Tofu Roshi is abbot of the No Way Zen Center in Berkeley, California. The following article is based on a recent dharma talk given by Tofu Roshi on the subject of depression. Tofu Roshi himself has never known a moment of depression in his life, but he agreed to talk on the subject because he was pressured to do so by the 10,000 self-styled “depressed” students in his sangha. The talk has been transcribed and edited by Susan Ichi Su Moon, Tofu Roshi’s assistant and awomanuensis.
We modern-day people have a big problem in our Buddhist practice that is not talked about very much in the old sutras. Many students at No Way Zen Center are coming to me and telling me that they are “depressed.” What is this “depressed”? Depression is not mentioned in the Abhidharma. The Zen masters of old were never depressed. They simply got out of bed when the wake-up bell rang.
Don’t be confused by the First Noble Truth. Admittedly, the First Noble Truth tells us that life is suffering. But this is certainly no excuse for depression. Please understand: suffering and depression are two different things. When you sit zazen, rejoice in your suffering! If zazen feels good, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong. When you sit, repeat this mantra: “Let me learn to suffer without being depressed. Let me learn to suffer without being depressed.”
In his great compassion, Buddha taught that even when we think we are having a good time, we are actually suffering. There is a corollary to this truth, a Gnostic teaching of the Buddha that has been suppressed for thousands of years by dour monastic leaders afraid that if the novice monks knew of it, they would get out of hand. We recently discovered this teaching incised on a stone tablet in the Pali tongue—the lingua franca of the Tathagata—while doing termite work on the foundation of the No Way Zendo. A scholar translated the inscription as, “Even when we think we’re suffering, we’re actually having a good time.”
So don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Don’t exaggerate the importance of your own mood swings. What goes up must come down, and vice versa. Apparently you have forgotten that you do not have a separate self, anyway. How could a self that doesn’t exist be depressed? It couldn’t. No-self is having no-depression, that is all. And nothing helps.
Notwithstanding the aforesaid, I would like to make some concrete suggestions. They are not carved in stone, so take my words with a grain of sand. Here is my Eightfold Program for beating “the blues.”
1. Do something vigorous. Go carry some wood and chop some water. Walk the dog. If you don’t have a dog, go to the dog park by yourself. You will probably find a dog there who will agree to play Frisbee with you.
2. Supplement your zazen with other forms of practice that require great concentration, thereby driving negative thoughts from your mind. Bowing practice is good, although some people can remain depressed even while bowing. If you are such a one, you may find tap dancing effective. In my experience, it’s difficult to feel sorry for yourself while you shuffle off to Buffalo.
3. Utilize the half-smile popularized by Thich Nhat Hanh. Do it half-heartedly, in half-lotus position, filling your mind with the understanding that until you are fully awakened, you are nothing but a half-wit. I will be teaching this practice in a half-day, laugh-it-off meditation workshop. You might consider attending. We will start the first period with the half-smile, and move on through the three-quarter smile to the full smile, the half-chuckle, and so on, working our way up to the no-holds-barred guffaw by the end of the day.
4. Take a leaf from the Girl Scouts’ handbook and do something nice for somebody else. It is well-known that helping somebody who is worse off than you are is a good antidote to depression, but we Buddhists don’t discriminate against people who are happier than we are. So after you help out in the soup kitchen, why not give a neck-and-shoulder massage to someone who is happily married and financially secure, whose novel is on the bestseller list, and who lives in a deeply harmonious spiritual community in Northern California with a view from their writing desk across oak-studded hills, purple with lupine, to the sea beyond, where migrating whales can be seen spouting their joyous spray up to the soaring pelicans? It will do you a world of good.
5. Try the chemical approach. I have nothing against medication, per se. After all, what is life but a giant “le drugstore,” as they say in Paris? The drug I recommend is cheap and easy to obtain, with no serious side effects: Tom’s Fennel Toothpaste, taken by mouth. Also, be sure to floss regularly. People with healthy gums are much less depressed than people with gum pockets more than five millimeters deep. Practice the way of floss with gratitude.
6. Remember, Buddha is your mother. Buddha says you can bring your Inner Child to zazen. Bring your teddy and your blankie, too. Wear your pj’s and Big Bird slippers. And don’t forget who’s on the altar—a pair of superheroes named Manjushri and Kuan Yin, with magical powers to help you.
7. Return your attention to your body. Observe and label your sensations, being as specific as possible: “Unbearable pain in the lower abdomen, as if thousands of jumbo paper clips are being manufactured inside me.” If thoughts come, label the thoughts: “Having the thought that nobody loves me. Having the thought that I will slip in the bathtub and hit my head, and nobody will find me until long after I’m dead.” This should help. If it doesn’t, take a more directive approach to your thoughts. Say to yourself, for example, “I am grateful I am not lying in the bathtub.”
8. Most important of all, sit more zazen. Even though we don’t sit zazen in order to get anything, still, if we do get something as a side effect, we’re allowed to keep it. The more you sit zazen, the more your depression will be transformed into suffering, and the better you will feel. Painful thoughts will arise and pass away, just as the tide races in on the Bay of Fundy, only to pass away like a monarch butterfly migrating to South America. If the painful thoughts refuse to recede, your efforts are too flaccid. Rouse yourself! Beat back the tsunami with the sharp machete of your breath. Repeat your mantra: “Let me learn to suffer without being depressed.”
I’d like to end on a positive note. If, after following my Eightfold Program, you are still depressed, there is one more arrow in your holster, the most drastic practice of all: the bullet-biting practice of depression itself. Whatever’s worth doing is worth doing well. Sink down into the quicksand as deep as you can, while still keeping your head above water. Watch television, don’t exercise, eat mostly potato chips, and don’t clean the house or wash your hair (if you still have any). Remind yourself that things will only change for the worse. You will be getting older, weaker, tireder and stiffer. Your memory lapses will first embarrass you and then disable you. You won’t be able to digest your favorite foods. You will be laid off work with no financial security. Most of your friends will leave town because of the terrible air pollution and the increase in violent crime, and those few who remain will drop you as they grow weary of your whining.
Continue to practice faithfully in this manner until you feel that you are lying at the bottom of a deep well, high on the loneliest peak of Molehill Mountain, while an eagle is eating your liver and you are biting a bullet. Then repeat, over and over, until the end of the meditation period, “Better to make a tempest in a teapot than a mountain out of a molehill. Better to make a tempest in a teapot than a mountain out of a molehill.”