Between Two Mountains

John Daido Loori Roshi walks the difficult path between fear of living and fear of dying.

John Daido Loori Roshi

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For all the horror and trauma that terrorism creates, its lasting power resides in the largely irrational fear we create and then magnify with our minds. Today, statistics show that airplanes are twenty-two times safer than automobiles, yet many people have stopped flying because of the fear that the September 11 attacks engendered. The anthrax scare has caused a widespread reluctance to handle mail, yet only five deaths have resulted from anthrax letters among 30 billion pieces delivered nationwide. We are afraid of death by biological attacks, yet in America some 20,000 people die of the flu each year, and only half of those most at risk get vaccinated. Clearly, the fear of terrorism will not be appeased by providing information, rationalizations, or statistics. It resides in a deep aspect of our consciousness. In order to work with it, we need to understand how it develops.

The force of the recent events has created a series of reactions that many of us are going through. The first is a numbness precipitated by the trauma to our bodies and minds. At this stage, all we can do is sit with the numbness until we're ready to open up and let our feelings arise. When they do, we need to allow them to come up and not suppress them. Because these feelings will be powerful, we may be able to deal with them only briefly. That's okay. We then need to consciously let them go and return to the center of our being, to our still point. After some time, we can begin to work with our feelings again. Depending on the intensity of the trauma, we may need to repeat this process over months or even years.

Some people may have to deal with anger. When we're overwhelmed, an alternative to going numb is to become angry. We set up a target to deflect our feelings away from ourselves, thus avoiding any responsibility for them. Yet, like fear, we create anger by a series of thoughts that result in a particular emotional and physiological state. Anger doesn't just happen to us. If we're able to catch an angry thought as it's budding, we can let it go. The same is true of despair or hopelessness. And when letting go is too difficult, a good medicine for dealing with these emotions is to reach our and help others, healing them and ourselves.

This is not an easy process to go through. The strength to engage it arises out of our meditation practice, our vows to awaken, our commitment to wisdom and compassion, and our spiritual fearlessness.

The fearlessness of the great spiritual teachers like Moses, Jesus, Saint Theresa, Buddha, and Bodhidharma was the fearlessness of the spiritual warrior. Different from stoicism, naïveté, or arrogance, this fearlessness is selfless, generous, and compassionate. Fearlessness is not a matter of ignoring fear, but of really acknowledging it and being empowered by it. We're confident that we can deal with whatever presents itself to us, regardless of the outcome.

In the martial arts, falling down and getting up are not two things; they are one reality. Falling down-failure-is a dimension of returning to one's feet-success. Instead of seeing these two aspects as inseparable, most of us set them against each other, fearing them both. And so we spend our lives caught between two iron mountains: We're afraid of dying, and we're afraid of really living. How do we break free from this prison to advance without hesitation?

When we do not separate ourselves from our fear, we transcend it. Each one of us is born with this same kind of fearlessness, but we need to realize it as our own lives, the life of all buddhas, all beings.

We are living in painful times. From the point of view of the Buddha-dharma, crises are also opportunities to transform our lives. We can shy away from the difficulties, hoping that if we ignore them long enough, they will fade into the cobwebs of our mind. Or we can convince ourselves that we are dealing with them in our practice, while simply suppressing them. Until we honestly go through the process of working with our feelings as they arise, they will just fester within us, waiting to resurface.

We can choose to get lost in our personal terror, but the fact remains that we are the only ones who can heal fear, anger, and pain by the way we use our minds. The ten thousand things, all the barriers, all the peace and the joy of this world, are nothing but the self. The question is, how do we understand it? Now more than ever we need to trust ourselves and let the years we have put into our practice come alive.

John Daido Loori Roshi is the spiritual leader and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, NY.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

People are not hermetically sealed jars. Fear, anger, and pain are societal phenomena as well. Such is non-dualism, as taught in Buddhism.

John Haspel's picture

Fear in this sense is heedlessness or mindlessness of the present moment, I.e. a reaction in mind fueled by sensuality has created delusion arising from clinging.

All concepts aside, the end of clinging via the direct method of the Eightfold path is the Buddha’s teaching on ending fear, and all other forms of clinging, permanently.

John Haspel

mccann.laurie's picture

A perhaps useful clarification: In the martial art of Aikido, falling down is not failure, it is a wholly appropriate response to the energetic form created by interacting with your training partner (aka "life" when you are off the mat). Falling /rolling is inherently responsive, keeps you both safe and connected with your "adversary." And, as you continue to develop your ability to fall skillfully, ever more able and empowered to get up for another round.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Falling /rolling is inherently responsive, keeps you both safe and connected with your "adversary."

I appreciate this! _/\_

bodhi sr's picture

The man was a radical writer and asked for a word of wisdom.
Said the master- 'some people write to make a living; others to share their insights or raise questions that will haunt their readers; others yet to understand their very own souls...None of these will last. That distinction belongs to those who write only because if they did not, they would burst'.
As an afterthought she added: 'these writers give expression to the divine-no matter what they write about.'

Keith McLachlan's picture

Ah, John, you've been gone two years now and you are still "selling water by the river."

Thank you for the reminder.

OXO's picture

Hi Keith ... I'm interested in your comment, but it's meaning eludes me. Kindly explain?

jillstagner's picture

One last thought. Had you all thought about craft fairs, holiday fairs, gift and special stores, etc......? And what is most important? That you never give up and use your strength of spirit.

Misha's picture

Patwilli, I feel ya! I'm a painter in the same boat. I have a hard time feeling motivated to make more work when my studio is so full of work already. If you price low people assume it is really worthless. If you price high people gush over it and lament that they cannot buy it. But I was thinking about it just yesterday and realized--I don't have to be a success, I just have to keep creating! I felt strangely relieved. I'm seriously thinking about giving some stuff away, just to have free room and free energy to create. I give up on trying to sell, especially in this economy. Maybe I can donate for some charitable auctions. The question just becomes what's more important, success or creativity? Creativity wins.

jillstagner's picture

What should you do????? You just do and keep it going! Don't you stop. Tapestries are beautiful works of art. Get on with it and sell what you have. Get going!!!!

Jerry.Salkowe's picture

Very feel said, John. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

patwilli's picture

Just this morning, I walked into the adjoining storage room right off my studio, and looked at the debris of my art efforts and the stacks of stored art pieces. Oh poor me, I sighed--nobody loves my work enough to buy it and I'm a failure. I should give up, the inner voice advises. I design and weave tapestries. Personally, I love making this work--both the designing and the process of construction. Yet, my work doesn't "sell." I often win awards, but that is not "enough." Reading this article, I realize that though I've often fallen and often gotten up again and made a better effort, the despair comes again and again. I read your advice to trust ourselves and let the years we've put into our practice come alive. Well, mine has many many re-births into aliveness and yet, it seems I get stuck in the same eddy, gathering debris, gathering despair--Oh me, here I am again! What a waste of mental energy. What should I do??!!