Wisdom, And Freedom From Fear

Recently, my wife was talking with an extended relative she hadn’t talked to in a while. This relative also lives overseas, not in Japan, albeit in a different English-speaking country, and when we last spoke a year ago, she had been talking about mundane things like taking the kids out for picnics, etc.

This time around, the same relative was spouting incoherent ramblings about weather-control machines, and forest fires caused by human agents, and all sorts of things she had found on Youtube and reading on the Internet. Since the last time we spoke with her, she had gone down some kind of rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, and it had changed her for the worse.

The number one reason why I hate conspiracy theories, and all they represent, is that they are inherently irrational, narcissistic, and antithetical to the Buddha-Dharma.

In the original Star Trek series, in the episode Journey to Babel (2×10), Spock speaks with his mother and says the following (emphasis added):

It [being a Vulcan] means to adopt a philosophy, a way of life, which is logical and beneficial. We cannot disregard that philosophy merely for personal gain, no matter how important that gain might be.

To me, this is the essence of the Buddhist way of life: a way of life that is meant to be logical, rational, and of benefit to all sentient beings. Consider such liturgy as the Four Bodhisattva Vows:

Sentient beings are innumerable, and yet I vow to save them all.

My mental defilements (lit. bonnō) are innumerable, I vow to extinguish them all.

The gates of the dharma are without measure, I vow to master them all.

The path to Buddhahood is peerless, I vow to fulfill it.

Similarly, in the famous liturgy, the Heart Sutra, there is the following verse (emphasis added):

Because there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on Prajñāpāramitā [the perfection, or culmination, of wisdom], and their minds have no obstructions. Since there are no obstructions, they have no fears.

translation by Lapis Lazuli texts

Wisdom leads to freedom from fear. This is not wisdom as in the sense of knowing more than other people, which is just empty narcissism, but rather seeing outside your self-centered viewpoint.

Take for example a famous Buddhist story about the monk and the snake. It is said that a long time ago there was a monk in India who, one night, had to step out into the woods to use the restroom. As a monk, he has no possessions, and thus has to walk out into the dark by himself. Since India has many poisonous snakes, this can be a risky business. In any case, as the monk was carefully treading through the grass, he steps on a snake and faints in terror. The following morning, he wakes up, and realizes that the “snake” he stepped on, was in fact an old piece of rope.

This is how the mind works, and why its important not to blindly rely on your own logic and viewpoint too much. People can be certain that X is true, and yet the facts say otherwise. The greater one’s faith, the more they cut themselves off from reality. The more rational approach is to look at the data, look at facts, make observations, and then make informed decisions, not what one feels or one is sure is the truth.

A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata [the Buddha] has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ [e.g. the Twelvefold of Causation]

Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72), translated from the Pali by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Or as Mr. Spock would say:

Insufficient facts always invites danger

Thus, the Buddhist path is one that relies on rational thinking, not narcissistic beliefs. However, it is not limited to just rational thinking, and that’s why Mr Spock’s quote about “rational and beneficial” is so important. Consider the following Buddhist statue that I photographed in Japan in 2019 at Zojoji Temple (one of my favorites):

Here, the bodhisattva Kannon, is holding a lotus flower in one hand, while the other hand is down with two finger-tips touching. Buddhists statuary is replete with meanings and non-verbal symbols. The lotus symbolizes wisdom, and the potential for all beings to awaken, just as a lotus blooms from mud. The fingertips touching is another mudra meaning the “turning of the Wheel of the Dharma”, meaning to teach others and keep Buddhism going. The latter action, teaching the Dharma, helps sentient beings achieve awakening (i.e. the lotus), freedom from fear and wellbeing.

Hence, Kannon’s image here is a balance of both rational wisdom and compassion for all beings. Compassion not tempered by wisdom is irrational and can sometimes do more harm than good, while wisdom not compelled by concern for others is just dry scholasticism.

All of this is encapsulated in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra where the Buddha says in verse:

My pure land is not destroyed,
yet the multitude see it as consumed in fire,
with anxiety, fear and other sufferings
filling it everywhere.
But those who practice meritorious ways,
who are gentle, peaceful, honest and upright,
all of them will see me
here in person, preaching the Law [the Dharma].

translation by Burton Watson

Part of the freedom from fear that comes from wisdom is the ability to see past the ups and downs of life, and see the bigger picture, to live a life that is gentle and peaceful towards others, and to maintain an upright life out of compassion for oneself.

None of this is easy, and requires years and years of practice, emotional growth, introspection, and willingness to take one’s own beliefs with a small grain of salt. It is a path that is not limited to Buddhists either, and there are plenty of Buddhists who don’t follow this path. What matters is not one’s affiliation to a religious org, but one’s willingness to live a life rooted in rationality and benefit for others. None of this can be accomplished by living in the paranoia and hostility, misinformation and sense of superiority that it brings from “not being a sheep” that comes with immersion in conspiracy theories

If you find yourself lost, scared, and confused with all the things going on in the world, take a moment and breathe. Turn off social media, go outside. Ground yourself in the world around you. If it helps, maybe recite the Heart Sutra a couple times (it is short enough you can chant it in about 1-minute) or the nembutsu. The life you live now, warts and all, is sustained by the goodwill of others around you, even if you don’t know who they are. Take a moment, and consider this, and maybe give something back to the world.

This is a long post, but I hope it helps others.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kannon Bosatsu
Namu Shaka Nyorai

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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