No Hope, No Fear

Gerry Kopelow
Published in the Newsletter for Spiritual Care Providers of Manitoba, February 2007.

In Pali, the North-Indian dialect that the historical Buddha spoke, “apekkha” is the word usually translated as hope. This is something of a mistranslation, a product of the Judeo-Christian conditioning of the Western scholars who first translated the ancient Buddhist texts. The literal translation of apekkha is waiting for or looking for.

Buddhism, at its core, is not a religion and not faith-based. Rather it is a system of mental development, the first intention of which is to achieve a deeper understanding of how the universe works. “I analyze, I do not philosophize,” the Buddha said.

Two great streams of mental development are nurtured with methods refined over millennia by accomplished practitioners. The first of these is Vipassana, or Insight. The microscopic investigation of experience with a mind sharpened by Insight practice reveals that our ordinary notion of time is an illusory concept, an organizational convenience. All experience is seen as being created in the present moment. The past is understood to exist only in memory and the future is recognized as entirely speculative. The concentrated mind does not engage in speculation, nor is it preoccupied with dreaming of a non-existent past. The second great stream of development is Summatta, which means equanimity, balance, and peace. The mind well-tempered by Summatta practice is steady, compassionate, patient and tolerant.

All practitioners are taught to develop insight and compassion together. The idea is to achieve a clearer understanding of the present moment so that when an action is initiated, the consequences are more likely to be wholesome and thus beneficial for the practitioner as well as for other beings. (The Buddhist view is that a mental action is identical in weight, substance, and effect to a physical action.) In this way, Buddhism teaches that it is more useful to turn away from the passivity of hope – waiting for, looking for – and turn towards the creativity of intention and aspiration. Aspiration is derived from the Pali word asassa, which means breath, breathing, sign-of-life. Aspiration is the direction of the life-force.

Fear is fixation on the likelihood of bad outcomes; consequently fear cannot exist if the mind is completely focused on the present moment. Hope is fixation on the likelihood of good outcomes; consequently hope cannot exist if the mind is completely focused on the present moment. Fear and hope are related, since both are forms of wishful thinking that pull our physical, mental, and emotional resources away from the present moment, the moment where actions are undertaken and the basis for outcomes of any sort are established. When actions are formulated by a mind preoccupied with fantasies of the future, good or bad, the likelihood that actions will be animated by wisdom and compassion is reduced.

A truly accomplished mind exists in a state of compassionate clarity, regardless of circumstances. Actions are motivated by wisdom and kindness. Outcomes are useful, helpful, and full of love. But what about the rest of us? The advice from the accomplished ones is that we can all aspire to achieve the state of compassionate clarity by committing right now to ethical, energetic, and loving thoughts and actions as best we can. The developmental process is never ending; even the Buddha himself had a meditational practice.

My teacher, the Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche, one of the first Westerners to be recognized by the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders, was once asked “What is the relationship between trust and enlightenment?” Rinpoche answered, “Complete trust is complete enlightenment.”  The Pali word for trust is saddha, often inaccurately translated as faith.  Saddhana is a Sanskrit term related to saddha that means method of attainment. This trust, in the Buddhist view, is not a passive state, but an active, confident, and creative engagement with method. And in Buddhism we have lots of methods. We say pick one, and get started.

Many of you are pastoral professionals working in the health-care realm. So here are a few observations that will apply to some of the Buddhists you might encounter in your work:

The Buddha referred to old age, sickness, and death as the “Three Messengers”, meaning that trouble is a wake-up call. This call often comes too late for those that are not accomplished in the developmental practices described above. Buddhists like these are believers, that is they recognize the Buddha to be a great teacher, a god even, and they subscribe to a measure of magical thinking by hoping (hope in the regular North American sense) for positive outcomes brought about by unseen forces. Should one of these people receive a wake-up call from one or more of the Three Messengers, they will also experience the dark side of hope, namely fear. These people will find comfort, as would anyone, in the kindness of caring professionals, family, and friends.

More rarely, you will encounter a long-time practitioner of Vipassana and Summatta. These people respond to the Three Messengers differently than do the simply devout. To practitioners, the wake-up call is a confirmation of the nature of reality, rather than a debilitating shock. How will you know these people? You will know them by the fact that you feel comforted in their presence, rather than the other way around.