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Going Into Hell With Unflagging Optimism

The head teacher at my zen center, Byakuren Judith Ragir, offered the following in her recent post:

“Jizo Bodhisattva goes into hell to help and has unflagging optimism that life can transform.  How could I possibly have unflagging optimism in the face of the difficulties of our 21st century life?  I can have it in my attitude to the moment-to-moment activity in my life and the willingness to do concrete things in ordinary life to help the whole.   This is to live in connection with wholeness and gratitude, and to have a generous attitude towards how I live my one precious human life.”

I have had a connection with Jizo for a good decade now. When I first arrived at zen center, our former head teacher introduced us to a book about Jizo by Jan Chozen Bays from Great Vow Monastery, and I fell in love. Something about this bodhisattva figure just drew me in. Awhile back, I started using Jizo’s manta, on kaka kabi sanmaei sowaka, to cut through anger and support me while I am biking. Urban biking can be quite precarious, but I’ve experienced firsthand how power repeating a simple mantra while peddling can be.

So, I’m wondering how folks react to Byakuren’s question. What role does “unflagging optimism” play in your activist and/or service efforts? Or in your life in general?

Furthermore, do you find yourself sometimes skeptical of “optimism”? How might Jizo’s optimism be different from the commonplace binary of optimism/pessimism?

Those are just a few questions for exploring. I’d love to hear of your experiences with Jizo, or other bodhisattvas in your practice life, or in support of work you’re doing in the world.

Happy Friday!

Comments (4)

  • Richard Modiano

    I suppose one can propose realism as the middle way between optimism and pessimism. Or Keats’ negative capability as an alternative: “…poetical character… has no self — it is everything and nothing — it has no character and enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated — it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon Poet…”

  • mel lozano

    i’m not sure if my comment responds to the questions regarding optimism or Jizo’s act of compassion but……
    The thing about it for me is this……As i see it, in order to purposely, intentionally plunge yourself and remain in a “hell-realm” in order to help alleviate or liberate beings (as in Ksitigarbha’s vow)…..You sort of need to be in that ‘awakened’ state already right? i mean, it’s self-explanatory that a Fully Awakened Being (a Buddha) can see past all the circumstantial factors and possibilities of earthly existence and look beyond that (why do you think they are referred to as ‘Tathagatha’), even in momentary experiences of suffering, however great or intense it may feel to us or others and know that not only a cessation to suffering is possible but that liberation is within our grasp. When we suffer, individually- however we define that for ourselves (regardless of the classic definitions from ancient texts or sutra teachings), we are too chained to the intensity of how we are experiencing the suffering to even imagine that the suffering can and will end, but to imagine or see that liberation is possible, seems rather distant and ‘unreal’. So, we consider the definition of ‘realistic’ and see only what we see given our limited scope of understanding and vision, based on our human experiences in our lifetime. We trust only what we know, for the most part, and what we experience, but at the same time we listen to the stories, experiences and whatever wisdom we may glean from others who may offer it to us (enlightened teachers). For myself, i like to see myself as a ‘realist’, and trying to maintain a balanced and centred position in the middle. Am i skeptical of ‘optimism’…? It depends…..i have to take it individually based on where that sense of optimism is coming from. At the same time, i do believe in Hope and how much encouragement that concept gives human beings- both as individuals as well as collectively; particularly in our tribulations and even through intense suffering. i also have to say that in understanding Jizo and his vow to alleviate suffering and help all beings find liberation…..is far more real and probable than simply “wishful thinking”…..It’s as real and powerful as any fiery flames any sentient being may experience in their hell-realm. May all beings benefit.

  • nathan

    I have kind of let go of thoughts about being a “realist,” even though a lot of folks seem to label me with that label. I do think that balance and centeredness are great qualities. That aiming towards equanimity, which allows everything to come and go as it does.

    What I have noticed with realism, though, is that too much focus on what appears to be “the situation or conditions” tends to create unnecessary limits. We think we understand what’s happening, and then get boxed into that understanding, making it difficult to see and act beyond. Especially hard, then, is the ability to be highly creative in sometimes unexpected ways. Which shifting suffering sometimes requires.

    I like Keat’s idea. In fact, I think it kind of gets at what I just offered in a different way.

  • bezi

    for me, at least from the standpoint of relative Truth, we’re already in the hell realms… just as surely as we’re simultaneously in the heaven realms. They’re not mutually exclusive at all. That’s an illusion. Yin/Yang. The Dance of Opposing Forces. Focus and intention are paramount. Energy flows where attention goes. The great trick, the sacred escape hatch, is the method which puts this on one’s map of reality awareness. That would be meditation.

    Goethe said “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they’re free.”
    Is anyone really, truly, authentically and perfectly free in this plane of existence? The Rastas say “everybody Wann Heaven, but Naat Waan Dead…” Most of us want the perfect set of circumstancess for unmitigated happiness, but we fight angrily against death at every turn. Displace and disparage it. Obscure it. Condemn it. Those are not conditions for unmitigated happiness. There’s always a layer of fear underneath causing discomfort.

    Ram Dass is powerful in this domain of things. The Jewish tradition of Sukkah, dealing with endings and impermanence, is another great teacher. Going to Sukkah recently has helped me to continue to contextualize that endings are indispensible to beginnings in a finite system like the Earth. When it dawned on me that perfect bliss was possible, that it entailed coming to grips with impermanence, that nonattachment was the vehicle for this, and that trusting and going with the flow of unfolding spacetime was therefore the key to happiness, I started to experience deeper and longer periods of optimism – this after decades of being umm… ‘very incensed’ over the implicit order. Experientially, it’s like: unflagging optimism is an extremely tough stage to reach. Anyone who professes to be there 100% perfectly all the time… I just wonder if that assertion could hold up under a closer, relentless, microsecond-by-microsecond observation.

    And yet there does appear to be an achievable state, a “transcendent object at the end of time” to gaff and repurpose McKenna’s insightful term, where perfect optimism can be had. There’s this stage at which – because YOU’VE found increasingly enduring happiness in spite of hell and heaven realms existing alongside with, interrelated and complimentary to each other – you know that there must be some capacity of “others” (cause we’re all refractions of one great, pulsating mystery) to reach it as well provided the right kinds of circumstances. And if enough so-called others (indistinct from “self” at very integral levels) achieve the state in question, a tipping-point of collective consciousness could occur as if by magic – in one of evolution’s inscrutable “great leaps forward…”

    that could be a tad abstract but… I tried!

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