Fear: Fear is one of the most controlling feelings that we have. It can physically incapacitate us. Psychologically, it can tie us in knots. What was once a primal reaction to danger, a protector, has in man become a major source of suffering.and an inhibitor of clear thinking and action.
To help free ourselves from fear, we are taught that fear is a product of the mind and empty of intrinsic existence. And we learn from the Buddha that because fear and the other skandhas cause suffering, they are not us, they are not ours, and they are not our selves, because our selves would not cause us such suffering. These lessons are all helpful in our efforts to disengage ourselves from fear and the other skandhas, and yet fear is so deeply embedded in us that it typically remains strong and carries us off with some regularity into its negative world-perspective, even after years of meditation practice. I would include myself in this company.
One morning recently, I woke up and fear sank its claws into me with my first thought and would not let go until, as a defensive measure, I started singing a song in my mind and the fear disappeared. When I sat down to meditate, fear was on top of me again. But as I focused on my breathing, the sounds around me, and the point in front of me, and became present, the fear disappeared again.
I realized then that I had just been given proof that fear is just a product of the mind. If fear had an existence independent of the mind, I would still have felt fear when singing the song or when I concentrated and was present. But since I couldn’t experience both fear and another mind-activity, such as singing or being present, at the same time, and since the mind cannot be in two places at the same time, it follows that fear must be just a product of the mind. (Many people think that the mind can be in two places at the same time, but really what happens is that the mind switches back and forth between subjects instantaneously, so the break isn’t noticed.)
Compare this with the experience of physical pain. Whether I’m singing a song or meditating and present, if I experience physical pain, I will feel it. Such pain is real, it is not a product of the mind.
Ego-Mind: We know that the ego-mind is very powerful. We are aware that when we are in the grip of fear or other feelings and perceptions, we are lost. Our Buddha mind is not accessible. The Buddha said that a man who conquers his ego is stronger than a man who has conquered numerous armies. We are left with the sense that the ego-mind and the Buddha-mind are two separate things doing battle with each other, with the ego-mind in most of us being stronger than our Buddha mind..
But a further step from the proof that fear is just a product of the mind is that the ego-mind and Buddha mind are both part of one mind. As the ego-mind is just a collection of all our feelings and perceptions, such as fear, it is thus, like fear, a product of our mind. And the fact that you can’t both experience fear and sing a song or be present at the same time is thus proof that there is only one mind, not two.
What happens is that from the moment of our birth, we are bombarded with learned experiences that are received by the brain and begin to form synapses, the connections in the brain. Over time, as these learned experiences repeat and build on each other, the synapses grow stronger. They become our ego-mind, our habit-energy, our way of looking at ourselves and the world around us.
On the other hand, the unborn Buddha mind we are born with almost atrophies after birth because it is not watered; the brain typically receives no experiences or learning which creates the synapses that form Buddha mind patterns of behavior, or reaction to things. That is the reason why our ego-mind is so much stronger typically than our Buddha mind.
We often think of the ego as some disembodied spirit that makes us do things. But that is not the case. It is instead a rather clear-cut physiological phenomenon, resulting from our learned experiences, that gives what we call the ego-mind its strength
Buddha Mind: Zen Master Bankei (1622-1693) taught that we all have the unborn Buddha mind at birth and thus are all enlightened at birth. What happens is that we become unenlightened as experience and thoughts turn our Buddha mind into the ego-mind, as explained above.
But as our Buddhist practice deepens, and we water the seeds of our Buddha mind more, synapses start forming that strengthen our unborn Buddha mind. Thus, for example, when we first sit on our cushion and just try to concentrate, let alone meditate, after a few moments we are usually bombarded by thoughts from our ego-mind; our attempts to concentrate and meditate are destroyed. Our ability to concentrate on our breath, sounds, and the visual point before us are very weak.
After years of practice, however, we hopefully reach a point where we can sit, concentrating, in the present moment, for long periods of time without any interruption from our ego-mind. And if a thought does arise, we don’t engage it and it quickly subsides as we return to our concentration.
