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Tales of a Free Spirit-45 Years of the Buddhas Life

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by Vajrasara

... to him, but if we do it might help. It’s that
simple.

The Buddha was also a living example of fearlessness. There are quite a number of
incidents involving threats to his life, in which the Buddha, of course, stays
characteristically calm. He taught that all our fears stem, ultimately, from a fear of not
existing and if you’re no longer attached to the idea of self then you’re not going to be
bothered. You’re going to be cool about that, you’ve got nothing to defend, nothing to
fear. So we see the Buddha bolding walking into frightening situations, or what most of
us would find frightening. For instance, there is a maddened elephant that is deliberately
set loose on him to try and kill him and it is halted in its tracks, so the legend goes, by the
serene figure of the Buddha. In the same way, apparently, he overcame a fire-breathing
serpent – not sure that these exist – but in that legend he overcame the serpent, again by
love. Perhaps the most famous is the serial cutthroat - Angulimala he was known as - and
the Buddha’s only power over the murderer is his love. His fearlessness lies in his
complete surrender of himself. Whereas of course Angulimala, the murderer, crumples.
And sure enough he soon becomes a disciple too.

Fearlessness is taken very seriously in Buddhism. The Abhaya Mudra, this mudra, is very
common on Buddhist statues. You’ve probably seen it around the world. And it’s not just
saying, “Do not fear.” After all, it’s not quite as simple as that in practice. It’s looking
deeper. The teaching is there’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing to fear because there’s
nothing to lose. Developing fearlessness is a really crucial aspect of Dharma practice. It’s
not an aspect that Buddhism’s widely know for, I don’t think. When Sangharakshita was
once asked which historical figure he thought was most like the Buddha, he surprised a
few people by saying Julius Caesar. Sangharakshita made the point – and I emphasize
this now – that it is not for his warmongering, not for his bloodshed, but for Caesar’s
heroic qualities: his boldness, his courage (I don’t know whether we could say he had
fearlessness) and his promptitude. Those were the things that Sangharakshita mentioned.
I think it is important just to say that, because Buddhism is not just about quieting the
mind. As Maitreyabandhu mentioned last night it is also about liberated energy, it is also
about heroic qualities - developing strength as well.

I think we don’t generally regard fear as that bad - not nearly as bad as, say, hatred or
malice. But the Buddha classifies it as a deep-rooted negative state of mind. He says it
saps our energy and spawns all kinds of defenses. I’m sure we know that in ourselves.
Fear underlies restlessness – plenty of us have that on the cushion – and anxiety, which is
a daily feeling for many of us, and also, when we feel threatened it increases and can
easily lead to spite, malice, hatred and so on.

Fearlessness is also said to be one of the fruits of deep meditation and you do hear these
amazing tales of monks and nuns in the far east – well, in all sorts of places actually –
braving all sorts of dangers, torture, persecution and so on. So how do we develop
fearlessness? I think partly we develop fearlessness by sitting with the things we don’t
like on the cushion, particularly the things that frighten us. In the west, we can’t,
obviously, just head off into the jungle but we do need to face our fears and experience
aloneness like the early monks did.

In the FWBO, there’s the practice of solitary retreat where we take ourselves off for a
week or two or three somewhere peaceful and we just spend time alone, getting in touch
with ourselves without the ordinary mix or froth of thoughts, distractions, negativities,
whatever it is, daydreams. In a way it might sound a breeze, particularly for introverts –
you might think, “That doesn’t sound particularly challenging” – but very often fears do
arise, fears that you wouldn’t imagine you’d have if you had a companion there. I
certainly know that for myself. Often when we are alone we can feel quite naked, quite
uncomfortable, quite reluctant to sit with our own experience. Certainly I’ve found
coming eyeball to eyeball with myself on solitary really quite sobering, quite challenging.
And also, being an extrovert, I never would imagine that I would look forward to a
fortnight on my own, but actually I’ve had some of my happiest times on solitary retreat.
Not the first solitary, that was pretty tricky, but once I got the hang of it, in a way, a
subtle level of tension that I’m hardly aware of in ordinary daily life seems to fall away
when there’s nobody else around - different even than being on a retreat with other
people. Something definitely changes. And, you know, the ante is up. So there’s both the
relaxation, the tension release and the “woo… the axe man may cometh!” kind of feeling.
You learn a lot by taking yourself off to do something like that. And in a way, solitude is
a chance to feel most fully yourself, I would say.

