Is Buddha a Pessimist?

By Bhikkhu Bodhi 


The teaching given by Buddha in the First Noble Truth often tends to arouse a certain degree of emotional resistance. This has given rise to false charges that Buddha is a pessimist, a negativist. However, we have to understand the intention of the Buddha in teaching the First Noble Truth. The Buddha's whole aim is to lead us to liberation out of this Dukkha.

This calls for effort and causes some amount of internal friction. We set up emotional screens around us so that we can see and understand things in ways that are governed by our desires. But the Dhamma goes against our ordinary inclinations . Since the Dhamma is truth we have to be prepared to look at existence as it is. For it is only by seeing and seeing rightly, that we can win freedom. For this we have to stop seeing what we want to see and look at things objectively.

The Buddha says that in order to gain a complete view we have to look at things from three angles.

1. From the angle of enjoyment or satisfaction.

2. From the angle of danger or unsatisfactoriness.

3. From the angle of release or escape.

Buddha points out that life involves pleasure and enjoyment. He says that if there were no pleasures or enjoyments in our world, belongings, relationships etc. people wouldn't become attached to the world. It is precisely because there is enjoyment that we become attached to this world, and not all of these enjoyments are unwholesome. Happiness of a good family, true love, aesthetic pleasure, religious life can be truely gratifying.

However, when you look at life from the second angle, you will see that since all this is impermanent it is unsatisfactory. Therefore we have to put away attachment and desire and examine whether these enjoyment can give us complete satisfaction.

When we examine our lives in the light of the Buddha's teachings it becomes clear that real happiness can not be found in the realm of birth and death. However the Buddha also shows us the way out of this Dukkha, that is Nibbana and the path to Nibbana. He assures us that it can be attained by any one of us just as he attained it. Hence the path laid down by Buddha becomes the most optimistic and the hopeful.

However in order to free ourselves from suffering we have to find the causes for our bondage. This brings us to the Second Noble Truth.