Fearless (Yet Scared Sh*tless)
“Then I thought, hey, I don’t have shins anymore—I can do this!”
Those are the words of Celeste Corcoran, a woman who lost both of her legs in the Boston Marathon bombings. She and her daughter Sydney had been at the race to cheer on her sister, a first-time runner.
Both were visited by Gabriel Martinez, a 24 year old former combat engineer who lost both legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq in 2010.
Corcoran made the above joke in reference to her previous aversion to trying to run the marathon herself, because every time she would to try long distance running she would get shin painful shin sprints. She had spoken at length with Martinez, in a conversation that had space for understanding, brutal honesty regarding how hard and discouraging the recovery process will be, along with comfort, example, and, finally, humor.
In reference to the transformation of one who has understood the true nature of emptiness, there is a line in The Heart Sutra which says,
“Because there are no more obstructions, he has no fear.”
The very short sutra nevertheless gives quite a detailed list of the ways in which all phenomena are empty of independent substance; it is a sutra that does not stop with a teaching on how to realize this wisdom. As that quote implies, The Heart Sutra has a message for aspiring bodhisattvas: now that you have no reason to fear, now that you know, you have no reason not to act.
The sutra, like a conversation between two people who have been through some harrowing shit, is brutally honest, comforting in its raw content and, maybe, kinda humorous.
What are the acts of a bodhisattva?
In the above example from the recent bombings, we have two. Gabriel Martinez, by turning his suffering, his wounds and his recovery into beneficial experience he can pass on to others and bring healing, is certainly an example of a bodhisattva in action. Yet, isn’t Celeste Corcoran, in her own way, also a bodhisattva?
She may or may not share her future experience with others who are suffering, but she presently has given Martinez and, through media, many others, an opportunity to express compassion and to search their own hearts. By accepting that visit, she becomes both a source of compassion and an opportunity for us to put ourselves in her place.
“Without obstructions, he has no fear.”
It is good to remember that the bodhisattva can also give by allowing his or herself to be so vulnerable as to inspire compassion and bodhicitta in others. To let someone in on your pain is also a fearless action.
In The Heart Sutra the Buddha is speaking to Sariputra, a wise but doubting follower. As preface to his deep exploration of the ways in which phenomena are empty, the Buddha speaks of the realization of the bodhisattva Avalokitishvara, when he was coursing through the deep Prajnaparamita. In his commentary on the sutra, Mu Soeng has written that Avalokitishvara was mentioned, possibly, as a way to inject compassion into a text that might otherwise be taken as largely speaking of wisdom in the negative:
“The implication is that a Buddha, as the perfected bodhisattva, whether the historical Shakayamuni or a transhistorical figure, is the embodiment of a perfect balance of wisdom and compassion.”
Again: now that you have no reason to fear, now that you know, you have no reason not to act. So now what? What is it that through wisdom you come to know?
By eliminating ignorance, we move beyond fear to compassion, to action for the benefit of others. By removing all the obstructions of ignorance, one is able to see and desire to ease the suffering of others.
That sounds so much like an official statement about how one is supposed to feel once the reasons for fear are exposed and overcome, but the message of the Heart Sutra is not something to be studied and checked off as a lesson learned and then move on to the next esoteric task.Like most sutras, the Heart Sutra is a call to action, to wake up, to do something with the information you realize.
What does acting mean?
Some might mistake the call to action, the bodhisattva vow, as a requiring a grand gesture, a leap into the fire of suffering. Be careful; while ultimately that is true, realize that wisdom ought to be preventing you from doing more than you can. If it doesn’t, you may need some more sitting and digging into your own fears and motives.
This is, I think, what it means in the sutra when it talks about “depending on Prajnaparamita.” Depending on prajnaparamita—this is that faith means in Buddhism—we share in the wisdom and compassion of those who have come before; it has worked. The dharma has liberated, freed, and eased suffering.
We are in the right place at the right time when we have no obstructions. We go beyond the line we drew in ignorance, and step into the needs and pain of another, because now we know what to do.
What are the obstructions that we move beyond through wisdom?
