No Fear, No Enemy

Posted by on Sep 5, 2007 | 2 comments

I carry a traveling altar that opens up into a triptych, a three-part Buddhist scene which has the Buddha in the center making the Fear Not hand signal. In Buddhist art, these are called mudrā, which is a Sanskrit word meaning literally a “seal,” like the seal a notary would put on important documents. In Pali the word is muddā.

More commonly, the word mudra refers to the traditional hand positions used by Buddhist craftspeople in the sculpting, casting, carving or painting of Buddhist images.

The No Fear hand gesture consists of the palm open and held forward at the level of the shoulder. As with all Buddhist images, there’s a story that goes along with this symbolic gesture.

A cousin of the Buddha, named Devadatta broke away from the early sangha and set himself up as a rival teacher to the Buddha. He was so angry and jealous of his cousin that he attempted many times to kill him. Once, when he knew that the Shakya Muni (the sage of the Shakya clan) was going to be walking along a narrow village alley, between two tall buildings, he arranged for an elephant to stampede down this narrow alley with the intent to crush the Awakened One. When the Buddha heard the stampeding elephant coming from behind him, he turned and made this No Fear gesture.


The No Fear hand gesture consists of the palm open and held forward at the level of the shoulder.


The elephant stopped, of course, and bowed down to take refuge in the name of all the elephant people. To this day, elephant meat is on the list of prohibited foods for Buddha’s followers because of this incident and, also, because the elephant is very close to human consciousness. (Monkeys enjoy the same protections for similar reasons.)

I have stressed repeatedly the importance of taking up the precepts and of the idea that meditation may not be the most important Buddhist practice when we first start. Reciting the precepts each day and trying to live up to them is the first step in practice and this is seen in many traditions as the primary way of being a Buddhist. The point is that if you start behaving ethically, you are simultaneously calming body and mind.

As you do this you are setting up the conditions for the practice of mindfulness and meditation. If you can behave ethically, day after day, you are doing a great favor to the world. You are saving other beings from your own greed, hatred and ignorance.

The result of this practice is to make you into a person who is fearless—and a person from whom others have nothing to fear. That’s why we recite the precepts together at the beginning of retreats. We’re doing it to create a safe space in which we can practice together without fear.

By doing this we are behaving our way into Buddhism and acting in such a way as we can have a settled mind. Personally, I’ve found it makes a big difference for me to recite the precepts each morning. This makes them come into my mind all through the day and gives me the opportunity to live up to my vows.

Some people are afraid of this word vow, because it sounds too serious or formal, so you can call them intentions or affirmations if it makes you feel better. In some traditions of Buddhism, people quietly skip any precept they know they will not be able to keep. For instance, a man or woman who has taken a lover in addition to their spouse, may skip the vow on not abusing sexuality, because they know they won’t keep it. Or someone who knows they will drink or use some other substance that day might skip the fifth precept.

There are some days when I’m traveling when I don’t meditate at all, but I never skip saying the precepts each morning. I’ve memorized them, so I don’t even need a booklet. I just say the precepts a day at a time. For today I won’t gossip or use intoxicants etc. That’s it. Nothing special or mystical. Stop hurting people. Stop judging yourself. All these ethical actions are what make us fearless. If we are ethical, we have nothing to fear, no excuses to make, nothing to explain.


The result of this practice is to make you into a person who is fearless—and a person from whom others have nothing to fear.


Now this is difficult if we think someone is against us, if we call them an enemy in our head. So one practice I’ve taken on is to stop calling people names in my head. Someone at the gym repeatedly refused to acknowledge my greetings. So I always called him a “jerk” in my head. Then one day I was with him in the sauna and I said something to him. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I can’t understand you, I’m deaf.” So for months I’d been thinking of this guy as a jerk, when he was actually just deaf.

So when anyone is mean or sarcastic or hostile toward me, I try to remember that I don’t know the whole story and that all they are telling me by their speech and actions is that they’re suffering. The person in front of me is never my enemy.

So that’s the process of learning compassion. It means that slowly we eliminate every enemy from our minds. If we have no enemies, we have nothing to fear. We can rest and be calm in our own integrity.

Of course this enemy-reduction project takes many years. When I finally got Richard Nixon off my enemies list, along came George W. Bush. I don’t know how long it will take to stop calling him names in my head, or to forgive him for being the worst thing to happen to our country since the Civil War. But even he has a cause-and-effect (karmic) pattern of suffering that I don’t know about.

“I do not hate the Chinese,” the Dalai Lama keeps repeating—for this same reason. They have done cruel, inexcusable things to the Tibetan people, yet the Buddha teaches us in the Dhammapada, “Hatred is not vanquished by hatred, hatred is vanquished by love.” So the Dalai Lama practices loving the Chinese in the same way I must take up the practice of loving George W. And it’s not easy, at least for me.

There is an angry Devadatta in all of us. There’s the part of us that is jealous and controlling—or that is greedy for power. He is our dark cousin, but he’s still part of the family. So our fearlessness includes not fearing the little, evil spoiled brat that hides within us. We must not fear our dark impulses.

There’s an old Vedic story about an elephant that Joseph Campbell used to tell. A young Brahmin priest finally realizes the meaning of his teacher’s contention that all beings are Brahma. All living beings are part of God.

One day the young priest is walking along the road just stoned on his newly-found mystical revelation. But from behind him comes a stampeding elephant and the mahout, the elephant trainer, is riding on top and yelling and yelling “Get out of the way!” But the young mystic thinks to himself, the elephant is one with Brahma and so am I. There is no danger. Of course the elephant runs him down and he’s badly injured. So he goes to his master and recounts the story.

The old man just shakes his head from side to side. “The elephant is Brahma, yes,” he says to the young man. “But you forgot that the Mahout is Brahma too.”

So the elephant of suffering is running up at us from behind and our practice gives us the strength and the courage to just turn around and raise our palm.

No Fear.

No Enemy.