The knot of hope

Hope is an important element of the human experience. For many, hope is as essential to the maintenance of our mental well-being as food and water are for our physical survival. The hope of a better tomorrow is what drives many of our thoughts and actions today. In Buddhism, hope is the antithesis of doubt. Hope and doubt relate to many desires, but in Buddhism they primarily relate to our desire to transform suffering into happiness and awakening; in ourselves and others.

Hope and doubt are merely views, and are therefore conditioned and relative. As such they must be considered and contemplated very carefully in order to fully understand whether they are right or wrong views. That is to say, do these views, these notions of hope or doubt, actually help to transform our suffering into happiness, or do they simply create further suffering.

We generally use hope as a means to make the present moment more bearable. Hope often arises from faith – faith either in ourselves or some external agency. Hope and faith are often interwoven, but faith in the Buddhist sense simply means that we have faith in our ability to transform suffering. Any such faith has to be based upon personal experience, not mindlessly indoctrinated.

Image courtesy of http://sixfootgiraffe.com/tag/brain/So what is false hope? False hope is the kind of hope that draws us away from the present moment. It becomes a knot in our mind, and the longer we hang onto this hope, the tighter that knot will become. This is undesirable, but how can we be sure that when we see something as a false hope that we are not simply experiencing doubt? Just as hope can often be confused with strong faith, so doubt is often confused with, or portrayed by leaders as weak faith, or a failure to “get it”. Therefore doubt, or even prudent speculation, are often frowned upon or simply misunderstood within certain Buddhist sects (mentioning no names).

I would suggest that any kind of hope that:

a.) depends on help coming from an external agency, a deity, the mystic law etc.

b.) takes us away from experiencing happiness in the present moment in the hope of a better future.

…is false hope, and is very likely only going to increase the suffering we experience.

A year or two ago, while practicing SGI Buddhism I asked a friend if I should be chanting to simply realise happiness in the here and now so that I could cope with my health difficulties, or whether I should commit to chanting for a complete cure. The answer was, predictably, the latter – that I shouldn’t settle for anything less than a total cure, and that I should chant more and more. At the time I felt it was a wake up call, and that I must have been practicing wrongly as I was still unwell.

So, I went about chanting for long hours on and off throughout the day. There wasn’t much else I could do outside the practice to improve my health other than eat well and try to exercise. Needless to say, when things didn’t improve I naturally doubted my own application and understanding of the practice (which is, after all, infallible, right?). I felt such a failure, and in the end, I realised that what I was trying to do was nothing less than faith healing.

At the time this realisation occurred I experienced strong feelings of anger with my friend for generating what I now view as false hope. I now accept that he was just unwilling to accept that my health difficulties had any basis outside of the mind, or that what worked for him doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Needless to say, I don’t feel that way any more, but I recognised this flavour of hope running throughout the SGI and in the end, it was this experience that was instrumental in my leaving the organisation behind.

Many, many years ago a practicing Christian friend from the US (hello Debbie Burke), gave me a little pendant with the inscription “Lord, give me the strength to change the things that I can, the patience to accept those things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – I still keep this item as its message portrays one of the greatest tests of daily wisdom.

The trick is in knowing the difference. Knowing the difference between what you can and cannot change inevitably requires discrimination at some level, either conscious or unconscious, but I am now pretty sure that I am closer to knowing the difference spoken of above now better than at any time in my life.

To paraphrase A.J.Muste’s quote on peace, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way”

It took me several months to realise this. Happiness is available in the here and now – and it is within reach of the mind. It does not depend upon manipulation of the physical body or the outside world – how could it ever? If the world all practiced the kind of Buddhism that chants for physical change, how could the universe ever respond to the myriad different desires? No, the only happiness to be realised is in the here and now, with all the difficulties and challenges that face us – the real simultaneity of cause and effect reveals this mystery with every breath.

3 Responses to The knot of hope

  1. Michael January 27, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    I hope you are doing well! It’s been a little while since we last communicated through email.

    The difficulty with all of this is separating what is Nichiren Buddhism from what certain practitioners claim it is. This has been and still is a continuing struggle for me personally. I’ve heard a full spectrum of claims that are all over the map. This is why I am assuming Nichiren, while referencing the Nirvana Sutra, warned to, “rely on the Dharma and not upon the persons.” I guess the challenge is trying to get to the bottom of what Nichiren was trying to communicate and not get lost or disheartened by what certainly appears to be “half-cooked” or shallow interpretations. My partner and I are exploring a lot of these things in a website I started up- http://ichinensanzen.ca Without attempting to be any sort of authority, the purpose is simply to share our questions and exploration of the underlying fundamentals of this practice in ways that seem to be lacking in discussion meetings. As always we would greatly welcome any of your feedback, considering how much we appreciate your open-minded and informed approach.

    Keep up the great work!

    • steve January 30, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

      Hi Michael, and thanks for writing and your kind words. I hope your website helps those still practicing, particularly in the SGI, take the time to develop their understanding of Buddhism without the distractions or restrictions of organisational mores. What yo uare trying to do, I think, is very valuable, and I hope sites like yours over time, can help transform Nichiren Buddhism in the west. I think the problem with Nichiren Buddhism, like any form of Buddhism is that everyone has their own idea about what “it” is, exactly. One’s relationship with the Dharma is an intensely personal thing. I always wonder how many people misunderstand “rely on the Dharma and not upon the persons”. The Dharma is everything, and nothing. The four so called ‘Reliables’ in the Nirvana Sutra do not translate into “rely on the Dharma and not upon the persons” – and certainly not in the context the SGI often pushes – where Dharma usually means limiting yourself to the Lotus Sutra, WND and what comes out of Tokyo HQ – the product of human interpretation, inscription, translation and so forth – which, in my humble view can only ever be a pale reflection of the Dharma. Steve.

      • Michael February 1, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

        What I am trying to do is look at Nichiren Buddhism in the context of the heritage that it was developed from. In my opinion, I think it would be an error to try to understand Nichiren’s philosophy at face value in and of itself (outside of the traditions it was developed from or the historical time period). Ichinen sanzen, The Three Truths, Simultaneity of Cause and Effect, ideas of self, etc. all need to be seen through their traditional context. Ichinen Sanzen in actuality (Nichiren’s version) can only have meaning when understood through Chih-i’s ideas of Ichinen Sanzen, which Nichiren based it on. There are so many important elements that helped form Nichiren’s practice and to ignore them would be a mistake in my opinion. Shakyamuni, Nargarjuna, Chih-i, Saicho, etc. help give us reference points to interpret Nichiren, at least that is how I am finding it helpful to see what Nichiren had to share. This is also why I find your website to be such a great resource. Keep at it!

        In reference to the previous quote, Jacqueline Stone shares the below in her Biographical Studies of Nichiren in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, which I found very interesting.

        “Though Nichiren would eventually trace his Dharma lineage from Šakyamuni through Zhiyi (538–597) and Saicho (767-822), he never did form a close personal relationship with any living person whom he revered throughout life as his teacher, as Dõgen did Ruzhing or Shinran did Hõnen. It was during his early years on Hiei, Takagi suggests, that Nichiren developed his lifelong habit of turning to texts, rather than human teachers, for instruction and the resolution of doubts, an approach that he later equated with the Nirvana Sutra’s admonition to “rely on the Dharma and not upon persons.””

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