Suffering, attachment, arrogance, pain, memories, bias, fear—what do those words mean to you? Do they sound like aspects of a superhero?
Of course not; they are the aspects of what make us all frustrating, annoying, lovable, vulnerable people. You may imagine yourself running toward the bombs as they went off at the Boston marathon, or getting on the first plane to Rwanda. But you just might see so much to be done around the neighborhood, once you are awake, that you may do your greatest work within a few feet of your kitchen or bathroom.
When one takes the bodhisattva vow, “moves beyond fear,” and is “able to relieve all suffering,” one cannot really ease suffering if one doesn’t remember where one came from. One is able to act in compassion, to be “true, not false,” because one never forgets one’s own fears and mistakes. That is the power of compassion and wisdom, and the message of the Heart Sutra.
One is able to move beyond the self and to help others because one knows: knowing the nature of our own suffering gives us insight into what is needed when we encounter others who suffer.
So you are looking at someone on that path, someone trusting in that path. Like all of you, this is a person who believed that the stories he told himself about himself and the world around him were true, lasting, and worth defending from any contrary suggestions. He needed a wake-up call, one that would not only tell him some initially uncomfortable truths about his narrative, but would also open his eyes to the suffering of others, victims of their own lasting stories, people who could use his help if puts aside his fears and accepts the world as it is.
This person, afraid to let go of assumptions and attachments; not able to fully appreciate the suffering of others, and the interdependence of all, needed some medicine, some help. He found it and, while still not perfect, knows perfection is within him as surely as it was within and without Avolokitishvara. That was enough to reach out and recognize his obstructions in others, in literally, everyone he sees.
By understanding the nature of phenomenon, one moves beyond fears caused by ignorance and attachments. With no illusions as to the true nature of emptiness, one is fearless and wise. The incessant NO’s of the sutra are exhausting, but not exhaustive.
There is always work to do, as illusions run deep.
But those negatives—no fears, no suffering, no end of suffering, no old age, no end to old age—are actually affirmatives—reasons to have no fear.
Having no fear means letting go-it is not about being on the highwire and trying not to look down: it means being on that precarious wire so high up and always looking, staring down from that height with no illusions as to the danger, but without fear—you choose to walk while looking, and you get to a point where you even choose the highwire.
To look at others and see what needs to be done also means letting others see you and your needs. Part of being a bodhisattva is giving others the chance to be one too by being there in your need.
Gate gate paragate, parasame gate, bodi svaha (Gone, gone beyond, way beyond gone, wonderful moment, though there are numerous other translations)—if it can be said that the Heart sutra is Mahayana in microcosm, then that final spell, or mantra, is the heart sutra itself—diamond clear and sharp, comforting, but also challenging: depending on prajnaparamita—this is that faith means in Buddhism—we share in the wisdom and compassion of those who have come before; it has worked.
The dharma has liberated, freed, and eased suffering. We are in the right place at the right time when we have no obstructions. We go beyond the line we drew in ignorance, and step into the needs and pain of another, because now we know what to do. In fact, it is impossible to understand the true nature of emptiness and not develop the kind of compassion that sets you to working.
I can’t say I’m always fearless, but I’m learning.
When I knew that I had to give up my job because a chronic illness decided to take over, and when my wife and I sat in a clinic donating our IVF embryos and saying goodbye to dreams of parenthood, I acted. I cried, I listened, I accepted support, I talked openly about my pain but without pathos. Those are a couple of times when I, with an understanding of impermanence, went beyond, beyond. My wife and I sat at home together, pulling ourselves back up, saying this prayer:
“When this bowl sounds, past present and future are one inside this room. Its sound echoes such that all life–living, dead, to be born–hear it and join us, giving us the strength and comfort of their presence and their stories. They join us as we express our gratitude, sadness, joy and grief as we hold close to our embryos one final time. May they, as we wish for all, know only happiness and its causes, and be free from suffering and its causes; may they know the sacred happiness which is sorrowless, and through their future journeys, help bring that happiness to others. Go with the love that we have for you, that will travel with you, that will bind us to countless others.”
What will you do when you are no longer afraid?
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Asst. Ed: Linda Jockers/Ed: Bryonie Wise