How do we deal with fear? The following excerpt is taken from the long-waited first book in English by the extraordinary master Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, one of the greatest teachers of our time. He speaks of chöd, a potent practice designed to transform fear and use it to move towards enlightenment.
Initially, we should practice chöd alone in our room at night, quietly, with less fear. It is by gradually developing bodhicitta and wisdom realizing emptiness—not by just becoming more brave—that we can confidently realize that whatever appears or happens can be transformed into the path. At that point, we should become more determined in our place of practice. Do not, under any circumstances, endanger your life in the choice of place. Unless we have great experience, we should never do this practice anywhere endangered by falling rocks or trees, possible floods, or the threat of a collapsing house. Eventually, when we achieve full confidence in chöd, there is no need to go to violent places at all. This is because terrifying visions will appear wherever we are. That is important because we need terrifying visions of spirits if we are to practice chöd sincerely.
People have different mental capacities for fear. Some are too brave, some are too afraid. Both of these types of people will find chöd difficult. We must have some fear for this practice to be successful. A desperate search for the “I” causes fear to develop. To overcome this fear the best method is bodhicitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness. It is because of the need for fear that practice should be done alone. Any group retreat on chöd lessens the fear involved. Engaging in the practice at night also increases the “necessary” fear.
If we are going to practice in a cemetery or elsewhere, we must avoid “unnecessary” fear. Carefully examine the place in daylight so as to distinguish what is there. One graveyard in Tibet had a reliquary house for tsa-tsa statues that was surrounded by nettles. A chöd practitioner did not examine this cemetery beforehand, so when he experienced fear during his practice, he mistook the reliquary house for a spirit, and the nettles and branches for the spirit’s arms. As a result, when he fell into the nettles and felt his robe caught by the branches, he experienced such fear that he ran away, leaving his damaru next to the reliquary house!
We should not be too afraid. We must train the mind carefully. Whatever appears to us, our mind should remain calm. We may see images and hear sounds. Developing fear, our hair may stand up and we may want to flee. But it is precisely at this moment of fear that we should search carefully for the “I” that is afraid. We should then give up this “I” by offering our body to our fears and mixing our mind with space. In this way we will find that the “I” does not exist and we will realize emptiness.
It is difficult to identify the object negated in emptiness if we only do this practice in our rooms, however. We need to go to frightful places to clarify the “I” that is to be negated. It is through examining our fear that we attain a precious result. If our mind is mixed with space and our body has been offered to spirits, then where is a concrete, independent “I” or self? It seems that it must be there with the body or the mind, yet both of these no longer exist in the way they did before. Realizing space-like emptiness, all our fears will be pacified.
The purpose of doing chöd practice in frightful places is not only to realize emptiness but also to develop bodhicitta. Having offered our body to the spirits, there is no longer any need to care about it. We should really visualize our blood as an ocean for the spirits to drink, our body as food for the spirits to eat. It is for the sake of all mother sentient beings that we give up our body. “Exchanging self for others” in a graveyard is a very powerful method for developing bodhicitta because all attachment to the body ceases.
Without fear, chöd cannot be practiced. It is fear for the “I” that causes the desperate search for an “I” to hold on to. When the non-existence of an inherently existent, independent “I” is directly perceived then we are realizing emptiness. The antidote to such fear is bodhicitta motivation. This is very significant. The place of chöd practice amplifies the “necessary” fear.