Dilatato Corde 3:1
January - June, 2013


Hope is usually painted with bright colours: in narratives of liberation, in songs of victory, in descriptions of some paradise in this or another world. But there is a lot of talk nowadays, particularly in Europe, about a lack of hope, or at least about skepticism and “disenchantment.” Comparisons between centuries or even generations may be risky, it is true, because the gap is usually interpreted by the older generation in terms of loss, unfaithfulness or decline. In this our generation, however, we have become aware of a loss or at least a decline of the so-called “grand narratives” (“master narratives” or “meta-narratives”). Some thinkers have even prophesied the “end of history.”

In Europe, the Christian narrative today is less well received and its impact on culture is weakening. The Jewish message is still confronted with the Shoah: how could God abandon the people of his alliance? Marxism, with its own brand of messianic vision and program, does not fare much better: forty years ago the Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926) worked in dialogue and debate with the “Principle of Hope” of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977); few theologians today would look in that direction; in many quarters, the “theologies of liberation” have given way to Pentecostal and other movements spreading totally different conceptions of hope.

Even science and technology evoke less enthusiasm. The myth of indefinite progress and growth falls on sobered ears. It seems we have entered an era of radical deconstruction: we question certainties, we question promises of security, we even question dreams.

We hear more and more about fragmented personalities, short-term projects and policies, “liquid modernity.” It may be difficult to decide whether this is the consequence or perhaps the cause of the loss of the “grand narratives.” But we witness of late a quest for modest thinking and sober wisdom. Revisiting ancient wisdom schools like Stoicism, people hanker for inner peace and serenity, far from both hopes and fears. Some would like to go back to a period before the spread of Judaism and Christianity, before their naive enthusiasm, or before the fanaticism bred by their prophecies and apocalypses. One may wonder of course: is this modest approach perhaps a new attempt to protect the autonomy of the human subject, to shield him/her from any “outside” influence?

In any case, the ebb tide of grand narratives and great expectations appears to offer fresh opportunities for the spread and reception of the Buddhist message in the West. There arguably are deep, significant convergences between the Buddha’s message and the deconstruction of illusions, of  theories and practices inspired or generated by those illusions. Hearing phrases like “fluid society” or “liquid modernity,” one is reminded of the unending flow of samsâra, of the momentary quality of all events (kshanitva), of the absence of any substantial identity (anattâ).

It remains however essential to remember that, from a Buddhist perspective, this type of necessary, indeed salutary, analysis does not end with merely negative findings (inspired perhaps by despair or dis-illusion) but is part of a fuller process of liberation. When identities are threatened or felt as elusive, they may become both an object of theoretical denial and the object of a frantic, almost desperate quest. The loss of the subject is likely to inspire an ever-increasing subjectivity.

Stepping beyond this immediate (i.e. contemporary, and European) social and cultural context—without however leaving it—let us address the question of hope in the double perspective of Buddhism and Christianity.

But let me state that I shall not address representations of Pure Lands nor expectations of future Buddhas like Maitreya, whether in their doctrinal or their historical and social dimensions. Such phenomena have of course been interpreted from time to time in an eschatological and even messianic perspective, and as in some ways parallel to Christian beliefs. I leave it to more authorized persons to decide about their place and weight within Buddhism. I prefer to concentrate on issues which appear (to me at least) more central to Buddhism—and perhaps to Christianity. At first sight, it is true, exploring the meaning and range of hope in Buddhism may look like a “hopeless task.” However, this very gap may indeed give us food for thought.

Some time ago, I chanced upon a reference to Gabriel Marcel. During World War II and under foreign occupation, this French philosopher developed a “phenomenology of hope.” Hope is but one of the topics he felt inspired to delve into because of his Christian (more precisely, Roman Catholic) convictions. But he took them up in a decidedly philosophical way and in the form of a phenomenological analysis of our inner experience. In the fifty pages or so of his “Sketch” there is no mention of Buddhism, a tradition with which he was probably not acquainted. But reading these pages today, in the light of Buddhist-Christian encounters, may be quite rewarding. Let me summarize some of his observations.[1]

Drawing upon a distinction that is central to his philosophy, Marcel sees hope as “mystery” rather than “problem.” He adds that it is not easy, indeed not advisable, to imagine or picture hope. He observes that the experience of hope may be linked to at least the possibility or the temptation of despair: to hope is to overcome such a temptation. But, surprisingly, this victory may involve no exertion: “I would even say that the feeling of exertion or effort is not compatible with pure hope.”

