“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
This would appear to be the opposite of everything we believe in, the death blow to our expectation of living a full and fulfilled life. But it isn’t. Quite the contrary, it is the way to wake up and come to life, to live the beauty of the present, and to know, with gratitude, the joy of being. Only by abandoning hope for the future can we know life in the present.
This is a desire world. We are here in our present form because of our desires and the habit energies they have created. These habit energies are the cause and we are the result, and our reactions every minute of our lives are building new causes, which must (sometime) have effects. We are here vainly trying to fulfill our desires, gasping and struggling as we pursue the impossible task — trying desperately to avoid pain, to experience pleasure, and to hang on to and repeat what has been pleasurable.
Most of us are caught up in this pleasure-pain syndrome, and so we make plans, always hoping tomorrow will bring fulfillment and release from endless pressures. We hope against hope that tomorrow or next year things will be better. Yet, not-seeking is the way.
This is our world, and to most people, the very possibility that there might be other worlds, other levels of consciousness, does not exist. Yet, sages tell us the number of worlds and planes of being are infinite. In all our anxiety, we insist on remaining here, clinging to our misery, creating attachments that go on life after life.
Does this mean “reincarnation” (a much-misused term)? What is it that comes back, an entity named John Jones or Minora Watanabe? Hardly. But it is inevitable that causes have effects, so there will be a future life. Zen calls this “handing your seat to another,” and it is a grave responsibility. Some personalities will feel the consequences of what we have sown, and in truth, that stranger will be us. The seed of an apple can only produce an apple tree.
We pile desire upon desire and plan upon plan. Not content to let the inevitable happen, we try to manipulate what cannot be manipulated. We build on hope and daydream, and in the wise words of Alice in Wonderland always have “jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” This today never comes as we plan for a better tomorrow for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.
Our stock will rise, our ability will suddenly be recognized, and we will find the part we’ve always dreamed of. Somebody who appreciates us will finally appear, and our boss will begin to sympathize with us. Does it ever happen? And if we do receive what we had hoped for, does it satisfy us for long, and does it change our lives?
We are not unhappy because of our circumstances. We have these circumstances because we are unhappy and are determined to prolong that unhappiness. How we cling to the very things that cause our suffering. They are what is closest to us, and we are afraid that if we let go, we will have nothing. Does the compulsive gambler let go of the habit that causes endless torment? Not for anything — not for family, friends, or reputation. Rather, they feel things will be better tomorrow. They live in the hope of the future, alive in their suffering and afraid of the void, the emptiness if it were turned off and they had to face themselves. The suffering is a narcotic keeping them from ever looking within. In Zen terms, they face their problem by “whipping the cart and not the horse.” Without changing themselves, they cannot change their circumstances.
We each live in a private world created by our own desires and seen through a veil of self-interest. It is pure illusion, but who will believe it? Who will look within to see that world, knowing the outer is merely a reflection? This requires courage and the abandonment of hope. Only by seeing things as they are, without a shred of hope that they will be different, can we get a glimpse of Reality. Otherwise, we are always blowing the smoke dream of illusion, hoping for one result while we experience another.
So, abandon hope. We are all going to die. Accept that and there is no hope of living indefinitely. It then no longer poses a problem. We have accepted death as the inevitable concomitant of birth, so we have no hope in that direction, and death can no longer threaten us. We have accepted it without hope.
Having abandoned hope of endlessly prolonged life, let’s abandon hope of being what we’re not. I am bald, old, unattractive, and without mechanical aptitude — accept these facts and abandon hope that the unchangeable will change, that Cinderella will suddenly appear, and these facts can no longer hurt us.
A Chinese scholar once defined a sage for me as “one who wants spring to follow winter.” Not summer to follow winter, or spring to precede winter, but simply spring to follow winter. This is in the nature of things and being wise, they accord with the nature of things. No hope of changing what is, but joyous compliance with what is.
Abandon hope that things, somehow, are different from what they are. Do your best and leave the result to the great law of the universe. Do not waste time hoping that men will not be cruel, avaricious, and fickle. Work toward helping them to a different end and make your motto “each according to his need.” But do not hope that what is not so will suddenly become so. The apple seed sprouts only an apple tree, and that only under proper conditions. But isn’t an apple tree remarkable? Isn’t it expressing life fully? Isn’t it miraculous that a seed carries in it a tree, indeed a whole forest of trees? Abandon hope that it will change; enjoy it for what it is.
A good example of one who abandons hope is the person who becomes a monk. Entering the monastery, they leave the past behind, forget family, abandon hope of fame, fortune, and fulfillment in the future, and lay the burden down. Of course, I have met many who are not true monks and who had no idea of abandoning hope for the future. Nor were they able to sever ties with the past. They have simply switched their problems, anxieties, and regrets to a different locale.
But I am speaking of the true monk who, entering their calling, abandons everything but the present moment, where there is no room for hope. And only in that present moment will they find fulfillment. Hence, we speak of “sudden enlightenment” — can there be any other kind but in the present?
Abandon the past and the future, live fully in the now with no hope of anything, and the now reveals itself, containing in itself both the past and the future. This is true renunciation, and this is ananda, joy, the bliss of what is, not the hope of what might be.
The great Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, spoke of “losing a little each day” — no increment, no hope of gain, only jettisoning what obscures the present. His follower, Chuang Tzu, wrote about the “Fasting Mind,” where we dispose of the artificial and retain the natural, and where we live in the spontaneous and let the habitual die. The Fasting Mind is not feeding on schemes, plans, hopes, recriminations, or regrets, but resting in the empty potentiality that is devoid of object.
When we rest in pure subjectivity, away from the fields of the senses and the objects of the mind, we are only ourselves. This is self-realization. And where is there any hope for the future in such conditions? We are, now. Hope is the other side of fear. Either-or is the root of suffering. Neither-nor is bliss, the truth of Buddhism. And where there is neither-nor, what can we hope for?
Abandon hope and the desire patterns will fade. If I have no hope of winning, I will not play the game. Only in this way can I say, “Thy Will be Done.” The divine lila (play) is beyond comprehension and beyond imagining, but we create our own role in it. Only without hope of return can we truly love; otherwise, we are merely bartering. True love is not personal or compartmentalized. If we love, we love all, including ourselves.
The animal mother has no hope of any reward and is doing what must be done. Each will abandon its young without hope or wish when the right time arrives. This is love and it is a manifestation of the way things are.
When the great Japanese Zen mystic, Hakuin, had his first major enlightenment experience, he said: “After this, looking at things of the world was like seeing the back of my own hand.” If everything is included in us, if we’ve expanded to embrace all, what can we hope for? Autumn follows summer; it is warm in summer and the leaves turn color in autumn. The breeze blows across the waters of the pond and there are waves. When the wind dies down, the water becomes placid. And the same moon is reflected in every river, pond, and ocean.
It feels good to put the burden down. Do we have the courage to do so? Abandoning hope is not abandoning life. It is giving up misery and its causes so we can live more fully — and only in this way can we love, as love is not personal but overflowing. Ambition has caused more unrest than almost any other factor. What is meant to come will come without seeking. What is ours is ours; we do not have to hope for it. No-seeking is the way.
“To a mind that is still, the Universe surrenders,” says Lao Tzu and to a heart abiding in emptiness, anything is possible — even joyous fulfillment. Muster up the courage: abandon hope. “You must die to live. In order to arrive at pleasure in everything, desire to have pleasure in nothing. In order to arrive at knowing everything, desire to know nothing.” (Saint John of the Cross)
And then, abandon the abandonment.