Confined in a cage, up against a wall, pressed against barriers—if you linger in thought, holding back your potential, you will remain mired in fear and frozen in inaction. If, on the other hand, you advance fearlessly and without hesitation, you manifest your power as a competent adept of the Way. Passing through entanglements and barriers without hindrance, the time and season of great peace is attained. How do you advance fearlessly and without hesitation? Listen to the following.
The National Teacher and Emperor Su-tsung arrived at the front gate of the imperial pal- ace. The National Teacher pointed to a stone lion and said, “Your majesty, this lion is so very rare, can you give me a single turning phrase about it?” The Emperor said, “I cannot give a phrase; please, will the Master give one?” The National Teacher replied, “Oh, this is the mountain monastic’s fault.” Later Chen-ying of Ta-yuan asked the National Teacher, “Did the Emperor understand?” The National Teacher said, “Let’s put aside whether he understood; how do you understand it?”
Each crisis, an opportunity,
Yet if you fail to act, you miss it by a thousand miles.
The cave of the Blue Dragon is ominous.
Only the fearless dare to enter.
It is here that the forest of patterns is clearly revealed,
The myriad forms evident.
It is here that the one bright pearl is hidden.
Fear is one of the central themes we work with in our practice. When we examine fear, we find that it is almost always based in the past, in something we have carried around for many years. It is part of the baggage we call our “self.” Through the process of zazen, through studying the self, that baggage becomes quite evident and accessible.
Confined in a cage, up against the wall, pressed against barriers—if you linger in thought, holding back your potential, you will remain mired in fear and frozen inaction. Like the stone lion the National Teacher was pointing to, you may look like a lion, but you can’t move or do anything. Although each one of us has the potential of Buddhahood, as soon as we start analyzing, we give rise not to freedom but to more things to analyze, more things to understand. As the inaction continues, the fear persists. We come up with all kinds of wonderful explanations for our fear, but somehow they don’t seem to help. We define it, categorize it, analyze it, judge it, understand it—still it persists. What is this fear?
The Dictionary Says Fear is “an agitation or dismay in the anticipation of danger or harm.” Usually the dictionary is not very accurate, but in this case it does point out the key to what makes fear work—anticipation. Fear always has to do with what is going to happen next. It is always about the next corner, next day, next hour, next moment. What if…?
If, on the other hand, you advance fearlessly and without hesitation, you manifest your power as a competent adept of the Way. What is that power? Power is ki. Ki is uncovered in the process of zazen. Just the simple action of acknowledging a thought and letting it go and bringing your attention back to the breath builds power. Little by little, day by day, the practice of sitting, of watching the flow of thoughts without analyzing, judging, or understanding them, builds confidence almost imperceptibly.
Passing through entanglements and barriers without hindrance, the time and season of great peace is attained. The season of great peace is what we call the “endless spring.” The endless spring is always present, just as spring is always present. In the frozen branches buried beneath three feet of snow, spring is present. Buried deep beneath years of conditioning lives a Buddha. But unless we realize and activate that potential, it remains dormant and doesn’t impart any strength to our lives or to anyone else.
Fear always has to do with what is going to happen next. It is always about the next corner, next day, next hour, next moment. What if…?
Fearlessness Can Be Understood on many different levels. Sometimes being fearless is just being stupid. If, when everyone else panics, you remain calm, perhaps you don’t understand the problem. That kind of dull- witted stupidity is not true fearlessness. There is also the fearlessness of the young, who still see themselves as invulnerable. That sense of invulnerability and willing- ness to take chances is what the military loves about young people.
On the other hand, the kind of fearless- ness I’m speaking of is a generous, compassionate fearlessness. It is not a matter of just exerting one’s power. I’m speaking of spiritual fearlessness, one of the attributes of a spiritual warrior. We see this kind of fearlessness throughout history, manifested by all of the great teachers—Moses, Jesus, Saint Teresa, Buddha, Bodhidharma. Because their fearlessness was not self- centered, it was compassionate. That is why I stress repeatedly to be generous with your practice, with your zazen. Don’t just practice for yourself, but for all sentient beings. Give your zazen to someone who needs it.
