Buddhism and Fear

During the question and answer period at the World Buddhist University after Kris’s talk on the Bodhisattva Tara, a member of the audience asked about whether Buddhism was governed by fear as is, according to him, Christianity. In Christianity, he said, people are motivated because they fear the fires of hell and the like, and he seemed to think that Buddhism offers a way out of this. However, when he heard the idea that there were a lot of hell beings in Buddhism as well as hungry ghosts, who are wandering around in samsara, he felt rather uneasy and proclaimed that Buddhism was not governed by fear. For him this would return to the same situation. Buddhists appear to be motivated also by fear, fear of having to wander around in samsara, spending some lives as hell beings, others as hungry ghosts, etc.

This is a good point for reflection. Is Buddhism governed by fear? Does the teaching of the Buddha demand credence and obedience because you will taste the fires of hells if you fail to do so? Nothing is further from the truth. The first difference between Buddhism and a theistic religion like Christianity is the absence of the supreme being who upholds the laws. According to the questioner here, the Christian God is a fearsome creature, one who metes out punishments to those who do not obey his commands. You had better behave well, or else God will punish you. This is a very popular picture indeed. And one could then extrapolate that onto Buddhism. If you do not behave well, then watch out for the lives of hell beings, hungry ghosts or non-human animals.

I am not an expert of Christianity, but I think he is wrong on both counts. I don’t believe that Christianity is governed by fear in such a way that anyone who does not behave will immediately be angrily punished by an unforgiving God. If that is true, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross? But I leave a more nuanced answer to the Christian theologian. My concern is with Buddhism. Since there is no God, the impersonal law of karma seems to stand in His place as the ultimate law giver and upholder. But do things really work that way in Buddhism?

Not at all. Fear is one of the defilements and destructive emotions that we need to get rid of in order to have any hope for Liberation or nirvana. We fear because deep down we believe that there is this individual self, this ‘me’ inside that we need to protect. And whenever we feel that this ‘I’ is being threatened, we fear and we react as a result. We either run away, or confront the threat head on, fully intent on destroying the threat, all in order to protect this sense of the self, this ‘me’ inside.

According to this picture, the questioner’s fear is perhaps due to his unexamined and unfounded belief that there is his ‘self’ that he thinks is there and needs protection. Since he does not want his self to be grilled and boiled in one of the Buddhist hells, he fears that this will happen so he is motivated to follow the Buddha’s teaching. However, he feels that this is not right because there should not be any fear; more importantly, any teaching that is based on fear is not a right one.

He is right in thinking that no teaching should be based on fear. But his problem is that he has this rather strong sense of fear inside. So whenever he hears about hell beings, hungry ghosts and the like, he feels very uneasy. Instead of looking at these creatures with compassionate eyes, thinking of how they have come to suffer like this and how they should be helped, he wants to run away from them with fear.

The key is to eliminate all fear altogether. This cannot be done unless the sense of the individual self, the ego, the ‘I’, is totally eradicated. Then one has no fear and in that situation instead of looking at hell beings or hungry ghosts with fear, one realizes that they are intensely suffering and then shares a lot of their sufferings, feeling the same thing as they actually do. Out of the compassion, one then does anything in one’s power to help them. Actually these beings happen to be there because of their strong defilements, strong mental obscurations. Having eradicated all the sense of the ego, the Bodhisattva then has no boundary between herself and all beings around her. Everything becomes one and the same. Thus the sufferings of hell beings thus become hers too.

Tara Khadiravana

One of the most powerful meditation techniques is known as “Realizing the Sameness of Oneself and Others and Exchanging Oneself with Others.” Shantideva said that this is the path undertaken by all the realized Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. A necessary element in that is the total elimination of the ego. Having no ego, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas thus have no fear. Shantideva said that they enter the deepest and hottest level of hell out of their compassion for those trapped there as swans lowering themselves onto the lotus pond.


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