The word samvega, spelled the same in Pali and Sanskrit, comes from a verbal root meaning “to tremble” or “to move in agitation” and is sometimes translated simply as “fear.” It is a special kind of fear, however—one that is useful and beneficial and that has a positive sense relating to the teachings of the Buddha.
When a lion roars in the forest, all the animals tremble and scurry to their places of refuge. This is not the fear of a helpless victim but a fear that stirs them to action for their own safety. In the same way, when a Buddha roars out the truth of aging, sickness, and death—the truth of impermanence, suffering, and nonself—those who are wise are moved by the profound sense of spiritual urgency called samvega, which spurs them to follow the teachings and clear their minds of greed, hatred, and delusion before death overcomes them.
This trembling sense of urgency that motivates people and stirs up energy can be triggered by any of the Buddha’s teachings, but those pointing toward the fragile and fleeting nature of the human condition are especially effective. Some catch on by merely hearing that life is short and will surely end. Even mindfulness of the body is said to incline the mind toward a supreme sense of urgency, as one becomes intimate with the passing away of moments. Others must first experience the passing away of an acquaintance or a loved one, and still others are driven to action only when they are themselves touched by illness or directly face death.
We are used to thinking of fear as a negative emotion, but unlike other forms of alarm, samvega is not rooted in underlying mental toxins and can lead to happiness when properly understood and acted upon.
Samvega often is paired with the bright and beneficial quality of pasada (Skt., prasada)—the confidence and clarity that comes from knowing that the Buddha, dharma, and sangha offer a sure way out of trouble: the teacher has shown the way by his example, he has left clear instructions for others to follow, and an enduring community exists to support all who seek refuge.
Together, samvega and pasada act as stick and carrot to inspire us all to liberation. The goad urges us on, while the goal shines brightly in view ahead.
Scholar Trent Walker examines the central role that the concepts of samvega and pasada play in the lyrics and performance of Cambodian dharma songs in his article “Dharma Songs to Stir and Settle.”