Depression and samsara

In discussing karma and rebirth, Rupert Gethin (The Foundations of Buddhism)states that the psychological states that motivate the ten unwholesome courses of action lead to rebirth in the unhappy destinies or descents in a hell realm. Later in the chapter, he writes that when a human being experiences unpleasant mental states, such as hatred or depression, this being makes a brief visit to the hell realms. If the states of hatred and depression become habitual states of mind for that being, the danger is that he will end up visiting the hell realms longer and when the wholesome conditions that placed him in the human realm are exhausted and he dies, and may even be reborn in the hell realm. I don't understand why depression (as it is not an action done with intention) can cause rebirth in a lower realm. Decades ago depression was often thought to be suffered by people who were lazy or unappreciative, but now we know so much more about brain chemistry. If the depression is a medical condition, how could it also be an action that effects rebirth?

Denis Wallez's picture

depression and karma

If karma relates to mental 'habits' (in the West, karma is often interpreted as retribution, but that's misleading), then there is not much contradiction with depression affecting rebirth… This is because stating that one is depressed is making a statement about one's mental habits. We all know we have ups and downs; depression is the habit of discarding the good moments and focusing on the negative moments. It is also linked to the habit of seeing oneself powerless, of thinking "I cannot change anything", "this is out of my hands", etc. (thoughts about the future, which are themselves 'beliefs' or mental habits).
So depression is a visible expression of habits, and habits are karma… In a typical cyclical karmic manner, depression feeds the renewal and the perpetuation of depression (I feel I'm powerless => I do nothing => nothing changes => I feel I'm powerless…). So depression is the result of previous 'fabrications' (karma) and it perpetuates itself (karma) so it impacts one's future rebirth (karma). There is no contradiction (even when you see it as a medical condition), and most importantly future lower rebirth is not some kind of punishment of the depressed person, it simply is the perpetuation of the cycle.
The rebirth is linked to one's habitual thoughts, which is why one should cultivate good thoughts, compassion, etc. during one's life. If one cultivates the appropriate thoughts (e.g. the 3 marks of existence), then at death these will be the thoughts one has — out of (positive) 'habit' — which will lead to a positive rebirth. But if one cultivates and perpetuates depressed thoughts, these will be the thoughts one has when dying — out of habits. The thoughts one experiences at death are influenced by one's (thought) habits, and as the stream of consciousness goes on, such thoughts influence the rebirth into a realm where such thoughts are most easily perpetuated.

Again, lower rebirth is not a punishment. So it does not really matter that the habits of negative thoughts came out of a psychological trauma, out of hormonal chemistry in the brain, out of the environment… (Some people would suggest the depressed person was born there precisely in order to experience this. Which would go a step too far as not everything is explained by karma — other causality laws exist: physical, biological, seasonal, etc.). What matters is simply that the depressed person has a mental habit that will influence the rebirth to a place where perpetuating such habit is easiest. A lower realm is a great place to perpetuate depression.

one thought arising, it is hell; one thought reversed, it is hea

First of all, I am not (nor do I purport to be) a knower of Buddhist doctrines, so take it for what is worth...
Yet, I think we should leave all the so-called scientific baggage and claptrap behind when discussing religion or -broadly put- psychological models. Buddhism to me is an excellent form of psychotherapy that happens to square with my own life brought me to Buddhism and not the other way round.
First of all, science is far from undisputed and far from immemorial, if you only think about the debate about homosexuality as (it was once successfully removed from the list as) mental illness.
For a good laugh full of commonsense about mainstream psychiatry, you may see the books by Thomas Szasz, Jewish-Hungarian scholar and professor of psychiatry. It may just open your eyes.

I think the koan above encapsulates the greatest secret.
We all lived through those day (week, month...decade...) we loved to play checkers all day, another day (week, month...decade...) the sole idea annoyed us.
One day (week, month...decade...) we sulked and wanted to die because Sally (Hector, whatever...) no longer wanted anything to do with us (had someone else, whatever...).
Another day (week, month...decade...) we couldn't care any less about what that idiot Hector (Sally, whatever)'s no longer our problem...
One day (week, month...decade...) we are all hot and bothered about the possible progress or regress of a certain cause, idea or political party; another day (week, month...decade...) we no longer care.
Did the nature of the thing in itself change? Or wasn't rather we who changed?

