When we talk about courage we think about bravery, power, strength and fearlessness. Courage is the opposite to fear. But today we are not talking about ordinary courage and bravery. We are not talking about the type of bravery that you need to parachute, or to climb mountains or any other activity that puts your life in danger.
We are talking about a different kind of courage, the true courage and fearlessness that arises from understanding who we really are: understanding no self. Ultimate courage is the recognition and realisation that the self is non-existent. That is what the Buddha embodied and one of the qualities of the Buddha is total and utter fearlessness, total courage.
This is the courage to take on the sufferings of all beings, to do what is needed to help others, the total courage that arises out of fearlessness. This is the courage that doesn’t always think of me, that isn’t always trying to protect myself because anything based on me, mine, my self is based on fear. And fear gives rise to a lot of accompanying problems. All the negative emotions are based on fear.
When we don’t know who we really are, when we are in a state of uncertainty all sorts of possibilities arise and this can give rise to fear, uncertainty, and worry. What is around the corner? What is in the darkness? Anything could happen. When we don’t know who we really are, everything is based on this ignorance. Lack of certainty creates fear, lack of clarity creates fear. We feel threatened. When there is a strong sense of self we are frightened of all the things that can threaten this self and everything that we hold dear.
There are many different levels to courage and to fear and we can’t just jump straight from ordinary bravery into ultimate courage and fearlessness. But we can gradually get to understand that the root of suffering is ignorance, not knowing who we are. All of the negative emotions including fear, anger, and anxiety are a way of the ego building itself up, protecting itself, solidifying its own existence. It is all about building up our ego.
We hold on to this sense of ego because we don’t really know who we are. Ego is very vulnerable. Sometimes it seems as if it is very powerful but actually the ego is very vulnerable and needs to believe that it is ok, that it is strong. So all of these various layers are built on top of each other to try and solidify our sense of self and to try and build a little castle around this cocoon we have created. Courage, this sense of courage that we are talking about, is a type of peace.
When we have real peace of mind, it’s not bravery in the ordinary sense. It’s not being able to take on a crowd, or a gang in a street who are attacking a helpless person. Of course if we can defend somebody who needs defending that is very good, but that’s not the type of courage we are talking about here. In the Buddhist teachings what you talk about is the courage that comes out of utter peace of mind. When we come to the recognition that self is non-existent, self cannot be harmed, self is an illusion, we recognise that the only thing to fear is fear itself.
Courage comes when we understand that there isn’t anything to fear and we don’t need to hold onto anything. We don’t need to hold on, we don’t need to run away, we don’t need to avoid. Courage, ultimate courage, comes from understanding that we have nothing to fear because we understand who we are, we understand our true nature. And so we have peace of mind.
We have achieved tranquillity, shamata or shinay. We have achieved a pliancy of mind that means we can place our mind where we want to place it and it will stay there. That’s what we call pliancy. In our meditation we are able to focus on an object and leave our focus there and it will stay. Our mind has become workable to that degree. We develop some inner peace.
A common term for bodhisattva is pawo and that means literally a hero. There is a book called Path of Heroes that refers to the courage of a bodhisattva, someone who has achieved true courage where they take on the suffering of others, work for the benefit of others, are able to give happiness to others. They have the courage to be present, to be truly present, to be awake like a Buddha. You could say it is a courage that comes out of somebody who has really woken up, like the Buddha who was also called
The Awakened One. Where there is clarity, real constant clarity there is no fear, there is no room for fear. It’s a bit like shadows and sunshine. If you have sunshine coming in through the window you don’t have shadow falling in the same place at the same time. You can’t have sunshine and shadow in the same place, one excludes the other. When we have clarity of mind fear dissolves. With clarity of mind anxiety dissolves. Clarity is a remedy. The remedy for ignorance is meditation and developing clarity.
