“The true practitioner of the Way completely transcends all things. Even if heaven and earth were to tumble down, I would have no misgivings. Even if all the Buddhas in the ten directions were to appear before me, I would not rejoice. Even if the three hells were to appear before me, I would have no fear. Why is this so? Because there is nothing I dislike.”
-Chan Master Linji Yixuan (d. 866)
My graduation recital is coming up. For those who aren’t musicians, that’s a 90 minute concert starring yours truly, directed and performed by me with some very good friends of mine. It has been a true teaching – dealing with the organisation, the fear of judgment, the anxiety and especially the self-judgment that arises from it.
In Buddhism, a primary dimension of faith is the idea that personal growth has no limit, and so, we strive toward the archetype of the Buddha (shooting for the stars, I know). One of the aspects of this archetype is the absence of fear.
The thing is, the human animal did not evolve to face the stress and anxiety which come up in the modern world. Our bodies respond to giving a concert or a public speech, driving a car or the stress of an office job as if we are being attacked by tigers in the jungle. It even responds to imagining a stressful situation like that.
As a response our sympathetic and enteric nervous systems kick in, and as you’ve probably noticed these cause a plethora of effects, starting with simple “butterflies in the stomach” and ending with the full-on “fight or flight” response. Since today we know of the brain’s capacity to change (neuroplasticity), the possibility to rewire our circuits to respond to stressful stimuli in a different way is a tangible reality.
Strangely enough, such a change actually starts with the acceptance of our life’s circumstances. Before the fiery cynics among you jump in protest, I don’t mean flaccidly giving up. The practices of requiting animosity and accepting our karma, are actually two of four central practices put forward by the legendary Chan Patriarch Bodhidharma (483-540 AD) when he explained how to enter the Way through practice.
First, the practice of requiting animosity. Here Bodhidharma suggests that when faced with suffering, a practitioner of the Way should think to herself, “Having previously committed all sorts of wrongs, I am now reaping the fruit of my past transgressions, and I should accept it willingly, without any resentment or objection”. This is indeed a very hard practice, which I personally fail at almost daily, but slowly, the possibility of treating adversity in my life as if repaying an old debt is helping me accept my own measure of suffering. And this is becoming more of a reality with each attempt I make.
Second, the practice of accepting our karma. As Buddhists we strive to continuously integrate the insight into the emptiness of self (see the first three paragraphs) with our life, and so inevitably we are left with the understanding that we are steered by karmic conditions -results of various past actions both of others and our own. Bodhidharma puts it this way: “Suffering and joy are experienced together as a result of causes and conditions. Any reward, blessing or honor is a consequence of past causes, and is gone when the necessary conditions are exhausted. So what is there to be joyful about? Knowing that success and failure depend on conditions, the Mind neither gains nor loses, remaining unmoved by the winds of joy. This is to be in harmony with the Way. Therefore it is called the practice of accepting karma.
We can look at both practices as two sides of the same coin, the first dealing with sorrows, the second dealing with joy, and in both cases the recommended approach is to understand that it is not by our willing anything into being that these things come about. This can be a dangerous understanding if we mistake it for an excuse to give up responsibility. It is quite the opposite. It means that there is no praise or blame to be distributed anywhere (some of the world’s punitive justice systems should really think about that), but once an action has been played out, we now must take responsibility for it, and decide what to do with it.
Taking responsibility is really the crux of it. I grew up imagining that being a grown-up means having a job and money and talking about politics and shopping and all that other stuff, but now I see all that as actually being a possible distraction from growing up. Really, growing up means taking responsibility for our life and our circumstances as they are, and deciding how to act based on the facts of our lives. All that we experience, the sum total of the contents of consciousness, is our own responsibility.
Freedom from fear is only possible when we learn to accept responsibility for things exactly as they are. And we will fail at this, constantly. In the weeks of preparation for my recital, I’ve constantly had the self-judging attitude of “I’ve been practicing Buddhism for 10 years, isn’t it about time to stop feeling scared shitless about silly things, like concerts?”. But then I realize – those thoughts are just another manifestation of aversion, a way of not accepting my circumstances, of not requiting animosity.
And then I become thankful for my stable meditation practice, because 5 years ago I was far less equipped to deal with these situations than I am now. So I will keep striving for full freedom from fear, and accepting my many inevitable failures as I do.
May you be free from fear, may you be truly happy and may you be at peace!