In the eyes of many, hope may of course boil down to wishful thinking. Marcel readily concedes that this happens many times, perhaps most of the time. Can hope escape this criticism? The answer is provided by the distinction between “hoping” and “hoping that. . . .” Genuine hope is unconditional hope. Genuine hope belongs to the field of “being” rather than “having” (another of Marcel’s favorite distinctions): the person who, “without any condition, without limitation, lives in absolute trust, shall experience the safety of ‘being’ or safety in ‘being,’ rather than the radical insecurity of ‘having.’” Absolute hope, beyond any condition and any image or representation, is interpreted by Marcel as the creature’s response to the infinite Being or even the absolute Thou—and here, of course, most if not all Buddhists will beg to differ.

But we may be prepared to hear him when he observes: “Nobody can experience the lightness of living in hope unless he/she be fully liberated from the bonds of possession(s).” He adds, “We remain open to hope, even in a small way, provided there still are some cracks or chinks in the armor of possession, the armor of ‘having,’ built around us.” There is thus a fundamental distinction between hope and expectation, between hope and desire, between hope and self-centeredness. Hope—this is Marcel’s conclusion and last word—hope essentially is disponibilité (being or keeping oneself available, open, receptive).

Expectations involve calculation, management, and—most of the time without our being aware of it (avidyâ)—the double-bind of desire: a relation of both controlling power and passive dependence between subject and object. Desire also includes a “spatialization” of time. All this is rather obvious in the question of the disciples after the resurrection of Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1,6-7). No answer thus, except perhaps the following: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (1,8). In order to realize that their question is meaningless, that it has no genuine object, the disciples will need a good forty or fifty days—or is it forty years, or forty kalpas?

Hope seems quite close to the attitude of mu-shotoku: without expectation, without aim or intended object. Is it then a shift from object to subject? Or is it rather the attitude or quality of being unconcerned about subject or object? One should perhaps say: there is hope but no hoping individual—in the same way one says: there is suffering, but no suffering subject. To hope is to remain in this pure openness. Such an understanding and practice of hope would, in a paradoxical way, come quite close to the Chan and Zen tradition of “great doubt” (dai-gi). From a Christian perspective, one would dare say that the true subject of hope is “He who comes,” He who, through his coming, makes hope possible, is the source of hope, opens a space for hope. This coming One is the “Deus semper maior” (E. Przywara), the ever greater Godhead.

From a Buddhist perspective, what is it that makes hope possible in spite of the discovery that the wheel of samsâra and suffering has no beginning and no end? The first step or the first stepping-stone towards overcoming despair is the witness that Gautama bears to his own experience of liberation. I am struck by the fact that narratives from the first Buddhist generation frequently mention joy as the fruit of a first encounter with the Buddha or a first hearing of his teaching. And the future Buddha himself, when walking out of his palace for the fourth time and coming across a religious mendicant, experiences joy before even knowing the cause and understanding the meaning of this joy. One is tempted to ask: would the experience or feeling of dukkha be possible at all if it did not happen against the background of a deeper, more fundamental sukha—or rather, of a peace deeper and more fundamental than the dual opposition of dukkha and sukha? The locus or the focus of hope is the point where awakening wisdom and radiating compassion intersect. If liberation is possible, it is bound to be universal. And these universal dynamics of hope will operate through the equally universal vows of the bodhisattva.

Of course, Buddhism as a rule will avoid discussion and debate about the source or foundation of these dynamics of hope. Could one, for instance, consider the Buddha-Nature or tathâgata-garbha as a “Hope principle” (Prinzip Hoffnung)? The danger of substantialist illusion or eternalist drift is never very far. I will not enter such a debate. I would rather consider the dynamic tension between the Buddhist and the Christian perspectives, the tension at play between the convergences and divergences or simply differences between them.

The strength and the virtue or merit of Buddhism is to maintain hope as a pure, objectless openness; it is to avoid taking refuge in any object or content whatsoever. We may perhaps say that it is an immobile movement. The emphasis is on non-duality, or non-otherness.

