Buddhism · Dharma Diary

Fearlessness in the face of a hot spoon

There’s a Buddhist story I like about overcoming the fear of death: a Zen monastery was under attack by an infamous warlord and his army. All the monks fled, except for the abbot who sat peacefully in front of the shrine. The warlord entered the courtyard and approached, pulling out his sword. He shouted at the abbot, “Don’t you know that I’m the sort of man who could run you through with my sword without batting an eye?

The Zen master smiled and replied, “And I am the sort of man who could let you run me through with your sword without batting an eye.”

The warlord bowed and slowly backed out of the courtyard…

Burning Spoon

The closest I’ve come to this level of fearlessness was in an incident over 20 years ago involving a hot spoon. I was doing counselling training and working at a drop-in centre for people with alcohol and drug problems. There was a lounge with sofas, a few chairs and a pool table, plus a kitchenette in the corner where we could make tea and coffee for our visitors.

Another of the counselling trainees had this thing he did with his spoon: after stirring his tea he would press the hot spoon against the nearest woman’s hand (he never did it to the other blokes). There were several women working there and this became a regular game of his. Every time, the women reacted in a predicable way; which is why he did it, purely to provoke this reaction. They would jump back and screech and call him a menagerie of bad names, and he would chuckle to himself like the naughty little boy he thought he was.

And then he tried it on me.

I was standing at the counter with my arms resting on the top, my hands well within scalding reach. He was stirring his steaming mug of tea. I was aware that there were no other women nearby and that my hands were the only possible target. But I had no intention of playing his game.

He removed the spoon from his tea and reached across the counter, spoon extended, aiming for my hand.

I didn’t move. I didn’t even flinch. I just looked at him, calmly.

At the last second, he withdrew his hand. The spoon never made contact with my skin, and he never attempted to play that game with me again.

However, I doubt I could muster the same level of fearlessness in the face of certain death.

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Image: Burning Spoon


4 thoughts on “Fearlessness in the face of a hot spoon

  1. I wonder if anyone is really afraid of death.

    The fear of the pain and anguish that tends to come with it is pretty easy to understand and I’d imagine an accomplished meditator wouldn’t have too much difficulty acknowledging the sensations and letting them go.

    Then there’s visceral reactions that some primitive part of our brain associates with death. Some are very real and valid, others baseless phobias and a whole range in between (such as the exaggerated fear response that comes with PTSD). That’s something that can be overcome with exposure therapy – assuming the stimulus itself isn’t so dangerous you’d be unlikely to live long enough to become inured to it. I’m led to believe that many warrior traditions the world over are able to train people to overcome the instinctive fear of body destroying violence and in extremis even untrained people (e.g. mothers in emergencies involving their kids) can apparently bypass it.

    But is the fear of extinction itself intrinsic?

    A lot of it’s pretty abstract that requires a bit of imagination to even grasp but I guess at its basis it’s not so much fear as the sense of emptiness and hopelessness at the thought that everything you could ever achieve – even via the pseudo-immortalities of fame, children and other legacies – will ultimately come to naught. Be utterly extinguished. But that’ just as true and real when you first realise it as when it’s imminent and in your face.

    I suspect there’s some forms of certain death I could face without fear and many others I could not. But I guess when I finally find out for sure it won’t be for long.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting thoughts, cabrogal. It’s the ego that has the problem with dying, I suppose. But with practice you should be able to overcome that – die before you die. I don’t know how I’d react either, whether instinct would kick in and fight to survive or whether I’d willingly keel over. But then, as you say, I wouldn’t have long to think about it…


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