Posts Tagged ‘six paramitas’

“Ray of Hope” impatiens

On this cold morning in February, I’m remembering my last conversation with my father. At the time, he was sixty-five years old. He had retired early the year before, having received a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his once-sturdy body reduced by chemotherapy. Although he did not know for certain that he was dying—no one had definitively told him so—he knew that he wasn’t getting any better. Much of our conversation centered on the past: on our shared experiences, our conflicting political views, his wish that he could have better provided for his family. But when our focus turned to the future, and the word hope arose, I remarked without much thought that he might be “hoping for the wrong things.” My remark unsettled him. “I just hoped to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren,” he replied. “What’s wrong with that?”

Over the ensuing decades I have often regretted my remark. At the very least, it was less than wise. At worst, it was insensitive and unintentionally unkind. Who was I, at the untried age of twenty-six, to be advising my father? To be suggesting what, if anything, he should or shouldn’t hope for? Now that I am well beyond his age at the time, I am far less certain of what any of us should hope for, if hope we must, especially in later life. Turning to Zen teachings for guidance, I find contrasting perspectives, some of them more useful than others.

Perhaps the most severe of those perspectives is that of Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), former abbot of the San Diego Zen Center. Generally speaking, Zen teachings enjoin us to attend to our immediate experience and to look deeply into the present moment. Whatever distracts us from those objectives, be it daydreams or idle speculation, is to be set aside. It is in that context that Beck, in her essay “No Hope,” counsels us to abandon vain hopes for a life other than the one we are presently living. “All hope,” she declares, “is about sizing up the past and projecting it into the future.” That habit of mind leads us to ignore and devalue the “wonder” of our present, everyday lives. “A life lived with no hope,” she asserts, “is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life,” even at its end. For Beck, this outlook appears to have sufficed. According to Roshi Joan Halifax, Joko Beck’s last words, uttered at the point of death, were, “This, too, is wondrous!”

A more temperate view of hope may be found in the teachings of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “We all know,” he writes, “that hope is necessary for life.” At the same time, “according to Buddhism, hope can be an obstacle.” It can divert our energies into self-indulgent fantasies of a better future. It can cloud our perceptions of present realities. “The essential teaching of Buddhism,” he notes, “is to be free of all desire for the future in order to come back with all our heart and mind into the present.” By so doing, we can gain “the deep understanding which can release us from suffering and darkness.” Hope need not be abandoned, but neither should it be allowed to obstruct our vision.

A third general perspective, which Thich Nhat Hanh elsewhere articulates, is embodied in the phrase “the thought of enlightenment,” a thought that committed Buddhist practitioners are encouraged always to keep in mind. By entertaining the thought of enlightenment, the practitioner consciously aspires to become a bodhisattva, or fully awakened human being. In Buddhist teachings, the bodhisattva is an archetype of altruism and selfless service to others. One becomes a bodhisattva by actively cultivating the paramitas, or “Perfections of Wisdom” (generosity, virtue, patience, wholeheartedness, meditation, and wisdom), chiefly through the practice of meditation. Although this aspiration, like all aspirations, focuses on the future, it is consistent with Buddhist practice in general and Zen practice in particular, insofar as one’s hope for enlightenment is grounded in a full awareness of actual conditions and supported by disciplined practice.

As may be inferred from these differing perspectives, the issue of hope in Zen teachings remains unsettled. Likewise the question of what the “right” objects of hope might or might not be. But perhaps a rough guide may be discerned in the word “right” itself, which appears frequently in Buddhist teachings and carries a specialized meaning. To speak of “right view,” “right effort,” and “right speech,” as foundational Buddhist teachings do, is not to promote a dogma or endorse an orthodoxy. Rather, it is to distinguish those things that are grounded in reality from those that are not. “Right view” is a view aligned with things as they are. “Right speech” is honest and true. In this sense, to hope for the “right” things is to hope for outcomes that are possible and even probable, given present circumstances and conditions. And what, we might reasonably inquire, is wrong with that?


Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (HarperCollins, 1989), 66-70.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life (Parallax, 1990), 35.

Photo by Magnus Manske.

Read Full Post »