, such as park-shrines, forest-shrines, & tree-shrines? Perhaps I would get to see that fear & terror.’ So at a later time — on recognized, designated nights such as the eighth, fourteenth, & fifteenth of the lunar fortnight — I stayed in the sort of places that are awe-inspiring and make your hair stand on end, such as park-shrines, forest-shrines, & tree-shrines. And while I was staying there a wild animal would come, or a peacock would make a twig fall, or wind would rustle the fallen leaves. The thought would occur to me: ‘Is this that fear & terror coming?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘Why do I just keep waiting for fear?
What if I, in whatever state I’m in when fear & terror come to me, were to subdue that fear & terror in that very state?’ So when fear & terror came to me while I was walking back & forth, I would not stand or sit or lie down. I would keep walking back & forth until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was standing, I would not walk or sit or lie down. I would keep standing until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was sitting, I would not lie down or stand up or walk. I would keep sitting until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was lying down, I would not sit up or stand or walk. I would keep lying down until I had subdued that fear & terror.”
Commentary: we must not forget the context of this teaching. There is a world of difference between monastic and lay lives, and some two and half thousand years, time difference between the Buddha’s time and now. Lay persons fears and worries have different origin than those of monks, especially in time of pandemic. Becoming ill and perhaps dying from contracting the virus, loss of jobs, money debts, housing, provision for oneself and family, looking after animals: farming and domestic, … But such fear and terror aren’t less scary that being alone in the forest.
Buddha tells us that we need to keep strong and concentrated mind in order to combat the fear, and squarely face it. He does not explain how he subdued fear and terror; as if it would have followed from having a concentrated mind.
It is left to us to find ways to deal with our fears. This may require more than just sitting until we see fear for what it is, and subdue it. Some people may lock the horns with it and fight until it’s over; some may take softly-softly approach and crush it little by little. Sometimes an external help may be needed. But the basis is to accept the situation which brought about fear and keep a concentrated mind.
Then we can take possible and necessary action calmly, while still acknowledging that there are no guarantees. The future is uncertain for every single one of us. Years ago at a sesshin Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi had one look at me and said: ‘zazen is your home’; like answering my unspoken question.
Let’s do zazen and find our home there.
With deep gratitude to Thānissaro Bhikkhu, https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN4.html