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One of my early teachers once told me that she believed fearlessness was overcoming fear.

Later, Yokoyama Roshi, my current Zen teacher, a master of many years, corrected what she had said: No, that’s not fearlessness; it’s not even facing fear and going through it. True fearlessness, he said, is not having fear to begin with.

What? How is it possible not to have fear?

In the 2013 post-apocalyptic movie After Earth, Gen. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) tells his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith), “Danger is very real but fear is a choice.”

Gen. Raige also tells Kitai that fear exists only in the mind, in the thoughts about something in the future that may or may not happen. For Kitai to survive in their hostile world, he must learn to get rid of his fear even in the face of a real danger.

Three Levels of Gifts

All right. So, how do you get rid of fear?

For those of us who train in Zen, we learn that there are three levels of gifts we can give to people. The lowest level is material gifts; the next level is the teaching what we learn; and the greatest is fearlessness.

As humans, since the greatest fear we have is dying, to eliminate this fear would indeed be quite a gift.

In his book Zen & Budo, Sogen Omori Rotaishi writes of the story of Yamaoka Tesshu, a samurai who was once asked, “What is the secret of swordsmanship?” Tesshu told the person that the answer was entrusted to the Asakusa Kannon. The person at once went to Asakusa and found the words “Se Mu I”(giving fearlessness) in the temple there. When he repeated this to Tesshu, the swordsman answered, “Very well.”

Absolute Peace of Mind

Se Mu I comes from the Great Compassion Sutra in which the Bodhisattva Kannon (Kwan Yin, Chinese) gives fearlessness in the midst of any calamity. Absolute fearlessness means absolute peace of mind.

The Bodhisattva Kannon is represented as having 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms. To be able to use all the eyes and arms, Kannon must not allow his mind to stop on any one eye or any one arm. Because his mind does not stop with the use of one arm, all his arms are useful; likewise, because his mind does not stop with the use of one eye, all his eyes are useful.

He moves from one moment to one moment. Now. Now. Now. This is the Immovable Mind, or the mind capable of infinite movement. When we approach life moment to moment – not just intellectually but fully with all our might – then there is truly nothing to fear.

This is Se Mu I.

- Diane Wong Roshi


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