The Whole Life

Buddhism and Well-being“The footsteps of the Buddha lead to a descent from the delusion of feeling ourselves to be at the controlling pinnacle and centre of the universe, to accepting the fact that we are simply no more than a grain of sand, a subsystem, a temporary and local autonomous mechanism that functions as part of a much bigger system, itself autonomous. This process of coming to terms with these immutable facts is the ‘spiritual path’.” – Dr Desmond Biddulph




THE WHOLE LIFE – Dr Desmond Biddulph

“The Buddha and the teachings of the Dharma are often described using the metaphor of the good physician who first observes the illness, then notes the causes of the illness, and finally goes on to prescribe the medicine or outline the steps needed to be taken to effect a cure.

“The traditional role of the priest, and with it religion, has been eroded by the psychiatrist, the GP, the psychotherapist and the analyst. If you were depressed would you go to the parish priest or would you drop in to see your GP? Most likely the GP. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that religion is seen to be irrational, offering advice ill equipped to deal with a modern world.

“All religions, however, offer a great variety of tools to deal with mental afflictions. Buddhism in particular, being the most ‘psychological’ and rational is one of the most effective at dealing with mental suffering. We have names for these various forms of mental dis-ease: depression, anxiety, lack of confidence, self consciousness and so on.”

Buddhism and Well-being  

The Condition

“The Buddha’s view of suffering simply stated ‘birth is suffering’, sickness is suffering’, ‘old age is suffering’, ‘and death is suffering’, there can be no argument here.

“The removable suffering the Buddha addresses is in the mental and emotional sphere. In less developed countries there is much to contend with in terms of physical suffering such as hard labour, backbreaking agricultural work, lack of food, water and shelter, harsh climate, rampant diseases, HIV, malaria and others from a multitude of vectors and sources including water, insects and contaminated food. Without available treatment high infant mortality rates occur, as well as low life expectancy, and the ever present threat of starvation, natural disaster, and death. Interestingly, despite all this, happiness as a measurable quantum is often very high. We should not be surprised because we know that the happy man is free of mental suffering.”

The Cause

“The Buddha very accurately diagnosed the root cause of suffering as craving, wanting, lusting after, desiring, longing for; he went further, showing that suffering arises from our reactions to ‘Causes and Conditions’ or circumstances, as various kinds of craving or desire; ‘not wanting to be separated from what I like’, ‘not wanting to endure what I do not like’, and ‘not being able to get what I want’. The other forms of desire are also mentioned: ‘desire for pleasure’, ‘desire to be a someone’, and finally ‘desire for annihilation’. These give rise to the ‘hindrances’ of sensuous desire, anger, sloth and torpor, hurry and flurry and sceptical doubt. Long frustration of natural human gratification gives rise to chronic embitterment and the envy of others; afflictions present in many but not acknowledged. “These reactions, if not fully seen into and endured consciously in the body, give rise to unskilful intentional actions, creating the causes and conditions for further suffering. This is the principal of Karma.”

The Treatment

“The practices as laid out by the Buddha, and refined over the two and a half thousand years since the Buddha, are directed to seeing into this nexus and reversing it through the cultivation of The Middle Way, moral discipline known as sila, conscious-awareness in the mind body unit. In so doing the selfish sense of self, so vital to maintaining the delusion of a separate frightened individual, is gradually eroded, softened, absorbed, giving way to understanding and love.

“Practice informs us through experience that happiness, and the causes and conditions for happiness, arise inside, which in turn fosters skilful action; thus the inner causes and conditions leading to unhappiness are gradually removed and replaced with the internal causes and conditions for happiness, in accordance with the principle of Karma.

“Skilful action is behaving in a certain way as laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path; Right View, Right Thought or Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Awareness and Right Concentration.

“Hence the Buddhist practice is essentially moral, sila as summarized in the precepts as it concerns actions. Certain actions give rise to peace, calm and insight and thus happiness and these actions we call skilful. Other actions give rise to sorrow and lamentation, sadness, depression, unhappiness, misery etc.; these actions we call unskilful. The terms ‘wholesome’ and ‘unwholesome’ are much used in Buddhist teachings.

“Thus we are, in theory, masters of our own states of mind, as perceiving, thinking, speaking and acting beings. In fact, we are defined by these actions in so far as that is what man is. Control over them can liberate us from an otherwise unconscious and painful existence.