The more clarity we have in the mind, the less room there is for uncertainty, worry, anxiety, all the different possibilities of what could happen. There is no room for all these dark thoughts. Fear arises out of thinking: something could happen, I might get attacked from behind, of from the side, from above, from the front, anything could happen. Fear arises because we are not actually present, we are busy thinking about where the dangers are.
Courage is the opposite, total utter presence, looking the present moment in the face, not trying to look over our shoulder to see what is coming next. If we have presence of mind, clarity of mind, this will dissolve our fear, whatever the fear is. It could be fear of an enemy, fear of death, fear of natural disasters, fear of sickness, fear of losing our close ones, fear of losing our job, fear of earthquakes, fear of environmental or external threats, any sort of fear. It could be the simple fear of embarrassment, like stage fright, one of the most common fears.
If we think of it, many of the fears we have are quite illogical. We get so overwhelmed by fear, but if we have more clarity of mind which we have developed through mindfulness and meditation, then those fears will not overwhelm us. They will become smaller and smaller. Our courage will grow more and more. The remedy is to develop your strength of meditation, this pliancy of mind where you can stay in the present moment.
It’s not like you are solidifying anything by staying in the present moment, you are just being with what is. You are just here, just in the moment as it is. That is where we should be. We are not somewhere else, thinking up all these different possibilities.
The emotions are based on this vulnerable ego that is trying to build up a castle of defence around itself. We are trying to prove to ourselves that we exist. To free ourselves and to develop courage we need to develop more strength in meditation. From the ultimate point of view courage is wisdom. It’s not ordinary bravery, like I said, but it is the wisdom of knowing who we really are, of knowing the nature of what is truly here, of being in the present.
Sometimes it is called enlightened courage. There is also the wisdom of knowing there is no enemy. If there is no self, there is no other. The whole path of understanding non-duality is the ultimate courage. We have to go through that very gradually, but it is where our meditation will bring us. It is where shinay meditation will bring us, this focus on the object where we strengthen our ability to rest the mind on the object, longer and longer. We develop this pliancy of mind, shin jong in Tibetan, which means thoroughly trained, thoroughly purified.
By bringing our mind back to the present again and again, like a horse that needs to be trained, we are training our wild mind to come back again and again. We are thoroughly training our mind, thoroughly purifying our mind and that creates pliancy.
The definition of mental pliancy is that your mind will abide one-pointedly on a chosen object for as long as you wish. Now that is a tall order isn’t it? For as long as you wish! But that is what we are aiming for. We want to stay in the present moment, stay with your object longer and longer. In the beginning there are gaps, maybe we can only stay for a short time and we drift off, come back, stay again, drift off again. It’s like a patchwork with lots of holes, rips in our tapestry.
We need to try and minimise the holes, the gaps, to be able to stay longer and longer on our object. And then we develop this tranquillity, which is the ground for all the good qualities such as courage, fearlessness, compassion, generosity, patience. They will arise out of tranquillity. They are a natural part of the mind. The root of tranquillity is contentment and having few desires. When we are content and have few desires our mind is not constantly striving for this and for that.
It all goes together. It’s not just a matter of working hard at our meditation like a hard slog, we need to look at all these different aspects. We need to minimise our desires because we cannot have both tranquillity and a mind full of desires, they are totally opposite. We cannot have courage and a mind full of desires. They are also opposite. If we have a mind full of desires, we develop attachment, we become afraid of losing the things we are attached to so we run away from the things we are afraid of, the things we want to avoid. It’s that usual pattern we have, avoiding or grasping.
Ignorance creates fear: ignorance of not knowing who we are creates fear. Anger also arises out of fear. When we feel threatened, physically, mentally, or verbally, our reaction is one of fear. When we are afraid that we might lose something anger comes out of that fear. Desire is also based on fear. We are afraid, we feel hollow and empty so we want to fill up that empty hole with something. We desire to fill up that sense of incompleteness, the incompleteness of who we are.
