DT-Wise Hope re Joan Halifax

Tonight’s dharma talk is about wise hope and draws upon an article by Roshi Joan Halifax titled Wise Hope in Social Engagement (Upaya’s blog-12/31/18). She writes about her ongoing work in situations that many people consider hopeless. After anti-war and civil rights activism in the 1960s, she now works as a Zen caregiver of dying people and as a volunteer with death row inmates and with refugees who are fleeing genocide in their homelands. 

It would be easy to write off any one of these causes as hopeless. War, violence, and injustice are ongoing forces in our lives. Dying is inevitable, and death row prisoners seldom seek redemption. Few countries welcome refugees, no matter how dire their circumstances. 

As Joan examines what motivates those who work to alleviate such intractable suffering, she acknowledges that it “does not seem very Buddhist to hope.” Zen master Suzuki Roshi used to say that life is “like stepping onto a boat, which is about to sail out to sea and sink.” Part of the dharma path is recognizing the truth that everything is impermanent and that we and all beings will die. 

The Buddha taught that ordinary hope stems from desiring an outcome that is more favorable than what might actually happen. Underlying conventional hope is the fear that our expectations might be dashed. If our hopes aren’t realized, we often suffer from disappointment. Ordinary hope seems to add to our suffering. 

Mark and I have a Mexican friend Gaby, who hopes to earn enough money to pay for her daughter to attend college in Canada. After many attempts to seek funding to launch a small business, Gaby phoned recently to report that a financial company had offered her a loan for an equivalent in pesos of $40,000. Excitedly, she spoke about plans for the future. Then, a few days later, she wrote us about how hopeless she felt because of the high level of corruption in Mexican financial dealings. When she met to sign a contract, the financial agent asked that she pay up front 45 percent of the amount that she wished to borrow before he could authorize the loan to be delivered to her in two to six months. Outraged, Gaby refused to sign such an exploitative contract. She realized that the agency was scamming people by taking their savings without any guarantee of providing financial support afterwards. In a period of three days, Gaby went from optimism to disillusionment. For her, it will take time to rebuild dashed hopes of funding her daughter’s higher education. 

But wise hope goes beyond optimistic or pessimistic outlooks about life. Joan differentiates hope from a belief that everything will turn out well. Optimists who imagine that everything will have a positive outcome may not bother to take action and can become cynical if their dreams don’t come true. On the other hand, pessimists who worry that everything is getting worse tend to withdraw into depressive apathy. We might ask, “If it doesn’t work to be optimistic or pessimistic, how do we find a place for hope and engagement with life?” 

American novelist Barbara Kingsolver replies, “I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily optimistic. Here’s how I would describe it. The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’ The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I don’t think it’ll be that bad.’ The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’ … Hope is … a mode of resistance … a gift I can try to cultivate.”

Czech statesman Václav Havel declared, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

In Joan’s words, “It makes sense to shelter the homeless, including those fleeing from war and climate devastation; it makes sense to support compassion and care in medicine in spite of the increasing presence of technology that stands between patients and clinicians. It makes sense to educate girls and vote for women. It makes sense to sit with dying people, take care of our elders, feed the hungry, love and educate our children. In truth, we can’t know how things will turn out, but we can trust that there will be movement, there will be change. And at the same time, something deep inside us affirms what is good and right to do. It is exactly at this point of not knowing where our vows come alive…. in the midst of seeming futility or meaninglessness.”

As a Buddhist practitioner, Joan sees wise hope as rooted in the spaciousness of radical uncertainty, in what is unknown and unknowable. As much as we think we know what will happen, life unfolds in surprising ways. With wise hope, we open up to being surprised and find space to engage in the midst of improbability and possibility. Amidst her social activism, Joanna Macy calls the engaged expression of wise hope “active hope.” 

With wise hope, we see things realistically, as they are. Courageously, we face the truth of both impermanence and suffering. We sense the possibility of transforming painful circumstances and trust that we do matters, even though we don’t know beforehand what kind of impact our actions will have. In her book Hope in the Dark, social critic Rebecca Solnit points out that we cannot anticipate what will unfold from our actions now or in the future; yet we can rely on the truth that all things change. In any case, our vows, our actions, how we live, and what we care about really do matter.

It can be challenging to show up, especially at times when we feel paralyzed by the belief that there is nothing to hope for—that a grim diagnosis is a one-way street with no exit, that our political situation is beyond repair, or that there is no way out of our climate crisis. With so much suffering in the world, we might feel that nothing makes sense anymore, or that we have no power and that there’s no reason to act.

Joan quotes the peacemaker Daniel Berrigan who stated, “One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something; and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.” Berrigan understood that wise hope entails embracing shifting values that help us to address forms of suffering that many people try to ignore. 

American Benedictine nun and social activist Sister Joan Chittiser writes: “Everywhere I looked, hope existed – but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle…. It was at best a gift of life.”  This gift of life that Joan calls “wise hope” is what Zen Master Dogen means when he urges us to “give life to life,” even if it means tending to one suffering being at a time. 

As dharma practitioners, we share a common aspiration to awaken from greed, hatred and confusion. For many of us, this path is not what Joan calls a “small self” improvement program. In the process of waking up in heart and mind, we aim to benefit all sentient beings. The Bodhisattva Vows at the heart of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition are a powerful expression of radical and wise hope. When we chant these vows, we embody a kind of hope that is free of desire, fear and attachment to outcome. 

Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.       Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to put an end to them.       The dharmas are boundless. I vow to master them.       The Buddha way is unattainable. I vow to attain it.                      

As Joan says, “Our journey through life is one of peril and possibility—and sometimes both at once.” Our challenge is to stand on the threshold between suffering and freedom, staying balanced so that we can learn from both. We can practice moving beyond our dualistic tendency to identify either with futility or with hope. We can open up to the paradoxical complexity of reality, which holds darkness entwined with light. 

Dharma practice often leads naturally to an aspiration to contribute to a more peaceful, just and compassionate society. If we let go of attachment to any particular outcome, our efforts will be easier. Instead of becoming lost in story lines about succeeding heroically or failing hopelessly, we can simply show up. Joan advises us to do what we feel is morally aligned with our values, principles and commitments, “regardless of what happens.” With wise hope, our actions stem from not-knowing and from an intuitive sense of what brings meaning to our lives.  

In conclusion, Joan states, “I …. somehow understood that being with dying was sacred work. For most people, confronting death brings into focus existential dimensions of our lives. I knew that I too was mortal; I too would face my death one day; I too would confront loss and sorrow. What happened was that I was unwittingly drawn into the strong current of the end-of-life care field without having the conscious intention to do this work. I only knew that I had to turn toward and serve dying people, because it felt aligned with who I was and who I was learning to be.”

May we all find ways to align our actions with who we are and who we are learning to be.