No Hope, No Fear


We all need hope.

Or so we think, and so we are told by everyone from politicians and salesmen to preachers.

But Buddhist teachers, notably Chogyam Trungpa and his student Pema Chodron, say that hope steals from us the only thing we really ever have: the present moment.

Hope is almost universally regarded as a positive idea, indeed as essential to our happiness and mental health, and its opposite, hopelessness — being ‘without hope’ or ‘beyond hope’ as it is often encoded in our language — is considered the realm of despair and fear, the sign of depression and despair, utter psychological desolation. In most popular psychological literature, the work of self-help gurus, and other widely read and highly regarded sources on the subject (not to mention TV melodrama, which thrives on the ‘hopes and dreams’ genre), hope is offered as the solution to depression, a remedy for feelings of worthlessness or frustration, the drug of choice for conditions of poverty and oppression, the ultimate ‘feel-good’ answer.

Hope, however, is highly overrated.

I say this often to folks, and without fail I get disbelief and scoffing, confusion or anger in response.

I’m usually unable to explain in a satisfactory way why I think hope is not what it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been going back into the writings of Pema Chodron and the pithy slogans of the Lojong — that wonderful group of teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition related in Chogyam Trungpa’s book Training the Mind — to try to sort out for myself, and perhaps explain for whoever might occasionally read this blog, why “no hope/no fear” is the better part of wisdom.

First, a simple statement of the essential thing here: hope is always based on the idea that things, oneself, conditions, should be other than they are. This assumption clouds our ability to see that true happiness, joy, and contentment come through acceptance.

It is critical at this point to make clear that, at least as far as I understand it, I’m speaking of this on the personal level, not the social level. As a socialist/anarcho/syndicalist, I’m committed to the idea of social betterment, working and planning to make the social conditions that prevail in our world better for everyone on the material plane. I don’t advocate accepting how things are organized in a world that is clearly run on the principal of violent domination and oppression of others as the path to material success. I have hope that this condition in the world can be changed, as a rational approach seems to require that we believe in the possibility of change for the better. This is ‘hope’ simply defined as seeing that something is possible and thus being willing to make efforts toward it.

The ‘hope’ that I consider to be highly overrated, and in fact a detriment to happiness, is that hope which posits that one’s personal happiness is dependent on the external conditions in which one finds oneself, and thus concludes that the only path to joy and peace is for things to change in our surroundings. I’m certainly not saying that one should not work to improve the conditions of one’s life, I’m simply saying that to conclude that such improvements are the necessary and sufficient path to joy and happiness is an error of strategy and a path to perpetual dissatisfaction. Once we decide that things being better in our external conditions will make us happy, we will always find things that need to be ‘better’ in order to maximize our happiness.

As Janis Joplin sang in “Work Me Lord”, “The worst you can say about me is that I’m never satisfied!”

For most of us, that’s the essential problem. We never have enough of whatever it is we think we need to be happy.

So the true solution, the true path to happiness, is not hoping that things will get better, or even working to make them better because we ‘haven’t lost hope.’

No, the true path to happiness, or better, joy and contentment, is learning to see that what we have is really enough. What we need is the clarity of mind to accept ourselves as we are, without that nagging feeling that we’re just not good enough, just not strong enough, just not whatever-it-is-that’s-lacking-this-moment enough — and that as soon as we get that, we’ll be fine.

A basic teaching on this comes in Lojong #15, “Four practices are the best of methods.” One of those ‘best practices’ is, as Trungpa says, just let it be without scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain. There is much in these teachings about flipping the normal human proclivity to seek pleasure, avoid pain. It’s built into our program by the evolutionary journey, so it’s not a “wrong” thing, it’s just that it doesn’t work very well when it comes to developing into a spiritually mature, compassionate person. If we were still out there on the edge of the forest scrabbling with the little beasts for carrion, it would make sense. In our world, it’s counter-productive. In fact, it’s precisely the program that has produced this world of violence and oppression, so there’s probably a very good argument to be made that giving up hope and fear is the best way to elevate society to a more humane, fair and compassionate state.

Most of the talks in Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart are permeated with the notion of ‘no hope/no fear’, and her book The Wisdom of No Escape is specifically dedicated to this idea. It’s important to understand that in all of this, there’s no sense of this being what one “should” do. It’s rather offered in the spirit that if one finds one’s mind turning to the dharma, turning to the path of compassion, here is some heart advice on how to make that happen in your life.

So if you don’t like the idea of giving up hope and fear, truck on down that road. When life turns you around, perhaps you’ll come back to these teachings with a new openness, a new willingness to see how it plays out in your life.

In a chapter in WTFA titled “Hopelessness and Death”, Pema says:

To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

A little further on in the book, she says:

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.