We feel the lack of something because we are not content with what is there. If there was contentment there would not be desire. This sense of incompleteness arises as we feel that we are not good enough, that things are not complete without whatever it is we desire. We desire many things, company, material things, friends, position in our job, approval, so many things that we feel that without those things we are not good enough, we are not complete, and we are afraid of not being complete.
Pride and arrogance are also based on fear of not being good enough. We put ourselves above others but actually we fear that others are better than us. We fear that we are not good enough. The same goes for jealousy: we are afraid that others are better than us. We are competing with others: they have more than I have, they get better quality things, they have a better position, better looks, more friends than I have.
And the basic fear of ignorance is fear of freedom, fear of spaciousness because we are actually quite comfortable in our own little prison. We prefer our own little habits even though they can be uncomfortable because there are familiar. We are afraid of the vastness of freedom from suffering. So when we really honestly look at the emotions we can see that they are all based on fear. And they are experienced as negative because they are based on this ego, this sense of self.
It’s all about me. Whenever we have felt very angry, very upset in any way we can look directly to the core of the emotion and we can see that it is all about me. That’s the problem. We can actually cut right through to the root of it and say: Wow, I am so self-indulgent right now! Why should everything be all about me? If you can manage at that moment to look right through it you can dissolve the emotions there and then.
Of course we have many different variations, many different combinations of all of that. But true courage is when we have freedom, when we are not overwhelmed by those emotions. True courage is going beyond anger, desire, jealousy, pride, all of that. It’s seeing through them due to our meditation. We don’t become overwhelmed. It’s a courage that is totally free from aggression. It’s only with peace of mind that we can have real courage.
Where there is aggression it is not true courage. It is a form of ordinary bravery perhaps, but this courage we are talking about is free from aggression. And it starts with a discovery of fear. We have to recognise fear. We have to face our fears. To become courageous we have to face our fears and to recognise that fear comes out of our confusion. If we can really be present, synchronising mind and body, we will have less fear, we will have less anxiety, we will feel less inadequate. So fearlessness and courage is based in the present moment. We have to be present.
It’s about here and now. It’s not a theoretical thing. It is about waking up. The courage that we are talking about, is about waking up to the present moment. All the teachings point us towards that. That is what the Buddha taught us. All of those teachings are about waking up to the present moment and recognising that this strong belief in a self is our downfall, the root of our suffering.
Being rooted in the present through synchronising mind and body is what we are trying to do through meditation. If we can bring ourselves into the present moment, and wake up, our anxiety and fears will diminish and we will have more confidence. We will develop more confidence gradually, becoming more capable in our meditation. If we have the discipline to work with meditation we will definitely get results. There is no doubt about that.
All the teachings tell us that the way to develop courage is to face our fears, and that is not easy because fear is a very subtle thing, like a little shadow that creeps in. Sometimes there is a sense that fear is there all the time. People have different fears, they have different emphasis of their fears and their anxieties. We had somebody in Samye Dzong London who was terrified of mice! We had mice at one point in the old centre, lots of mice. We tried to stuff all the holes and cracks in the building but there was no way we could get rid of the mice and there were more and more of them.
This person had a phobia about mice, a real paranoia about mice and she came across some in the library. This was a terrible dilemma, because it stopped her from going to her Dharma centre. She couldn’t practise, she couldn’t come to teachings, what was she to do? So she talked to Lama Yeshe Rimpoche about it. We don’t have mice all the time in the centre! But if you have a phobia you will see mice, you will expect them.
Once there was a mouse running along and then she wouldn’t put her feet in the library again. So he told her: You should go to the zoo and you should go and look at all those places where they have glass on the wall and through the glass you see all the mice. They are living there, you can see how they live, you can see their nest and in the beginning you are afraid and you can hardly bear looking at them and your heart is pounding and it makes you feel nervous, but gradually by becoming familiar, getting close, you will overcome your fears. We have to face our fears by not running away.
