Newsletter - No. 90, January 1992
Buddhism and Mental Health
Lecture by Master Sheng-yen on October 25, 1990 at San Francisco General
Buddhism originated in India. It was there that Sakyamuni Buddha began to deal
with the problem of illness. Illness begins at birth; when one is born, the
peril of sickness begins. The person who has not suffered illness has yet to be
born. Only after death does illness cease. We must suffer both mental and
physical pain and illness in this life. Buddha said that we should see a doctor
for physical illness, but mental illness should be treated with Buddhadharma.
Buddha saw that it was more important to save the mind than the body. One who
has a healthy mind and a good attitude will be much less afflicted by physical
difficulty than someone who has mental problems. If all of our mental problems
are cured, that is liberation. One with a healthy body but a sick mind will
suffer much more than someone who only has physical problems.
Physical illness is pain; mental illness is suffering. Buddhadhanna does not
rid us of pain. It is not an anesthetic. It alleviates our suffering.
According to Buddhism, there are three causes of suffering:
1. Ignorance of No-beginning
Western religions talk about a beginning. Western science theorizes about the
beginning of the earth and the universe. The problem of a beginning is quite
difficult to solve. Buddha says there is no-beginning. Where is the starting
point of a circle? Although there must be one, try as you might, you cannot find
it. Thus we have no-beginning. If you ask, "Where does suffering come
from?" a Buddhist will answer, "Suffering comes from
2. The cause/effect cycle of vexations
The effect that we suffer now stems from a previous cause. This effect in
turn becomes the cause for a future effect. As we move forward in time, we
incessantly create future causes.
3. Vexations themselves
The vexations from which we suffer arise from three sources:
A. The environment
On this visit I've really had a chance to see what a beautiful city San
Francisco is. The climate is quite varied: there is fog and wind; the
temperature moves quickly from chilly to warm. Much as we may think that San
Francisco is like heaven, it is no surprise that people do get sick here.
Earlier today I was riding in a car with a householder. At one point she
sneezed and I asked, "Are you sick?" She said, "No, I'm just
allergic to cold air." Yes, there is sickness even in San Francisco.
Obviously the great hospitals here were built for a reason. Even in such a place
as this, with its clear sky and clean air, there may be pollutants or diseases
in the air or microbes in our food that will cause us to become ill. The
environment can be a great cause of our vexations.
Relationships can cause us a great deal of suffering. Who is responsible for
most of our vexations? Most people think it is their enemies. This is not
necessarily the case. The culprit may be your husband, your wife, or your
children. The people with whom we quarrel most are not our enemies but those
closest to us. Each day we must deal not only with our close relations but many
other people, some we know, some we don't. Some help us, some hinder us. People
compete endlessly with one another.
Yesterday I gave a lecture at Stanford University. Someone came up to me and
complained that academics are really petty. Of course academics are bright
people. Ideally, they should help and support one another. The last thing they
should do is tear each other down. However, even intelligence does not obviate
the basic pettiness and competitiveness that exists in human nature. I often
ask, "Is there anyone here who has never competed against others or felt
another's competition? Anyone at all?" The answer is always no.
C. Emotional turmoil
Our greatest enemy is not to be found on the outside, We are vexed most by
our own minds. We constantly change how we feel. We may move from arrogance to
regret, but we never look at something in the same way as time passes. Thus we
are in conflict, and we feel powerless to make a decision. We worry about gain
or loss, right or wrong, and we cannot decide what to do. This is true misery.
And there are many people who suffer in this way and yet believe that they
themselves have no problems. As they protest that they have no problems, they
may jump up and down, throw tantrums, and work themselves into states of extreme
agitation. I once asked someone like this why he had so many vexations.
"It's not me!" he cried, "it's these other rotten people who are
making me so miserable." Actually, he had many problems that were of his
Yesterday I was riding in a car with four people who were involved in a
heated discussion. One said to me, "Sorry that we argue so much,
Shih-fu." I replied, "You're the ones arguing, it's really none of my
business." Did I hear what they said? Yes, I did. But I was simply not part
of the conversation. This morning another one of the four told me, "I
cannot stand to hear people argue. The very sound of it upsets me." You
might think that he is reacting to something outside himself. The fact is that
he is causing his own vexation. It comes from within him.
