Author  DRBU Staff

The chinese term wuwei 無畏 literally translates into English as “free from (wu 無) fear (wei 畏). The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism suggests the following translations for wuwei: “courage,” “fearless,” “dauntless,” “secure,” “nothing and nobody to fear.” It also says that it refers to the utter conviction in the correctness of the Buddhadharma. 

In Sanskrit, the concept of fearlessness is described with terms like nirbhī, abhaya or nirbhaya, which all negate fear – bhaya or bhī. 

In German, wuwei 無畏 is often translated as Furchlos (“fearless”), whereas the French speak of being intrépide (“intrepid”); the Russians use бесстрашный (besstrashniy) and the Norwegians fryktløs

In all these languages, the term is composed of a negation and fear: fear is absent.

The concept of fearlessness appears in many of the Buddha’s teachings: along with wealth and the Dharma, fearlessness is what one should give to others when practicing the dāna pāramitā, the perfection of generosity. Fearlessness is what Bodhisattva Guanyin  bestows upon living beings, and the Lotus Sūtra says: “Throughout the ten directions, the Buddha alone has nothing to fear.” The Venerable Master Hua explained this passage as follows: 

Why is the Buddha fearless? In the worlds of the ten directions, he fears nothing at all. He is not afraid to speak the Dharma. He is not afraid to teach and transform living beings. He is not afraid that living beings will be hard to subdue. He is not afraid of anything at all. He is utterly fearless. Therefore, he alone is without fear. Being fearless, he can succeed.

To dive further into the meaning of fearlessness, we have asked fellow translators Dharma Master Jin Rou and Justin Howe to share their reflections on the term wuwei 無畏. 

Dharma Master Jin Rou

The translating team for the Ten Thousand Buddhas Sutra uses the term “Fearlessness” for the Buddhas’ names because it sounds more exalted when spoken and elegant when written. It can refer to a quality of having no fear or showing courage in face of danger or difficulty.  

“Namo Buddha Fearlessness.”

Some of my favorite “lively” synonyms for fearlessness, which can be used in conversation are:valor, backbone, pluck, and spine. 

Justin Howe

I remember hearing a longtime translator lambaste the translation of wuwei 無畏 as “fearlessness.” “It’s just courage!” the translator proclaimed. As a lover of the English language and someone sensitive to its poetic potential, I sympathize. The noun fearlessness is usually awkward. It’s hard to read, hard to say, and doesn’t really sound like English. But as an adjective, fearless may be more appropriate and more impactful than courageous, depending on the context. Translators must cultivate the flexibility to translate according to context. If we always translate word A in the source language into word B in the target language, our translation turns into an algebra exercise.

In Buddhism, there are three forms of giving: the giving of wealth, the giving of Dharma, and the giving of wuwei 無畏. It is possible to give someone courage in a frightening situation. Through support and encouragement, we help them to overcome their fear. However, if we as translators decide that wuwei 無畏 always means “courage,” we limit our thinking. We overlook a crucial aspect of giving wuwei  無畏. When we maintain a vegetarian diet, we give animals wuwei 無畏 — not “courage” but “freedom from fear.” By avoiding meat, we create a situation where animals can feel at ease and live without fear. When we practice patience, kindness, and humility, our friends and family don’t have to live in fear of our explosive temper. Holding the precepts means that other people can trust us. They can trust that we won’t hurt them. That trust, that confidence, is wuwei 無畏. It is a priceless gift.