Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Gift of Fearlessness

The virtue of the practice of giving is held in very high regard by the Buddhist Sutras, as in:
“From the Cariyapitaka Atthakatha, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views: The Brahmajala Sutta and Its Commentaries (BPS, 1978), pp. 289-96, pp. 322-23.
The perfection of giving is to be practiced by benefiting beings in many ways — by relinquishing one's happiness, belongings, body and life to others, by dispelling their fear, and by instructing them in the Dhamma.

Herein, giving is threefold by way of the object to be given: the giving of material things (amisadana), the giving of fearlessness (abhayadana), and the giving of the Dhamma (dhammadana).”
It is a very wonderful practice that the Red Clay Sangha is embarking upon to allow our members the opportunity to give their own Time, Talent and Treasure to make our programs available to the community. We can look at these program gifts from all three aspects – the physical space, the ability for all to come and the availability of the dharma. We give joyfully and freely. We give without expectation of return or reward. This is great joy and gladness.

This morning I would like to speak about one aspect of giving as described by the sutra above – the Gift of Fearlessness. In talks later this month, my friends will speak about giving material things and the dharma.

Giving Fearlessness
“The giving of fearlessness is the giving of protection to beings when they have become frightened on account of kings, thieves, fire, water, enemies, lions, tigers, other wild beasts, dragons, ogres, demons, goblins, etc.”
It is this “etc…” which I find the most frightening and evident as a cause of suffering in the world today.

Burma’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi, in her riveting 1990 speech “Freedom From Fear” begins:
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. … With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.”
Traditional Views of Gifts of Fearlessness
Fearlessness is a traditional concept in Asian cultures – so much so that there is a Sanskrit word for it (ABHAYA), a mudra (image top) and teachings on it in all major eastern spiritual traditions. Traditionally, this is a gift given by rulers, leaders and others in power to their subjects of assurances not only of protection, but of using their powers only as protection and not being harmful to their subjects.

This is traditionally a gift given by those such as the samurai, who promise to use their powers only to protect the weak from the strong. While most of us are not in great positions of power, we can still examine how we use the small positions of power and whether we give a strong gift of fearlessness with these positions. We also, even when not in a position of power, can give fearlessness to others by supporting places of shelter and benefit.

We can also give this gift by not appearing frightening, but by behaving in moral, ethical and generous ways. We can protect those we can (such as by watching the door and clock during meditation for our friends). We can be dependable and not make our friends and family fear for our safety.

More Expansive Views of Gifts of Fearlessness
The concept of giving fearlessness to others can be expanded, I think, far beyond these traditional protections from ogres into many categories. This gift of fearlessness is even something we can give when we do not have it this self. One place to look is at the many ways we can become this fearlessness and give it to others.

Being Love
One area to look at is “being love” and practicing loving-kindness or metta. Sharon Salzberg in Loving-Kindness states:
“To reteach a thing its loveliness” is the nature of metta. Through lovingkindness, everyone and everything can flower again from within. When we recover knowledge of our own loveliness and that of others, self-blessing happens naturally and beautifully.”
How afraid can one be when one knows love from everyone around them. Conversely, is not the lack of love one of our greatest fears?

Being Present with Fear
The gift of ones presence is also a great gift of fearlessness. Thich Nhat Hanh considers this simple gift important enough that in the section on Dana in The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching it is all he describes. Simply being present with other people. That’s it.

This is a particularly important gift to give someone in a fearful situation from which you cannot protect them (such as awaiting medical test results or undergoing treatment). And it can be a very strong gift because giving it forces us to look our own fears in the eye and not shrink away from those in need of just a friendly face or kind word. Or maybe not even more that just another human being in the room.

When I found out that I needed surgery last fall for what was predicted to be cancer (and was) I was quite fearful. Not only because this would make the third time, but because I am the sole caregiver for my disabled husband and his condition has progressed to the point where it is quite demanding. My mother did not wait for me to say anything, but simply informed me that she would be here. How delightful.

Overcoming your own aversion and looking at fear with equanimity is a great gift to everyone else. If you don’t know how important this is and how rare it often is simply rent a wheelchair and use it for a week. Look at how people shy away from you due to their own fears of disability.

Being An Example
We can bring fearlessness to others by showing them our perseverance, resilience and survival as an example. Opening our own fears and courage in the face of suffering (especially sickness, old age and death) can be a great source of fearlessness for others.

Simply continuing to sit still in meditation next to someone even though noises occur outside and urges occur in your legs can bring them fearlessness. 

Being Peace
Another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh is that to have peace you must be peace. And in this vein, what better way to give fearlessness than to be peace. This is perhaps easier said than done. 

“Muslims for Life” Blood Drive
One way I find to “be peace” is to look at ways to turn peoples ideas of enemies around and see them as ourselves. This is often very difficult. That is why I was so happy to read Rick Badie’s column yesterday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Local Muslims offer love and life” which describes a national campaign to retake Islam from the terrorists.

Muslims for Life” is a month-long (September 2011) blood drive by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and Red Cross which seeks to bring Muslims and those of other faiths together to donate blood to honor the 10th anniversary of 9/11. My most recent cancer is less than a year from treatment and so I’ll have to wait until November, but I find this an amazing way to give fearlessness. 

Metta Sutra
To end, I’d like us to chant the “Metta Sutra” together. There is a rather lengthy story of the way that chanting this sutra has the power to calm evil deities and to protect oneself and those around you. It does, at any rate, place one’s mind in a less fearful place.

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