As a Christian exploring Buddhism for its technologies of meditation, mindfulness and being peace, I found many coherences among the two traditions. And I’m not alone in that; Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has described how – once he learned about Jesus – he adopted Jesus as one of his spiritual ancestors.
But I confess I got thrown off the horse when I came to Buddhism’s tenet of no-hope, or hopelessness. Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, calls this letting go of the “deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold,” that there’s something outside of ourselves that we can abdicate our responsibilities and authority to.
Thich Nhat Hanh acknowledges that hope can make the present moment less difficult to bear, but says that that is the most it can do. He sees something tragic when we “cling to our hope in the future” and do not “focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment.”
These teachings seemed quite antithetical to the Biblical injunction to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you …” (1 Peter 3:15). The liberative tradition, too, is rooted in the hope for the undoing of oppression and injustice: Maria Pilar Aquino speaks eloquently of the necessity for Christians to be steeped in an empapamiento of hope: “Empapamiento refers to … ‘saturating ourselves,’ of ‘imbuing ourselves,’ of ‘permeating ourselves’ with hope so that we explore more freely the open possibilities of our reality and bring about the open possibilities of our transforming imagination.” (from A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology: Religion and Justice.)
Looking at hope this closely renders the familiar strange: What is hope to me? What is it to God? Does it help or hurt?
I find myself thinking of Emily Dickinson’s line: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” A lift in our spirits when we look forward … the surge we feel in acknowledging that things are not as they should be … the energy that arises with us in the morning at first light. And then I come across Stephen Batchelor’s words about Buddhism, describing “insight and compassionate response as ‘two wings of a bird’” where “authentic Buddhist practice necessarily leads to … engagement with the world” (from Engaged Buddhism in the West).
This works. Hope is that thing with feathers, a bird that rises on the wings of insight and compassion. Hope rises when I do not hold it too closely, when I do not tether it with expectation, when I do not box it up with my attachments to the way or the destination. Hope in God is not a hand to hold that keeps me safe from all harm, but a hand that holds me as I sit and pray, as I walk and work, as I open myself to God’s loving/knowing what I can become and be, give and grow. I account for this hope by acknowledging that it does not come from me, or end with me, but moves through me like a bird through air, rising, ever rising.
Hope is something I want to be.