In his teaching, Bankei provides us with “proof” of the unborn Buddha mind’s existence. Unfortunately, I don’t think that his proof holds water given modern knowledge. Bankei claimed that the fact that even though one is concentrating on someone, such as listening to him, one can hear and identify things that occur outside the temple, he says without thought, is proof that the unborn Buddha mind exists. But what we know from modern research is that what happens in such an instance is that the mind is momentarily deflected from its concentration to identify the sound from learned experience.
However, in line with what I’ve been presenting in this post, we have other proof of the existence of the unborn Buddha mind. Two examples.
Even before we’ve had any exposure to Buddhism we have experiences that prove our unborn Buddha mind. For example, once when I was a young person, I was with a group of friends when we saw a beggar on the street (a rather unusual sight at that time). Instead of reacting with fear and revulsion as the others did and turning away from that person, I spontaneously felt compassion for and opened my heart to that person. I know now that this was my unborn Buddha mind in action. We all have had such experiences.
We have such spontaneous reaction not because we have been trained to do this, far from it. Most people we have observed react in such situations with fear or revulsion (although I doubt if my parents would have, so perhaps my unborn Buddha mind was nurtured). What society teaches us instead to do is to write checks to charity or perhaps even give money to the beggar. These actions are actions of the ego, of our learned experience of what is expected of us, of what we need to do to feel good or look good in the eyes of others.
The other proof is our ability to strengthen our unborn Buddha mind. If we didn’t have the kernel of our unborn Buddha mind within us at birth, there would be nothing to strengthen. No amount of practice could introduce a new habit-energy to displace the ego-mind. Nothing short of shock therapy or a lobotomy could displace the ego-mind.
Now having this understanding, as with other teaching, is all well and good. But how will these proofs further free me or others from suffering and help find peace and happiness?
As a result of my having personally experienced proof that fear is just a product of my mind, I was able to regard fear and say, with a flick of my wrist and arm, “Not me!” … just as my teacher, the monk Huyen Te, did. And fear has at least so far not arisen again.
Similarly, with personal proof now that the five skandhas and thus the ego are also just a product of my mind, I have said regarding them as well, “Not me!” I cannot say though that I feel quite free of my ego at this point. I don’t know that I have rid myself of what the Buddha called, “the conceit of ‘I am.’” However, I do feel that the power of the ego has greatly diminished and as my practice continues I have faith that it will become ever weaker.
The proof that indeed the unborn Buddha mind is within me has reinforced my resolve to water the seeds that strengthen it, that create and enhance the synapses in my brain that lead to Buddha mind patterns of behavior and reactions to things … the Noble Eightfold Path. Walking the path, until one is fully enlightened, is always a work in progress. Each step takes us further and makes it easier to progress yet further.
There is something very important to note here, though, which is rarely or at best infrequently noted in Buddhist texts. One can firmly believe, engage in disciplined meditation, read and otherwise be exposed to wise teachings … one can do all these things and yet still not progress beyond a certain point on the path.
Until you discover the truths of the Buddha dharma from within yourself, as part of your meditation practice and your daily life, you may develop a strong counterbalance to fear and anger and may thus by and large be free of suffering, but you will not be fully free of them. As the Heart Sutra says:
The Bodhisatva Avelokiteshvara,
Practicing the perfection of wisdom, going deep within,
Was illuminated and perceived that
All five skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence.
Thus being at one with all things,
Experiencing things directly without the intervention of thought,
All suffering and doubt ceased.
It was only after the process of going deep within him/herself and perceiving the truth directly, that the bodhisatva was truly freed of the skandhas. There is no other way.
Even with these direct realizations, however, I would not claim to be enlightened. I feel there are other dharma gates yet to penetrate. And so I have a feeling I haven’t seen the last of fear, although when it arises I expect that it will be on a far weaker footing and I shall allow it to quietly subside.