Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic but a realistic religion.
Some critics argue that Buddhism is morbid, cynical, hovering on the dark and shadowy side of life, an enemy of harmless pleasures, and an unfeeling trampler on the innocent joys of life. They see Buddhism as being pessimistic, as fostering an attitude of hopelessness towards life, as encouraging a vague, general feeling that pain and evil predominate in human affairs. These critics base their views on the First Noble Truth that all conditioned things are in a state of suffering. They seem to have forgotten that not only had the Buddha taught the cause and end of Suffering, but he had taught the way to end Suffering. In any case, is there any religious teacher who praised this worldly life and advised us to cling to it?
If the founder of this religion, the Buddha, was such a pessimist, one would expect His personality to be portrayed on more severe lines than has been done. The Buddha image is the personification of Peace, Serenity, Hope and Goodwill. The magnetic and radiant smile of the Buddha which is said to be inscrutable and enigmatic, is the epitome of His doctrine. To the worried and the frustrated, His smile of Enlightenment and hope is an unfailing tonic and soothing balm.
The Buddha radiated His love and compassion in all directions. Such a person can hardly be a pessimist. And when the sword-happy kings and princes listened to Him, they realized that the only true conquest is the conquest of the Self and the best way to win the hearts of the people was to teach them to appreciate the Dhamma – Truth.
The Buddha cultivated His sense of humor to such a high degree that His bitter opponents were disarmed with the greatest ease. Often they could not help laughing at themselves. The Buddha had a wonderful tonic; He cleaned their systems of dangerous toxins and they became enthusiastic thereafter to follow in His footsteps. In His sermons, dialogues and discussions, He maintained that poise and dignity which won for Him the respect and affection of the people. How can such a person be a pessimist?
The Buddha never expected His followers to be constantly brooding over the suffering of life and leading a miserable and unhappy existence. He taught the fact of suffering only so that He could show people how to overcome this suffering and move in the direction of happiness. To become an Enlightened person, one must have joy, one of the factors that the Buddha recommended us to cultivate. Joy is hardly pessimistic.
There are two Buddhists texts called the Theragatha and Therigatha which are full of the joyful utterances of the Buddha’s disciples, both male and female, who found peace and happiness in life through His Teaching. The king of Kosala once told the Buddha that unlike many a disciple of other religious systems who looked haggard, coarse, pale, emaciated and unprepossessing, His disciples were ‘joyful and elated, jubilant and exultant, enjoying the spiritual life, serene, peaceful and living with a gazelle’s mind, light-hearted.’ The king added that he believed that this healthy disposition was due to the fact that ‘these Venerable Ones had certainly realized the great and full significance of the Blessed One’s Teachings'(Majjhima Nikaya).
When asked why His disciples, who lived a simple and quiet life with only one meal a day, were so radiant, the Buddha replied: ‘They do not repent the past, nor do they brood over the future. They live in the present. Therefore they are radiant. By brooding over the future and repenting the past, fools dry up like green reeds cut down [in the sun]” (Samyutta Nikaya).
As a religion, Buddhism preaches the unsatisfactory nature of everything in this world. Yet one cannot simply categorize Buddhism as a pessimistic religion, because it also teaches us how to get rid of this unhappiness. According to the Buddha, even the worst sinner, after paying for what he has done, can attain salvation. Buddhism offers every human being the hope of attaining his salvation one day. Other religions, however, take it for granted that some people will be bad forever and have an eternal hell waiting for them. In that respect, such religions are more pessimistic. Buddhists deny such a belief.
Buddhism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It does not encourage man to look at the world through his changing feelings of optimism and pessimism. Rather, Buddhism encourages us to be realistic: we must learn to see things as they truly are.