Are Buddhists Happy or Pessimistic?

24 Jul

The first Noble Truth of the Four Noble Truths of the teaching of the Buddha is Dukkha-ariyasacca. This is often translated as The Noble Truth of Suffering and it has been interpreted to mean that life is nothing but suffering and pain. For example, from the 2002 Oregon State website on philosophers, it uses the following, in a discussion on Schopenhauer, to describe the Four Noble truths: “Sidhartha also taught a fundamental lesson about the problem of living, known as the Four Noble Truths. They are:

*Life is suffering *Suffering arises from attachment to desires *Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases *Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path”

The translation, ‘Life is Suffering’, is unfortunate and misleading. It has led many to regard the teaching of the Buddha as pessimistic because the concept of suffering has been understood either in terms of the conception of tragedy so familiar in Western philosophy and literature that goes back to the Greeks or ‘universal suffering’.

Actually, the teaching of the Buddha is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Instead, a better way to describe it is realistic, non-substantialist, non-absolutist and pragmatic. The insight of the First Noble Truth is that, “There is suffering” and the rest is: “There is an Origin of Suffering”; “There is a Cessation of Suffering” and “The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering”-which is the Noble Eightfold Path”.

As Ajahan Sumedho reminds us, “The First Noble Truth is not a dismal metaphysical statement saying that everything is suffering. Notice that there is a difference between a metaphysical doctrine in which you are making a statement about The Absolute and a Noble Truth which is a reflection. A Noble Truth is a truth to reflect upon; it is not an absolute. This is where western people get very confused because they interpret this Noble Truth as a kind of metaphysical truth of Buddhism – but it was never meant to be that.

You can see that the First Noble Truth is not an absolute statement because of the Fourth noble Truth – which is the way of non-suffering. You cannot have absolute suffering and then also have a way out of it, can you? That doesn’t make sense. Yet some people will pick up on the First noble truth and say that the Buddha taught that everything is suffering.”

So we see that the Buddha’s teaching is recognition that there is suffering in life and the way to end suffering which does not make the life of a Buddhist melancholy or sorrowful. Instead, the true Buddhist is happy. He/she has no fears or anxieties. They are calm and serene and don’t become upset or dismayed by changes or calamities, because they see and take things as they are. They are positive, compassionate, gentle and realistic because of their mental and ethical training.

There are two ancient Buddhist texts called the Theragàthà and Therigàthà which are full of happy and joyful expressions by the Buddha’s disciples, both male and female, who found peace and happiness in his teachings. The king of Kosala remarked to the Buddha that contrary to other religious systems, his followers were ‘joyful’, ‘free from anxiety’, ‘serene’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘light-hearted’. The king added that he believed these attributes were so because the Buddha’s disciples ‘had realized the great and full significance of the Blessed One’s teaching’.

Buddhism recognizes that melancholic, sorrowful and gloomy attitudes are hindrances to the realization of the Truth. Actually, how could a system that teaches the development of compassion and wisdom be sorrowful?  That is why a devote Buddhist, while intelligently and wisely understanding things as they are, is full of compassion and kindness for all beings, not only human beings, but all living beings. Compassion and wisdom are linked together in a Buddhist way of life.

So truly the Buddhist way of life supports and develops happiness. Not a foolish apparent happiness based on greed, ignorance and anger but happiness based on wisdom and kindness and compassion for all living beings including, of course, our own personage.

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