In Buddhism there are five kinds of mental vexation: greed, anger, ignorance,
arrogance, and doubt. When we are distressed, we can try to analyze the nature
of our vexation. When we can determine into which category our vexation falls,
and then reflect on it, we can greatly reduce its intensity. When we are
distressed by greed, we may reflect: "I am greedy, I have strong
desires." Then the vexation of greed will automatically diminish.
When we suffer from anger, we may reflect: "Why am I so angry? My
distress is directly related to my anger." In this way the anger and
distress will begin to subside. You look inward, not outward. It is not the
problem but your own mind that you examine.
When we have done something stupid and we feel miserable about it, it is best
for us to see what we have done for what it is. If it is something stupid, then
reflect: "I have acted in a stupid way." Thus will your suffering and
Similarly, arrogance is itself a kind of suffering. To be aware of such
feelings when you have them, will enable you to overcome them.
Doubt is also a type of suffering. Doubt will prevent you from making
decisions. You will not be able to trust others and you will not be able to
trust yourself. This is suffering indeed. If you know you suffer from doubt, you
should reason as follows: "I want to accomplish such and such task, so I
had better believe that I have the ability and that it is the right thing to
do." If you really believe this, you will be able to accomplish whatever
you wish to do.
Doubt can be an invidious influence in our lives. Imagine a man who has
decided to get married, but is plagued by doubt. He wonders if the marriage will
end in divorce, will she abandon him after the marriage has begun, or did she
lie or has she withheld something important from him. If this doubt is
unchecked, he will be miserable at the prospect of marriage and miserable within
the marriage. Even if there was no real cause for the couple to break up, the
doubt itself can furnish the reason and result in marital problems.
If you have such doubts, you should say to yourself: "If I really have
so many doubts, it would be foolish for me to marry. If I want to marry, I
should accept her as she is and trust her absolutely." If you cannot
maintain such an attitude, you would be better off single, for marriage would
only bring you misery. Are there any of you who have no doubts? I have yet to
meet someone who has absolutely none.
According to Buddhism, there are five general causes of mental disturbance:
1. Pursuit of a given objective without considering your strengths and
weaknesses. A variation of this is that you are not aware of the resources that
you have and that you are never satisfied. Or when faced with a situation that
is beyond your control, you are constantly tormented by the desire to resist the
inevitable. Many people, especially the young, believe that they have unlimited
potential. What they see others have done, they believe that they, too, can do.
But when adverse conditions arise, they feel personally wronged, and resist
rather than understand what is happening.
2. An insatiable desire to expand and conquer. Someone with this disturbance
always wishes to magnify what he or she has. Such people wish to extend their
influence beyond all limits. Some strive for fame so that they will be known to
the world. Others use power to directly conquer those who oppose them. Power
struggles such as these may occur among nations or simply within families. A
wife may try to conquer a husband, or vice versa. Such desire to overpower
others is indeed a mental disturbance.
3. Having achieved a particular objective or station, arrogance sets in. This
may lead to callousness and a general disregard for others. An arrogant person
may believe that he or she has the right to hurt others or sweep them aside
according to personal whim.
4. Failure to achieve a goal leads to despair. Someone with this disturbance
may tend to be greatly discouraged and lose all confidence in himself or
herself. There will be a tendency to blame others.
5. Doubt pervades the mind. There is a profound sense of insecurity.
Confidence quickly evaporates.
I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. I do not have a deep
knowledge of classical psychology nor am I versed in the standard
classifications of mental illness. I only know the Buddhist point of view which
divides mental problems into the five categories above. These five may generate
a myriad of other mental problems. Note that Buddhism is not concerned with the
causality or the pathology of the particular elements that lead to a person's
mental distress. It is concerned only with the recognition and elimination of
Now I will talk about how we can deal with balancing the mind and the
treatment of mental illness.
People often confront their own mental disturbances by using two ineffective
methods. The first is denial: "I am not sick. I have no problems. There is
nothing wrong with me." The second is self-treatment: a continual review in
one's mind of a list of faults and what one believes to be their remedies. This
builds one false assumption on another. Both of these methods only make matters
worse and more serious.
