Zen Guidance for Staying Steadfast When the World Seems Hopeless
- ISBN: 9781611804775
- Published By: Shambhala Publications
- Published: June 2019
Hope is a troubled concept. It is easy enough to maintain when it seems that a little concerted effort will bring about a desired outcome, and being hopeful does feel better than suffering despair and hopelessness. But in difficult situations or when facing insurmountable challenges, hope can devolve into mere optimism or wishful thinking. This kind of hope—termed “vain hope” by Diane Eshin Rizzetto and “passive hope” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (Active Hope, New World Library, 2012)—leaves one idle, merely hoping that someone else (perhaps the government, or God, or some amorphous force in the universe) will bring about the change one desires.
Rizzetto’s Deep Hope—like Macy and Johnstone’s Active Hope—offers guidance for remaining actively engaged, even when situations seem hopeless. Two claims about the nature of the world and humanity undergird her approach. First, the future is unknowable. This perspective will be familiar to readers of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (Haymarket Books, 2016), in which the “darkness” of Solnit’s title refers to the fundamental unknowability of the future. Drawing on Buddhist tradition, Rizzetto argues that, in a complex world characterized by impermanence and uncertainty, no outcome can be guaranteed. “Because the future is wide open,” she writes, “anything is possible” (xii). It’s when we believe that some desired future is unattainable that despair and hopelessness arise. But if the future is fundamentally unknowable, hope combined with committed action to bring about a better world remains justified.
Rizzetto’s second underlying claim is that humans possess an innate goodness, evidenced by our repeated and often spontaneous efforts to treat others with compassion. The challenges we face in a chaotic and violent world, however, too often isolate and separate us, thwarting our natural propensity to connect to all beings and respond compassionately. In our fear and defensiveness, we seek to protect ourselves and our loved ones by narrowing the circle of our compassion. A life well-lived, however, is characterized by efforts to widen that circle, to cultivate our innate capacities to act compassionately and to lessen the suffering of others. We cultivate these capacities by practicing virtues such as generosity and patience. For Rizzetto, deep hope is the capacity to stay steadfast and to act with compassion, even when the world seems chaotic, threatening, and hopeless.
Deep Hope is a guided exploration, through discussion and exercises, of the six classic paramitas of Zen Buddhist tradition. The paramitas—the virtues of the Buddhist tradition—are ideals or perfections that are cultivated by spiritual practices. They describe attributes of personal character that foster well-being in interpersonal and communal relationships. Six paramitas are commonly listed in Mahayana texts: generosity, moral discipline, forbearance, vigor, concentration, and wisdom. Rizzetto argues that as a practitioner engages in each of the paramitas, deep hope arises.
In a brief introduction, the author outlines her conception of deep hope. Then, in the first chapter, she describes the general process by which a practitioner develops the various paramitas: after setting an intention to nurture a particular virtue, one finds that one must work through various resistances until one’s practice becomes effortless. Chapters 2 through 7 address each of the six paramitas: giving and receiving (dana paramita), taking skillful action (shila paramita), practicing patience (kshanti paramita), engaging effort (virya paramita), meditating (dhyana paramita), and seeing clearly (prajna paramita). Each of these six chapters describes a particular paramita and offers specific practices to develop the virtue. In addition, the author illustrates each of the paramitas with anecdotes from her personal experience and with reflections shared by her students at Oakland, California’s Bay Zen Center.
The content is accessible, appropriate not so much for the academic classroom as for the general reader (or, as in Rizzetto’s case, for beginning students at an American Zen center). While the subject matter is the virtues of the Zen Buddhist tradition, the practices described are appropriate for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Among similar texts, Rizzetto’s book makes an important contribution. Dale Wright’s The Six Perfections (Oxford University Press, 2009), which covers similar ground in greater depth, is aimed at readers with a more philosophical bent. Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, as well as her Paradise Built in Hell (Viking, 2009), provides historical narratives that break the hold of our despairing certainty about the state of the world and our likely future, but doesn’t offer spiritual practices. Macy and Johnstone’s Active Hope helps readers engage the reality of our contemporary situation, draw on their emotional and spiritual resources, and envision and enact systemic change. Compared to Macy and Johnstone’s Active Hope, Rizzetto’s book is less skillful at linking individual practices to the broader systemic challenges of contemporary society, but I think Deep Hope would be an ideal text for individuals who find it difficult—in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges such as climate change, pandemic, and the rise of global fascism—to even begin to see a path forward, as well as for practitioners of mindfulness meditation who want to expand their practice to the classic virtues of Buddhist tradition.
The conclusion of Rizzetto’s book returns to the image of the ever-widening circle of compassion. Buddhist practices, she argues, bring greater awareness to how we construct self-identities and then build and maintain those individual and group identities in relation to others. Rizzetto reassures the reader that, while the cultivation of the paramitas is a lifelong practice, there is movement over time, what she calls “ripening.” “Nothing is ever over,” she explains, “everything just changes. . . . We can only ripen into what is now. And therein lies hope” (147). The image of ripening reminds us that there is a continuum, rather than a well-delineated line, between situations that seem difficult and those that seem far beyond our capabilities. As we practice the small things suggested by Rizzetto, we become the kind of people who are more capable of taking on the larger challenges posed by our contemporary world. And therein lies hope.
Nancy Menning is faculty affiliate in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College.Nancy MenningDate Of Review:November 30, 2020