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 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.

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