Hope in the Modern World

wish-1a“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The impact of the explosion blew Sadako out of her bedroom window and she very nearly died. Though she survived the blast, the radiation eventually gave her leukemia and doctors insisted that she wouldn’t live longer than a year. Sadako’s story so far might sound like a tragedy, but it is actually a story of hope.

There is an ancient Japanese legend that anyone who successfully folds one thousand paper cranes would be granted a wish. Sadako’s only wish was to survive and so she folded her very first origami crane. Sadako’s condition worsened over time and she eventually ran out of paper, but this didn’t discourage her or stop her from making cranes. Without paper she started using medicine wrappings and bits of rubbish to reach her goal; some of the cranes she made were so small that she needed tweezers to make the folds. Sadako died at the age of twelve on the morning of October 25, 1955, less than a year after she was diagnosed with her illness. She had only folded 644 cranes. Before she passed, her family gathered around the bed and requested her to eat something. She asked for tea on rice and someone hurried off to get it for her. She took a spoonful of the rice and after eating it, announced, “it’s good.” She took a second spoonful and passed away as if falling asleep. Those were her last words.

Sadako’s story illustrates how hope can fuel a person’s desire to survive even when circumstances are bleak. Most importantly, her story reminds us that hope is not about the outcome, but about taking each day as it comes and living with optimism instead of despair. While hope might not have saved Sadako from her death, it did at least make each day of her suffering more manageable. Hope gave her a goal to reach; it gave her something to live for. The act of making cranes occupied her mind to the point that she was spared the long and torturous road of dwelling on the negative. Instead of thinking about how she was going to die, Sadako spent her days believing that she would survive if she only made enough cranes. This feeling of hope was so powerful that when she passed away she managed to do it without fear or pain. Instead, she embraced the present moment and enjoyed her last meal while surrounded by family.

In this modern world we live in it is too easy to fall into the trap of feeling like there is nothing to hope for anymore. You don’t have to look very far to bear witness to all the suffering that’s in the world and often we can identify with that suffering because we feel it within ourselves. There is always the lingering thought that the road of life is booby trapped with misfortune. Hope gives us a chance to escape the poisonous thought processes that accompany our dark times and try to see the light instead. Whenever we are confronted with a situation it is entirely up to us how we interpret it, in other words, everything that happens in our life is neutral until we assign a negative or positive polarity to it. If we are presented with a negative situation, instead of painting it black, we should learn to see how good can come from it. All experiences in life, both good and bad, have great potential inbuilt in them to teach you something, and it is often the bad times that have the most to teach.

There is an old story about a monk’s last moments before death that crystallises this way of viewing the world with a hopeful outlook. The story, originally told by the Buddha in a sutra, concerns a Zen Master who is confronted by a man-eating tiger while he’s out on a walk. The monk slowly backs away from the wild beast only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a steep cliff. The tiger snarls with hunger and pursues the man. As the monk retreats he sees a vine growing at the edge of the cliff. He immediately decides that his only hope of escape is to hang onto the vine and suspend himself over the abyss.

As the Master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on. He realises that if he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, but if he stays then there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way and his approaching death is imminent. Moments before the vine snaps, the Zen Master notices a ripe, wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. His last words were: “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”

Death is inevitable for the Zen Master, just as death is inevitable for every human being born into this world. It doesn’t matter whether it is death by tiger, death by rocks, or death by natural causes, because it is all the same death; all paths eventually lead to destruction of the body. The white and black mouse gnawing at the vine seems to suggest this also, as they are inserted into the story to conjure the image of yin and yang, or non-duality. The Zen Master understands this and is therefore not concerned about the choice he is presented with on how to end his life. He is so present that even in his dying moment he is not thinking about the future (how he will die) or the past (regrets), but instead remains fully in the now and enjoys a sweet strawberry before he perishes. In doing this, he allows himself a chance to die without attachment and therefore fear to the process of dying.

As morbid as it sounds, we are born to one day prepare for death (whether it’s our own or the death of loved ones) and so it’s useful to reflect on how you would handle the situation of the tiger and the cliff. Both the Zen Master and Sadako Sasaki become great role models for how we should perceive and live our lives. They teach us that it’s better to live each day as it comes and be grateful for what we do have rather than what we do not. If we allow ourselves to drop the burden of the past and the future, which both have suffering built into their impermanent and illusory nature, and instead learn to embrace the present, then, and only then may we may live happily and taste the sweet fruits that are presented to us in every single moment. Even in highly charged situation such as the situation the Zen Master found himself in, the present moment offers its nectar to those who open their awareness to it.

How many of us would notice a (metaphoric or real) strawberry in our dying moments, hanging off a cliff? The only thing we would notice is our fear of death and our desire to survive. If you are angry, then you embody anger, you become anger. If you are happy, then you emanate happiness, you become the emotion. Most of us live our lives in fear and anxiety due to being tangled in the illusory web of our past and future. We either regret the past, or we long for our return to better times, or we fear the future, or long for its arrival. Sweetness can be found in every situation. If you bring yourself into the present, you will find your life’s strawberry, and it will be delicious. If you can’t find the strawberry, then cultivate hope that there will be one eventually. Chances are it’s right under your nose, but you just have to remember to enjoy it when you see it.

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