The Buddhist Outlook on Hope

Some of the aspects of an arahant’s mind will be at odds with the views of ordinary people, since superficially these aspects are considered unpleasant or blameworthy. One such aspect that the Buddha mentioned often is nirāsa (or nirāsā), which can be translated as ‘hopeless,’ ‘wishless,’ or ‘without expectation.’1 This hopelessness, or absence of wishing, of an enlightened person has a more profound meaning, however, than that which most people usually consider.

Ordinary human beings normally live with hope. This hope is based on desire, wanting various things or wanting to be a particular way, thus hoping to obtain or to become. This hope sustains life; when someone is disappointed or feels hopeless due to not getting what is wished for, or due to the unattainability of an object, then that person is considered to have misfortune. When someone is gratified by obtaining what is wanted or something desired appears to be within reach, that person is considered to be fortunate.

A hopeful person, however, still has a concealed expectation or anticipation that is constantly present, even if he or she is not conscious of it, that is, the possibility of being disappointed or falling into despair. This aspect of hope is often referred to as ‘apprehension,’ which is a form of fear—a form of suffering. Hope thus comes paired with apprehension; if hope remains, fear remains.

An arahant resembles the person who has lost hope, but there is an important distinction. An arahant’s ‘hopelessness’ or absence of expectation is not a consequence of there being no way to obtain what is desired; instead, it results from an inner completeness and satiety. There is nothing lacking which must be wished for; there is no deficiency giving rise to desire and hope. In short, an arahant’s freedom from hope stems from an absence of craving. When one does not yearn for things, and does not long to be some particular way, then there is nothing to be hoped for. When there is nothing to be hoped for then one lives without hope; one has given up or ended hope, along with the fear that springs from hope.

This implies that people can exist without depending on or entrusting their life and happiness to hope. Arahants have gone beyond both gratification and hopelessness as these terms are ordinarily defined. Being fulfilled and content, they surpass those who are gratified or hopeful. This is a level that is superior to or free from hope, because there is complete happiness in each present moment. There is no opportunity for further disappointment or despair (compare this with assaddha—‘faithlessness’—as a wisdom quality).

(From Ven. Phra Payutto’s chapter on Awakened Beings in ‘Buddhadhamma.’)

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1 S. I. 12, 23, 141; Sn. 201, 208; The Buddha preferred to use nirāsa in verses, in regards to wisdom, as a play on everyday words, the same as assaddha (faithless). In prose, another term is used—vigatāsa—meaning the departure of the wished for item, or the ending of hope, to contrast with hopelessness or disappointment (A. I. 107).

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