by Wayne Ren-Cheng
There will be experiences in our lives that invoke fear. Of all the possible human emotions, fear is the most primordial of them all, and can take a serious toll on the bodymind. Fear is the progenitor of other negative dispositions such as anger, greed, hatred and envy; in the case of prejudice and hatred they arise from a fear of others that are unlike ourselves in thought or form. The kinds of fear that human beings experience can arise as a result of a misunderstanding of their connection with the world around them, a feeling of being disconnected when that isn’t possible in any real sense. Fear can arise from a refusal to recognize the world as it really is, and to realize our own ability to make choices that will have a positive impact on ourselves and the world around us.
Think of the things you fear. Then consider if that fear is justified or, is that fear based on delusion.
The ability to face fear, and the experiences we encounter that cause it to arise is called courage, a fundamental part of the Buddhist refinement of energy. The refinement of energy, along with generosity, acceptance, moral and ethical character, meditation and wisdom are the pillars of practice for a bodhisattva-in-training. Fear is negative energy. Courage is positive energy that arises when fear is set-aside. 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 it’s 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. Courage is a positive character trait. To risk our current status and stability in order to pursue a greater purpose or goal, to expose ourselves self to risk, humiliation and even physical danger takes courage. Confronting fear is a human endeavor that is tied directly to the Buddhist ideal of the refinement of energy.
The nature of a perceived or real threat determines the type of courage required to overcome it. In developing a comprehensive understanding of how courage relates to the refinement of energy let’s look at three forms of courage: facing death or injury, facing despair and loss of connection, facing the arising of negative dispositions that occur in our moment-to-moment lives. Practicing courage when encountering these experiences we can develop deeper levels of energy.
There are individuals in our society who perform jobs that we automatically credit them with having courage: law enforcement, military (especially those in direct combat situations), firemen for example. These career paths involve the moment-to-moments 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. Courage to pursue such vocations is revealed in seemingly spontaneous acts of bravery arising from a strengthened disposition and habit derived from continuous practice. Then there are courageous individuals who, in the moment, set aside regard for personal injury in order to save a life or defend another from being harmed. They respond without the training and experience, instead responding because they see someone in danger and selflessly go to their aid.
It takes a different kind of courage to battle serious injury or illness, depression and despair. There are levels of suffering can drive a person to choose surrender, to give up rather than continue to experience discontentment, anguish, mental and physical pain. In Mahayana sutras these extreme experiences are described as “terrified by fear of life” and “intimidated by fear of the world”. There is one explanation for the nature of these types of fear, that one fears being disconnected from the world around them by their feelings of pain, separation and low self-regard. It can be extremely difficult to realize that one has an alternative choice to the continuation of suffering through a change of worldview and self-view. We can see examples in the person diagnosed with terminal cancer who chooses to re-imagine their life and embarks on a path of positive action and thought. We may be faced with situations when there seems little hope for a positive outcome. Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the loss of family member, or the loss of a job can leave us feeling alone with our fear and despair. Whether caused by our own bad choices or by forces beyond our control this will bring about a decline in the energy with which we approach life. These crossroads will offer us a hard question to find the answer to, “Can we gather the strength and vitality to energize the bodymind to make a new beginning?”.
The third type of courage is what most of us can practice each moment as a refinement of energy, it happens to each of us as we deal with life’s myriad situations and experiences. We choose to engage with problems and issues rather than avoid them. This allows us to handle the little fears that intrude into our psychoemotional state and push past them in order to lead a productive life. Our well-being, physically and mentally isn’t a given it is something that we must look after and promote each moment and it takes courage to do so. We encounter risks and experience weaknesses and by being aware of this basic fear we can accept it and take appropriate actions when necessary.
To engage in the rigorous self-honesty that will lead you to personal development and the ability to act as an agent of positive change takes courage. To confront long held beliefs and attitudes, decide through verification if they are useful, and then to commit to transforming them takes the energy that comes from courage. Engaging issues with family and relationships as they arise, rather than procrastinating or avoiding them takes courage. Realizing ways to turn those issues to harmonious and happy results for everyone involved takes the energy that comes from courage.
Courage is much more than the rare disposition of self-assertive bravery and disregard for personal safety that occurs in the midst of crises. It reveals itself as an ingredient in how we go about living our lives and responding to the everyday situations we encounter. Courage is a component of each of the Buddhist refinements. A real practice of generosity, situational ethics and morality, and acceptance require us to tap into our sense of courageous thought and action. Courage requires a Buddhist to go beyond self-interest to a realization that there are instances when one must endure the possibility of self-loss. We must be willing to set aside our own interests in order to achieve something larger than ourselves, at its core courage is a generosity of spirit that transcends our sense of self.
To be truly courageous takes faith and trust. It is not optimism or the knowledge that things will go our way when we act courageously; it is the realization that taking risks CAN lead to encompassing positive results and we are willing to take the chance.