In her class on Buddhist ethics, Janet Gyatso once described Buddhism as a “critique of hope.” The statement has two flaws. First, of course, it’s an overgeneralization, like any statement about Buddhism as such; more importantly, it misses the hope for liberation, awakening, nirvana. Nevertheless, it strikes me as being basically true in many respects. This is perhaps another way of putting the critique of external goods: most Buddhist thinkers tell us to avoid hoping that the external conditions of our lives will get better, focusing instead on improving ourselves and making ourselves better able to deal with those conditions. On old BBSes I remember a message tagline saying “I feel so much better ever since I’ve given up hope.” In a certain sense, Buddhists urge us to be hopeless.

The problem is that in English this is not at all what “hopelessness” means. This kind of hopelessness is an arguably positive state; but normally “hopelessness” simply means despair, a terribly negative state. The reason, it seems to me, is that the word “hope” means two things at once: first, the strong desire that things be different than they are, and second, the expectation that they will become so, or at least have a chance of becoming so. Despair – hopelessness in the normal sense – is the first of these without the second. But the Buddhist critique is that it’s the first one that causes our problems, whether or not we have the second. Let go of the first, and the second doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s a self-help commonplace that we will never be happy as long as we tell ourselves “I’ll be happy when…” But that “I’ll be happy when” requires hope. If we give up the hope that we might have the things we want, it pushes us into contentment with the life we already have.