Wise Hope

Lately a Mountains dharma buddy has been signing her email “Towards wise hope”, and it made me consider how Wise Hope is a wonderful paramita for modern times.

The phrase comes to us from the writings of Joan Halifax in which she explores suffering from the Buddhist perspective, and looks at the processes of transforming our response to it. It’s interesting that she feels the need to rigorously critique this phrase, to reassure traditional Buddhists that Wise Hope is not to be confused with optimism or any grasping wishful thinking. Joanna Macy also writes about “active hope”, a way of following a socially-engaged Buddhist path, especially in relation to social issues and ecology.

However, I would like to explore Wise Hope as an equally valuable paramita for our everyday life, for the conflicts, disappointments and difficulties we may find. Joan Halifax writes “If we look at hope through the lens of Buddhism, we discover that wise hope is born of radical uncertainty, rooted in the unknown and the unknowable,” Hope means being open to what is, in all its abundance; open to what is the next step, and the next; open to maybe taking no step, just listening and being with each person or situation; open to our own hearts.

Wise Hope is akin to Upaya, the seventh paramita, meaning “skilful means.” Aitken Roshi describes it as acting in a way that is wisely and compassionately appropriate. He writes that Upaya is also called ‘garden equipment’ in the Zen Buddhist texts. “Truly compassionate means are likely to be quite homey and not obviously designed for great realisation.”

In Zen Buddhism we have the triad of Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Determination. Strange as it may seem, I think that Great Doubt is an aspect of hope. We want to see the true reality, to realise our true nature. We probe and encompass that probing, and from that arises affirmation. It’s the ‘radical uncertainty’ that Joan Halifax describes, combined with great trust and persistence.

There is the story of Kuei-shan, appointed by his teacher Pai-chang to found a new monastery. He waited eight years in the forest of Mount Ta-kuei for others to help. He had just given up hope and was about to leave when a tiger, the spirit of the forest, Wise Hope herself, grasped him by the sleeve and made him wait. Soon after, three monks arrived and the rest, as they say, is history.

We are not moving towards Wise Hope. As in our vows, we are embodying it fully in each moment. The recent outcome for the custodians of Uluru is an example of that. Because of publicity over the years about the wishes of the custodians, there had already been a steady decline in people climbing Uluru, and so a ban on climbing was achieved.

Please also have a listen to Brendon Stewart’s podcast on Wise Hope in action.

As Yunmen said “Every day is a good day”. Wise Hope means taking to heart the good day and the pretty lousy day, and treating each with the same loving attention.

This essay written by apprentice teacher, Jane Andino is published in the SZC Dec 2019 – January 2020 Newsletter.