January 18, 2013

Buddha Buzz: Buddhism, Self-Help, and Suicide

Emma Varvaloucas

Some of us Buddhists, myself included, like to decry Buddhism being used as self-help or therapy. And yet, Buddhism has become so entwined with self-help that in New York Magazine's recent self-help issue, half of the six feature articles mention Buddhism in some way. Kathryn Schulz's piece "The Self in Self-Help," accurately summarizes the whole phenomenon in just one sentence: "Curiously, Buddhism is simultaneously a burgeoning influence on the Western self-help movement and entirely at odds with it: anti-self, and anti-help."

T.N.H.Schulz's article stands out for its intelligent investigation into what Buddhism has to offer self-help—if anything. And though it doesn't ask whether Buddhism stands to lose or compromise something by the association, the rest of the articles in the issue somewhat answer that question in and of themselves. For instance, Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, appears in their roundup "How to Read 31 Books in Four Minutes," which breaks down popular self-help books into two or three quick, digestible takeaways. The Miracle of Mindfulness is summarized as: "When washing dishes, treat each of them as objects of contemplation and focus on the rhythm of your breath. Try to remain mindful for an entire day—as you bathe, do chores, even speak." A fair summary, maybe—I haven't read the book—but it does appear alongside other books whose guiding lessons were "If you’re male, arrange to have a female friend accompany you on a night out to purposely laugh at your jokes" and "Practice saying the word great in the mirror using various inflections until you’ve made yourself laugh," both of which, I'm sorry to say, I'm loathe to place on par with meditation practice.

Buddhism even gets a flyby mention in the essay "Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life," by the Elizabeth Wurtzel of Prozac Nation fame, although it's the sort of mention that you grimace at instead of celebrate: "[My boyfriend and I] would laugh about whether Buddhism could rightly be called a religion or a phase people go through." I think it was more an observation about those spiritual types—you know the ones—who change their religion as often as their boyfriend, rather than a thoughtful question about whether the world at large should view Buddhism as a serious religion, but still, Elizabeth...offensive, much?
OpTibetWe're almost 3 weeks into 2013, and already, two more Tibetans have self-immolated, bringing the total count to 97. China continues to spew out propaganda—the Dalai "clique" has masterminded the self-immolations; self-immolations are "un-Buddhist," etc.—even going so far as to release a self-immolations "documentary" dedicated to disclosing the "truth." (I hope you've caught my sarcastic use of quotation marks there.) Meanwhile, the hacktivist group Anonymous, in an effort called Op_Tibet, are involved in a mass hack of Chinese government websites. So far they've managed to deface several and totally crash one in Amdo, Tibet.

Every time I post something about self-immolation on the blog, inevitably readers here or on our Facebook page begin to debate about whether committing suicide is "un-Buddhist." (Personally, I think that the Tibetan self-immolations aren't really "committing suicide," tied as the acts are to a greater political cause, but that's just me.) I was happy to see Zen teacher Brad Warner over at his blog "Hardcore Zen" take a stab at answering the question of what the Buddhist view on suicide is this week. He says early on and point-blank that he doesn't really know; suicide is one of those topics that you can find a lot of contradictory evidence about in the sutras. (Self-sacrifice in the Jatakas, for instance, versus the upholding of nonviolence.) But then he shares his own experience with wanting to commit suicide, and why he didn't do it, and the post turns poignant:

I put a bunch of rope in the trunk of my car and drove out to the Gorge Metro Park, just down the street from where I lived. My plan was to carry that rope out as far away from people as I could, find a sturdy tree and do the deed. But when I stepped out of my car I saw some kids playing in the field right near the parking lot. I realized I could never find a spot far enough off the path where there wasn’t some chance a little kid out for a hike, or a young couple looking for a make-out spot, or an old man with a picnic basket and a picture of his late wife might find me. Then I thought about my mom and how bummed out she’d be if I killed myself. And I thought about my friend “Iggy” Morningstar who’d killed himself about ten years earlier and how I was still not over that. I put the rope back in the trunk and went home.

That day changed me forever. I decided to live. But I also decided I was no longer bound to anything that came before that day. I decided that conceptually I had already killed myself. Now I could do anything, absolutely anything at all...

If you’re contemplating suicide, my advice is go ahead and kill yourself. But don’t do it with a rope or a gun or a knife or a handful of pills. Don’t do it by destroying your body. Do it by cutting off your former life and going in a completely new direction.

So maybe there is, in the end, room for both Buddhism and self-help at the table. 

P.S. Speaking of Buddhism and self-help, everyone should read this fabulous overview of HBO's TV series "Enlightened," which appeared in The New Republic yesterday. If you haven't seen "Enlightened" yet, you should! Tricycle did its own review of the show in our Spring 2012 issue.

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Richard Fidler's picture

There is a difference between "self-help" and Buddhist teaching: "Self-help" programs generally exalt the self, suggesting diet programs, exercise programs, brain fitness, positive thinking, substituting good habits for bad, and so on--while Buddhism prescribes letting go of the self, not paying attention to winning and losing, and nurturing a second-by-second awareness of life as it unfolds. Buddhists don't do these things to gain a benefit for themselves; they do them because they understand that NOT to do them results in suffering, dukkha.

That underlines the basic difference between self-help and Buddhism: Buddhism proceeds from a fundamental insight about suffering, its origin, and its cessation, while self-help programs are designed to treat symptoms only. While Buddhism is based upon truths of impermanence, clinging to outcomes, mindfulness, and the absence of self, self-help programs are built upon a platform of seeking a shallow happiness, a platform built upon shaky ground as most Tricycle readers know.