It doesn’t mean we have to do all the dangerous things in the world, that we have to become reckless and jump from airplanes or do mountain climbing, we don’t have to challenge ourselves to that point but we have to look at our mind and see our weaknesses. And fear is a weakness. Fear holds us back. Where is my weakness? How does it hold back my development on my path? How does it stop me from developing the qualities that I need to blossom into a complete human being so that I can have a mind of peace, so that I can benefit others? How do my fears obstruct me in my life and on my path? Then we have to work with that.
Based on this sense of self and separation from others there is what you could call a fundamental fear, and we can’t overcome that until we have true realisation. But we can work with other levels of fear. We can develop courage and fearlessness in many different areas. I would say fear of death is something we all have to face. So we should contemplate death, we should become familiar, just like this person going to the zoo, looking at mice.
I actually don’t know if she overcame her fear completely but it’s a good example of a method of confronting, facing fear rather than just running away. You need to look at it gradually, patiently, coming closer and closer. It’s like that with any type of fear, including our fear of death. We should think about death. We should contemplate death. We should imagine the different ways there are of dying. We should try to think of what would be my preferred way of dying, and what are the possibilities?
We should try and imagine these things. What is the worst case scenario of my own death? What are the most painful things and the things I fear the most about dying? Is it being separated from the ones I hold dear, my loved ones? Is it being separated from my body? Is it the unknown? That is something we all have to face and in a sense this is what our dharma practice is very much about. This is what Akong Rimpoche would tell us again and again on the retreat.
You are here to prepare yourself for death, and to be able to live your life fully. So that we can have a good death, hopefully. A good death doesn’t mean that our body necessarily dies well, but if our mind dies well then that is ok. What we die from will be less important than the fact of our mind being capable of accepting our death, and being able to die without fear, without anxiety, without regret, having the courage to face our own mortality and impermanence.
That is something we definitely need to contemplate and face. Fear of death. Most people have fear of death. You might have fear of spiders! Fear of snakes, fear of war, fear of losing your job, fear of whatever, fear of confrontation, fear of crowds, some people have fear of open spaces, they can’t go out. There are so many different types of fear, but it debilitates us and if we work with it and face it, we can minimise it, gradually, gradually by bringing in this clarity, bringing in more courage. Courage will arise as the clarity comes. And this courage is based on wisdom.
Somebody said that we need fear to survive, but I think the answer to that is that we need wisdom to survive. We don’t need fear, we need wisdom. If we have wisdom in a situation, we know what to do. If we have clarity in a situation we know what to do. If we don’t have wisdom, maybe it’s good to have the flight syndrome where you run very fast if you get threatened, adrenalin can be helpful. But actual wisdom is what we need more than anything, courage based on wisdom .
So to start with we need to have the courage to work with our own mind, the courage to face our fears and the courage to work with our mind. And we do that through meditation, by developing clarity, recognising how all these worries and anxieties are just thoughts. Thoughts that we bring up, anxieties we bring upon ourselves, fears that we bring upon ourselves through thinking. And so we try to snap out of it.
The more you see that, the more you learn to snap out of it quicker, quicker and quicker. With the emotions it is said that there are three different approaches. The negative emotions of anger, desire jealousy, pride, ignorance, are opposite to tranquillity. They obscure tranquillity, they obscure clarity. So there are three general approaches to dealing with them and they are normally called Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
As practitioners we need to apply all of them as much as we can. We need to use any method we can to overcome the negative emotions. If you see yourself as a Tibetan Buddhist, then Tibetan Buddhism includes all three: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. We try to practice them all with the courage of wanting to face our fears, face our mind in order to develop this wisdom.
The first approach is where we practice mindfulness, awareness. By sharpening our mindfulness and awareness we become aware of what is happening. This is very necessary. When we see how our mind works, when we see the negative emotions we try to get rid of them, or to purify them. We try to get of desire, to get rid of anger, to get rid of ignorance, to dissolve them through mindfulness.
