Ch'an Newsletter - No. 90, January 1992

Buddhism and Mental Health
Lecture by Master Sheng-yen on October 25, 1990 at San Francisco General Hospital

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 no-beginning."

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.

B. Relationships

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 own making.

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 vexation lessen.

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 mental disturbances.

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 psychological health.

3. Compassion

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 place!"

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 problem.

2. Meditation

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

Bodhisattva Precepts

Chan Newsletter Table of Content

Copyright © 2001
Dharma Drum Mountain