On Fear and The Rhythm of the Universe


According to Buddhist cosmology, the natural rhythm of the universe is cyclical. Eons of formation and abundance alternate with eons of abidance, decrease and restful healing. Destruction of the universe is caused by wind, fire, and water. Currently, we live in a time characterized by the degeneration of lifespan, time, view, afflictions, and sentient beings. A detailed description is presented in the Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Manifest Knowledge) and other Buddhist texts.

Just as the universe undergoes subtle changes as a result of our collective karma, our experience is the momentary coming-into-being and exhaustion of our individual karma. The physical world as we know it is the karmic fruition of our actions whether they are virtuous or non-virtuous. Both the universe and we as individuals are in a state of dynamic change. Impermanence, the Buddha taught, is the true nature of reality. Yet the cosmological cycle is not a cause of anxiety for Buddhists. Tibetan astrologists do not predict the end of the world.

What makes us afraid? Fear arises from our inherent self-cherishing. In a talk about the possibility of nuclear destruction, Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan lama said about fear,

Particularly when you’re emotionally disturbed and anxious, you’ll find that there’s a concept of concreteness in your mind, which causes you to project a concrete object externally. Neither concept has anything to do with reality. Buddhism asserts that the mind of fear and worry always either overestimates or underestimates its object and never sees its reality. If you can perceive the fundamental, universal reality of your object of fear and worry, it will become like a cloud—it comes; it goes. When you are overcome with worry, you sometimes say, “It’s always like this.” That’s not true. Things never stay the same; they always come and go—that’s the reality.”

While the world we know will eventually disappear, new worlds will form and the cycle will continue. In the context of impermanence in the world order, Buddhists rejoice in the freshness of the present moment. We know we will die, but we don’t know when. There is no point in worrying about something that will happen several months in the future when we might die today.

The real question is what do we do with our lives in the meantime? For Buddhists, the uncertainty of our time of death is an incentive to make our lives meaningful by nurturing love and compassion for all living beings. We leverage all the advantages of the present to prepare for our future lives so that we can continue our task of helping others. We should meditate on impermanence and compassion. To understand the true nature of our fears, we meditate on impermanence:

As a star, a visual aberration, a lamp;
An illusion, dew, a bubble;
A dream, lightening, and a cloud;
View all compounded phenomena like that.”

When we realize that others are also needlessly tormented from mistaken fears, we meditate on compassion wishing them to be free from all types of mental and physical suffering. Furthermore, we vow to help them attain this goal. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso often quotes the Indian scholar Shantideva:

As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
May I too remain
To dispel the miseries of this world.”

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5 thoughts on “On Fear and The Rhythm of the Universe

  1. It is funny that the add under your post is a youtube video for alcohol; which is the primary means of numbing emotions. I recently figured out my greatest fear is that of abandonment based on my childhood, and I think these deeply entrenched unconscious fears of our emotional youth are more terrifying to us than the media speculations about endtimes and so forth. Meditating on love and compassion are the solution perhaps but how does one feel compassion for those who hurt others such as the mass shooters. The fear they cause isn’t their actions themselves but they touch our primal fears of loss and abandonment. Is it easier to not fear the loss of a child if we live as monks and nuns and thus avoid those attachments? Is that the reason to be a monk or nun?

    • Hi Charles, thanks for your thoughtful, candid comments. In answer to your question about generating compassion for the shooters instead of just the victims, we need to really think carefully about the Buddha’s teachings about karma. First consider that only tremendous mental suffering and illness could drive someone to kill fellow human beings in such a horrific manner. Next consider how the shooter will certainly experience infinitely worse suffering in many future lives as a direct consequence of the murders he/she committed. Such thoughts can help us begin to feel compassion for the killer. Finally reflect that everything that we experience – whether positive or negative – is the result of actions that we did in the past. While this does not mean that we should blame the victims for being shot, in brief, it sheds light on how bad things can happen to good people.

      Regarding your second question, attachment in the Buddhist sense refers to an exaggerated projection / interpretation of ourselves, of others, of experiences, etc. such as thinking that someone is the best (or the worst) in the world. Renunciation is the determination to give up attachment to worldly pleasures. Ordained sangha turn away from householder life in order to concentrate solely on the pursuit of Enlightenment.

      Instead of being attached to just their families, monks and nuns train to generate impartial love (the wish that everyone finds happiness) and unbounded compassion (the wish that everyone is free from suffering) for all sentient beings. Lay persons as well as ordained sangha can take the bodhisattva vows where one takes on the personal responsibility of devoting one’s life solely for the welfare of all sentient beings. As such, everyone from fellow human beings to the tiniest insect becomes part of one’s extended family. If any one of our family members suffer harm, we are all harmed. We mourn the loss of each of the victims of a shooting such as in Newtown, CT because our lives are intricately intertwined.

  2. “The uncertainty of our time of death is an incentive to make our lives meaningful by nurturing love and compassion for all living beings.” I like this sentence. It makes us appreciate our life.

  3. Pingback: Momentary Self | Bullzen

  4. Pingback: Finding vs. Looking | The Middle Pane

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