I understand how some persons new to Buddhism might classify it as "self-help," but as their practice deepens, they will see Buddhism for what it really is: a skillful way of living one's life without suffering.

Lauren Smith's picture

Excellent discussion. I agree that Buddhism in itself isn't just about self help and that self-immolation is different than suicide, which is more of an act based on self. In addition to my religion I do take advantage of self help resources, like George Makris's novel, "Quest for the Lost Name," which takes the reader on a personal transformation journey in an amazing way. http://questforthelostname.com

Dominic Gomez's picture

The source of confusion appears to be what self is. A self can range from the NYT's notion of just you to Buddhism's "greater self", i.e. buddha nature. (Incidentally, all these selves are contained in this bag of skin called "you" or "me", and are innate aspects of no one, or anything, else.)

Sarah11.11's picture

The question does confuse me, though I can understand the difference between addressing causes of suffering with the reasoning of the small self, and with the awareness of the greater self/the reality of emptiness... but it makes me wonder why it's not still a function of the "self", however great and empty its true nature is, to utilize such awareness.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If you pet your cat, she knows only that. An awareness of self doesn't seem to exist. Same with people. Awareness of the greater self isn't automatic. Immediate, self-ish concerns (rather than concerns based upon our bodhisattva/buddha selves) gloms most waking moments, don't you think?

Richard Fidler's picture

I don't think Buddha talked about a "greater self". I assume you mean something like atman, the Hindu view that an aspect of Brahma dwells within us and that we need to create access to this higher self. I think Buddha meant what he said: there is no self. He sat underneath the Bo tree deep in meditation and the harder he looked, the less he found. The self is a construct, invented by our brains out of perceptions, memories, dreams, emotions, cognition, and so on: it has no objective reality. We invent the self in order to create a feeling of permanence, a tendency that both helps us survive and creates a world of suffering as we attempt to ward off sickness, old age, and death. The point of the dharma is to see through this charade so we can live our lives free of suffering.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In his later teachings, which came to be classified as Mahayana, and especially in the Lotus and Nirvana sutras, Shakyamuni expounds an entirely new view of self. He explains that one's true self, i.e. one's Buddha nature, is eternal, transcending the cycle of birth and death. This true self is essentially pure and endowed with happiness. From the viewpoint of Mahayana Buddhism, therefore, true self is one of the innate characteristics of a Buddha. Regarding this, one Mahayana scripture explains: "The deluded beings are attached to their lesser self and thus suffer. Buddhas and bodhisattvas discard the lesser self. As a result, their self is pure and thus called the greater self. Because they think of all living beings as 'self,' theirs is called the greater self."
From the greater self arise altruism and compassion.

Sarah11.11's picture

At risk of oversimplifying the question about Buddhism and self-help...I think about the Four Noble Truths and the Buddha's compassionate motivation to teach about the nature of suffering to liberate others. I know there is much more to the path than meditation and self-reflection, but I don't think it cheapens the religion when it is associated with the very basic practices.

rory singer's picture

It seems to me pointless to discuss whether the self-immolations are right or wrong, Buddhist or not-Buddhist and so on.

To me they are a powerful expressions of pain, rooted in desperation, courage, wisdom, foolishness... Who knows what the real motivation and intention is of each person who chooses to set themselves on fire. Each person will be different.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs, it is an example of how easily governments can ignore human suffering in preference to self interest. For individuals it may ask the question of whether 'I put self interest before responding to the suffering of others'.

I mean this on a mundane level.

How we are with those around us every day?

Sometimes we know we may alleviate a loved one from their emotional burning and we would rather stay right, non-humiliated, self justifying etc.

These self-immolaters are posing a question directly to me of "how do I conduct myself in the world and in relation to others"? "Can I bear to be wrong, can I bear to give up that which is dear to me"?

berleymc's picture

First, I very much appreciate gillish's reply. Your thoughts mirror mine.

Second, I'd like to add that there is a big difference, at least in my view, between self-immolation and what Westerners understand as suicide. As the author said, self-immolation is "tied to a greater political cause" and suicide is tied to the notion that the one committing suicide is in so much emotional pain that they can see no other way out of that pain other than to die. Considering beliefs in re-incarnation I would doubt those that have died through self-immolation would have a notion that they were somehow escaping something.

gillish's picture

I appreciated Schulz's inquiry into what Buddhism has to offer self-help—if anything. However, I feel like the sustainability of Buddhism as a religious practice is cheapened by being associated (sometimes exclusively) with the self-help movement. Western Buddhism at large is self-help meditation. Why is it that the majority of Buddhist writings in bookstores Meditation 101 books? (Many of which frame meditation as a self-help practice). Why do we seem to be drawn to quick self-help methods in general?

I think there is a general cultural misunderstanding of what Buddhism is. It seems many people only view it as meditation. This view makes me wonder about the sustainability of Buddhist religious sects within our country. Can Tibetan Buddhism thrive when common people confuse a breathing meditation with the be-all-end-all of an entire religious practice?

Unfortunately, I don't have any answers and am left with just these lingering questions.

celticpassage's picture

I think that all that most Westerners want from Buddhism is the meditation.
They don't want yet another religion. Meditation is a technique which can be extracted from it's religious trappings, and so, it is.

For example, western psychology is only interested in making an individual feel better (small self) and to normalize the person's behaviors to current cultural standards. So, if meditation can help in that effort, then it will be adopted. However, this emphasis on feeling better, coping better, fitting in better, etc., is all in service of the small self and has no concern about the higher aims of religion.