[I will continue with a second installment on this theme in a couple of days — I hope! :)]

[And I have! Hope rewarded! Next]

Branching out…

I am actively stepping out into a quest for a personally real path. My vague, desultory wandering for the past year (or two) is taking me nowhere.

These are some thoughts I just picked up that I want to build this post around, but I’m putting it out there in raw form so that I don’t vacillate or shrink from the challenge. I will edit this, well, fill in the gaps outlining what all this means and what I’m thinking, and then repost it with a better title.

My lojong/tonglen practice, weak as it has been, has been leading me in a tantric direction, essentially since I realized a year or so ago that a path based on renunciation does not and will not work for me.

These quotes and links are from my recent explorations into Vajrayana:

Chapman: “The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.”

Sky Serpent:
“You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.”

Peter Snowdon:

“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”

Chapman: “For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.
…Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.”
Tantra: (from
“Tantric Buddhism employs the urgent energies of agony and ecstasy, lust and hatred, paranoia and greed to transform our confusion into enlightenment.

Tantra is radically positive insanity. Tantra is the hot blood of kindness. Tantra conjures with the electricity of being: the shimmering voltage that crackles ecstatically between emptiness and form. Tantra is the alchemy of transformation by which we re-create ourselves limitlessly according to the kaleidoscopic pattern of moments that comprises our experience.”

Get Smarter, too!

As much as some practitioners – and sometimes I feel the same – would like to say that meditation is only good for spiritual development – liberation -, evidence mounts that it does lots of good things for us.

It may even make you smarter. And help you avoid senile dementia.

Just this morning I’m reading about a  2011 study that shows meditators may increase the volume of the gray matter in the hippocamus. Published by Sara Lazar in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the study recommends 30 to 40 minutes of meditation daily.

The study is mentioned in an article in a popular magazine (Real Simple) which claims that meditation, as well as several other activities like eating Omega-3, drinking lots of coffee, walking, and learning languages will increase your “brain power” as well as keep the brain healthy and functioning longer into old age. I don’t know what happens if you do all five.

I’m sure these studies on meditation are valid, as the traditional sources of meditation have always said that it’s “good for you” in various ways. But keep in mind that these traditional teachers and texts also warn against making that your reason for meditating.

Trungpa says, “We are not particularly seeking enlightenment or the simple experience of tranquillity — we are trying to get over our deception.” A major part of his teaching was on how to avoid the pitfalls of “spiritual materialism” – practicing for self-improvement, self-aggrandizement. The Zen tradition advises to sit ‘without gaining ideas.’

Zen master Yasutani warned against seeking ‘spiritual visions’. “Don’t squander your energy in the foolish pursuit of the inconsequential,” he said. Ignore them; keep sitting. Perhaps good advice for us who are sometime lost in this flurry of scientific evaluation of meditation.

I think what we in this modern, scientific environment need to realize is that all these various claims for the efficacy of meditation are perhaps true and perhaps desirable, but possibly only attainable if one is not entering into the practice with the goal of self-improvement.

Which certainly fits with the notion that the basic intention in our practice is to lose the illusion, the deception, of self.

A meditation practice fairly entered into – at least in the Buddhist tradition – is aimed at experiencing the truth of existence, the essence of things, because this experience of truth will make one able to function effectively, harmlessly, and compassionately in the world.

Any benefit that flows to one’s own life is considered a side effect.


Lojong #15 Four practices…

Four practices are the best of methods.

The challenge here is remembering what the four practices are! They don’t have simple, easy identifiers, and they’re fairly complicated as well as involving a lot of Tibetan traditional ideas, so it’s difficult.

Practice one is accumulating merit: Trungpa emphasizes the sense of veneration of the practice, being grateful for whatever comes up, and learning to let go of possessiveness. It also includes the idea of ‘no hope, no fear’ so that we are just welcoming everything and not hoping to get something out of the practice or fearful of it not working out for us. This involves the very difficult notion of giving up our scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain.

Practice two is laying down evil deeds: this is done by looking deeply into your own life, seeing your mistakes clearly and surrendering to the truth of your life. “Evil deeds” is better understood as ‘neurotic crimes’ of a psychological nature.

Practice three is offering to the dons (feeding the ghosts): the idea of the dons is the source of all one’s misfortune, and the practice is to welcome these attacks because they show us that we have slipped from the path of mindfulness.

Practice four is offering to the dharmapalas (protectors of the teachings): this is asking for the things to happen that will remind us to stay on the path and show us when we’ve slipped.

Though these seem a bit obscure and complex, they are ideas that grow in one’s mind over time and help deal with difficult life situations. Understanding them, seeing them clearly, is not likely to happen quickly, but we just keep working with them and the truth of it seeps into our hearts so that when needed, the understanding arises.


Lojong #14 – Seeing confusion…

Lojong #14

Seeing confusion as the four kayas

Is unsurpassable shunyata protection.

