Buddhism: Religion for the Hopeless

A teacher of mine once commented that Buddhism had no room for hope – and he grounded this accusation on the understanding that hope is wanting things to be different than they are, and that Buddhist practice is about accepting things as they are.

Explained in that way it seems reasonable enough, but something about adhering to a hopeless religion seems iffy, especially when Buddhism has so many things which look like hope, but my own misgivings were much more personal.

I remember that when I first heard that from my teacher I felt very disappointed, because I had adopted a language of hope. I hoped others had nice days, I hope that people got good restful nights of sleep, as well as excellent hockey tickets and doubles from vending machines. Most importantly though, I hoped that good things happened to others, because I desperately wanted to stop wishing people “good luck.”

After all, I knew Buddhism had no room for luck! Things happen in accordance with causes, and golly gosh if there was no such thing as luck I might as well stop wishing this empty, false idea to be bestowed upon others. I had lived in a luckless world for quite awhile, and all was well. But, if the spectre of language correctness took my hope away, would there be no chance for well wishing of any kind?

I do suppose that practice itself is based on the hope that, through our own actions and our own effort, we can change ourselves and our karma to ease our suffering and find freedom. This seems like a different kind of hope, an active hope that seeks opportunities and makes the most of things. It seemed to be doing the best with what was presented instead of wishing for new and different circumstances.

Perhaps, if I refuse to allow language to just be language and to communicate a wholesome intention, I could say, “I would be glad if things happen as you would like them to, for it would make me joyful for you to find comfort, and I am sure you have the potential to succeed given the proper opportunity. Excelsior!”

That is what I could day if I got rid of hope – and I certainly hope that day never comes.

4 comments

  1. Justin says:

    “I do suppose that practice itself is based on the hope that, through our own actions and our own effort, we can change ourselves and our karma to ease our suffering and find freedom. This seems like a different kind of hope, an active hope that seeks opportunities and makes the most of things. It seemed to be doing the best with what was presented instead of wishing for new and different circumstances.”

    That is exactly where the hope lies, in our own power to be free of suffering through our own actions. We have faith that the Buddha actually found a true happiness and that we can find it as well through our own efforts. That we have to be responsible for our own happiness and need to look for it outside the sphere of sensual pleasures,relationships, etc. is radical in terms of Western secular consumer values and even Judeo-Christian ones.

  2. John says:

    Thanks Scott, it is really good to be getting back into the swing of things with this `ol blog. I wish there was a way I could respond more contextually. All I hear from the kids these days is about this new fangled ‘threaded responses’ technology. It must be the cats pajamas!

    Also, to Justin:
    Thank you for the response – especially for putting a name to something I have thought about for a long while, “Western secular consumer values.” It would be an interesting thing to write a bit about how such things have or have not affected Western Buddhism. What do you think?

  3. Justin says:

    John-

    That would be an interesting topic. If you could come up with some things to write about surrounding the topic of western secular consumer values and how they have/have not affected Western Buddhism it would be an interesting read. I can only speculate on the issue at the moment.

    Sometimes it seems like people like to hop from one Buddhist tradition to another in a sort of shopping mall fashion. If you are looking for one that is best for you it doesn’t seem bad, but the constant shopping around with no settling could be a bad thing after a while. This might be considered a consumer type attitude since you sort of “shop” around constantly looking for new insights and experiences. The consumer culture seems to bring with it a sort of restlessness that could foster this type of constant running around.

    Another thing might be the idea that people can just dispense with the tradition and do their own thing entirely. Does this come from the hyper sense of individualism in our western society? I’m not one to want to judge and say that some people can’t be succesful when going on their own, but I personally feel that sticking to a tradition is a wiser choice because it gives one a sense of place, a community to fall back on and values that have been built up and tested for centuries at least.

    How has Western Buddhism not been affected by those values? I would say that there are people out there and Buddhist groups that do not subscribe to the western consumer way of doing things. I think of Ajahn Thanissaro and his style. If you listen to his Dhamma talks he is pretty critical of the values of our society at times. I’m sure there are many others besides him.

    The truth of the matter is the western secular consumer values play such a large role in our society it’s really hard to imagine that it doesn’t affect Buddhism here in some way, shape, or form even if it is in unconscious ways. Where Buddhism excels in resisting it is in the fact that it’s values really go almost completely against the grain of the common western value system, at least as far as secular and consumer values go. You really have to be a pretty strong person to really totally resist them, either that or you have to have a serious foundation in practice. I suppose that is why Ajahn Thanissaro seems so grounded in the Dhamma.

    These are just a few random ideas that I came up with on the fly. Perhaps you could do better. It’s a nice topic to consider. I wish you well in your practice of the Dhamma.

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