Moving on to probably my favorite Buddhist teaching. One of the things that’s always
appealed to me about Buddhism is that it doesn’t offend your reason. You’re not asked to
believe anything that you can’t sooner or later check out for yourself. So there’s no
question of blind faith. And what is or isn’t Buddhism or the Buddha’s teaching is
basically experiential. We learn this from the Buddha’s advice to his foster mother, who
turned up, and she wanted a pithy teaching - she wanted to go off to the jungle and
“enlighten herself.” She just said, “Give me the pith,” and the Buddha said, “Right. What
is Dharma you alone can judge. Whatever the teachings be aware whether they lead to
peace and not to anxiety, to freedom and not to bondage, to wishing for little and not to
greed, to solitude and not to superficiality, to sincere striving and not to laziness, and to
contentment and not to complaining.” Not particularly metaphysical, not particularly
complicated, quite difficult to practice. But I really love that teaching.

So what is the Dharma? It is not settled by logic, it’s not settled by the scriptures, but in
our own experience. You alone can judge. So the Buddha, again and again, urged people
to test things out for themselves, not just to take his word for it. There is a little caveat
here because what helps us grow may only become clear in time, maybe over quite a long
time, and wishful thinking can easily creep in I think. We should consult our own
experience and also a teacher, or other people who’ve been at it a bit longer, with a bit
more Buddhist training under their belt. I find this teaching – that the Dharma is whatever
helps us wake up, and you alone can judge – well, it’s very broad isn’t it? It helps to see
the spiritual as a way we can approach anything. It’s not just what’s in the Buddhist
scriptures, it’s anywhere, it’s everywhere in a sense. And it also emphasizes personal
responsibility.

Not long ago I was at an exhibition of the sculptor Rodin and I was very affected by this
exhibition - I think I had seen his work a few times. But I kept noticing at this exhibition
the truths of Buddhism, the truths that the Buddha was pointing to – particularly suffering
and change. These bronzes – to me anyway – seemed very vital and expressive and often
bittersweet. There’s nothing idealized, with one or two exceptions. I was very much
feeling my age that weekend, very aware of wrinkles and bags under my eyes from no
sleep, a range of unpleasant things, and obviously not eager to look any older, but also
aware that that sort of vanity is just convention. Because, also, in another mood, I’m
determined to look life full in the face. I’d actually rather let life mark me in a certain
sense. I want to be affected, I want to let life to change me through adversity, I want to
open my heart to compassion borne of difficulties because, in a way, how else can we
learn? What are our options, actually? Looking at Rodin’s busts of famous people, they
had really lived-in faces. They were etched with worry, with love, with laughter, work,
life. And I was thinking – I got quite moved at this exhibition – who wants idealized
beauty and no wrinkles? There was one sculpture in particular – it’s called Man with a
Broken Nose, it’s a fairly old guy – that really choked me up. There was something in the
look in his eyes. He was definitely ravaged by time, but he was so alive, or at least that’s
how it seemed to me. So, in a way, the fact of suffering is everywhere. And I can’t say I
like it – I’m sure none of us like suffering – but actually I don’t want to whitewash it. It’s
there and I’d rather look at it. Most of the time, anyway, I’d rather face it. It’s how life is
on this Earth and if we’re lucky suffering will help break open our heart. In a way it’s the
crack in our beings that lets the light pour through.

One of Rodin’s most famous works, which probably lots of you will have seen because
its beside the Houses of Parliament in London, or one of them is. It’s ...

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