The motto of my high school in Hong Kong, a well-known Anglican school, is Faith, Hope and Love. It is derived from a passage from one of Saint Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians 13. Hope is very significant in Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is forward-looking. The Britannica has this to say about hope:
Hope, in Christian thought, is one of the three theological virtues, the others being faith and charity (love). It is distinct from the latter two because it is directed exclusively toward the future, as fervent desire and confident expectation.
In our popular culture, hope tends to be considered as a good thing. One caveat, however, is that hope is one of the troubles from the Pandora’s Box.
It is notable that Buddhism does not talk about hope. While Christianity emphasizes hope, Buddhism emphasizes hopelessness. Tibetan Buddhist master, Choyam Trungpa, once made a shocking statement that the beginning of a spiritual journey is to become hopeless. The student practitioner has to essentially abandon all hope. This is an important step because one cannot move forward and make spiritual progress unless one can accept what IS. Contrary to what many people may think, the Buddhist notion of hopelessness is not negative or pessimistic. In fact, it is liberating and it is part of the “beginner’s mind.” We can understand this from the perspective of the art of living. When our mind is not attached to some future outcome, we save ourselves from disappointments and we open ourselves to new possibilities. A mind that is attached to some anticipation or expectation can never be creative. But a mind that is unattached can find new appreciation of what is in the here-and-now. In this sense, to be present — living with what is, accepting what is and appreciating what is — is a creative ability.
The hopelessness stance also means not subscribing to false hope, not falling prey to some alleged spiritual panacea and not running away from reality, even if it is unpleasant. Genuine spirituality requires a certain level of courage, tough-mindedness and perseverance. In an article titled First the Bad News, published in the Lion’s Roar magazine on March 1, 2006, Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche elucidated on Trungpa’s teaching:
Trungpa Rinpoche presented a unique and contemporary approach to dealing with our neurotic tendencies. For him, a truly spiritual journey toward basic sanity has to begin with a sense of hopelessness — the recognition of the complete and utter hopelessness of our current situation. He assured his readers that they are required to undertake a major process of disillusionment in order to relinquish their belief in the existence of an external panacea that can eliminate their suffering and pain. We have to learn to live with our pain instead of hoping for something that will cause all of our hesitations, confusions, insanity, and suffering to disappear.
Similarly, in his lecture series, The Real Revolution, Jiddu Krishnamurti made the following statement about the place of faith and hope in spirituality:
What significance is faith and hope to living? I hope you don’t find me harsh to say that there is no significance at all. We have had hope. We have had faith — faith in church, faith in politics, faith in leaders, faith in gurus — because we have wanted to achieve a state of bliss, of happiness… And hope has nourished that faith. And what we observe through history, through our life, all that hope and faith have no meaning at all because what is important is what we are, actually what we are, not what we think we are , or what we think we should be, but actually what is. If we know how to look at what is, that will bring about a tremendous transformation.
We must be careful about false hope. We must be careful with our expectations. Krishnamurti warned us about our faith in our social institutions, our ideologies, our leaders, and our gurus. If we take a moment to reflect on our experience, we will see that all these things have a tendency to disappoint. We may think that a certain institution, a certain leader or a certain guru can bring us the bliss and happiness we seek. So, we form certain expectations. In time, we will find that such expectations are not based on solid ground. Things have a tendency to fall apart. Dreams burst. Is it really reasonable to expect that something external will bring us deep spiritual fulfillment? That sounds like a classical case of idolatry. Krishnamurti’s advice is not to look to the future, but focus on the present. No to be dazzled by some state of perfection and bliss, but to embrace what is. When we learn to embrace what is, then a transformation happens.
This point made by Krishnamurti is totally consistent with Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha recognized that aging, illness and death are inevitable facts of life. These phases will not vanish once we practice Buddhism. The spiritual path of Buddha does not banish natural laws. Similarly, impermanence is one of the Three Marks of Existence. No matter how advanced a Buddhist practitioner you are, you cannot make impermanence disappear. Part of enlightenment is to see these truths, so that one does not formulate unreasonable expectations. True peace does not come from the defiance of natural laws. Rather, it is a result of the whole-hearted acceptance of reality. If we can truly accept the truth of impermanence, we will not fret about the fact that we all have to die at some point. We also have to embrace the fact that we will have to say goodbye even to those who are dearest to us. We fully incorporate death and impermanence into our consciousness. We no longer fancy something impossible. This is the basis of genuine peace. It is that simple.
We have already established the basic difference between Christian hopefulness and Buddhist hopelessness. But what did Jesus really say about hope? In my book, “The Zen Teachings of Jesus,” I said that there are often discrepancies between church teachings and Jesus’s teachings. At times, the discrepancies are wide. In particular, it is a common Christian understanding that the kingdom of God is a future reality. I have marked it as a common fallacy. For Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17: 21) To reinforce this point and to relate Jesus’s teaching to Zen teaching, let me finish this discussion by making a reference to the beatitudes. The first three beatitudes are as follows:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.”
(Matthew 5: 3–5)
It would be a mistake to interpret these beatitudes as a statement of how an unpleasant present reality will turn into a pleasant and rewarding one in the future. Bible commentator, William Barclay, remarks that in the original language of the text, which is Aramaic, there is no verb. Barclay informs us that the beatitudes are not simple statements but exclamations. Thus, the first beatitude should more properly be translated as “O the blessedness of the poor in spirit!” Barclay elaborates as follows:
That is most important, for it means that the beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing, but nebulous prophecies of some future bliss; they are congratulations on what is. The blessedness which belongs to the Christian is not a blessedness which is postponed to some future world of glory; it is a blessedness which exists here and now. It is not something into which the Christian will enter; it is something into which he has entered.
With this understanding, it appears that although there may be a wide gulf between common church teaching and Zen teaching, such gulf does not exist if we properly understand Jesus’s language. Both Jesus and Buddha emphasized the present. The first beatitude says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It does not mean that those who are poor in spirit will see a better future, perhaps after the Second Coming. Rather, it offers the insight that it is those who realize that they have something lacking who will have the necessary humility to seek help. On the other hand, those who feel that they already have abundance will be complacent. William Barclay translates this verse as “Blessed is the man who has realized his own utter helplessness, and who has put his whole trust in God.”
In summary, it would be fair to say that neither Jesus nor Buddha put an emphasis on hope. Their focus is on the here-and-now. The downside of hope is that it is a distraction from the present reality. Hope also makes us dependent on external circumstances for our happiness and spiritual fulfillment when what is truly needed is some honest inner work. If we turn our attention to the present and to ourselves, then a transformation may happen. Neither Jesus nor Buddha pin their hope on something miraculous. True peace is a matter of fully accepting what is, without the urge to change it into something totally different. Perhaps such humble peace is the miracle.