Oren Jay Sofer, Sister Clear Grace, and Ayya Yeshe look at the meaning of hope in Buddhism and what it means in today’s world.
Question: What is the Buddhist view of hope? Is it just another delusion that pulls us out of the present moment and causes suffering, or can it also motivate us to work in a way that creates a better future?
Oren Jay Sofer: The Buddha’s teaching is fundamentally hopeful. It affirms that there is a reliable way to release ourselves from suffering, to protect other beings, mitigate harm, and build a better world.
I suffered from chronic illness for a few years in my thirties. For the first few months, with each new doctor, my mind soared with hopeful expectation for promising treatments, then crashed in fearful despair when it failed to deliver. Those years taught me a lot about the difference between hope based on craving and the steady energy of wise aspiration.
This practical hope is the foundation of the path.
What we might call “ordinary hope” directs our longing for happiness in an unskillful way. It places our well-being on an uncertain, imagined future beyond our control, thereby feeding craving and fixation. When the wished-for outcome isn’t realized, we are crushed.
Dhamma practice channels our longing for happiness, harmony, and equity in a skillful way. This begins with saddha, most frequently translated as “faith” or “conviction.” Saddha refers to one’s aspiration and confidence in the path. It is the intuitive sense that there is something worthwhile about being alive, that inner freedom is available for each of us.
To avoid being co-opted by craving, aspiration is supported by refuge and guided by wisdom. Refuge connects us with a tangible sense of emotional, psychological, and spiritual safety here and now. Refuge protects the heart, helping us to engage with the world from a place of love and acceptance rather than fear, anger, or reactivity. Those years of illness demanded I learn to touch this place of refuge amidst pain and uncertainty.
From there, it takes wisdom to meet life and respond to challenges without betting on fantasy, burning out, or sinking in despair. The wisdom of equanimity understands that we choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. Both are beyond our control. What we can choose is how we relate, and how we respond.
Right View understands that actions have results. What we say and do right now, how we respond with our mind and body, matters. We can affect change—both internally and externally.
All of these factors work together to form what we might call realistic or practical hope. It’s a stable outlook that starts from where we are, acknowledges the reality of what’s happening, and assesses our own internal resources to respond.
This practical hope is the foundation of the path. When our actions are guided by wisdom and compassion, we can grow in resilience and in our capacity to serve. And we can steer toward inner freedom, clarity, and well-being.
Sister Clear Grace: In the Anguttara Nikaya 3:13, the Buddha teaches us that there are three kinds of people in the world: “The hopeful, the hopeless, and the one who has done away with hope.”
My very existence stands on the back of hope, a hope dependent upon a complicated reality of causes, conditions, and context. I am here today partially because of the seeds of hope for emancipation. Those before me tell of great songs sung to acquire hope, songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” They tell of political slogans, like King’s “I Have a Dream” and Obama’s “Yes We Can.” They tell of poetry, like Langston’s “I, Too” or Maya’s “Caged Bird.” They tell of Biblical passages once used to oppress, turning instead into paths of freedom, giving enslaved Africans a profound sense of hope of overcoming in the midst of suffering. This sort of transcendent hope can be a way of relating to suffering amidst continuity and change. In this way, hope sustains life or becoming, and offers a belief in the possibility of positive outcomes that help us develop intention in the face of obstacles.
Hope acquired through direct experience gives us insight into change.
In the wake of Covid-19 there is much to feel hopeless about: the senseless murders of Black bodies, xenophobia, classism, and racism. These realities are not to be denied and did not just arrive with the pandemic. For many, the virus has only re-exposed a divide or a type of social distancing that has been amongst us all along. The racial, economic, gender, citizenship status, and class disparities have exacerbated the very inequalities that Black, Indigenous, People of Color, elders, migrant workers, incarcerated, and detained people have always actively opposed in the hope of creating a better or more equitable future. As people rush to return to “normal,” many of us are concerned that our imperfect past will evolve into an imperfect new normal. We must take care that our hopes for a different now or a better future don’t lead us to fall into despair.
Hope acquired through direct experience gives us insight into change, rather than just the wanting of change. This wise hope can allow us to see things as they are—that nothing is inherently permanent or fixed. The Buddha directs us to a path that is wishless or without expectation. It is from this very space that we are then able to create and be the very hope that we wish to see.
Ayya Yeshe: Hope may seem like a very Christian concept, and a dualistic one at that. Hope is often tied into desire and craving, which Buddhists regard as a form of suffering. Hope (for happiness) and fear (of suffering), fame and infamy, praise and blame, gain and loss are the eight worldly dharmas—states of mental grasping that keep us locked into deluded ways of being.
But what if we look at hope as something different from desire? What if we acknowledge that we are not enlightened yet, and that hope as resilience—a long-term commitment to practice and social justice and compassion, equanimity, and watering the seeds of joy and happiness in ourselves—is a necessary part of the courage, strength, and endurance needed to become bodhisattvas, to become enlightened, and to create a more just world? Equanimity does not mean apathy, it means a balanced mind that can see the bigger picture, a calm and objective mind open to different points of view.
We must keep alive hope.
For someone deeply involved in meditation and concentrative states who has gone far on the path of dharma, hope probably is not that important. When we see that wisdom and joy are our natural state, the clarity beneath our projections, and our rich fundamental nature, there is no need to grasp for something good coming in the future, because we are already complete. However, we are not always connected to that big awakened mind. So in the meantime, we need a bit of happiness, self-care, humor, and kindness as well as a long-term vision. Hope could be compared to relative bodhicitta (the compassionate wish to liberate all beings including yourself from suffering and rebirth)—the mind that has not yet realized emptiness or perfect compassion but has a glimmer that such joyful natural goodness is possible. It’s like the great sun on the horizon, even as our heart is moved by the mess and suffering of the world. We hold both realities in our heart, the mess and the potential to awaken. Moving into ultimate bodhicitta (the realization of emptiness and true interconnectedness of all that is), one can leave behind smaller pleasures and the need for hope; one is complete, joyous, and free of duality. The gap between these two bodhicittas could be months, years, or lifetimes. We practice the six perfections (generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, wisdom), and we keep going. Because we have tasted peace and compassion and we know a better world, our better natures are possible—within and without.
In his final speech, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took a long-term view of hope: “I’ve been to the mountaintop …Like anybody, I would like to live a long life … I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” We must keep alive hope, not because we need illusions to comfort us in this cruel world, but because separation and cruelty are the illusion—and we need to wake up. More than that, we need to act for justice.