Facing Threat

It was 2003 when we had our last public Chod Retreat. We didn’t know it, but by the time we began, a raging wild fire had already been consuming the city for four or five devastating hours. We were in the desert outside San Diego. Our Residential meditation community, the Gompa, used to be in an old converted hotel there. During the retreat I taught about relating with our fears and personal demons through the Chod practice. Many people there engaged with issues in their life that they had avoided for decades. It was insecure, tender, powerful and joyful. We were outside and vultures circled while we practiced. Our mantric songs filled the sky and our instruments echoed in space as the ritual unfolded. It was not until after we ended our classes for the day that we heard of the fires. Derrick and I, on our nightly sojourn to the BuddhaField (back then in Kensington) had made it out of the town. Before we could reach the Retreatants by phone to warn them, we saw that their roads were closed and a fire that was consuming the landscape now surrounded them on all sides. I prayed and they packed, hoping they would not be trapped by the firestorm.


Eventually, they were somehow evacuated and were able to call us. They had made it out with the texts and sacred items of our precious school. Trapped somewhere between San Diego and Arizona, with no gas, no food, in a hotel together with many strangers, a paranoia began to brew. Someone said in the call that they were afraid that the Gompa was going to burn down because they had called forth their personal demons in the Chod. They feared that working with their fears and hang-ups would attract the worst luck and all kinds of inauspiciousness. That phone call was a historic one in our Sangha as the teaching on threat was no longer remote.


That is the great superstition we have inherited. The line of thinking is that if we engage with our fears and we look at the threat – it will get worse or we will lose everything. We think all kinds of problems will happen, or that it will be too much pain, too much insecurity, too much fear for us to handle. If we think about or talk about our future death or the death of our loved one’s, it is seen as impolite or a horrible omen. We try not to think of losing our relationship and tell ourselves repeatedly that “everything will be ok.” Whatever the threat is, whether it is impermanence, the skeletons in our closet, death, loss, insecurity, hurt, heart-ache, sorrow, hang-ups or the ghosts of our past – we have a cultural superstition that if we communicate with that threat, if we take a step towards our fears – that the worst will occur. The problem in this line of thought is thinking that we have anything more to lose. The threat is already holding our lives hostage. Many times we have not loved fully because of the threat. Many times we have bought things we didn’t need because of the threat. Many times we were so pent up with insecurity that we didn’t enjoy our greatest moments or the greatest people, because of the threat. Many times we are so busy avoiding the threat that we missed having a real relationship with our children, our spouses, our community or our Teacher. Many times we have hesitated and missed out on our lives because of the threat. We have even gone to war and let more than a million people die, because of the mistakes we made in our crazed effort to squash the threat before it manifested. Avoiding facing the threat hasn’t worked out very well for anyone ever.


In the days following the firestorm, when we found out what had happened, it turned out to be quite the opposite of that superstition. The six-day fires had indeed consumed 500,000 acres, killed 16 people and burned down 2,427 homes and businesses, causing the worst damage in the history of San Diego and California. But one building did not burn down. The only building that had not burned down in the area was our Gompa. Somehow, for some reason, the fire burned down the rest of the town, hundreds of miles in all directions, but the Gompa and a fifty-foot perimeter around it, had remained unscathed. Our Chod practice of facing our fears and dealing with our demons had not resulted in making our situation worse in the face of the raging flames. The opposite had actually occurred. Whether by miracle, magic or coincidence, facing our fears in the Chod did not bring about any devastating consequences and instead, quite the contrary, our beloved Gompa had somehow remained an inflammable fortress. Later in the following days, it even became a refuge for firefighters who discovered it standing there and turned it into a base for their efforts. That is what happens when we face our fear with awareness, contrary to our superstition, it does not make everything worse – it becomes a base for further liberation.


We have all seen together what fear can do to a society. Fear as a political weapon for manipulating us has proved very successful. As long as we are dominated by fear and insane in the face of threat, we will never be a free, sane or peaceful people. No political policy will ever be enough. No military campaign will ever extend far enough to meet fear’s reach. No amount of shutting down will ever be powerful enough to protect us from the risk of being hurt. The threat is present in so many forms; our control, our plans, our security, our self-image and our strategies are constantly being undermined by it. Our existence is so tenuous and tentative. Even if we try to avoid it, we cannot.


I’m writing on this subject this month, because it is the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq. In all the five cities of our communities we are having a Peace Offering to speak about it. Whether we take responsibility for it or not, our own personal aggression and ignorance may have contributed to the tidal wave of aggression and ignorance that made this possible. It would be easy to say that the War is the President’s fault or the government’s fault. But the more I learn about history and politics, the more I see a parade of names and faces marching to the same drum-beat of human aggression and ignorance. The enemies change. The villains change. The politicians and policies change. But the anger and aggression stays as steady as the threat is constant. There is another alternative, another way to deal with the threat. The Masters of our tradition and great leaders of history have shown us that there is another way.


This is a five-hundred year project. It is not just about this war and this time, it is about all aggression, all ignorance and all time. This is about developing a whole culture of sanity and awareness beginning with our selves and beginning right now. For the sake of 5,034,000 people, for the sake of all the people in our lives who we have hurt or missed because of the aggression and ignorance that we threw around in our frantic effort to squash the threat, we must discover the alternative. I wish I could say that we only need to do this in our politics. But I look around my own world, my own California world of educated, progressive, spiritual and even Buddhist people, and I see it there too; arguing, hate, fighting, fundamentalism and willful ignorance. We are living in a cultural and personal climate where the only acceptable and “brave” way to deal with threat is to kill it, or ignore it. But there is another way.