Psychiatrists and psychologists use a talking method to analyze and help
explain their patients' problems. Although it is true that the aim of this
method is to have the patient come to his or her own realization, from the
standpoint of Buddhadharma this is incomplete and temporary. This is because the
doctor can discover only a part of your problem and you yourself can only know a
part but not the complete picture of your illness. And it often happens that
problems reoccur after counseling, and sometimes a patient continues in therapy
for ten or twenty years with no real resolution. This might be enough to make
the doctor sick.
The Buddhist method of healing is divided into two broad categories: change
of concepts and methods of practice.
A. Change of concepts
1. The concept of cause and effect
While this concept is a religious belief, it is also a fact. It is a fact
because throughout our lives, no matter what we do, there will be a response or
an effect to our actions. Through faith we believe that there was a life before
this life and one before that and so on through innumerable past lives. Much of
what we experience now may seem unfair, but it is simply a consequence of
actions we have performed in the past. To the extent that we believe this, we
will be willing to accept what befalls us, good and bad.
2. The concept of causes and conditions
All phenomena arise and pass away because of the accumulation and interaction
of different factors. The cause of a flower is the seed, but soil, water, and
sun must be present for the plant to come into existence. Time, or uprooting, or
lack of water or sun will cause the plant to wither and die.
When we have succeeded in something, there is no need for us to be
particularly excited or arrogant. No matter how much we have accomplished, it
was not without the direct or indirect help of many other people. And since we
know that which is now coming into being will one day pass away, there is no
need to despair when we encounter adverse or unfavorable conditions. As the
proverb says, "It is always darkest before the dawn."
A calm mind will get us past unhappiness or elation. This is a sign of
People usually wish others to be compassionate towards them, but the idea
seldom occurs to them to be compassionate towards others. There are those who
when they make a mistake demand to be forgiven: "Don't measure me against
the standards of a saint!" they say. But if they see someone else err they
will say, "You're incompetent. Why couldn't you do it right in the first
Compassion requires four criteria:
- Understanding of one's own conflicts and the development of inner harmony.
- Sympathy for other people's shortcomings.
- Forgiveness of other people's mistakes.
- Concern with other people's suffering.
The first criterion is especially important. In order to be at peace with
yourself, you must have a calm and peaceful mind.
To do this, keep in mind the concepts of cause and effect and cause and
conditions. This will give you a calm and peaceful mind. You will then be able
to be compassionate, sympathetic, forgiving, and caring towards others.
B. Methods of practice.
1. Mindfulness of the Buddha. This consists of chanting the Buddha's name.
There are two reasons for this practice. First, reciting the Buddha's name in
order to be reborn in the Pure Land will provide you with a sense of hope for
the future and consequently make it easier for you to let go of the present.
Second, reciting the Buddha's name can help alleviate your mental problems. When
you are psychologically off balance, you can remove anger, doubt, or others
mental disturbances by concentrating on Buddha's name. I often tell people,
"When you get angry and want to yell at someone, chant Amitabha's
name." You will be sending your anger to Amitabha. It will be Amitabha's
Sitting meditation can collect the scattered mind and stabilize a disturbed
mind. There are many methods of meditation as well as levels of attainment,
which we do not have time to go into in great detail. However, I can give you an
idea of some of the more profound stages you might experience:
When you reach the point where there are no wandering thoughts in your mind,
that is called samadhi. In that state there is no one and no problem that can
bring you vexation. From the point of samadhi you can develop the wisdom of
no-self. This is enlightenment in Ch'an, or Zen, Buddhism. To reach
enlightenment is to be free of mental disturbance and illness. At the point when
you are always in this state and you do not fall back, that is called Great
Enlightenment. Short of that is Small Enlightenment. Your old problems may arise
after you have reached this point, but you will know how to deal with them. Even
Small Enlightenment is a significant step. But remember that even when you first
begin to meditate that is a very important step, also.
Shifu, Lama Tenzin, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche
Bhikkhu Dharma Loka and Rev. Dwight Nakamura visited the Chan Center
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