Some years ago, I was invited by a group of Korean Catholic nuns to address their international hospice conference in Seoul. Hospice workers from mostly Christian hospitals all over the world would be coming to Korea to share developments, to organize for greater representation in their healthcare systems, and for the Koreans to show off their advances in end-of-life treatment, especially for a rapidly aging population which lives longer.
I would speak on the third day. The first day, a Catholic speaker would speak on Catholic approaches to end-of-life care. The second day, a Protestant would speak on non-Catholic Christian (?) approaches to end-of-life care. And on the third day, I would present the Buddhist views on end-of-life Care accompanying. What does Buddhism teach people about this? This was supposed to be the deal.
And I gave a basic talk with them about how Buddhism doesn’t work to prepare them for an “afterlife,” doesn’t get them ready to enter paradise. Someone raised their hand at one point to ask, “We never hear much about Buddhist teachings on ‘hope’. Yet we are always trained to use our religious faith and training to give the terminally ill patient ‘hope’ for some better life in heaven. We must give them hope. What does Buddhism teach you to give them to help them hope? Is there anything?”
I’m serious, this was a real question, from some earnest Western healthcare worker.
And I answered basically Cioran’s sentiments here, some 25 years before I ever knew he existed: I said, “In Buddhism, there is no ‘hope’, OK? NO HOPE. Buddhist teachings never talk about or emphasize NO HOPE.” I paused: there was dead silence in the room of several hundred listeners. “Why? Because ‘hope’ is a lie: it is a reality based on a future fiction. It is making promises for a reality which has not happened yet, and might never happen.” It is maybe appropriate to write here, ‘there were audible gasps from the audience,’ for dramatic purposes, but it actually happened. Lots of folks glanced nervously at one another. “No hope! Why? Because ‘hope’ is a promise or wish based on a lie, an expectation that comes from a lie, on a future that does not exist.”
The atmosphere felt like a tensing was happening. I could tell this was getting out of their space, seemed maybe a little too edgy. (It could have also been a problem with having too much caffeine in the system at the time.)
I said, “You keep saying, ‘ministering skills to help the person who has only 6 months to live’ or ‘what should we do to encourage the person who only has 3 more months to live.’ You speak as if their time is written ‘shorter’ than your own, which is not written or guaranteed anywhere. That is this lie I speak about, a perceptual lie.”
“You see, you think you ‘have time,’ and these unfortunate souls do not. But no one guarantees you will not get hit by a cab while running to work at the hospice during rush hour. One bad hectic move to step into a bus lane at the stop when it’s cruising in noiselessly… How about that? Someone guarantees against that?”
I’m not sure if anyone was hanging on by their fingernails or if this crazy loon were just being tuned in at only the politest frequency, but I kept going: “The future is a lie. The amount of time is a lie. Making promises based on that perceptual lie is itself a lie.”
“We are all terminal patients, all of us: We are all in the same existential boat, no special escape. No one has any guaranteed length of time left for themself. We only have Moment. Moment. We can lie to make a ‘hope’ for an imaginary future, or we can have real hope right in this Moment, hope in Moment. It has no ‘me,’ has no ‘you.’ Has no ‘I have time’, ‘You have no time’. If you keep that mind, then you and the hospice guest are not two. There is no more ministering ‘to’ — there is just this Moment, their only Moment, their only remaining ‘life,’ and yours and mine, too! Believing fully in this moment, which is the only moment that you have and I have and he has and she has: that is Buddhism’s insight into hope.”
Seeing this quote from E. M. Cioran some weeks ago, that talk with the Christian hospice workers at St. Mary’s Hospital in Gangnam, Seoul, came back to mind.
Hope is a promise: a promise to the slave that he will one day be free. If it is not achieved in this incarnation (too bad! politics!), you will get it in the next life. Just don’t disrupt the party going on around here. Keep your nose to the wheel; don’t challenge the system to recognize your basic humanity. A slave’s virtue. Wasn’t Malcolm X’s critique of Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil disobedience that it was too much informed by Christian teachings which themselves honored the institution and practice of slavery (if done justly), for humans to own humans and will them as their machines and play-toys. Didn’t Malcolm scold the followers of MLK because they accepted the slaveowner’s moral ideology — Christianity, the Bible — and so were forever bound and guaranteed to remain unfree in the land of this genocidal white man whose greatest compass was just this set of Iron Age tribal stories?
By the way, some nuns came later to say that something in the talk really pierced their thinking about “being” with hospice “guests,” as I like to call them. (And, again, having no experience there, as well.) So, it was not all for naught, as I had lightly feared.