The problem with trying to kill threat is that it never dies. It is there in everything. Even love is one big threat after another. No matter how we try to manipulate the situation to make it more secure and definite, the threat remains. Life is innately insecure. People behave in ways that we do not want. Mean words happen. Heart-break happens. Out-of-our-control happens. Death happens. Chaos happens. Emptiness happens. The Samsaric predicament is to think it could ever be any other way. We keep trying to find the right person, outfit, job, relationship, possession or bra size thinking that if we did it differently, the threat would not be there. We believe that there is security at the end of the rainbow. We lecture our lovers and friends on all the ways they are not meeting our needs, because we see it as their job to make sure we are not insecure. We avoid the people and situations that make us uneasy. We make better plans and get more controlling. We think that something must be wrong that the threat remains. Remain it does, insidiously staring at us from every corner, from behind every set of eyes. We might get enraged or we might shut down, freeze up and become the icy, resentful, sophisticated cynic. Both responses are aggressive and it is our widespread acceptance of that way of being that allows war to continue as the knee-jerk reaction of our society. There are enough individuals in our country living that way, so that war would make sense as a social answer to a deeply personal question – how do we deal with threat? There is no question that we will face it. Nothing we have done yet has eradicated it. They only variable is how we will relate to it when it does arise.


There is an alternative to avoiding, ignoring, aggressing and attacking when threat arises. In Tantric Buddhism, we have the Chod, we are no longer trying to kill the threat. Therefore, we can communicate with it, and oh the tale it has to tell. The threat speaks to us of what we are.


We can face the threat; face it and awaken to a deep understanding of what it really is and why our aggression is futile against it. Our superstition is that if we relate to our fears and our demons and actually confront the threat that the worst will happen, so we use aggression to avoid all communication and squash all possibilities that the threat might introduce. But this is a mistake. Tremendous power can be harnessed by looking right into the face of what is. Freed of the obsession of avoiding the threat, many other possibilities can open up before us. We can relax. We can open. We can experiment. We might approach the threat with loving-kindness and find we have created many demons out of our fears, demons that only we set free. On a social scale, diplomacy and addressing root causes rather than symptoms becomes possible, as we look deeper into the causes of conflict and make the appropriate changes in our relationship to others. Dealing with the threat teaches us that things are not always what they seem. In the Chod we learn how to enter the chaos of our lives, the pain of our past and the intensity of our emotions with a heroic openness. It is a training through which we find ourselves face to face with our worst fears, the skeletons in our closet and the ultimate threat, out of which all other threats arise: the insubstantial nature of what we are. We can wake up and find the threat as the occasion for enlightenment.


On a social scale or even an individual scale, if we are willing to communicate with the threat, we may be shown we are not who we thought we were. We may see our mistakes, be informed about the consequences of our past aggression, about the importance of our interdependence with others. We may see many things that we formerly could not imagine. In the Tantric Buddhist path this is the communication we trained for, the intimate and continuous dialogue between self, other, society and all things. This is a communication that can only happen when we put down our pre-emptive weaponry. That willingness to open in the face of threat and set aside our knee-jerk reactions long enough to explore other options, is the only way in which ignorance, war, and aggression could be made no longer necessary.


We were in Lake Tahoe recently and I felt honored to meet, befriend and share dharma with the people there. Our host, Cheri, is a snow-boarding instructor. Cheri and her kind friends, Matt and Kelly, volunteered several long, arduous days to teach me and my students to snow board. It was intense! We fell many times on our bottoms, on our wrists, on our faces, on our throats, on our sides and on each other. My favorite aspect of it was the part of the training where Cheri told us that we would have to lean forward, directly down into the “fall” line, the slope of the mountain. She explained that in order to learn the next skill, we would have to go against our physical instinct to lean back away from the speed and instead, lean into it, lean right into the break-neck speed, the out-of-control descent. In other words, we were being told to lean right into the threat. Until that time, we had been protecting ourselves; scooting down the mountain in slow motion, moving a few inches at a time. Now, to learn our toe-side maneuver, which would allow us to steer and make us genuine snow-boarders, we would have to do the last thing we wanted to do, let go of all safety and all self-protection. She told us, we don’t even have to let go of all control at first, just go beyond control for just a few seconds; count to three, and then turn out of it and slow down. So we did it like this. For the count of three we risked our lives and hung out in total fear. Then we did it for the count of four and five. Some daringness arose. The feeling that we could handle it came up. The feeling that it was okay to be out of control and that whenever we needed, we could take care of ourselves and our situation with the skills we had. This is what happens when we face the threat. We get better and better at relating to it. And the threat gives us something in return – greater freedom and even greater skill.


That is the heart of Buddhist training. The more we befriend reality as it is, the more we find ourselves empowered to be in it and be free. We could possibly approach problems, conflicts and disagreements anew. Previously we thought that if we face the possibility of losing our relationship it would fall apart. But the opposite could now happen, we might become more appreciative and kind, our love-life enlivened and informed by the intensity of impermanence. Death is there, a fact of life, a fact of our every moment as who and what we are continually arises and just as totally, dissolves away, whether we are present enough to notice it or not. Because death is inextricably interwoven with life, when we face it, we find ourselves more and more alive. The lack of fixed-self, lack of guarantees and lack of definite reference points does not necessarily make us more insecure, it can free us up to be in the moment, open, without any predetermined scripts, without any preconceived agendas, available to life, love and the spirituality of all that is. We can find an ultimate confidence and freedom when we get present with insecurity, letting go of all the games we play and personalities we put on in order to secure ourselves and instead showing up genuine, with willingness to be a fool. Our flawed, open foolishness is actually a lovely, innocent and light place, where our Buddha-nature can shine through. It is so beautiful to show up as we are, willing to be wrong, open to the threat; there is such fertile ground in that. Facing the threat puts us in a powerful position. It is the only place from which social problems can be resolved. It is the only place from which war can end. It is the only place from which the path can arise