Fear is a given; it is a fundamental part of life and consciousness. And while it may not feel good, fear is useful and necessary. In spiritual life, the problem with fear lies in whether we have the wisdom to respond well to it.

In Buddhism, fearlessness, in regard to both internal and external obstacles, is often extolled as a virtue. It takes fearlessness to tackle one’s own neuroses, and it takes fearlessness to not become overwhelmed when facing, say, physical danger. In the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali canon, a whole sutta, the Bhayabherava, is devoted to how to overcome “unwholesome fear and dread.” But fearlessness is not the whole picture.

The presentation of the dharma as a whole is couched in terms of taking refuge from samsara, from the round of dukkha, or suffering. But one does not seek refuge unless one is afraid. Which means that fear, and not just fearlessness, has an important role to play. How is this seeming paradox to be reconciled? Different Buddhist traditions have approached it in different ways. One well-known approach is what we might call the heroic path, the path of overcoming perceived shortcomings, including fear. As you progress on the heroic path, so the logic goes, fear will naturally decrease. Reach a level of spiritual perfection and you will feel no fear at all. So get busy perfecting yourself right away!

By contrast, there is what might be thought of as a pragmatic approach. Here, we start from the way we actually find ourselves to be—fallible, vulnerable, and mortal. The Japanese Pure Land schools call this our bonbu nature. On the pragmatic path, the foundation is not striving to better ourselves; rather, the basis is naturalness and honesty about our very imperfect selves.

Here’s a little story I heard about fear. There was a monastery in the mountains in China. Wild deer would come onto the monastery’s beautiful grounds. The monks loved the deer and enjoyed feeding them. When the abbot heard about it, he came out shouting and waving his arms and attacking the deer with his staff. The deer became alarmed and ran away. The abbot put up a notice saying there must be no more feeding the deer and any deer seen on the property were to be chased off. The monks protested, saying, “We came here to learn kindness and compassion. What sort of example are you, getting so mad at these gentle animals? This can’t be right.” The abbot addressed the community: “Look, there are hunters in these mountains. The only defense these animals have is their fear. If you take that away from them, they will all be killed very soon.”

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