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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