In the second approach, the Mahayana approach, we accept the emotions. We see them more like compost you could say, we see them as something that can be transformed. Something that can be made useful in the garden, smelly stuff in the garden, where you dig in all of the compost and from that lots of good things grow. If our soil doesn’t have compost it becomes very barren, nothing really grows there. We need to feed it all the time.
So if it wasn’t for anger, if it wasn’t for all these negative emotions we wouldn’t be able to really understand what others go through. We wouldn’t be able to develop patience, we wouldn’t be able to develop compassion, kindness. We wouldn’t really know what people go through, we wouldn’t understand the suffering of others. Without challenges we can’t really grow ourselves. So here we recognise and are mindful of the emotions and we develop an acceptance of them, an acceptance of who we are. We don’t want to shy away, we can bear to look at our own face in the mirror.
In the beginning maybe we think: Oh no, I am such a bad person, I can’t stand it, I have so much anger. Here we accept the way we look. We see that all of these emotions are part of us but we start to get to know ourselves, to understand what others go through. Just as we have all these ups and downs, others have ups and downs. We understand why others get angry, why others get jealous, why they act the way they do. So with that understanding we don’t have to react back so quickly.
We can develop a kindness. This Mahayana approach is based on compassion and kindness both to ourselves and to others, through understanding. Out of this understanding comes more patience, more kindness, more compassion. We see that people are the way they are, not because they want to but because they can’t help it.
If they are being awful and horrible and saying negative things to us, they are not having a good day. They had a bad day at home, they have problems at home, they have certain problems themselves and that’s how they come up. We see that all of these emotions are an expression of suffering. So in this approach we try to develop more compassion. A practice like tonglen would be part of this attitude, of this approach. We understand what this negative mindset is like and we try through tonglen to take on all of the negativity of others through compassion.
The third approach is the Vajrayana. In order to be able to practice Vajrayana we have to have a very stable mind. We have to have strong tranquillity. Our mind has to be trained to some extent before we can really do it, because otherwise what happens is that we get overwhelmed by emotions. In the Vajrayana approach you try and look directly to the core of that emotion. Say strong anger arises then in that moment you try to see just the pure energy of it, not to get caught up in the story of why you are angry, not to feed the story but to see the energy purely as it is, and then that dissolves the whole.
It’s like throwing a bucket of water on a fire, it just goes out. For that we have to have very strong clarity. We go to the core of that emotion which is just pure energy because we are seeing it without the ego involved, seeing through the ego, seeing the energy without the neurosis of ego. To be able to look straight at the emotion and see it as an expression of pure energy we have to have some understanding of the mind and have strong meditation practice already.
Because here you are talking about transforming the emotions into wisdom. Deities like Chenrezig or the other Vajrayana deities wear a crown of 5 jewels, and this represents the transformation of the 5 negative emotions into wisdom. Instead of all this anger, anxiety, fear, obsessive mind wearing us down, getting us into problems, at this level they have been transformed and have become a wisdom that can be worn as an adornment. Meaning that our mind, instead of being totally neurotic is the wisdom of non-duality. So this is a very high level. These are the different approaches of dealing with the emotions: Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana.
And we say that compassion is the antidote to all the emotions. The more we can develop compassion, loving kindness and compassion, the more we can dissolve whatever negativities there, it is the antidote for all of them. In one instant of true compassion or loving kindness there is no ego clinging, or at least there is less. If we have compassion for others there is less me, it’s not all about me any more, it’s about others. Even though we also have to have wisdom to practice and to have true compassion, we forget about ourselves in times and moments of compassion. We see the suffering of others instead, we want to do what we can to help others.
To summarise we say that courage is peace of mind, courage is the opposite of fear. It is real understanding of the mind and it arises out of developing clarity through meditation. It is based in being awake in the present moment. So that is what we try to develop and that is what you are trying to do when you sit and you watch your breath, you are trying to be in the moment. Bring yourself back again and again and again. Being in the moment.