Buddhism has many concepts that can be open to misinterpretation. A philosophy or a religion that seeks to end human suffering shouldn’t be able to create doubts, but it still does. Why is that so? Below I’ll go into details about whether Buddhism is optimistic or pessimistic by diving deeper into its key concepts.
Death is only natural
Any theory that defends death as a natural part of the living process tends to be considered pessimistic. There is no way of preparing yourself for death, if you don’t aren’t truly thinking it over. When you imagine dying or losing your loved ones, that process tends to bring up many negative emotions.
We tend to mistake uncomfortable truths as pessimistic. This is not true. Shopping for milk because there’s only half a gallon left in the fridge doesn’t mean I’m a pessimist. It means I’m thinking ahead, and anticipating that loss so it doesn’t catch me offguard on a busy morning.
Milk is just milk, right? Milk is not my relative, my kid, or myself. Buddhists believe that everything has the same nature: things are impermanent, doomed to perish at some point. This is realistic, not pessimistic. But, yes it’s really uncomfortable.
There is no me
This is another concept that’s often misunderstood. The absence of the individual is not the same as the absence of individuality. Jung developed the concept of individuality which refers to our own unique gift, which we share with the world.
There are many variables that come into play when we discuss individuality. These are the stereotypes we were led to believe, the dogmas we’ve accepted throughout life and our responses to the experiences we’ve faced. All these build individuality. This becomes a big part of who we think we are.
Buddhism talks about the individual self. The Ego centered way of thinking. This is not the complete way to view reality though.
We’re nothing but a grain of sand in a wonderful dune. There are lots of grains in there. None of which are equal to another in form, composition, and place they occupy. Yet that grain alone represents nothing. It’s only granted meaning when seen as a part of a whole
We are the grains. Each one of us is a grain formed from our personality, background, history, and temperament. Alone we’re not much, in a sand dune we become whole. The importance of the grain of sand comes from the place it holds in the Cosmos. This is another concept that’s once again realistic (even though much more difficult to understand than the previous one) and realistic.
Karma is not a bad thing
Karma is one of the best known Buddhist concepts that gets misinterpreted. People generally have negative associations with the word, as they group it with negative events. These events occur as a reaction to harmful acts carried out by the individual.
If someone in traffic makes a mistake that startles you, you may resort to name calling and sometimes even wishing the person bad things. Two streets later you realise that your tire is flat. No doubts there: Bad karma.
Now consider this situation. A mother is juggling her baby, the car keys and grocery bags in the parking lot of a supermarket. You see her and offer your help. It doesn’t matter if she accepts, or if she gets scared. You decided to have the right intention, and to act out of kindness.
The minute you walk into your favourite store, you realise that there’s an announcement of a sudden sale of an appliance you really wanted, but didn’t have enough money for. Now, with that discount you’ll be able to buy it. You’ll probably brush this off as a coincidence, but in reality, this is positive karma.
Karma has two meanings, but we gravitate to the negative one. Karma is the effect witnessed from partaking in a particular act (cause). You do good, the good comes back to you. You do bad, the bad comes back to you. There’s no way you’ll harvest apples if you’ve planted beans. Karma is about the harvest.
We could go on about many concepts that generate questions in people’s minds, leading them to the wrong conclusion that Buddhism embraces pessimism. Sometimes it will be a realistic view instead of a pessimistic one, other times it will be a neutral view which we mistake as pessimistic.
My advice is simple, do as Buddha did. Don’t believe everything that people tell you (by people I mean books, celebrities, gurus, masters and even this article). Do your own research, apply your observations, experience life and come to your own conclusions. You are the one who determines whether Buddhists are pessimistic or optimistic.