Originally written on December 12th, 2011.
This is part of a series reflecting on God-talk and Buddhist terminology. It is an opening to dialogue, not a final word on the subject.
The fear of God has often been taken to mean either fear of divine punishment (i.e. eternity in a lake of fire) or a sense of awe so overwhelming it borders. In his writing, Thomas Merton highlights another option--the fear of facing reality. Of course, which usage makes sense depends upon the context. But for our purposes here we will use the third option.
Fear can of course also be tied to other Buddhist concepts such as impermanence (the wrath of God) and no-self (the love of God). To modify a familiar expression, we tend to favor the devil we know to the God we don't know.
Samsara is a sense of dissatisfaction with life--not just with a particular experience that has been labeled as a problem or disappointment, but with life in general. In Buddhist conception, we tend to simply react without real insight, stumbling blindly about from one thing to another and tripping over one problem while we were trying to avoid another.
Why is life so frustrating? Why is it that even when we seem to be on top, to be winning, another crisis is just around the corner? Isn't their any rhyme or reason? Isn't there a way out of this mess? This is the challenge of samsara.
Recognizing this challenge is also step toward the fear of God.
The fear of God is really a reflection of the fear of our own inadequacy. It is the fear of loss of autonomy. Of being the absolute center of our own universe. Samsara also contains this hidden fear, a not quite conscious realization that the efforts of our limited ego, our lesser self, to order and maintain our world, have not really been successful.
This fear can be made worse by the idea that not only are not really in control, but that we are isolated, intrinsic, completely autonomous beings. If our limited egos cannot provide adequate meaning and insight for a satisfactory existence, then no one can. The truth of reality is a nihilistic void, a heart of darkness and meaningless from which we cannot escape. This deeper dread can be sensed in the work of some 20th century existentialists and personified in the writings of HP Lovecraft.
One solution is to resign to despair, another is to lose oneself in hedonism, and yet another is to double down on the quest for meaning. For some, this means returning to the limited ego as the source of creating meaning, a highly subjective affair which places one back in the cycle of samsara, of frustration and disappointment. It is even possible to decide that these experiences are in fact the meaning of life, given how pervasive they seem to be.
The mystics and contemplatives, however, describe this sense of existential angst and dread as the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God, or whatever linguistic or cultural placeholder one uses for the source of ultimate truth and meaning, is ironically a place-marker on the way to realizing the presence of God. The path isn't away from this impending sense of meaningless and doom, but right through the center of it.
Living in this cloud of doubt, this great unknowing, this fog of existential dread, does not sound at all pleasant. Trying to think or reason your way out of it is, I've heard, totally useless and in fact counterproductive. One must sit with it, sleep with it, ear with it, and go to work with it. This may sound especially familiar to students of Chan/Zen. In Christianity it is seen as a kind of purification, and in both Christianity and Buddhism, such great doubt has been seen as necessary for a purer and deeper faith in God or Mind.
Thus, God and enlightenment can be found where we would tend to least expect them. Jesus teaches as much in his parables in which he compares the Kingdom of God to items and situations that his Jewish audience would have found impure or undesirable, such as the weeds known as mustard plants or the mold used to leaven bread. Jesus also taught that we can find the Kingdom of God among the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the criminal, even among those who despise us. The Buddha and those who followed in the larger Buddhist tradition made use of the lotus flower for a variety of symbolic meanings, including the notion that even in what we might consider to be the muck and filth the symbol of enlightenment, the lotus flower, can bloom.
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because it requires the courage to look in places we might otherwise avoid, both within our deeper selves and within the part of ourselves we project onto others. Yet the Psalmist assures us that the fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever. So where are you afraid to look? What is it that you see reflected in yourself or others what you would rather avoid? Use that fear as a guide, but remember that the messengers of God always start by telling us to not give into fear, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God, not a nihilistic void, is within, and the Buddha taught that nirvana can only be found in samsara.