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A Strange and Wonderful Vision of Hope


Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
As another year fraught with uncertainty and peril draws to a close, Roshi Joan Halifax explores the power of wise hope, free from attachment, to bolster our engaged practice.
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The following article is from our collection of Cornerstone pieces. You can find them all here.

I think there is not one person who has not been touched by this historic pandemic that has swept across the globe. We are also in the grip of enormous changes in our climate and the horrific impacts of our greed on our earth. I believe, in the midst of dealing with the psychosocial outcomes from COVID and the climate catastrophe and in contemplating the future of our children and grandchildren, this is a powerful time for us to be addressing hope.

I want to begin by saying that the species of hope to be explored is something that I feel is very beautiful. This kind of hope, what I have come to call “wise hope,” is sourced in surprise and imagination.

Some of you know that a good part of my life has been spent relating to situations that might be deemed hopeless—as an anti-war, civil rights, and climate activist, as a caregiver of dying people, as a volunteer with death row inmates.

You might ask, why work in such hopeless situations?

Why care about ending the violence of war or injustice; violence seems a constant throughout our human history?

Why have hope for people who are dying, when death is inevitable?

What does it mean to hope
in our fragile and fraught world?

Why work with those who are on death row, when redemption is unlikely?

And our climate, how do we protect our mother earth that gives all of us life, when the momentum of catastrophe increases daily?

We have to ask: What does it mean to hope in our fragile and fraught world?

Perhaps like you, I have been troubled by the notion of hope.

For me, it just did not seem very Buddhist to hope.

Yet some time ago, I opened to another view of hope—what I have come to call “wise hope.” As I have come to understand and have lived wise hope, it is beautiful, as I have said, and is sourced in the heart of imagination and surprise. And, as someone recently suggested, wise hope is a right we should protect. Also, to put it directly, it really doesn’t serve anyone to peddle futility. Ultimately, despair and futility are not viable options in our world today.

So, I want to share a strange story with you about a French surrealist poet named Robert Desnos. Maybe this surprising story can offer some perspective on what I have called “wise hope.” This wonderful story I have adapted from Norman Fischer’s great book: The World Could Be Otherwise. Norman gathered this story from my old friend Susan Griffin. Deep gratitude to Norman and Susan for this remarkable story. And here it is:

© Ajithkumar M from Unsplash

Desnos was Jewish, and during World War II, he joined the French Underground Resistance Movement in their fight against the Nazis. Unfortunately, he was captured and sent to various concentration camps. One day, Desnos was crowded with other men into a truck that transports prisoners from the barracks. The men understood where they were going. The trucks always left the barracks full and returned empty. Their destination was the gas chambers and ovens. That day, no one in the truck bed spoke. The mood was resigned, stricken. Eyes were lowered. Faces grim.

When the truck arrived at its terrible destination, the prisoners slowly and silently descended, as if in a dream. The guards also were silent, unable to avoid catching the prisoners’ mood. But this almost religious silence was abruptly interrupted. Suddenly, the poet Desnos jumped up, grabbed the hand of the man behind him. Astonishingly, his nose almost touching the man’s hand, his body coiled tight with energy, he began to read the man’s palm. “I am so excited for you!” he exclaimed happily. “You are going to have three children! A beautiful wife! Wealth! So fantastic! So wonderful!”

His excitement was contagious. First one man, then another, in shock and bewilderment, thrust out his hand. Each one received a similar prediction: long life, children, wealth, beautiful surroundings, peace, happiness, success, joy unending.

As Desnos read palm after palm, the atmosphere of the moment—drop by drop at first, and then, as if in a sudden tidal wave, breaking all at once—completely transformed. The prisoners were smiling, laughing, clapping one another on the back, their burden lifted, their reality transformed.

Even more astonishingly, the guards also were affected. Like the prisoners, they had been living a dark spell in which marching men to slaughter was a normal and acceptable occurrence. But now, with this absurd and unprecedented event, this sudden evocation of an alternative reality, the spell was broken. The guards were confused. The reality they had been living a moment ago had been somehow suddenly cast into doubt. They were no longer sure what was real and what was not. Perhaps their better natures—long suppressed in an effort to conform to the Nazi madness that defined their world, long numb to the grief, the guilt, the horror—were stirred by Desnos’s commitment to his absurd, but perhaps not absurd, vision. Who knows? They were in any case so undone by the jolly scene in front of them that they no longer knew what to do. They couldn’t go through with the executions. So they marched the prisoners back into the truck and sent them back to the barracks. Through this spontaneous, unprescribed moment of unbounded imagination and the brilliant spirit of wise hope, Desnos and these men were saved from execution.

Wise hope means that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to Not Knowing and act from a place of astonishment.

This strange and curious story maybe helps us understand why I think hope and imagination as a unity is so wonderful.

To begin with, you and I know that ordinary hope is based in wanting an outcome that could well be different from what might actually happen. Was Desnos conventionally hopeful? I think not. Rather my sense is that his poet’s imaginative heart broke open as he was facing what seemed like imminent death, and his actions were totally astonishing not only to others but also to him.

I suspect that if Desnos had done this as a plot and ploy to prevent himself and his fellow prisoners from being killed, this incredible action of brave and comic compassion and zany wise hope would probably not have had a good end.

If we look deeply, we realize that anyone who is conventionally hopeful has an expectation that always hovers in the background, the shadow of fear that one’s wishes will not be fulfilled. Ordinary hope then is a form of suffering, and this kind of hope is a partner with dread.