The experience of fearlessness is totally dependent upon the experience of fear. Fearlessness is not a matter of ignoring fear, but of really acknowledging it and being empowered by it. That is what keeps it from being stupid. The anticipation is still there, but the agitation is not. There is only readiness. If you are driving a car that has a spare tire, you don’t fear having a flat. You have a way of taking care of it. If you have turned over a canoe several times and made it to shore, then white water doesn’t pose a big threat to you. You still anticipate the danger and respond to it, but there is a sense of preparedness and of the ability to respond.
One of the first things taught in the martial arts is not how to fight but how to lose, how to fall down and get up. Falling down and getting up are not two separate things; they are one thing. The force of falling down, of failure, is part and parcel of the force of returning to one’s feet, of recovery.
We Go Through life fearing death. And we go through life fearing life. There we are, caught between two iron mountains. We’re afraid we’re going to die or we’re afraid we’re going to live. We wonder how to deal with all of the difficulties of life, creating fear of failure, as well as fear of success. It’s amazing. I hear it all the time from people who are stuck on the edge of seeing the koan Mu. They become gripped by this fear. They are afraid of seeing Mu and yet they don’t want to fail. They want to do it and they don’t want to do it. If they do it, they feel it may change them in some way that they don’t like. I’ve heard people say that they’re afraid that they may suddenly become monastics and lose whatever pos- sessions they have; yet at the same time they really want to see it. So there they sit, frozen in fear.
Usually, at the bottom of fear is a sense of inadequacy, a lack of confidence. It is like the victim syndrome—we keep waiting for something to happen. How do we deal with it? Ordinarily we do one of two things. We may panic, becoming overwhelmed and eventually closing down, pulling back in one way or another. Sometimes closing down becomes a matter of numbing ourselves—using entertainment, getting stoned, getting drunk, changing the subject. These are all different forms of denial. Or, we take the opposite stand and turn the fear into anger, becoming a raging bull and confronting it, horns lowered, head on. But somehow the fear doesn’t go away, though it seems to have retreated for the moment.
I remember a student who worked in New York City. He was a film editor, a large but gentle man. One night, at two or three o’clock in the morning, he came out of the editing studios on a side street in a rough neighborhood. As he walked towards his car just a few blocks away, he heard footsteps behind him. He saw a reflection in the window: three guys were following him. He knew he was going to have to go around the corner into the dark, where he would probably be attacked. If he struggled, they probably would kill him. Very likely, he thought to himself, they have weapons. All these things were going through his mind. Within the course of a block and a half, his mind just kept running on and on and on. He reached a point where he was in such total frenzy that he turned into a raging bull. He decided that since he was going to die anyway, he would go out kicking. He whipped around, faced them, and yelled, “All right, let’s do it!” But when he rushed toward them, they scattered in the ten directions. They just ran for their lives. He couldn’t believe it. He was still shaking as he jumped into his car and drove off.
I asked him, “How is the fear now?” He’d always had this fear of dark streets. He said it was still there. He hadn’t resolved it with that encounter. That one success didn’t do anything for him, except save him that one time. We have to go a little bit deeper than just turning fear into anger and confrontation. Fearlessness is not a matter of being without fear; it is a matter of transcending fear.
How Does One Advance fearlessly and without hesitation? Fearlessness is different than courage. In the dictionary, courage is defined as “a quality of mind or temperament that enables one to stand fast in the face of opposition, hardship, or danger.” Fearlessness is having or showing no fear when faced with something dangerous, difficult, or unknown. Within courage there might be tremendous fear. Yet you stand fast. In fearlessness, on the other hand, the fear doesn’t arrive; it has been transcended. There are all kinds of reasons for that kind of transcendence. There is the fearlessness of a mother. Mothers, especially among mammals, are very protective of their young. There is nothing more harmless than the big black bears that run around on this mountain. But confront a mother and her cub, and you’ve got something to deal with because the mother has no sense of fear for herself. Her only concern is the welfare of that cub. Even when wounded, she will persist in protecting her cub.
