A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

26. Chapter Twenty-Six


1.         Mental Health


Just as our physical health is defined with reference to the human body, and its various members, organs and systems, as the optimum condition and function of that body – so in the case of mental health. Mental health is the optimum condition and functioning of the psyche.

The psyche, the subject-matter of psychology, is of course a very large concept. It includes to some extent the body, since our mental life is largely psychosomatic, and since the body is the substratum of the so-called mind; especially, our mental health depends on the healthy condition and functioning of our nervous system, including the brain and the sense organs. On a less physical level, the psyche has two main domains, the spiritual and the mental (in a narrow sense of the term).

By the spiritual domain, I mean the soul, and by the (narrow) mind I mean the mental phenomena that occur (as it were) around the soul. With regard to those mental phenomena, they are perceptible (to various degrees) things or events, like thoughts, dreams and emotions. They are, strictly speaking, outside the soul. They can be experienced and manipulated by the soul, but their existence depends on the nervous system too; and indeed, sometimes they are entirely products of the nervous system.

The soul is the true self, that which constitutes a person within us. The soul may be active or passive relative to mental phenomena and relative the physical aspects of the psyche (i.e. the nervous system). The soul itself has three obvious faculties[1] or powers, namely cognition (intuitive, perceptual, logical and conceptual), volition (our will) and valuation (our values). The core issue in mental health is the health of the soul, although the issue is wider than that.

Mental health refers mainly to the correct functioning of the three faculties of the soul. It has three components, corresponding to these three faculties. These are of course closely interrelated, each requiring both the others to function. Mental health has degrees. The degree of overall mental health is proportional to the degrees and combinations of degrees of health in these three areas of human endeavor.

  • The faculty of cognition is at its best when it is well prepared and trained to know the surrounding world and how to deal with it. That is certainly true and important, but the main cognitive health issue is self-knowledge. This is achieved by introspection[2] and self-observation in action. Without a lucid, profound and extensive knowledge of one’s own inner workings (motives, desires, fears, emotions, capabilities, etc.) and outer behavior, one is bound to feel imprisoned or lost in strange territory.
  • The faculty of volition, likewise, has to be maintained for maximum efficiency in dealing with mental and physical phenomena. But the essence of health in relation to it is self-control (in the best sense of the term, not implying oppression), i.e. getting into the habit of doing what needs to be done (energy) or not-doing what needs to be avoided (restraint). This is essential to self-trust and self-confidence. For it is clear that if one allows oneself to be at the mercy of every passing fancy, impulse, urge, obsession, compulsion, bad habit, one will soon experience great anxiety, for anything might happen anytime. Without discipline one becomes one’s own worst enemy.
  • The faculty of valuation is properly used when or insofar as one’s values are conducive to life, to self-knowledge and to self-control. This may be called self-value (in the best sense of the term, not implying egoism or egotism, selfishness or vanity). Clearly, if one has twisted values, contradictory values, an inclination to perversion of some sort, and so forth, one will soon become confused and ultimately bring about one’s own self-destruction.

Thus, briefly put, the three most spiritual aspects of mental health are self-knowledge, self-control and self-value. These are spiritual, because they concern the soul (or spirit or self), the core of our psyche or mental existence. When the Subject of cognitions, the Author of volitions and the Valuer of valuations is appropriately looked after, he or she is healthy and the rest follows. If the self’s faculties are on the contrary neglected, the opposite occurs. We may thus speak of spiritual health – or in the opposite case, of a sick soul.

This is one aspect of mental health, its most intimate aspect. Of course, mental health does not only refer to how we take care of our soul, but to the full range of survival conditions and tasks. We need to improve our general cognitive abilities, e.g. by studying inductive and deductive logic, by being attentive, by remaining sober, and so on. Our capabilities of action will be improved by controlling our diet and our sex life, by staying physically fit, and so forth.

In short, without going into details, mental health relates to a wide range of inner and outer behavior patterns. It is therefore closely related to what we call ethics, the study of what is conducive to life. A person who cultivates mental health gets inner equilibrium and self-respect as reward, and achieves happiness, or at least basic contentment. Whereas the opposite person, sentences himself or herself to much inner conflict and self-contempt, and ends up suffering considerably.

Moreover, although the primary task of mental hygiene relates to oneself, this has a strong impact one one’s social relations. That is to say, a mentally healthy person will naturally treat other people with respect and consideration, since that is the way he or she is used to dealing with himself or herself. On the contrary, a mentally unhealthy person will have many inter-personal conflicts, and suffer fear, anger, hatred, and similar negative emotions as a consequence.

Thus, mental health begets both dignity and decency. And inversely, mental sickness spoils life for self and others. Mental health is ennobling; mental sickness is debasing.

When one has mental health, the ongoing task is to maintain it and increase it. When one lacks it, the first task is to obtain it, i.e. to cure oneself of mental sickness. A very powerful way to obtain, maintain and improve mental health is meditation. Through meditation, one gets to really know oneself, gets to really take charge of oneself, and gets to really see for oneself what is good and what is bad in life, right and wrong in behavior.


