What is the Buddhist solution to the problem of the nature of reality and the problem of existential depression? Well, the first thing about Buddhism is that it doesn’t offer an easy solution, it doesn’t fob us off with cheap and shallow promises. The very first principle in Buddhism is: “Get it straight right from the beginning! Life is suffering.” Some people will turn away from that; they would say: “Oh! How depressing”, or “How pessimistic.” But sooner or later a thoughtful and intelligent person will come to realize that it is true. In some people’s cases; in fortunate people’s cases, they see this when they are young. That gives them plenty of time to adjust to reality. Many people don’t see it until they’re much more mature, until they have had more life-experience. They think life is marvellous, life is wonderful, I’ll live forever, I’ll be young and vital, and all things will be bright and beautiful. But then they start getting old; their teeth fall out and their friends die, and they read in the newspaper about the horrible things human beings do to each other. Gradually they start to become depressed, disillusioned, world weary, and only then do they turn to the Dhamma. But the wonderful thing about the Dhamma is that it doesn’t try to pretend; it confronts you with the major problem, the essential problem of existence, right from the very beginning. Now one may believe that or disbelieve it. But if you take it as a given, it starts to make a lot sense, you see the evidence for it everywhere. In Europe when Buddhism first started to become popular, at the very beginning of the last century; one of the most popular philosophers of that time was the German Schopenhauer. And he was very influenced by Buddhism, and he was a profoundly pessimistic man, and he built a marvellous philosophical system based on his own and Buddhist and Hindu ideas, which had a profound influence on German Romanticism and young Germans at that time. This is why some of the very first Buddhist monks were Germans; they came from an intellectual background which was rather pessimistic. And for many decades, it was people who had turned away from life, disappointed and pessimistic, that became interested in Buddhism. Because they thought that Buddhism was reaffirming what they already believed; that the most appropriate response to life is sadness, gloominess, heaving a sigh of resignation. Of course now that Buddhism is better known in the West, considerably better known, we realize that it is not all there is to the general Buddhist outlook. While Buddhism says that life is suffering, it denies that the most appropriate response to that is depression and gloominess. In the Samyutta Nikāya the Buddha talks about the steps that lead naturally one from another, as a result of seeing the true nature of existence. It’s a discourse that is not often discussed, but when we’re talking about existential depression, it’s a very meaningful discourse. In this discourse the Buddha describes a causal chain leading to spiritual liberation. The first link is suffering (dukkha), the second is faith (saddha), then tranquillity (passaddhi), then joy (pīti), happiness (sukha), concentration (samādhi), knowledge and vision (yathā bhūta ñānadassana), nibbidā, the fading of passions (virāga), and the tenth and final one is freedom (vimutti). And the Buddha says that the right attitude and response each stage will lead naturally and smoothly to the next one. Now if we look at several of these steps or links we will see that understanding dukkha need no necessarily lead to depression. In fact, it can give a great deal peace and happiness, even joy.
The first is suffering. We suffer. Even if we are healthy we may be suffering psychologically. The very nature of existence is that it is suffering, inadequate, unsatisfactory, jarring, conflicted. We respond to this in different ways; some people try to deny it, some try to cram in as much pleasure as they can to distract themselves from it. But there is no escape, we will have to face it eventually. Now when we face suffering, and we just see it as it is, not trying to explain it away with myths or stories, then we discover that there is a philosophy that starts at this very point. It starts at the place we are at, the First Noble Truth – suffering. The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be overcome. And if we come into contact with the Dhamma it tells us what we can do about this. We can have faith that there is a way to transcend this suffering. That is, we develop faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. We start to practice the Dhamma, perhaps with varying degrees of understanding, varying degrees of commitment. But if we walk the path with confidence and diligence, it will lead to tranquillity. We start to become calm, more relaxed, more reconciled to suffering rather than being angry at it or depressed by it. So faith leads to tranquillity. When the mind is tranquil we become joyful. This is not the exuberant “jumping for joy” joy, the rambunctious “Yippee!” joy. It is a noticeable but unobtrusive delight, intellectually as well as bodily. This leads naturally to happiness, a subtle background feeling of well-being, satisfaction and contentment. The Buddha says that when we are happy, when we tranquil and joyful, it becomes possible to meditate, it becomes possible to concentrate, it becomes possible to start to adjust and transform the mind. So happiness leads to concentration. And when the mind is very concentrated it is easier to look within oneself. When we start to look at ourselves, we develop a state which the Buddha calls the knowledge