In This Koan Of National Teacher Ta-cheng and Emperor Su-tsung, the teacher is test- ing the Emperor. Being a National Teacher must have been a pretty touchy job back in those days. The emperors had no hesitation about ordering the beheading of people they didn’t like. And they changed religions the way most people change socks. One day Taoists are in and Buddhists are out; a few years later, the Buddhists are in and the Taoists are out. When you challenged the emperor you were taking your life in your hands.
“Your majesty, this lion is so very rare, can you give me a single turning phrase about it?” the National Teacher asks. He is demanding, “Show me your understanding of it, show me your dharma.” A turning phrase is one that is alive and jumping, vital, and capable of imparting strength. What can you say about the stone lion?
Obviously swords and arrows are not considerations when the imperative to teach goes into effect. What is the imperative? It is the dharma, the teaching imperative. Every opportunity that presents itself is an opportunity to impart life.
The Emperor responds, “I cannot give a phrase.” The note to this line says, “An honest person is hard to find. Still, there could be something here.” Is he just being honest about his lack of understanding? Or is he presenting a reflection of his understanding? Is he saying that it is unspeakable, beyond words and ideas? The Emperor then says, “Please, will the master give one?” The note says, “As it turns out, he doesn’t flinch when faced with danger. Turning the spear around, he threatens the old man.” He has taken the same question and turned it around and confronted the old man with it.
The National Teacher replied, “Oh, this is the mountain monastic’s fault.” The note says, “Very intimate, indeed. All eighty-six ancestors have suffered this illness.” Is he just trying to cover himself—It’s my fault, my fault that you don’t know, my fault for asking the question. Or is he showing him something? What is the illness common to all the ancestors, to all the teachers in the lineage? What does “very intimate, indeed” mean in reference to that question? We need to see clearly what the National Teacher really meant when he said that “it is the mountain monastic’s fault.” Mountain monastic is a reference to himself. But what is it that is his fault? The whole universe is his fault! The whole universe is his responsibility!
Later Chen-ying of Ta-yuan asked the National Teacher… The note says, “A wounded tiger appears out of the weeds. What is this monastic really seeking?” Wounded by what? Obviously, this monastic is wounded by the questions constantly running through his head. Weeds symbolize delusion; he steps out of the weeds when he asks for the teaching. But, there is asking and then there is asking. The monastic inquires, “Did the Emperor understand?” The note says, “Yesterday has already happened. Tomorrow has not yet happened. How about now?” What does the monastic really want to know? What does it matter whether the Emperor understood or not? The old teacher immediately sees that and says, “Let’s put aside whether he understood; how do you understand it?” The note says, “Seeing a cage, he builds a cage. This kind of kindness is hard to repay. Successive generations only transmitted this.”
Taking Responsibility Is The other side of denial or blame. Our tendency in dealing with the barriers in our lives is to push them out of the way, to deny them. We do this in all sorts of ways. One of the common “new age” ways is to adopt catchwords. Catchwords have a ring to them. We begin to define ourselves according to the catchy new category we fit in. We pick from all the different syndromes, or definitions that we can chose from, and we make a nice nest for ourselves. Somehow we feel that when we can name it, or find a category for it, we can set it aside. I’m a ————. Fill in the space yourself.
Fearlessness is not a matter of ignoring fear, but of really acknowledging it and being empowered by it.
Take, for instance, anyone who identifies as a “minority”: implicit is a lack of access to power. That is very frustrating. There can be a real sense of hopelessness and helplessness, even of fear, depending upon the context. Yet frequently, these catch words create such a false sense of comfort that we begin to feel we don’t have to do anything about the situation. There’s a sense of, “Now that we know what it is, it’s settled.” That is just another way of avoiding responsibility, another form of denial.