“Most of us have enough food and shelter; our suffering arises from abstract notions of status, self esteem, and success. Happiness is not outside to be achieved, but is inside.

“To summarize, the Four Noble Truths and the Three Signs of Being are a way of expressing in human experiential terms, certain biological and scientific truths that are common to all living systems.’ [1]

“This observation is one that does not set humans apart from the rest of living beings and the natural world, does not contradict it in any way and furthermore conforms to scientific observation, and is verifiable science. The description of human existence, unpleasant though it is to any ‘I’ that sees itself as permanent, in charge and able to avoid suffering, is the reality in which we all live.

“At the same time we are part of the whole, inseparably so; we always have been and will continue to be so, even after death has separated the elements. This was the realization of the Buddha on his Enlightenment. This was taught by Siddhartha Gautama over two and a half thousand years ago. This fact gives us little room to feel ourselves in any way superior or above anything that exists in the universe, and accepting it and experiencing it to be true brings happiness and fulfilment.

“The footsteps of the Buddha lead to a descent from the delusion of feeling ourselves to be at the controlling pinnacle and centre of the universe, to accepting the fact that we are simply no more than a grain of sand, a subsystem, a temporary and local autonomous mechanism that functions as part of a much bigger system, itself autonomous. This process of coming to terms with these immutable facts is the ‘spiritual path’. It gives rise to wisdom and compassion, and from it flow all the human virtues that we prize so highly.

“Fear is the enemy and guide. To truly see this needs us to be calm; to be calm means letting go of our false perceptions and ideas, our delusional wishes for that which does not satisfy, the delusion that the possession of an object confers lasting happiness and security from fear. Through this relinquishing comes serenity.

“The Buddha’s message was concerned not just with pointing out things as they are but providing a way to become really alive, ‘to awake’.

“In the way is the fact that we see things through the lens of our own wishes and whims and mistaken ideas, our attachments. This delusion enormously exaggerates our own position in the scheme of things, giving rise to feelings of omnipotence and denial of reality. When thwarted, and our view of the way the world works is threatened, inevitable reactions of anger, greed and envy simply increase our suffering. These reactions are the Three Fires of desire, anger and delusion.

“Having described the illness and the cause, the Buddha goes on to look further at the cure and describes it in a very detailed way. One of the laws that governs this is the law of Karma, the intentional and delusional acting out of our false beliefs that gives rise to further suffering, of mind and body for self and others…”

Mental Suffering as an Organic Illness

“All traditional cultures viewed the solution as moral… Right up until the late nineteenth century many conditions being treated in asylums were considered arising from ‘moral turpitude’, and even descriptions of hysteria were originally described as a form of moral laxness or deceit…

“It is now known that mental disorders have many causes: biological, hereditary, genetic, social, and environmental as well as toxic substances, poisons drugs and alcohol. Treatment has changed a great deal, and particularly with the advent of modern imaging systems such as MRI and SPECT scans… Gradually the fear of mental illness was lost, but not the stigma, which is with us still to some extent today.”

The Moral Cause and Physical Illness

“We are not able to entirely distinguish mental disorders that have a purely organic cause because many are multifactorial, and those that arise from the kind of lives we lead. It is however the latter that the Dharma addresses as well as the various psychotherapies. There is, however, an overlap, and all psychiatric conditions can be hugely improved with the cultivation of insight and the reduction of anxiety, by leading a ‘virtuous life…’ rather than using medication alone, which is an entirely passive contract with the doctor.”

Serenity as a Cure

“The degree to which calmness, stillness, and serenity contribute to the reduction of mental suffering in all its forms cannot be overestimated; nearly all effective medications have this effect, even though they alter, inhibit or enhance very different aspects of brain function.

“Buddhist practice is, after all, the practice of becoming calm and serene in the midst of turmoil, sila or the practice of morality above all else creates a calm and serene state of mind.

“Once this has been established, the formal practice of the cultivation of the mind/body can be started. This is called bhavana, cultivation. There is no word for meditation in the sutras, but meditation is the cultivation of awareness of all the contents of consciousness consisting of all the categories of awareness or experience, in particular, in the early stages, the emotions. For the sake of brevity it is composed of two aspects: calming and awareness.

