September 1, 2014

Hope and Faith

Hope and FaithA friend asked me to elaborate on how, as Buddhists, we should deal with concepts, words, and emotions that seem to go against what we're taught but still seem to be as "real" as they were before we came to Buddhism. He asked, specifically, about the concepts of hope and faith. He had been listening to a discussion between a Buddhist and non-Buddhist friend of his. The friend said he hoped that world peace would be possible some day. The Buddhist laughed and said "As Buddhists we are supposed to be science-minded, not concerned about silly ideas like hope and faith."

I was startled. I explained to my friend that hope is a joyful feeling and that our practice, as Chan Buddhists, involves embracing everything joyful in life. We express hope in our desire to see others become enlightened, in our desire to see an end to starvation, war, and all other forms of suffering. It was hope that inspired the Buddha to teach the mystical path of Dhyana (Chan) to his disciples.

Perhaps some people associate "hope" with helplessness - they think it means we are giving up to some higher power the eventual outcome of the situation. They think that a Buddhist should be cold and indifferent. In Buddhism we often refer to the Four Perfect Emotions: Metta - Love; Karuna - Compassion; Mudita - Sympathetic Joy; and Upekka - Equanimity. While "hope" is not specifically identified in these four, it underlies them all. Hope, coupled with understanding, gives us the ability to act in the world in an enlightened way.

In another conversation, we discussed what it is that keeps us coming back for more Zazen when we know there will be discomfort from leg pain or sore backs as we're learning. We know the agony of our minds begging us to find any excuse to get up off the cushion and run out the door of the Zendo, but for some reason we keep at it. Why? It is hope and faith - in ourselves, in our teacher, in the Buddha, and in the Dharma, that keeps us going. Without hope and faith we would surely give up.

As the famous Chan Master, Miao Yun, said: "Under the illumination of the light of wisdom and compassion, we have tremendous hope. Those who practice the Dharma will not easily give up from fear-of-failure because they have received the light of Buddha Dharma and because they have firm faith in a bright future."

"Hope" and "faith" have very similar definitions to Buddhists - we can have faith that we will come to know our True Selves, but it's not blind faith. It's faith based on the experience, knowledge, wisdom, and love that has been passed down from generation to generation.

My friend responded: "There seem to be those who think that one must remove the emotion, the mystical, and the spiritual from Buddhism - it seems like cutting out the heart. They are reductionists who try to make things small with their explanations. The joy of Buddhism to me is that it has made my life so much bigger, to encompass so many more things."

"As our practice progresses in Buddhism", I said, "our understanding about many things changes; including our understanding of the concepts of hope and faith. Our new, more developed, understanding of hope and faith may no longer meet the definitions that other people have for these words or emotions, and that can cause discomfort to people who don't define the words in the same way we do. The same arguments frequently come up among Buddhists with words like "Religion" or "God" or "Soul" or "Salvation". Sometimes it's easy for us, as Buddhists, to see the underlying reality that these words and symbols point to, but other times we latch on to one definition and cannot accept a different view. That's where the trouble begins - we begin grasping and clinging. We want everything defined - fixed and rigid. We don't like to have our ideas about what reality is challenged. And we dare not doubt that our notions may be wrong."

My friend smiled at this, then thanked me for the insight. He looked relieved to know that it was okay to have hope. It seemed his faith in the Path had been renewed.