Buddhism and Human Feelings


By Rev. Gregory Gibbs


A Distorted View

There is a wide-spread impression amongst non-Buddhists that the Buddhist religion disregards human feeling. The notion of Buddhism as an aloof teaching that prizes detachment developed in Europe in the nineteenth century. This distorted view of Buddhism was largely propagated by British and German diletantes who had studied only the Theravadin approach as they found it in Thailand and Sri Lanka. This concept of Buddhism as preferring a dry and unfeeling way of living is built upon a misunderstanding of the objective of the Buddhist religion and a one-sided study of how monks and nuns address their emotional life. Let me look at these two areas briefly.

The Objective of Buddhist Living

The common (distorted) view of Buddhism which I am trying to correct presumes that the purpose of Buddhists is a detached life. But, Buddhist philosophy actually views detachment as an extreme as destructive as attachment. The historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, tried to guide us on a middle path between attachment to pleasures and possessions on the one hand and an ascetic detachment on the other. Both of these extremes are unworthy according to Sakyamuni Buddha.

The middle path is not a middle of the road existence. Rather it is living in the tension of being drawn toward various extremes. Walking such a middle path is not an end in itself. Buddhists do not cherish a life of moderation as such. Rather it is living moderately and navigating between the extremes which leads us toward our objective. The objective of Buddhist living is freedom and realization of the Truth.

Freedom is often conceived in a merely negative fashion -- freedom from... But, freedom is not conceived in merely negative terms by Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. For us freedom means limitless potential. The Larger Vehicle of Buddhist teaching explains freedom as not being bound to some fixed forms of living, thinking and feeling, but ALSO not being bound to formlessness. True freedom is not detachment from forms of feeling, thinking and acting. Rather it is the limitless potential to flexibly take on new forms of being as situations and the needs they generate change.

Realization of the Truth is interdependent with true freedom. Jesus is reported to have said that, "the Truth will make you free." Buddhists would agree. However, we might tend to emphasize that FREEDOM WILL ALLOW YOU TO SEE THE TRUTH. Furthermore, realizing the truth will make us happy. Happy in an elegant and subtle way that goes beyond the happiness which we understand in contrast to pain, humiliation and sadness.

There is no way to adequately explain what such a realization of the truth is like in the language of the unenlightened. Yet, there is no other language and, as those who battle the AIDS virus remind us, SILENCE IS DEATH. Therefore, let me break the 'noble' silence of scholastic Buddhism and say that the realization of the Truth is discerning and non-substantial, luminous oneness of all persons, places and events. This realization is fulfilling in a way that is similar to and yet transcendent of the pleasures and rewards which come to us in our day to day affairs.

How Buddhists Address Their Emotions

The oldest Buddhist advice regarding emotions is that we might do well to deliberately cultivate positive emotions. The classic example of this is Metta meditation, the cultivation of kindly intentions towards all living beings. This procedure probably goes back to the historical Buddha, 2,500 years ago.

Once Buddhism had established an elite of educated monks and nuns the concern with suppressing disturbing emotions became a matter of some urgency. In particular, monks found it hard to meditate when they were still moved by sexual desires. The classic way of suppressing sexual desire was to go to a graveyard at night, dig up a corpse and watch it decay. The corpse would usually be buried again before day break and then dug up again the next night. After watching the progressive deterioration of a woman's corpse over aperiod of a few weeks a monk would typically find his sexual desires to have become dormant. This practice was only engaged in by monks.

With the Chan tradition in China (Zen) an approach of simply observing the feelings as they are developed. Without trying to suppress unwanted feelings or trying to cultivate positive emotions, simple attentiveness to feelings was and is practiced. The nearly universal experience which comes from this approach is that the feelings become gentler, softer, more flexible. This is considered an intermediate or advanced practice of Zen. Generally, it is taught only following a long period of concentrating daily on some particular object such as one's breathing. An almost identical sort of sitting and allowing thoughts and feelings to unfold, as they will, is practiced in Tibet and referred to as Dzog-chen meditation. The Tibetans consider this a very advanced practice and it is only taught to a person who has spent many years doing rigorous visualizations.

In the Jodo and Jodo Shinshu schools of Pure Land Buddhism the emotions are similarly allowed to develop naturally. Generally, unlike Zen and Dzog-chen, no special effort is applied to being mindful of the emotions. In Jodo Shinshu the natural, relaxed but devout holding of the Buddha's name in one's mind and heart is allowed to work its magic off-stage. Without any special effort to become gentler or more caring, but with a grateful appreciation for the Buddha's gift of his name, the surrounding emotional environment, internal and perhaps interpersonal as well, tends to become more wholesome.