I don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s always true, of course, and easy to forget. But right now, when I look to the future—a month ahead, a year ahead, a decade ahead—it’s all questions. I’ve never been more sure that the world is changing, or less sure of how it will all turn out. In that unknown, there’s some fear. And where’s there’s fear, there’s a desire to be fearless.
Buddhism maps out a clear path to fearlessness. It isn’t something we simply choose, as much as we might like to. We don’t just resolve to throw away fear. But we can arrive there, by a path. And that path is the path of generosity.
I was taught there are four levels of generosity. The first is ordinary, run-of-the-mill material generosity. It’s making someone a sandwich, driving them to the airport, letting them in when it’s cold. It’s saying, I have this, and I can share it with you. Some people struggle with this—maybe they weren’t treated well at some point and feel they have a lot to lose, or maybe they’ve just decided what’s mine is mine, period. But most people I know really get it. Even if they forget sometimes to practice it themselves, they see the beauty of that simple kindness and at least want to emulate it. And some people (hopefully you know a few) are masters of it.
It’s important to understand that in this model, generosity is an actual path, with a start and a finish. So you have to begin with the first level—if you can’t practice that one, if you can’t make it real, then you just won’t get to the second. And if you do practice the first, then the second will naturally fall into place. Like most of Buddhist practice, it may not be easy to do, but it’s definitely simple.
The second level of generosity is protection. The first time I heard this, I heard it in heroic terms—of me standing between someone and their attacker, perhaps, or of sheltering someone from oppression. We do have those examples, and they’re inspiring. People put their lives on the line for others, they march and protest for justice, they fight things like child trafficking or government corruption. But for most of us, protection is something quieter—and this moment of COVID-19 and social distancing is teaching us what that looks like.
When you wash your hands, when you stay home instead of going to that restaurant, that’s protection. When you allow your business, which you’ve spent years building up, to close temporarily (knowing it might be more than temporary), in hopes that doing so might reduce an invisible risk, that is generosity as an act of protection. That it’s quiet, that it’s as much an act of refraining as of giving, doesn’t in any way diminish its power. It’s complete, because it’s what we need. We are all—whether we want to or not, whether we’re ready for it or not, whether we mastered the first level or not—invited, in this moment, to offer protection, to be generous in that way.
Renunciation is a word that doesn’t get a lot of attention in spiritual dialogue these days, but it probably should. If I say in a talk or in a conversation with fellow priests that Zen is a practice of renunciation, I can feel the resistance to that—it isn’t what anyone wants to hear. Why would it be? But protection, in the way we’re all practicing it right now, is a practice of renunciation. We’re choosing not to do the thing we want to do, not to go where we want to go—and all in service of offering a benefit we cannot see. If I stayed home today, did I save a life? Or was it meaningless? I don’t know, and that makes it all the more powerful. There is no direct reward, no gold star, no pat on the back. It’s just saying yes to this new reality—which means saying no to what was once normal.
According this teaching, all these little unseen acts lead to fearlessness, the third level of generosity (and fearlessness then leads to the fourth level, the transmission of the dharma itself). Fearlessness is a gift we can give to others.
We don’t need to spend time wondering what fearlessness looks like or what it feels like. Why? Because if you’re on this path—if you’re sharing what you can, taking only what you need, letting go of what you want in service of something greater—then sooner or later you’re going to find out. If you lay the groundwork for it, fearlessness will just arrive, as quietly and as surely as tomorrow will.
How will you offer that gift? I don’t know—again, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I do know that when our doors open and we all walk back into the crowds of people who have lost so much, into the marketplace where so much is uncertain, into the rebuilding and re-imagining that our next moment will require, we will need the people who are cultivating fearlessness today, perhaps more than we ever have.
The path is already beneath your feet, and you’re pointed in the right direction. Just keep going.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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