Is Buddhism Really That Depressing?

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: September 9, 2011

I’ve been reading What Makes Me Not a Buddhist and although it’s a short book I find that it’s going very slowly. Not because the content is particularly challenging, the first couple chapters are essentially a rehash of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, but because on the surface it appears to paint a very drab and pessimistic picture of life, the universe and everything. This has to be confusing for the outsider because the general public image of Buddhism here in the west is that of smiling monks in maroon and saffron robes.

I think that things generally go awry when discussing two basic principles of Buddhism: suffering and emptiness.

Nihilists
These men are not Buddhists

I want to /facepalm every time I hear the phrase “life is suffering” uttered or written in reference to Buddhism because it is so pernicious a misstatement and so counter to our everyday experience of life. It’s no wonder that people unfamiliar with Buddhism reject it as some strange nihilistic philosophy. How can anyone accept a philosophy with the statement “life is suffering” as one of its basic principles when life so obviously can be pleasant, joyful, beautiful and even ecstatic?

Part of the problem is that the original word, tanha, doesn’t mean specifically physical suffering although that is part of it’s meaning. It also means unsatisfactory, unfulfilling, and incomplete so when we say that all emotions and pleasures are suffering it makes absolutely no sense to the casual listener and we sound like a bunch of pretentious emo douchebags.

Life is unsatisfactory and incomplete. We and yearn and ache and shop looking to find that sustaining joy or pleasure and always come up short. We know deep down that the new clothes will fade and go out of style, we know that the new car will break down and, in our honest moments, we know that we will age, sicken and die. We pursue pleasure and flee from discomfort. Our now isn’t perfect so we feel nostalgia for the past and look to the future, to the horizon, never mindful of where we are and what we are doing. Certainly everything has within it the seed of dissatisfaction but honestly, all life is suffering?

Emptiness is another phrase westerners run across with respect to Buddhism that seems to get thrown around and misunderstood. I’m not going to get into it right now but say what you like about the tenets of Buddhism, at least it’s an ethos.

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