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Buddhism: Half-Empty or Half-Full?


Hello, I have been following your Podcast for a few days only. I am quite intrigued and pleasantly surprised in all the information you provide as it clears a lot of misconception I have myself about Buddhism. Further on this subject. I have been researching and doing some reading about buddhism and it’s denominations. I would like to ask which denomination would you say has the most ‘positive’ outlook on life. The idea that the glass is ‘half empty’ is usually associated with Buddhism; but I am wondering if there are any denominations which believe or act in a more the glass is ‘half full’ kind of idea?


I think a lot of beginners get the same idea that Buddhism is very pessimistic and negative. The main foundation of Buddhism (and usually the first things taught to new students) are the Four Noble Truths. Unfortunately, many teachers (myself included) simplify the first Noble Truth to say “All life is suffering.” Yes, that is very depressing. It’s not strictly accurate though.

Buddha, in the first noble truth actually said “In life there is suffering.” He later expanded this to include suffering during birth, aging, illness, death, association with unpleasant people and conditions, separation from loved ones and pleasant conditions, and inability to possess what one desires. Well, yeah, everyone experiences those things, and they are obviously bad, but that in no ways means all life is suffering.

Regardless of the specific translation of the First Truth, the majority of Dharma is about how to REDUCE and REMOVE suffering.The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhism, but the Eightfold Path is the “great beacon of Hope” that Buddhism offers. Whether its meditation training to clear the mind and remove the jumble of confusing thoughts, or teaching dharma to help reduce attachment to material things and illusive ideas, it’s all about removing suffering in yourself and others.

Is there a lot of focus on suffering? Yes, but in the “how do we eliminate it” sense.

If anything, I think Buddhism increases calmness, joy, compassion, peacefulness, clarity, empathy, love, and wisdom while decreasing materialism, greed, hate, closed-mindedness, judgementalism, deceit, self-delusion, and anxiety. With this mix, can the teachings be in any way pessimistic?

No, I have to think it’s the greatest message of Hope that has ever been taught.

8 comments to Buddhism: Half-Empty or Half-Full?

  • dhummy

    I agree. I’m only a recent (1 year) devotee, but it’s brought bountiful calmness and joy to what I thought was a crummy existence. Yes, Buddhism can get “real” on you pretty quickly, but that’s the beauty, isn’t it?

  • Brian, thank you for the informative and eloquent presentation of the ‘suffering idea’ in Buddhism.

    Many students of the German philosopher Schopenhauer associate his pessimistic view of life with Buddihism and Hinduism. He states: “We see striving everywhere impeded in many ways,everywhere struggling and fighting, and hence always suffering”.

    Striving and desire is suffering. Curiously, he offers art-and its contemplation- as way to avoid suffering, somewhat like Buddhism’s stress on meditation.

    People-families-can cause suffering (in the Buddha’s sense)and what do we do if close ones increase our pain and yet we love them? Should we avoid them-as way to avoid suffering?

  • I got a little sidetracked on the “suffering” topic, but to finish my response to the original reader’s question: I think all the “denominations” are pretty much the same when it comes to this question. They differ in approaches to reaching Enlightenment, but I can’t really see any one of them as being more or less positive than any of the others.

    Jesse, love doesn’t cause suffering; attachments and clinging do. It’s OK to love your family, but know in your heart and mind that someday they will be gone. Don’t cling to them to point where it does cause suffering. EXCESSIVE love can be destructive too, and I think we all can think of an example or two that proves that point. Too much of anything can be bad, and this is yet another reason for Buddha’s “middle path” between all extremes.

  • Sabrina

    I don’t consider myself a person who practices ‘formal’ Buddhism (both that and Taoism are closest to my own beliefs)but I have always believed that the first truth was not to eliminate suffering but to understand its place in our life. Only during suffering do we really ask ‘why?’ (when we are not suffering, I think we are just enjoying not suffering and don’t really need answers…). I think the perspective that regards all as necessary is what I have learned (so far).

  • David

    For me I think the message is more fundamental. The truth is that there is suffering in life in many forms, we need to accept that and live with it. We are the only ones who can remove that suffering for ourselves. For me the dharma and the eighfold path are there as a route map to both understanding and removing suffering now rather than in a future “heaven”. Our happiness is our own responsibility but can be affected by external forces, which we can then counter by using the route map.

    Like Sabrina, I think this is easier to say when things are good, but when things are not so good thats when we need to reinforce our practice and hold fast to the three jewels. This virtual sangha certainly helps me a lot, thanks Brian.

  • David

    Sorry my last post should have included, I understand the original question but Buddhism fills me with optimism and it has never occured to me that it is at all pesimistic.

  • Gambatte

    Personally, I feel it tends to let me look at things more realistically(?)
    Half of the glass is full, half of the glass is empty.
    But what’s the potential volume of the glass?

  • Steven

    Could it be that the glass and whatever it is filled with are both fully empty?