Our government has mastered that kind of denial. Years ago, at the dawn of Madison Avenue, I remember the research done by advertising firms on how colors and shapes could be used to control people. One could become a vice-president by coming up with just the right word or catch phrase. A product would start selling like crazy; people would respond to it. Certain words, colors, shapes, and contexts are almost hypnotic. Madison Avenue has become expert in manipulation. I was in the advertising business for a time, and I went to many courses the advertising institutes offered. It didn’t take long for that technology to travel from advertising to government and the military, to be used to control people in other ways. More than just a way of getting people to buy something they don’t want to buy, the technology of advertising has become a very dangerous kind of mass programming. Many veterans are aware of how the government has come up with a series of terms, war after war, for something the bureaucracy has needed to deny. During the Civil War they called it “nostalgia”—that was the term used to describe the mind of someone who spent time on a battlefield and was shot at every day, who killed other human beings in his daily work. In World War I it was called “shell shock.” They figured some soldiers got “weird” because bombs were exploding too close to them. Then in World War II it was called “battle fatigue.” Each war that followed has had different definitions, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars. All the names are basically ways of denying the real problem. This phenomenon isn’t a matter of being wounded physically; it isn’t some- thing physical like losing an arm or a leg. If you took these people out of combat, their symptoms would largely go away. And no one worried too much about the problem because it had always had a name. In every war they’ve changed the name. But each name is another form of denial. We do the same thing; we make our nests in words and phrases. There is a whole system of koans dealing specifically with how we get caught in the entanglements of language. You can’t move forward and you can’t move backward, so you just make a nest. Maybe the problem will go away. That won’t work in koan study, just as it doesn’t work in the rest of our lives.
We Need To Look Carefully at the statement, “It’s my fault.” What does it mean to take responsibility? Responsibility is very empowering. Blaming takes away your power. And the value of blaming is very short-lived, because the pain persists, the fear persists, the anxiety persists. When we take responsibility, there is no denial, no blaming. There is just trusting. Trusting means giving yourself permission to be yourself. It means giving yourself permission to either fail or succeed, because you are prepared for either. You know how to fail. When you fall, you use the force of the fall, transforming it into the thrust of recovery. And you do it again and again. When there is no illusion, then failure and success are not so powerful. There is only the action, the doing. In that same taking of responsibility we give birth to fearlessness. There is no fear in the anticipation or in the presence of danger. There is only the readiness for action.
The Capping Verse of this koan says:
Each crisis, an opportunity.
Yet if you fail to act, you miss it by a thousand miles.
The cave of the Blue Dragon is ominous.
Only the fearless dare to enter.
It seems that most of the advances people make in practice come from the crises they face. When things are going smoothly and life is easy, sitting usually loses vitality and becomes sluggish. When a crisis appears, an opportunity appears—an opportunity to enter a new territory, to penetrate a barrier, to overcome a difficulty. If you fail to act when that opportunity presents itself, you miss something very special and important in your life. Many times we just let the crisis pass, instead of seeing it as a wonderful dharma meal with which to nourish ourselves. We shy away from it, hoping that it will go away. And chances are, if you deny it long enough, it will somehow disappear into the cobwebs of your unconscious. It is still there and functioning, but we don’t have to deal with it. But it is always there.
That is why I get very touchy about people working on the koan Mu prematurely. I’ve seen too many people use Mu and their zazen as another kind of suppression, as another hiding place. It works quite well as a way to keep you from dealing with something you don’t want to deal with: just Mu it out of your mind. That is nothing more than suppression. The problem just lies there and festers, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. It doesn’t go away until you’ve dealt with it, until you’ve empowered yourself with it.
I Remember Vividly at age 11, after I had been playing the clarinet for about a year, I had to perform a solo in a school play. I was shy, and during rehearsal the teacher kept saying, “Hold your head up, John. You know, hold the clarinet up and really play.” When the time came to actually do the performance, with everybody in the audience—all the students, the teachers, my parents and their friends—my teacher, standing offstage, said, “Heads up!” I threw my head back and let out this god-awful squeak. Well, everybody laughed. And that was it. I crumbled. I didn’t realize until many years later how this event had affect- ed my whole life, and especially my ability to speak in public.
