When there’s no fear, there is no suffering

Feb 11, 2021


Late one night on the Lower East Side in New York City, in the mid-70s before I was a Buddhist, a guy came out of nowhere, put a gun to my chest and said, “Give me your money, bitch!” I was shocked at first but it quickly turned into clarity: this guy was definitely more scared than I was. And then I thought how absurd it was that he was asking me for money – I had nothing to spare! “No!” I said. “You give me your money! I’m just as poor as you!” I sort of gave him a lecture. We went back and forth like that and in the end, he shrugged and walked away. 


I experienced a lot of violence in the earlier parts of my life, often sexual, which is not uncommon for women. But it didn’t make me afraid. I’d even fight back. It’s just my personality.


When I tell people about my experiences and how I didn’t act like a victim, it sounds shocking, and in relation to sexual violence against women, it can sound almost unsympathetic. No! It’s the opposite. I have such compassion for all of us – because we live in fear! We feel hopeless, powerless – and not just in relation to extreme situations. 


But in reality we can be incredibly powerful. Gradually we learn to realize the reason we suffer in the face of problems, including violence, is because we have fear. And why do we have fear? Because we grasp at the intrinsic self and have the primordial attachment to get what the fantasy wants.


This is not to excuse the violent men – and it’s usually men, isn’t it? People aren’t afraid of walking the streets late at night because they might be attacked by a woman! – but we have the power to change our minds, to become fearless.


Learning to be fearless is what Buddhist practice is all about. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “When we’ve realized emptiness, there is no fear.” And when we have developed genuine love and compassion, we become fearless. They call bodhisattvas “warriors”: warriors against the delusions. And Buddha Tara is known as the liberator from the fears of samsara: this is her energy: fearless action energy, conquering the delusions. 


The root delusion, ego-grasping, and the others that stem from it — attachment, anger, depression and the rest — are in the nature of fear. This is the very meaning of being “in samsara”: buying into all these distorted conceptual stories, all based on the nonsense of an intrinsic self. We think things exist exactly in the way they appear to us through the lenses of these delusions. But it’s simply not true. 


As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, bad enough that things appear wrongly to us; the worst thing is that we believe these appearances to be true. “The way the world out there appears back to us is in the aspect of what’s in our mind,” he says. This is what keeps us imprisoned in the fears of samsara.


I used to be a pretty radical political activist before I was a Buddhist, and even though I don’t define myself in that way any more, I’m still radical: I’m radically working on my mind by attempting to not believe in the way things appear to me. I want to look at the internal component, not the external. I want to uproot the causes of all suffering, which are mental. That’s Buddha’s view – and you can’t get more radical than that!


How to conquer these fears? What would practice look like? Easy. If every day we stop believing in anger and happily welcome the things that make us angry, isn’t this becoming fearless? If we forgive the person who harms us, isn’t that becoming fearless? If we praise instead of criticize, isn’t that becoming fearless? It’s not complicated. It’s just difficult, because we’re addicted to giving in to ego’s misconceptions.


When we can conquer the inner delusions, it’s easy to be fearless in the face of outer problems.


Living by the laws of karma

And we need to factor in the law of karma. We come into this life programmed by our past actions; and everything we think and do and say now just naturally programs us for our future suffering and happiness. His Holiness the Dalai Lama sometimes refers to this natural law of karma as “self-creation.” 


The experiential implications of this natural law? Pretty simple: we’re the boss. Using this view as the basis for interpreting our life brings huge accountability. It’s so empowering. Just naturally, there’s less victim mentality, less hopelessness, and less guilt and blame. And therefore more power, more confidence, more contentment – even more joy. What a bonus!


My friends in prison who practice really get that. That is why I am so inspired by them. They have learned to have happy minds in those garbage dumps. We think we’re free, but with all our delusions — our attachment, our anger, our blame, our victim mentality, our fears — we’re actually not free. We might as well be in prison!


My friend, Mitchell, on death row in Kentucky, said, “Robina, I’m ready for that electric jolt.” He is a truly happy person, leading a very rich, fulfilled life on death row. Because he has changed his mind. He’s given up fear.


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