and vision as things as they really are. Now normally when we have a glimpse of things as they really are, through the filter of our hopes, wishes, and expectations, we easily fall into despair or envelope ourselves in delusion. For example, if you’d lived through the First World War, and you had been told it was “the war to end all wars”, and 21 years later another one started, you might become depressed and melancholy and lose faith in humanity. But when you have a clear, accurate and complete understanding of why things are like this, why such things happen, a quality the Buddha called nibbidā emerges. Now this term is usually translated as loathing or disgust, words that suggest strong negative feelings. Disgust is what you feel when you reach under the hospital bed, take out the bedpan, remove the lid and “Yuck!” Disgust is what comes over you when you see a dead animal covered with maggots. Loathing and disgust are very strong words which fail to capture the meaning of nibbidā. Perhaps disenchantment is better. We become disenchanted, and under normal circumstances we are indeed very much enchanted. Our presuppositions, dreams and hopes, unrealistic hopes, have enchanted us, they have mesmerized us. A clear-eyed seeing of things disenchants us. The “magic” goes out of it. Interestingly, in one of the Buddha’s discourses, he described it as being like a man watching a magician perform. The magician pulls rabbits out of hats, makes things appear or disappear, and does all sorts of remarkable things. And the man together with the rest of the audience is entertained, impressed, enchanted. “How did he do that?” he says with wonder. And then he has the opportunity to sneak backstage where he sees all the magician’s apparatus; the strings, the trap doors, the mirrors, the carefully concealed assistants, and his sense of wonder, his enchantment, disappears. He doesn’t feel disappointed, he doesn’t feel angry, and he is certainly not disgusted. But the enchantment has gone. So perhaps the best translations of nibbidā is disenchantment. When you see things as they really are, you become disenchanted.
However, the root of the word nibbidā is vid, which means to know, giving us words such as vijja (knowledge), vidura (wise), viddasu (smart, cleaver) and also vidushaka. Now in Sanskrit drama the vidushaka is the jester. As in the western tradition the jester in India evoked laughter, but he often did this by pointing out uncomfortable truths, things people usually tried to avoid thinking about or looking at. Only the jester could make fun of the king and survive. And when he confronted people with such things they would laugh, perhaps uncomfortably or with embarrassment, perhaps uproariously. Aristotle put it well when he said: “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think.” So there may be this underlying meaning in nibbidā – when reality is seen as it really is some will be disenchanted, others will laugh. When we see that we have been tricked all along we laugh because the joke’s on us. A similar thing happens when you tease a child by telling him or her that you have a sweet in your closed fist. He grabs at it but each time he does you take your fist away. Eventually you let the child catch and open your fist. When he discovers that there is no sweet, no nothing, well, one child may feel disappointed, another may laugh; he or she sees that the joke is on him or her.
The Buddha continues, saying that nibbidā leads to the fading of passions, virāga. Rāga actually means colour. Virāga is what happens when something colourful is left in the sun – the colour starts to fade. Like this the passions don’t just go, they gradually become less intense and compelling. Lust and hatred, fierce ambition and greed gradually lessen. Things don’t upset you so much, you don’t get as excited about things as you used to. In time you become serene, at peace and reconciled to life. According to the Buddha, this leads to Nirvana. One starts to experience that highest of Buddhist qualities, equanimity, in the face of the Eight Worldly Realities; Gain and Loss, Obscurity and Fame, Blame and Praise, Happiness and Sadness. Rather than being elated one minute and despondent the next, we have equanimity, we are centred and with a sense of balance. If we are suffering from long-term depression, the best cure for this is the acceptance of reality. Now most people will only accept death, after somebody close to them has died, and they have gone through a period of depression. Most people will only accept one or another of the vicissitudes of life once they have been wounded by them and they have gone through a period of depression. But if we practice the Dharma genuinely, we come to understand that the Dharma is not like a lot of conversional religions which try to convince us that everything is wonderful, that everything is marvellous, that everything will go well so long as we just believe.
There are two responses to reality, one is that we can pretend it is different from what it is, a pretense we may be able to keep up for a long time. The other one is to gradually reconcile ourselves to reality so we come to understand it, we come to accept it, and this is the path of peace. This is the path that generally leads to a freedom from depression. This is the path that eventually leads to akuppa catovimutti, the utter freedom of mind. And that is the aim, that is the goal, that is the culmination of the Buddhist life.
In the loving memory of Ratnajeewa Ganegoda, 1948-2017
Sukhā matteyyatā loke atho petteyyatā sukhā.
Love of one’s mother and father is true happiness in the world.
© 2019 Bhante Dhammika ↑