by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Courage is not something many people credit themselves with. It is a disposition that most people find difficult to recognize in themselves. We each face challenges and the need to make hard decisions in our lives and doing those things takes courage, courage as a tool of transition from how things are to how you imagine they could be. You look at the definition of courage and it says that courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. Looking at courage more pragmatically will show that it is facing difficulty, danger, pain, etc. while setting aside fear. The fear is there, it is just not allowed to play a damaging role. Fear manifests in the form of procrastination, of avoidance, and of denial when we face challenges and difficult decisions. The arising of courage is also a transition to action. Courage arises and fear falls away as a result of challenges and decisions being faced and actions taken.
The ability to face fear, to respond with courage is a fundamental part of the Buddhist refinement of energy. Courage is not only needed to face some of the moment-to-moment aspects of daily life, but it is critical when faced with “spiritual weakness”. When, in practice we come to the “Plateau of Great Doubt” it is easy to quit, to let spiritual weakness have its way. Applying the energy of courage we can see past that doubt to a continuing path. We can employ courage to delve deeper into study, to find new commitment to practice, and to ask those questions we’ve may have hesitated to ask before. It takes courage to set-aside what we think we know in order to learn. Courage is a positive character trait. To risk our current status and stability in order to pursue a greater purpose or goal, to expose ourself self to risk, humiliation and even physical danger takes courage. Courage allows us to met challenges head-on and make appropriate decisions even when they are difficult ones.
The life and actions of Mahatma Ghandi offer one example, from many, of courage in the face of challenge. Ghandhi said about courage, “Who acts courageously and for what purpose? One could be courageous for the sake of a woman and, even for the sake of wealth. However, all this is like being courageous in order to jump into a well. Courage should be shown for the purpose of swimming across to the other shore. The supreme effort should be made for the sake of self-realization.” Ghandi’s courage in promoting and acting with non-violence changed the face of India and of the world. You might say, “I am no Ghandi.” That is true, but then Ghandi was no you either. As Ghandi applied his own unique expression of courage to the issues of his day and culture, so too can each of us apply a unique expression of courage to the challenges we face in our moment-to-moment experience.
Who acts courageously? Anyone who is faced with a challenge and strives to overcome it does so with courage. For what purpose? That depends entirely on the situation one is in. It ranges from soldiers deployed in Afghanistan facing hostile forces and an unforgiving terrain in order to protect themselves and others, to someone who has made the decision to enact real positive changes to how they are. We can also employ courage for reasons of self-regard and self-aggrandizement, for selfish pursuits. This can be a waste of a powerful tool for engaging in positive thoughts and actions. Courage is an act of energy and of intent that is better performed when the outcome of a situation will add to human flourishing of both the practitioner and the world around us.
There are individuals in our society who perform jobs that automatically credit them with possessing courage: law enforcement, military (especially those in direct combat situations), and firemen are examples. These career paths involve the moment-to-moment possibilities of death or bodily injury while protecting the lives and property of others. To choose dangerous lines of work takes courage and then courage is further developed through training and practice. Such vocations involve spontaneous acts of bravery arising from a strengthened disposition and habit derived from continuous practice. Then there are courageous individuals who, in one particular moment they set aside regard for personal injury or death in order to save a life or defend another from being harmed. These are the ones we rightly call heroes.
The ancient teachers of the Buddhist doctrine were well aware that courage is an essential feature of true faith. They therefore compared faith to a strong and courageous hero who plunges ahead into the turbulent waters of a stream to lead safely across the weaker people who timidly stop at the shore, or, excitedly and in vain, run up and down the bank engaged in useless arguments about the proper place to cross. This simile can be applied to the social as well as to the inner life. In the case of social life, the “weaker people” are those who are willing to follow and support a leader but who cannot make a start by themselves. In the case of the inner life, the “weaker people” are those qualities necessary for spiritual progress which are either undeveloped or isolated from their supplementary virtues.
Such a powerful tool as courage should be used to achieve positive objectives. Buddhist practice is not easy but when we recognize the value of the lessons of the Four Ennobling Truths, and the values of acting with compassion and altruism we come to realize that reaching the “other shore”, that by living the noble life of the Middle Path we will contribute positively to our lives and the lives of others.
It takes courage to engage in a meaningful Buddhist practice. It takes courage to ‘go first’. Too act with compassion when no one else is . . . to act with patience when no one else is . . . to offer respect and trust when no one else does . . . these are acts of courageous faith in our experience with the Way. An Engaged Buddhist goes first, we openly offer respect and trust, and approach the commitments of others with the ideal of pluralism. It takes courage to set aside the fear that respect may not be returned, that trust may be broken and abused, or that our own commitments might be attacked or ridiculed. We know that what we do matters and by acting and thinking positively we will have an encompassing and corrective effect . . . the causal nature of Universe offers us proof through our own experiences. Courage is a Tool of Transition for a practicing Buddhist.
Developing an rigorously honest awareness of how we really are and how the world around us really is takes courage. It isn’t easy to be honest about our negative dispositions and habits, nor is it easy to change them. These are the first challenges anyone faces in their Buddhist practice. Negative dispositions like fear, hatred, anger, ignorance and others may have been part of one’s modality for so long that they are comfortable ways of being. We may even have realized that they aren’t “good” ways of being but we haven’t had the courage to face the difficulty of changing them. In the face of inevitable mistakes it takes courage to really practice generosity, situational ethics, and tolerance . . . to engage in deep meditative practice and to act with wisdom. In the face of fear it takes courage to apply rigorous self-honesty to ourselves, revealing weaknesses of character; then to have the courage to work toward a real and honest change to a stronger more compassionate character. This is the supreme effort that Ghandi referred to. It takes that kind of effort to achieve the self-realization that allows the whole of Buddhist practice to encompass how we are in relation to the causal Universe.
Learning to engage our courage comes with experience. Like any other aspect of practice we come to recognize the value of an action by the causal effects generated. With each application of courage to overcome thoughts of procrastination, avoidance or fear, and experiencing the positive outcomes both to ourselves and others, then wisdom will dictate that acting with courage is useful and productive.
I often say, “Is Buddhist practice easy? No. Is Buddhist practice worth it? Yes.” To put effort into a practice that isn’t easy, that may bring up negative emotions and memories, and that requires commitment also takes courage. Whenever we stand firm to our commitments to positive self-development, to compassion, to human flourishing, and to the alleviation of suffering even when our experience shows us that others don’t understand it or accept it . . . we do so courageously.