The Necessity of Hope

I read a post by a Buddhist blogger yesterday that really had me scratching my head. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. According to this guy, hope is a bad thing. It’s just another form of craving, an illusion that inhibits our spiritual growth. Pardon me, but that is complete nonsense. Another case of confusing the relative with the ultimate.

Merriam-Webster defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” Well, there we have two words that have a negative connotation in Buddhism: desire and anticipation. But that’s in the ultimate sense. Sure, desire is bad when it leads to clinging but some desires are positive. Same with anticipation. Living in the present moment is an ideal, a frame of mind. Not a prison. Anyone who doesn’t think about the future to some extent, harbor a few healthy desires, and occasionally have some anticipation is only leading half a life.

Ultimately, we do not want to be constantly dwelling in anticipation, but the future is real. It will come and there is no avoiding it.  By the same token, if you don’t look back and learn from the past, you are missing out on great opportunities for growth. The past and the present both exist in the present moment, as we presently experiencing the effects from the past and making causes for the future. Dogen said, “We cannot be separated from time . . .  we, ourselves are time . . .”

In the relative, conventional world, we need hope. Without hope, we fall prey to pessimism that leads to negative states of mind. I don’t see hope as a big dilemma. The real problem is that too many people in the world don’t have any. Whether it’s a case of suffering in a third world country or in Beverly Hills, lives devoid of hope in this modern age are far too prevalent.

Hope contributes to a positive outlook on life and if that sounds too “new age” or something that’s too bad. Unless you have some sense of optimism for the future, life can be very bleak. It is through pessimism and negative thinking that we create a lot of our suffering. Hope is a necessary ingredient for a  satisfied, peaceful life, and it’s sad to me that there are some Buddhists who want to twist it around into something to avoid.

The Buddha way is the Middle Way. The balance between extremes. There’s no question that too much hope can be harmful. Living for the future excessively is not healthy. But to abandon hope and live only in the present is not the way to go either. Hope reinforces the ego only if you let it. The idea that it represents some form of control that we don’t actually have is wrong. The whole point of Buddhism is to train our minds so that we can control our thoughts, words and deeds and gravitate to wholesome states of mind and not dwell in unwholesome states. We want control and if that is just an illusion then there’s no sense in practicing Buddhism. We might as well give up.

It doesn’t matter if what you hope for will come to pass or not. The important thing is to have hope. Without it, practice as a Bodhisattva would be impossible. A Bodhisattva hopes to liberate all living beings, but it will never happen. Someone will always be suffering somewhere. The point is that with a balanced sense of hope we can aspire to this great goal and have the confidence and courage to pull ourselves and a few others out of life overshadowed by suffering and into life bright with optimism and a measure of peace.

I don’t know what else to say about this subject, so here’s some words by a few people who say better than me:

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.

Dalai Lama

It is not true that the world always has to be a mess and vale of misery. It can be beautiful and meaningful, and the human life form is a wonderful opportunity to reach the highest fulfillment imaginable . . . The Buddha’s Noble Truth of Suffering means that life dominated by misknowledge will always be unsatisfactory, but that is not a final destination; it means that we can develop wisdom to eliminate misknowledge and then live free in bliss and share that bliss with others . . . never give up. We live in hope, as the realistic way to live.

Robert Thurman

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.

Albert Einstein

A man with a grain of faith . . .  never loses hope, because he ever believes in the ultimate triumph of Truth.

Mahatma Gandhi


2 thoughts on “The Necessity of Hope

  1. David,

    I once knew a young woman, an aspiring dancer, who became both quadripelegic and blind. She had hopes for her future, both professionally and socially, but others told her it was better to live her life without irrational hopes. She scorned them and told me “Hope is what gets you through the day.” She went on to complete college and move out of the nursing home she was living in at the time. I learned a lot about hope from her. Cheers!

    1. Thanks, Seth. I think that some folks who criticize the idea of hope, don’t understand how difficult it is for some people to sustain it, and for others, it’s a necessary as breathing.

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