Heaven & Earth
We inspire one another when we act in the presence of our fear
Buddhism describes three kinds of gifts: the gift of material things, the gift of the teachings, and the gift of fearlessness, and the last of these is the greatest.
Fear can stop you in your tracks. It can keep you from becoming your full self. You can be walking along the road, your road, and all of a sudden you meet fear, standing right in front of you. If you're like me, you shrink and stiffen.
Fear looks different to different people. Maybe it's a mountain lion in the path in front of you. Maybe it's a hand raised in anger. A cloud of fog, or darkness; a crowd of people, or solitude. Maybe it's a little thing, like the batteries in your flashlight getting dimmer. Maybe it's big, like the war in Iraq.
Whether the danger is inside or outside your head, whether you're facing a tsunami or a memory of abuse, the fear is inside your head, and courage is what you need. The point is not to figure out how to get rid of fear, but to practice meeting it.
Stepping Off the Pole
It takes courage just to be a human being, and we all do many small brave things every day, starting with getting out of bed in the morning into the unknown. Take me, for example, sticking with my hip-hop class at the Y, even though I'm often spinning in the opposite direction from everybody else.
One of my favorite koans, which I think is about courage, is Case 46 from the Mumonkan:
A priest asked, "How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?"
Another eminent master of former times said:
You who sit on the top of the hundred-foot pole,
although you have entered the Way, it is not yet genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
and worlds of the Ten Directions are your total body.
In his book The Gateless Barrier, Robert Aitken comments that the eminent master of the koan is "our teacher of Zen in this age of grave danger to the earth and its music, art, animals, and everything else. He is urging that we move off our seats and transform our attitudes and our systems. If everything is one, then it is also vital that we show that fact in our conduct. Worlds of the Ten Directions are indeed my total body and yours, and we neglect this primordial truth to our peril."
Courage can be invisible.
When you see a man walking down a sunny street, you can't tell that he was just released from prison and has no place to live, that he knows no one in town except some drug dealers, and that he's on his way to apply for a job.
You can't tell that the goalie on your daughter's soccer team spent her morning at the laundromat washing her uniform, because her family doesn't have a washing machine and her mom was at work, and the whole time she was in the laundromat, a crazy man was staring at her.
We can cultivate courage not only for ourselves but in the hope that we will be able to share that courage with each other. Every time you find courage I feel braver.
Susan Moon is editor at Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
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