Reflecting on this curious story, I think Desnos did not have the thought that his crazy act would keep him and his compatriots from harm. Wise hope, I have learned, is unprescribed, spontaneous, and can’t be attached to an outcome. It is a response of imagination so free that one has no idea of where it comes from and where it will lead and land. Thus, wise hope is not the belief that everything will turn out well. But rather that we find ourselves responding from the groundlessness of possibility and like, in Desnos’ case, improbability.

We well know: People die. Populations die out. Species go extinct. Civilizations die. Planets die. Stars collapse and die.

© Jeremy Bezanger from Unsplash

We have to understand that wise hope is not a story based on optimism, that everything will be ok. Optimists imagine that everything will turn out positively. This point of view is dangerous; being an optimist means one doesn’t have to bother; one doesn’t have to act. Also, if things don’t turn out well, cynicism or futility can follow.

And, as we might expect, optimists are excused from engagement. And this is really an important point! In our story, Desnos spontaneously leaped up, he spontaneously acted. He was seized, I believe, not by optimism but by wise hope.

I need to ask: Can we be seized by wise hope?! I hope so!

I think Desnos’s wise hope was born of radical uncertainty; his actions were certainly coming from the unknown and the unknowable. How could he or we ever know what is really going to happen?!

My Zen teacher, the late Roshi Bernie Glassman, emphasized the value of Not Knowing. When we sat in the concentration camp of Auschwitz during a bearing witness retreat, I experienced Bernie’s mind and heart as being wide open with Not Knowing, and I am pretty sure he also sat with what we are calling “wise hope.”

Being in these radical retreats, where we did zazen in the midst of this terrible camp, was an act of pure imagination in action. Those of us who were there also sat with wise hope, not separate from the truth of suffering, and also with the vow to end violence in our world and in ourselves.

And please understand, to do such a thing really does require imagination. After all, could violence end, could it really end in our lives and in the world: one just doesn’t know…. And yet we endeavor to live by vow… and at the end of this talk, I will share those vows….

We can’t know how things will turn out, but we can trust that there will be movement, there will be change. And something deep inside us affirms what is good and right to do.

So there we were, sitting at the selection site, present for and accompanied by “wise hope,” the same spirit I bring to sitting with dying people or the man on death row, or in a climate protest where I get arrested. And I believe that this is the same wise hope that Desnos manifested in reading the palms of those who seemed destined for the gas chambers.

Wise hope means that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to Not Knowing and act from a place of astonishment. Yes, I believe that wise hope appears through our courage to be in the field of radical uncertainty, and in a space of groundless adaptivity to things as they are.

It’s when we look deeply and courageously that we realize we don’t know what will happen next; this is when wise hope comes alive, in this groundless landscape between improbability and possibility, in this groundless landscape of imagination, and from this groundlessness, the imperative to act rises up.

Also wise hope is not seeing things unrealistically but rather seeing things as they are, including the truth of impermanence…. Everything changes, and we cannot know what or how….

© Aaron Burden from Unsplash

Years ago, I read that the Czech statesman Václav Havel said, “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.” Like Havel, I believe that coming from wise hope might at some point show us that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, or even recognizing that it matters, are not things we can know beforehand.

Truly we cannot know what will unfold from our actions now or in the future; yet we can trust that things will change; they always do. Also, like Havel suggested, it is also important for us to remember that our actions, how we live, what we care about, what we care for, and how we care really do matter all the same, no matter the outcome.

Think about Desnos, think about Greta Thunberg and her school protest, think about the Berlin Wall coming down, and more. For many of us, it is an imperative to work for the ending of nuclear proliferation or to put pressure on governments to deal with the climate catastrophe and to live congruently with an earth-caring ethos.

It makes sense to shelter the homeless, those fleeing from war and climate devastation. It makes sense to support compassion in medicine in spite of the increasing presence of technology that stands between patients and clinicians. It makes sense to step again and again into that ICU filled with intubated COVID patients. 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. And it makes sense to address directly the devastation of our climate catastrophe.

We can’t know how things will turn out, but we can trust that there will be movement, there will be change. And something deep inside us affirms what is good and right to do.

This kind of hope is free of desire, free from any attachment to outcome; it is a species of hope that has no fear.

So we move forward in our day and sit at the bedside of the dying grandmother or teach that third grade class of kids from the poor neighborhood.

We bear witness to the young woman who wants to take her life.

We hold our CEO’s and politicians accountable.

We grab the hand of the prisoner about to be executed and read his palm.

It is exactly at this point of wise hope, not knowing, and imagination where our vows to end suffering become a natural response to what is.

The Bodhisattva Vows at the heart of my tradition are, if nothing else, a powerful expression of radical and wise hope and hope against all odds; it takes great imagination and wise hope to chant these vows and not be totally confused. This kind of hope is free of desire, free from any attachment to outcome; it is a species of hope that has no fear. What else could be the case as we chant:

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

This is a sacred time we are in, yes, a scary time for many, a terrible time for many, a powerful time of learning for many, and I feel it is important to see that our work on behalf of others is sacred work.

I believe that wise hope is a medicine that keeps us showing up for this sacred work of meeting reality, moment after moment with the heart of a bodhisattva.

May we know the great benefits of this precious and surprising medicine, and may we share it with others.

This article was originally published on the Upaya Institute and Zen Center blog. It is reprinted here with permission.

Picture of Joan Halifax

Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She received her Ph.D. in medical anthropology in 1973 and has lectured on the subject of death and dying at many academic institutions and medical centers around the world. She received a National Science Foundation Fellowship in Visual Anthropology, was an Honorary Research Fellow in Medical Ethnobotany at Harvard University, and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress.
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