The strength and the virtue or merit of Christianity is to maintain or to discover and welcome the openness of encounter. The emphasis is on dynamic and evolving relationship, on otherness, hence transformation. The movement of hope is understood as a response: the Spirit in us responds to the Spirit who invites and promises. As Aloysius Pieris once observed, “Hope understood in the context of God’s advent, i.e., the unique belief that the Future comes towards the human, as Moltmann says, is never asserted in the non-biblical religions. In Buddhism, one is said to move towards the goal along the path; the goal does not move towards the seeker.”[2]

For the disciples of both Gautama and Jesus however, it is equally important to maintain a wakeful alertness of mind and heart. On both sides, of course, one may discover various ways of understanding the progress along the way: sometimes step by step, and sometimes through a sudden breakthrough; or again: sometimes in a planned and methodical way, and sometimes in surprising ways. The Christian understanding of gratuitous grace is likely to stress the unforeseeable manifestation of the Lord—or of the “Day of the Lord”—his sudden coming in the middle of the night, “like a robber.” But both spiritual traditions warn us to be present to the present.

The attitude towards time and towards the present moment may however differ somewhat. The meaning of watchfulness and the ways to practice it are not identical. A Buddhist will probably pay more attention to the present moment.[3] The awakened mind remains without object, without content or narrative. The Christian seems to be more oriented toward the future (not the futurum, but the adventus—to quote Moltmann’s distinction) while “at the same time” keeping space for past events, salvific events that he remembers fondly.

It seems to me that we have plenty of scope here for discovery, mutual advice and enrichment.[4] The Buddhist watchful attentiveness to the present moment invites the Christian not to take refuge in the past (the memory, the memorial . . .) nor in the future (the “day of the Lord”) in such a way as to become, so to say, absent from oneself and from the present. The Buddhist reminds the Christian that death and life, evil and good, bondage and liberation operate in the present moment. Celebrating the “memorial of the Lord” does not belong to the past; welcoming the “coming Lord” does not take place in the future. If the disciple of Christ is prepared to venture beyond images and representations into the experience of letting-go, the present moment will be received as a Presence.

On the other side, the Christian may remind the Buddhist that the liberating presence operates through the events of history, across all dimensions of time: narratives, if we use them as upâya, crisscross all dimensions of time, unify them and weave them into a story and a history. The elusive present moment is the still point where infinite, encompassing dimensions of time and space intersect.

A word of caution is in order here. Comparing doctrines and teachings is not an easy task. It requires prudence, patience, accurateness. But comparing practices and experiences is an even more difficult and delicate task. Documents about experiences and practices are not as readily available as documents about doctrinal issues. How on earth do we gain access to each other’s experience, each other’s pilgrim’s progress? If however such an access is possible at all, the comparison should become much more fruitful because practice is where liberation takes place.

I would like to conclude this short essay on a note of hope. At the end of Faith among Faiths, a book he published some twelve years ago, James L. Fredericks offered two pages under the caption “Comparative Theology as an Act of Hope.”[5] What does he mean? “Studying other religious traditions seriously on their own terms and entering into friendships with [their] believers will certainly help Christians to become skillful in the art of changing their minds well.” The author then observes: “No effort to compare can ever really be finished. This should be counted a strength, not a weakness, for comparative theology.” Writing as a Christian, James Fredericks concludes: “In this transformation, Christian believers will find a way to deal with religious diversity that is responsible and creative, responsible to the demands of their own religious tradition and creative in looking on the greatness of other religious tradition as a way to plunge more deeply into the greatness of their own.” 

My hope, indeed my conviction, is that this task of doing comparative theology can be shared by all.    


[1] Gabriel Marcel, “Esquisse d’une phénoménologie et d’une métaphysique de l’espérance”, in Homo viator. Prolégomènes à une métaphysique de l’espérance (Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1944), ch. 2, pp. 37-91.

[2] Aloysius Pieris, Prophetic Humour in Buddhism and Christianity (Colombo, 2005), p. 35.

[3] Paul F. Knitter puts it nicely: “Buddhism seems to suck all of history into the present moment.” In Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), p. 190.

[4] I quote or rather translate freely from my little book Un chrétien dans les pas du Bouddha [A Christian in the Footsteps of the Buddha] (Brussels, Lessius, 2010), ch. 8, esp. pp. 134-135.

[5] (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1999), pp. 178-179

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