This is among the Lojong slogans that I love most. It carries deep and profound meaning and can be a powerful key to awakening, but it is also one of the most obscure of the slogans.

The clarifying insight – the message – of this Lojong is at the heart of why we are practicing. Its essential teaching is that observing the process of the mind in response to life’s challenges is one of the best ways to experience the liberating insight into the wisdom that everything is empty of separate, abiding existence.

To explain how that comes out of these few words requires some translation and background.

The four kayas are the four ‘bodies of emptiness’: dharmakaya, sambogakaya, nirmankaya, and svabhavikakaya. Without going into the theory of these too much, suffice it to say that they describe four states of mind that one goes through in the process of perception. They are simply translated as confusion, clarity, relating the two, and seeing the whole.

Careful observation of the mental processes reveals this process. When one is confronted with something new, confusion and bewilderment reign. After some experience, clarity about what is being perceived begins to dawn. Then one relates the new understanding to the original confusion, and finally one’s comprehension begins to see the totality of the whole, ‘total panoramic experience’, as Chogyam Trungpa says.

Watching this happen often enough finally leads to the perfect understanding that whatever happens, this is the process. We are not stuck at any stage, not stuck with our thoughts, not stuck with our selves. Trungpa explains that in svabhavikakaya, one has transcended the notions of the birth, subsiding and dwelling of thoughts. The idea of protection is that this understanding can free one from clinging to the self and its thoughts; indeed, when one realizes the truth of no self, it becomes clear that there’s nothing to protect!

We all are suspended in shunyata, suspended in the emptiness of the phenomenal play. When the deep implications of this are internalized, it is very freeing.

Trungpa says that this liberation comes from

understanding your mind by studying and watching yourself and by practicing shamatha and vipashyana. By practicing those disciplines, you being to realize that the essence of your mind is empty… That realization can only come about when you are sitting on the cushion. Only on the cushion can you see that your mind has no origin.

(Shamatha is basic mindfulness/concentration meditation, the first stage in the meditation process. Vipashyana (or vipassana in Pali) is meditation aimed at insight into the true nature of reality. By ‘on the cushion’ he means during meditation practice.)

Mind and thoughts and all of the phenomena we experience have no origin; they are unborn, as we saw in Lojong #3. This means we can be free of much of the worry and stress and driven behavior that plague our lives. It can all be seen in a very playful, relaxed way because we understand that we are always engaged in continual awakening.



Lojong 12 Drive all blames into one

Ahhh… we resisted moving on to this one. It’s a bit demanding…. but so rewarding when penetrated deeply.

In everything problematic in one’s life, realize that all the blame starts with you… your uptightness, your ego-fixation… your tendency to protect this fragile ‘self’ that has arisen in your mind. Accepting the blame for what goes wrong in your life is the only way to enter the bodhisattva path. Then it may be possible to realize the truth of our own self- reification.

Accepting the blame on yourself can also defuse a tense situation, can open it up so that others are not defensive, thus communication is possible… then others may be able to accept and acknowledge their own errors.

This is Poison as Medicine again – by absorbing the poison in a situation, we make the rest of the situation medicine. This works at the personal level, and is also key to solving the great social ills, moving toward realizing an enlightened society.

J. Kongtrul says: No one else is to blame; this self-cherishing attitude is to blame. I shall do whatever I can to subdue it.

Lojong #11 When the world is filled with evil…

... transform all mishaps into the path of Bodhi.


(This is maybe my favorite – at least my favorite simple, straightforward one.)

Whatever occurs in your life can be transformed into a part of your wakefulness. The way to do this is to incorporate the obstacles, the distractions, the difficulties… make them the substance of your practice. Whatever is hardest for you is the thing from which you can benefit most…

This little slogan has gotten me through some difficult times… like the latter part of my teaching career and a lot of other challenging situations, as well as helping me deal with the whole course of the world descending into chaos in the past 25 years, which at times has seemed to me like evil.

Of course, we can’t get too hung up on the word ‘evil’ here, else we distort the teaching. Truly, there is no such thing as evil, and it isn’t meant in that dualistic, good/bad way at all. It’s referring to our human tendency to identify anything that’s a problem in our own lives as ‘evil’ – projecting the source of it out there somewhere, some malevolent force.

Trungpa says we should realize our own richness and not be mired in a ‘poverty mentality’, not be concerned with loss and gain or competitiveness. Then we can find generosity, which is the way to awakening, or Bodhi.

Pema Chodron, one of Trungpa’s students, has some wonderful teachings on “Poison as Medicine” that are related to this slogan. It’s based on the idea that the challenges are what allow one to practice, because without obstacles and difficulties, there’s nothing to practice with, so we just be grateful for these problems. It’s challenging, but an interesting way to approach life’s nastiness.