“… We now have a number of utilitarian ‘spin offs’ from the Buddha Dharma, the most obvious one, and one that has been making the headlines recently, is the ‘Mindfulness’ movement.

“This is taking out the calming and insight aspects of the Satipatthana Sutta, the four Foundations of Awareness and awareness of breathing (anapanasati), adding it to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and this has been found to alleviate a number of conditions… It is hardly a surprise as the Dharma is after all a practical manual for the treatment of the mental ailments of man.

“Perhaps the best known story that deals directly with the shortcomings of a purely meditation practice shorn of the foundations of sila, or moral discipline is the one in which a young monk spends his whole day in meditation attempting to become Buddha, until the teacher, unable to bear it any longer, sits down beside him and starts to vigorously rub a tile with a brick. ‘Master’ says the young monk, ‘what are you doing?’ ‘I am trying to polish the tile to make it into a mirror’. ‘But master, that is impossible, no amount of rubbing a tile with a brick will produce a mirror’, ‘And’ replies the master, ‘no amount of sitting will produce a Buddha from a clod’. There is so much more to Enlightenment than sitting in meditation no matter how assiduously practiced.

“Most moving of all the stories that illustrate the complete acceptance of life in all its horror and ‘injustice’, is the one that almost every Buddhist knows, the story of Kisa Gotami, and the ‘Story of the Three Mustard Seeds’.

“This concerns a young mother who had just lost her infant son and was wandering distraught holding the corpse of his little, still warm body. Knowing that the Buddha, through reputation, was capable of great things, she approached him begging him to restore her son to life, and he, immediately understanding the situation readily agreed, on one, and only one condition, to return with three mustard seeds, with the absolute proviso that they must each come from a different house in which no death had occurred.

“Of course by the end of the day the poor woman returned to the Buddha unable to fulfil his request. His love and compassion at seeing her tear stained face, bathed in his warmth, her instant realization of the universality of death, was such that she was able, at last to lay down the tiny corpse of her child and mourn.

“It is truly enough, this story tells us, to honestly endure that which has to be endured in life by all who are born into this transient existence, and in that laying down that which we cherish more than anything, we lay down not only our sorrows but also ourselves. This path is one that we all must tread the path of light and dark. From the Buddha’s own life we learn much.

“[Before enlightenment] the Buddha had still to endure great hardship because meditative achievement had not uprooted the springs of desire… he suffered frightful self-imposed hardship in which he almost died, until letting go, and going with things as they are, that root of ‘I’ finally fell off. It is worth bearing in mind when undertaking a meditation practice, be it ‘mindfulness’ or simply sitting that it must rest on a foundation of virtue, of sila, of daily life practice.

“It’s only in absence of the delusion of ‘I’ the gates of the full life fly open of their own accord.”


[1] “Into this have come living organisms which have in common the following characteristics or indices, (as every GCSE science student knows): Homeostasis (maintaining internal stability, despite a changing environment), Organization, Metabolism, Growth, Adaption, Response to Stimuli and Reproduction.

“You could say ‘suffering’ is the stimulus that triggers various automatic mechanisms, to ensure that these functions are being maintained and fulfilled, and furthermore this is true from the most elementary combination of molecules that can be called living, such as viruses or replicators, to the hugely complex, such as us. It is, after all, one of the ways we recognize something as living, that it tends towards providing for itself through complex feedback mechanisms, in an environment where the list above are best served. In all of these ‘biological systems’ there is no need for an ‘I’, or any sort of controlling centre.

“All biological systems, the further we study and understand them, appear to operate at a microscopically local level, sub-cellular and inter and intra cellular level, mediated by the interaction of molecules. These molecular systems, some of them cyclic and some feedback, are automatic, and do not require a controller of any kind.

“The fact that large multi-celled organisms behave as whole and unified integrated systems makes it hard to believe they are composed of many hundreds of millions of self-regulating autonomous mechanisms microscopically small, interacting harmoniously and seamlessly without anyone or anything ‘in charge’ or making internal decisions. However, this is the case.”

[2] Text: ‘The Whole Life’ by Dr Desmond Biddulph, The Middle Way: Journal of the Buddhist Society, November 2011 Vol. 86 No. 3 pp.191-199.

[3] Image: ‘Buddhism & Well-being’ by PJL 2015



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