Chan and Modern Life

Eliminating Anxiety and Fear

Human suffer from two major psychological impediments: fear and anxiety. When caught up in fear and anxiety, people are often unable to make the right decision. Either they are indecisive, overly cautious, and lacking in resolution, or they are rash and impatient, often making hasty decisions. How can we eliminate anxiety and fear, and stay calm and unruffled? Let us ask Master Sheng Yen for guidance.

The reason why fear and anxiety emerge

Master Sheng Yen:
In fact, human suffer from many psychological afflictions, not just fear and anxiety. We are apt to lose our emotional balance; we tend to feel insecure and at a loss, not knowing which way to turn, how to face the future or the present. Fear and anxiety emerge because we lack self-confidence, or we can say it's because we aren't clear about our current or future situation. They are related: a person lacks self-confidence because he doesn't understand his social role, his standpoint, and his abilities. He doesn't know what will happen in the future. People first begin to feel insecure when they are children. And it's not just humans; animals also want security.

Worrying all the time?

When there's no rain, we worry it’ll rain; when the sky is overcast, we worry about the blazing sun; we worry that it might start to rain or become windy when we go out. Will we get hit by a car? We don't know for sure about that either. People worry about this and that all the time, and end up becoming suspicious of everything. Before going out, some people will pray and ask the gods or Buddha for some guidance. Some smart people know about astrology, or the eight hexagrams of the Book of Changes, with which they'll do some divination. Only when they finish doing this are they sure they can go out. Such people are paranoid and suspicious of everything. Every day, before going out, many people spend time preparing for this and that to make sure that they'll come home safe and sound. This is also a sign of fear and anxiety.   Let's say some people place a Buddha statue on the family altar and worship every day. They pray to the Buddha in the morning that may have a peaceful day; this shows they're not sure if they'll be safe when they're out. Then, after coming home, they thank the Buddha for protecting them; it means that their safety for that day is not determined by themselves, but depends on the protection of bodhisattvas, gods, or ancestors. They cannot control what happens in their lives; they cannot be their own masters. So they feel insecure all the time.

How can we eliminate the anxiety or fear?

How can we eliminate the anxiety or fear that weighs on our mind? This is difficult to do. The sutras, especially the Heart Sutra, talk about a state that is far removed from inverted views and delusion, and free of all fear. This state can be reached only when one has clearly seen that the five aggregates (skandhas) are all empty, that is , when we realize that our bodies, minds, and worlds are totally empty. Only then can we have true security. Before going out, you won't worry that something might happen. And even if things do happen, it's no big deal. In other words, if you gain true understanding of your body, mind, and the outer world, you will be free of fear and anxiety.   Yet, try as we may, we always find it impossible to fully control our body, mind, and the world. We cannot totally dictate our bodies, such as when we're going to have headaches or when we're going to sneeze. Oftentimes, we tell people to take care, but we'll sneeze the moment we tell them that. A sneeze just comes out by itself. We tell others not to catch cold, but we ourselves catch cold. This happens quite a lot. Telling others to take care shows that we care about them. We can see from this that perfect peace and security do not exist in our world, that we cannot find true peace and security in our world.

How can we attain peace and security?

How can we attain peace and security then? I just said that it is impossible for us, but it is possible for a great bodhisattva like Guanyin, who sees the emptiness the five aggregates. This is to attain great wisdom. Only then is true peace and security possible. Yet, how can ordinary people obtain peace and security? I often tell myself there is nothing to fear. Feeling afraid is of no use. You should make every arrangement you can think of in order to prepare for things that might happen. This is called planning ahead. You must be prepared. But even if you are prepared, you still can't predict what will happen in the future. And things beyond our expectations often occur- someone appears unexpectedly, or a horse with long odds comes along and wins the race. This happens a lot. This is not something we can predict, being afraid is of no use. So it's best to choose not to fear. Your fear won't help at all but only makes things worse. If you are paranoid and nervous all the time, you won't be able to move a single step; your life will be miserable. So, we must be prepared in advance. We must know ourselves. If we can understand our surroundings and ourselves well, there's no need to fear. It's no use being afraid. So why should we feel afraid? Fear is useless. So why should we fear? Worry is useless. So why should we worry? It would be foolish not to give up useless fear. Amitofo.


​We often suffer from fear and anxiety due to lack of confidence. If we can strive to understand ourselves and our surroundings, and be prepared in advance, there is no need to fear. Fear won’t help at all.


Zen and Inner Peace, Volume One, p40-44