2.         Transcending Suffering and Karma


Bodhidharma makes clear that causes within this world cannot produce effects outside it; the Absolute can only conceivably be reached independently of the relative. Thus, the key to overcoming suffering and its underlying bad karma is not to be found in external rituals and deeds aimed at merit, but through an internal change of mind.

He insists that “invoking buddhas, reciting sutras, making offerings observing precepts, practicing devotions, or doing good works” are useless; only by “seeing [your buddha-] nature” can you “attain enlightenment”. As he explains:

If you attain anything at all, it’s conditional, it’s karmic. It results in retribution [i.e. reward or punishment]. It turns the Wheel [of karma]… Unless you see your nature, all this talk about cause and effect [i.e. acquiring religious merit] is nonsense. (P. 17.)

Thus, Zen meditation is not a way to change something, to annul our bad karma and its consequent suffering, but a way to awaken us to something that is already ever-present, something beyond karma, i.e. our “buddha-nature”. This is liberating, for:

Once a person realizes his original nature, he stops creating karma (p. 41). That which is truly so, the indestructible, passionless dharma-self, remains forever free of the world’s afflictions (p. 93).

It follows that: “The essence of the Way is detachment” (p. 47). In his Outline of Practice[3], Bodhidharma describes how this spiritual path is treaded. He refers to “reason and practice”. By reason, he means meditations that “turn from delusion back to reality”; while by practice, he means: “suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing and practicing the Dharma” (p. 3)[4]. All four of these practices are about detachment, or non-attachment.

  1. Suffering injustice”: when you encounter some hardship that seems unfair to you, tell yourself that somewhere in your history (it does not matter just where) you must have deserved it somehow. In this way, you neutralize the suffering that believing you are being unjustly treated gives. You transcend the academic and fatiguing issue of justice or injustice, and remain internally unaffected by relatively external circumstances.[5]
  2. Adapting to conditions”: this does not refer to external adaptations to conditions, but again to an attitude of willingness to make do with any currently existing conditions or eventual changes of conditions. In this way, one is not at the mercy of favorable or unfavorable circumstances, but remains at all times mentally (i.e. more precisely, spiritually) prepared for and able to cope with whatever life dishes out.
  3. Seeking nothing”: is a virtue based on the realization that you open yourself to negative experiences when you are dependent on positive experiences. Everything in this world that appears desirable comes together with other things that are undesirable. You may for a while find satisfaction in certain people or possessions; but sooner or later, these will turn into less pleasant experiences, since all things are impermanent. All data considered, it is more pleasant to remain aloof and serene.
  4. Practicing the Dharma”: seems to refer to altruistic attitudes and acts. But even here, non-attachment is stressed, in order that egoism or egotism does not result from them. The aim is to transcend the distinction between self and other, to work for the good of all.

Thus, these four practices can be described as different forms of non-attachment. Not getting worked up over one’s supposed deserts; not preferring this to that, but being well able to deal with whatever comes; not pursuing sundry material and social things, thinking foolishly that one will find happiness by such means; and, on the positive side, being helpful to others.

Non-attachment saves one and all from suffering. It is attachment that ties us to karma and causes us to suffer; by non-attachment we immediately transcend this finite world and get to live our life from the infinite perspective of our buddha-nature (i.e. in nirvana). This buddha-nature is, of course, empty “like space”[6].


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008), Book 4, chapters 6 & 9.


[1]           The term ‘faculties’ should not be taken to imply that the soul contains entities or departments – it merely refers to capabilities to cognize, to will and to value.

[2]           Note that ‘introspection’ has a widening circle of meanings. The deepest level of meaning is the self intuitively aware of itself (i.e. of the soul), and of its cognitions, volitions and valuations. The next level is the self aware (perceptually and conceptually) of the mental phenomena in its mind (in the narrow sense), i.e. memories, imaginations, verbal thoughts, moods, etc. The third most superficial level of meaning is awareness (again, perceptual and conceptual) of its bodily phenomena, i.e. physical sensations, visceral sentiments, the sights of its body in different postures and positions, and so forth. All these levels are significant – but in ethical judgment, it is intuitive introspection that has the most impact.

[3]           This essay is also reproduced in D.T. Suzuki’s First Series of Essays (pp. 180-183), under the name “Meditation on Four Acts”.

[4]           At first sight these “four all-inclusive practices” seem intended to parallel the Buddha’s “four noble truths”, viz. the fact of suffering (i.e. that existence is suffering), the cause of suffering (it is due to attachment), the cure of suffering (removing the cause, becoming unattached), and the way to the cure (the prescribed eightfold noble path). But while the two sets are obviously associated, they are not identical. The Buddha’s foursome consists of three descriptive items and one prescriptive item; whereas, Bodhidharma list is altogether prescriptive (with three negatives and one positive).

[5]           Note that I (unlike Bodhidharma) do not believe that universal justice necessarily exists. I agree however that one should strive to be as indifferent to the issue of justice as one can, because to get locked up in such concerns is definitely a spiritual retardant. Notwithstanding, the pragmatic wisdom of unconcern with justice for oneself ought not be taken to imply that one should be indifferent to justice for others. The latter concern would fall under the fourth heading here, that of “practicing the Dharma”. One should obviously neither afflict other people with unjust acts, nor (as far as possible within one’s power) allow third parties to so afflict them.

[6]           P. 43.

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