The Paradox of Fear in Classical Indian Buddhism

Journal of Indian Philosophy  49 (5): 913-929 (2021)

The Nikāya Suttas frequently mention the concept of fear (bhaya) and related synonyms. This concept does not receive much scholarly attention by subsequent Buddhist philosophers. Recent scholars identify a ‘paradox of fear’ in several traditions of classical Indian Buddhism (Brekke 1999; Finnigan 2019; Giustarini 2012). Each scholar points out, in their respective textual contexts, that fear is evaluated in two ways; one positive and the other negative. Brekke calls this the “double role” of fear (1999, p. 443). Each also identify fear as purposely elicited to motivate acts aimed at achieving fearlessness, where freedom from fear is characteristic of nibbāna. They all find this puzzling. Finnigan asks: “Why would one purposefully incite fear if one’s goal is its elimination?” (2019, p. 221). Giustarini says that fear has a “contradictory nature” (2012, p. 513); Brekke calls it “the paradox of fear” (1999, p. 442). This article introduces the ‘paradox of fear’ as it appears in the Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva and the Nikāya suttas. It then critically examines Brekke and Giustarini’s proposed solutions. It argues that they get some things right in ways that are both supported by the Nikāyas and relevant to Śāntideva but that they leave some important questions unanswered. The article concludes by arguing that these questions are best answered if fear is analysed as appropriate when its objects are related to karma and rebirth.