I was still feeling the effects in my thirties. I had done some scientific work that resulted in a paper to be presented at an international conference. I had somehow envisioned myself delivering the paper to 30 or 40 other scientists. When I got to the conference, I realized that I was billed for the big auditorium, the “Golden Room,” which meant that hundreds of people would be there for my morning talk. So the night before the talk, I got very drunk. I convinced a friend of mine from the same laboratory to present the talk for me. He agreed; he would have no trouble confronting 2,000 people.
Every time I’d run into somebody in an elevator, and they’d look at my name tag and say, “Oh, I’m looking forward to your talk, Dr. Loori,” I would get even sicker. I knew that all these people were experts, and they were going to find all these things wrong with my paper. They were all going to laugh. I was the same 11-year-old with the squeaky clarinet. I remember that morning when the talk was announced, I heard my name, and I started getting nauseous. (I was also very hung over.) I was sit- ting way in the back of the auditorium. At one point during the presentation the slide machine jammed. The presenter called my name out from the stage and asked if I could fix the machine. I threw up and left.
It took years of practice after that to be able to talk to a group of people and not feel worried about failure; to be stupid, if being stupid is what comes out, and to be smart, if being smart is what comes out. To allow it to be the way it is. That is what fearlessness is really about. You can’t defeat someone who is fearless in this way.
So Where Does All Of this take place? How does all of this take place? The poem says, The cave of the Blue Dragon is ominous. The cave of the Blue Dragon is ourselves. The cave of the Blue Dragon is that place within each one of us where we store all the psychological bilge we don’t want to deal with. When you push something away, when you deny or suppress something, where does it go?
The Cave Of The Blue Dragon. The cave of the Blue Dragon is, indeed, ominous. We don’t want to deal with it. The process of descending into the cave of the Blue Dragon turns you into a child in some ways. Only the fearless dare to enter. This is where fearlessness really pays off. In the cave of the Blue Dragon…the forest of patterns is clearly revealed. The way we function, what we’re about, where we’re sticking, what the buttons are—all the myriad forms of our routines and denials are evident. It is in the cave of the Blue Dragon that we find out about ourselves. And it is in the cave of the Blue Dragon that the one bright pearl is hidden.
That one bright pearl is the intimacy the National Teacher points to. Its radiance fills the universe and is present whether we realize it or not. We can go through life like a stone lion, sitting in front of the public library in New York City, or we can be a real golden-haired lion. There is nothing sweeter and gentler than a lioness with her cubs. And there is nothing more ferocious than a lioness when she is taking responsibility for those cubs.
Both these qualities, fearlessness and gentleness, are part of the life of all buddhas, all sentient beings. These qualities are part of your life and my life. We are born with them, but somehow along the way we lose sight of them. There are all kinds of logical, justifiable reasons for getting lost. Nothing happens without a cause; there is a karma to all of it. But I don’t care what the cause is, or where it came from—the only one who can heal your illness is you. The only one that has the power to heal it is you. The rest of us, ultimately, are only bystanders. Each one of us can only nod to ourselves.
The National Teacher, the Emperor, the stone lion, the ten thousand things, all the barriers, all the peace and the joy of this world—all are nothing but the self. The question is how you understand it and how you use your mind. When the crises come up, don’t turn away. Take action. The cave of the Blue Dragon—it’s your Blue Dragon, and it’s your one bright pearl.
John Daido Loori, Roshi (1931-2009) founded the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, with Zen Mountain Monastery as its main house. He served as abbot of the Monastery for over thirty years.
Koans of the Way of Reality is a collection of 108 traditional and contemporary koans of particular relevance for modern Western practitioners. It was compiled by Daido Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery.
From Two Arrows Meeting in Mid Air: The Zen Koan. Copyright © 2004 by Dharma Communications.