Is Buddhism a Pessimistic Way of Life?

Jeffrey Po


English dictionaries tend to define "pessimism" as "a tendency towards misfortune and gloom". Such a description surely does not fit the Buddhist context as nowhere can one find such tendencies in any of the teachings and philosophies of this way of life.

The notion that Buddhism is a pessimistic way of life came about because of the misrepresentation of the pali word "dukkha". Dukkha is an extremely important concept and is central to understanding Buddhism in its entirety. It appears in the first of the Four Noble Truths and as one of the Three Characteristics of Existence. References to "dukkha" as one of life's situations abound in many of the suttas delivered by Lord Buddha Himself as well as in numerous Buddhist philosophical and psychological thoughts. The term "dukkha" had originally been translated by Westerners to mean any one or even a combination of "suffering", "pain", "sorrow", "misery", "unhappiness" - all with negative emotional connotations. It was a sad misgiving because "dukkha" actually conveys deeper philosophical inferences. Today, the tendency to view "dukkha" as being in a "state of unsatisfactoriness" is favored. One need not have to travel far to realize the many "states of unsatisfactoriness". Just peek into oneself and one's surroundings - anxieties, tensions, stresses, disquietness, apprehensions, fears, dreads, dismays, and trepidations. In "dukkha" one recognizes that life and the process of living is really a struggle for existence. This struggle represents man's constant effort to satisfy his endless material wants. It means the never-ending fight to live, eat and breathe. "Dukkha" therefore needs to be looked from those perspectives. It is therefore a realistic perspective that relates to the meaning of life and living. Hence, the realization and understanding of "dukkha" is in fact a positive value to be greatly appreciated.

"Dukkha" cannot be interpreted alone by itself. One invariably needs to relate it with the other three of the Four Noble Truths that ultimately calls for the total recognition and eradication of the situation or state of "dukkha". This has to be achieved through the development and implementation of the Noble Eightfold Path. Upon their achievements one attains total emancipation from "dukkha". This Path, discovered by Lord Buddha and presented to man universally, upon investigation, is a realistic and practical path. As such, Buddhism is a very realistic and practical system that leads the aspirant salvaging himself from the clutches of constant "re-becoming" in samsara. Buddhism is therefore neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic way of life. It is practical and realistic. Pessimism maintains a position of being lost with little hope of achieving some results. Such is definitely not in keeping with the Buddhist tenets and practices. Buddhism in fact offers "Hope" towards the cessation of one's wanderings in his samsaric cycles of life and death. The ascetic Gotama, (Lord Buddha before Enlightenment) had trodden this Path of Hope. Yearning earnestly to rid himself from the bondages of samsaric cycles, He experimented and tested the many methods laid out by his teachers alone. None satisfied him. By his own superhuman effort he finally gained the Three Supernormal Knowledges. After his Enlightenment as Buddha, His first utterance was that of joy. He exclaimed that He had finally discovered the "builder of this house". It was an utterance of victorious relief. He had achieved what many then had hungrily and passionately sought for but somehow mischievously eluded them. He had discovered the Truth and the method to end the constant cycles of birth, decay, disease and death. He had conquered and vanquished "Ignorance". Then, with the formulation of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the revelation of the 12 Causal Links, He offered "Hope" for the deliverance of man. In this light, if Buddhism and the Buddhist Path infer pessimism then it cannot surely offer any sort of Hope for the future or any reprieve from worldly woes and sorrows.

In as much as Buddhism constantly speaks of "dukkha" - the state of unsatisfactoriness, it does not lack the state of "sukha" - happiness, joy, agreeability, blissfulness, delightfulness, and gladness. Though Buddhists view those states as temporary, still encouragement is always given to "enjoy" life to the fullest - without attachment, however. One ought to celebrate, feel elated and be cheerful simply by existing as a human because only "humans can achieve the state of Nibbanic bliss". There are encouragements to take advantage of whatever means made available in the Noble Eightfold Path for one's physical, mental and spiritual comfort and for food, shelter, clothing and perhaps any modern conveniences and luxuries. Buddhism discourages severe penances and self-austerities as means to achieve spiritual liberations. It only cautions that those moments of enjoyment and any episodes of happiness are temporary and therefore without much value towards the search for spiritual emancipation. It constantly reminds one not to be carried away by material sensuous happiness. However, in as much as "sukha" are temporary positions so too are "dukkha" states. If Buddhism is viewed as a pessimistic path, it will surely not urge its members to live rich and useful lives.

In the Buddhist Path, methods are prescribed whereby, through certain methodical meditative skills, the aspirant eventually attains the various jhanic mental states. Here, detachment from worldly conditions and sensations are achieved. One is then said to be in perfect equanimity that possesses both moral and intellectual values. Under those blissful mental states, the mind achieves tranquility and balance. Pessimistic path will surely not entail such an equi-poise of the mind. Far from being a "gloom and doom" way of life, Buddhism rallies one towards the cultivation and attainment of the situation of "piti" (joy). Piti is one of the essential ingredients of a mental state that arises with every consciousness. In the Path of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, again "piti" is viewed as an essential factor in reaching self-realization concerning salvation. "Piti" means the positive enthusiasm and keenness to follow through to completion the task when traveling along the noble Path. Coupled with confidence, effort and mindfulness, the aspirant in the Buddhist Path plods along knowing fully well that he eventually reaches his quest - Nibbana.

History records that King Pasenadi of the Kosala kingdom remarked that Lord Buddha's disciples looked "...joyful and elated, free from anxieties, serene and peaceful..." - unlike ascetics of other spiritual movements who looked "...pale, haggard, coarse and emaciated..." Again, it was the "...composed behavior..." of Arahant Assaji that attracted Kolita (later Arahant Sariputta) to approach the former with the remark, "Calm and serene Brother? The exhibitions of cheerful and amiable dispositions reflected the mental state of calm and tranquility.

Infatuated into Buddhist art, literatures, sculptures and architecture, one cannot help but to admire and be moved by the sense of serenity, holiness and composure. The physical features of Lord Buddha and His disciples are source of inspiration to the tired. The peaceful auras provide refuge to the troubled. The artists, authors and sculptors throughout history did not depict expressions of brood, melancholy and gloom. That clearly indicated that throughout the ages, Buddhism did not reflect a pessimistic path. On the contrary, they reflect moods of meditation; moments of contemplation; period of blissful pondering. They draw silence and quietude to engulf the ever constant chattering and blabbering of noise and sound that assail humans.

Buddhist methods of attaining spiritual emancipation emphasize the constant practice of Dana (generosity) and Sila (morality). The fundamental act of Dana is the giving of tangibles as well as intangibles, such as radiating metta (thoughts of loving kindness). Sila (morality) involves the constant adherence to the Five Precepts of refraining from taking away life; from taking things belonging to others; from sexual misconduct; from false speech and from taking intoxicants. In observing the Five Precepts, positive and warm feelings of self-satisfactions follow. Such wholesome mental and spiritual bio-feedback surely augurs well for the practitioners. Enthused, one adopts attitudes and behaviors conducive to the betterment of oneself. The individual strives to achieve more and thereby contributing improvements socially and economically towards the community and society.

Buddhism is greatly opposed to any sort of pessimistic attitudes because they hinder and retard one's progress towards the realization of Nibbana. One may conclude that "dukkha" actually helps in solving man's predicaments in this scenario call LIFE.