Nirbhaya literally means “fearlessness” or simply “no fear.” In Shingon, it means equanimity. However, it is also synonymous with ashvasa, meaning “to revive,” so it implies a surge of regeneration. Nirbhaya signifies an awakening through freeing oneself from the bonds of klesha and thus awakening to realize one’s inherent wakefulness (skt. bodhi). The six nirbhaya theory describes the process of gradual awakening in six progressive stages, each consisting of an exoteric and an esoteric interpretation.
(1) Sannirbhaya, fearlessness of virtue, the stage of virtuous deeds. At this stage one is free from the dictates of impulse and mindless behavior, develops a feeling for humanity, and observes moral principles. Conventionally, this corresponds to abandoning eight worldly concerns and performing ten good deeds (not killing, not stealing etc.). In Shingon, the practitioner comes to realize the need to perform daily tri-guhya practice (three mysteries of body, speech, and mind), is guided into the mandala, receives the samaya precept, learns various mudras, mantras, and visualizations, and generates bodhicitta.
Comment: At ground level, before recognizing any responsibility for our condition, we’re subject to an almost incessant functioning of habits in behavior, emotional reaction, and conceptual biases. Although this first stage affords very little freedom or wiggle room for genuine transformation, it’s an important step in that one significantly disengages from cross-purpose of arbitrary hopes and fears, and thus finds a different orientation by relying on felt purpose and resultant intention to produce a way of living. At this point, to which one frequently returns during fluctuations in the subsequent stage(s), the practitioner has yet to internalize a sense of direction, reliance, and confidence. It’s a crucial first step, however, in that one becomes fearlessly intentional, not unlike an adolescent boldly asserting their will for the first time. As Shingon emphasizes a non-linear view of ground, path, and fruit, this stage is said to be ‘shoji soku goku’ or ‘the first is the final.’
(2) Kaya-nirbhaya, fearlessness of body, the stage of eliminating the naive identification with the body. Here one enters the Buddha-path, a realm beyond mere moral principles. One contemplates the limitations of the coarse body, appreciates mortality, rids himself of the anxiety of craving, and realizes liberation from the delusion of attachment to the separate self. This is the shravaka stage. In Shingon, the practitioner attains the vision of “the wondrous form” of the deity, experiences heat in the practice while working with elements and energies, and enters various samadhi states.
Comment: In the Pali tradition, we find sakkaya-ditthi (tr. ‘view of the existing body’) as the first samsaric fetter to be abandoned by stream entry. The body here stands for personal identity. According to the esoteric teaching, the body is not to be feared (skt. nirbhaya). When physical needs have been taken care of, an open-ended relationship with one’s world becomes possible. Imagination and inspiration come center stage at this point, and one becomes keenly aware of the possibility of partaking in a realm beyond physical limitations, yet firmly grounded in the openness and vulnerability of an embodied sentient impermanence. The practitioner at this stage finds an increasing ability to challenge his or her instinctual limitations, while also discovering fresh ways of being with the body, in the body, and – perhaps most importantly – as the body. In master Kukai’s Shingon thinking, ‘body’ became a signifier for body-mind-spirit, one’s whole being. ‘Fearlessness of body’ thus means both a firmness of will *and* a capacity to relax into presence, both implicit in the exoteric Buddhist notion of ‘preciousness of this human birth’ and also in the wealth of body-based purification, devotion, and mindfulness-awareness methods in various schools. In the esoteric paradigm, this is a challenging transition, as the practitioner negotiates a *balance* in this not-just-instinctual embodiment, while holding to the vision of the deity as a developmental omega point, and deepening one’s steadfast resolve through occasional relapses to the previous stage of virtue. In short, one becomes unflinching in dealing with embodiment-and-environment, while sensitive at all times to their energy and vitality.
(3) Nairatmya-nirbhaya, fearlessness of selflessness, the stage of realizing the emptiness of self. One who is free from attachment to the separate self now also finds freedom from the notion of possession. This is also a shravaka stage. In Shingon, the practitioner, who has perfected visualizing the presiding deity, is no longer obsessed by its representation.
Comment: This stage corresponds to the insight that body and mind are a temporary combination of various elements, being devoid of substance, yet apparent and functional. Such insight leads to a stable realization of emptiness of personal identity, which cuts away coarse attachments. In Shingon practice, based on the experience of arising as deity, one abandons pride and envy, which leaves the mind in a refreshing state of profound calm and balance.
(4) Dharma-nirbhaya, fearlessness of phenomena, the stage of realizing the emptiness of phenomena. Five aggregates are themselves empty of essence. This is the pratyekabuddha stage. In Shingon, the practitioner realizes that arising as deity is empty of essence and signless (skt. alakshana), like a moon in the water or an image in the mirror.
Comment: Simply put, one abandons fascination with various experiences, inquires into the nature of phenomena and finds their dependent nature. In Shingon context, contemplating ten allegories (phantoms, heatwaves, dreams, reflections or shadows, forms in clouds or in the mist, echoes, moon in water, floating bubbles, dust or motes, fire-circle) to discover that every experience is already open and pellucid in the realm of suchness, the practitioner becomes ‘arya.’
(5) Dharmanairatmya-nirbhaya, fearlessness of emptiness, the stage of simultaneous emptiness of phenomena and self. This is liberation from all phenomena, a recognition of the objective world as a mental construct. This is the stage of Yogacara and Madhyamika. In Shingon, the tri-guhya practitioner realizes the presiding deity as one’s own mind cultivated through samadhi. All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are mind, here meaning qualities.
Comment: Seeing that apperances and meanings arise from potentialities (‘seeds’) that have no substance, one discovers undivided emptiness. In Shingon context, meditating on the sacred syllable A, the practitioner finds primordial awareness is not separate from one’s own mind, and that all experience arises – as experience – from this unbounded potential. One is no longer afraid of being nothing and thus free to experience everything.
(6) Samata-nirbhaya, the stage of sameness of all experience (skt. sarvadharma-svabhavasamata), where one no longer distinguishes between supreme and conventional, between mind and attributes. One realizes the unity of diversity, since all experiences are interrelated because of emptiness and co-arising. This is the Ekayana stage of Tendai, Kegon (and Zen), and Shingon. In Shingon, the practitioner gains insight into the source of unity of diversity by realizing adhi-anutpada, the originial non-arising state, namely primordial awareness.
Comment: At this highest stage one finds sameness of suchness and apparent reality, while recognizing that even emptiness is devoid of being something – ontologically, logically, semantically, and pragmatically – thus abandoning the most subtle separation of apparent and real, realizing non-discriminating wisdom. In Shingon terms, maintaining constant awareness that phenomena neither arise nor vanish, the practitioner enters the equality of everything interior and exterior, interpenetration of sacred and mundane, to accomplish identity of mind and body, awareness and appearance. Further stages may be said to exist in the unfolding of this natural samadhi, but these are not conceived as realization, since openness/emptiness has been fully probed. Anything further pertains to an unending responsiveness, moment to moment. Reality is forever new, bright, and fresh. All deadening influences (skt. mara) have been pacified in stages, liberating an inexhaustible source of creativity, goodness, and intelligence.
Summary. The first four nirbhayas correspond to the first kalpa, while the fifth and sixth nirbhaya correspond to the second and third kalpa, respectively. Next, ten stages (skt. bhumi).
Notes from Minoru Kiyota’s “Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice” with personal annotation.