Koan: ‘Great understanding is broad and unhurried; small understanding is cramped and busy. Great words are bright and open; small words are chit and chat. Small fear is fever and worry; great fear is vast and calm.’ – Zhuangzi

When I ran into this quote from Zhuangzi, my experience was one of being carried along by a feeling of resonance with the unhurried broadness of great understanding and the brightness and openness of great words, which ended abruptly with the last line. The rhythm of great to small, repeated in the first two lines, lulled me into the feeling that I knew what was coming next, which got yanked out from under me with the third line.

My rational mind went to work trying to reorient, trying to come to terms with great fear being associated with vastness and calm. The momentum of my mind trying to resolve the dissonance turned inside out and as a result there was space to notice other things, like the feeling of being carried along that I had lost touch with.  ’Great fear’ reminded me of ‘great doubt’, which is considered to be an essential for Zen practice. I wondered about the connection between fear and doubt and also wondered how doubt could be considered an essential. Wouldn’t I want to relieve myself of doubt?

I notice that the day we are sitting with this koan about great fear is Bastille Day and  that ‘The Great Fear’ was the name given to the general panic that took place at the start of the French Revolution. Fueled by rumors of an aristocratic “famine plot” to starve the population, both peasants and townspeople were inspired to act. ‘The Great Fear’ of a peasant revolt was a determining factor in the abolishment of feudalism. With the abolishment of the feudalism that we impose on ourselves comes vastness and calm in the midst of the various celebrations of life.


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