Aggregates and phenomena just are...aggregates and phenomena tainted by clinging are what brings us to and keeps us in samsara.
A person leaves us...a pet dies...a friend commits suicide...we suffer an accident...does the thing in itself determine how we feel in an inescapable way?
Isn't it possible to see depression in this way?
I am not barring or disclaiming possible medical conditions and the results of blood tests: I am not a physician and it's not my problem.
Yet no pill and no transfusion could have made us feel better when we experienced chagrin or hate or fell out of love for the first time...

However there is a difference between sadness and

clinical depression. Brain imaging shows chemistry levels that are consistently awry in clinically depressed people should that not be treated with medicine, just as a doctor would treat an infection with antibiotics? People do not meditate on their infection...they seek medical attention. And once the chemistry levels are in balance, I think, of course, that Buddhist teachings would be valuable. But to dismiss or overlook a physicl problem, I don't think is correct action. Perhaps our classmate Mapletree is still in attendance and can offer his opinion.


It is possible that a minute percentage of people may suffer from peculiar biochemical imbalances and there are exams to determine that. However, it seems physicians tout everyone -at some point or another- has been severely depressed.
At that point, isn't depression just another state of mind like anger or lust?
Wouldn't brain imaging and body parameters (temperature, pressure, serum hormone levels etc) clearly attest it?
In fact, can't lust or anger simply be treated with a pill, for example a tranquilizer?
Again, personality is possibly the key.
The person whom Jim lusts after beyond his might simply leaves Joe unaffected; the event or situation that triggers an anger outburst in Joe, affects Jim much less or not at all.
It is possible to have pills act as ersatz to provide us with relaxation, joy or relief, but what about personality, then?
If we don't modify it successfully, we'll jump straight into the next trap or occasion...the lovelorn shall be endlessly back to be bitten again and again...the irascible will indulge one fit of anger after another...
"Freedom is defined as appeasement of obsessions" (A II, 162) "and appeasement of dispositions"

Thoughts arising

It is hard to control our mind and thoughts. However if we sincerely practice the teaching of Buddha, reducing the greed, hatred and delusion, practice Ten Wholesome Dharma. This could help to keep our mind more peaceful.

Sharing on Ten Wholesome Dharmas:
1. Protect lives and avoid killing.
2. Practice generosity and avoid taking the not given.
3. Protect chasity and avoid sexual misconduct.
4. Speak truthfully and avoid false speech.
5. Speak to promote harmony and avoid slandar.
6. Speak gently and avoid harsh speech.
7. Speak to benefit and avoid idle speech.
8. Develop contentment and avoid coveting.
9. Develop loving kindness and avoid malice.
10. Develop pure faith and avoid wrong view.

With metta,
gaik yen

Thank you for posting these...

It's a good reminder not to over-analyze everything.


Another way to see it is through the issue of personality (citta/cetasika)...if we work upon our personality and succeed in changing it, one day “If a person were to arouse citta and develops it continuously, one day he could be what his citta is all about. ” (MN III, 100-3).
Are we our personality that travels through endless rebirths?
I find the example of the candle (wax, wick, burning) used to light another candle (wax, wick, burning) and thus passing on that something that travels from rebirth to rebirth purging karma.

Denis Wallez's picture

"how should I behave?" is the question, depressed or not

Reading from "What the Buddha thought" by R.Gombrich: the Buddha's teaching of karma was a moral exhortation. So it is intended to be seen from the front, to be taken as an answer to the question "how should I behave?" Since people are lazy, and tend to be more interested in saying "How did I get into this mess - surely it was not my fault?", the tendency has always been, probably from the Buddha's day until now, to see the same doctrine from the other other, backwards.

If you care about how Buddhist teachings may help treatment of depression, then there are more and more starting-points even in western medicine, e.g.

depression and rebirth

I am a psychiatrist but I have been using buddhist techniques of meditation and assuming responsability in psychotherapy with excellent results in helping depressed patients.
THe biochemical theory of depression is one of many.
Of course we are bio psycho social fellows and an action on one dimension leads to a change in another dimension.
Psychoterapy has proved an effecive tool in psychoterapy as has compassion, appreciative joy, love and equanimity.
Rebirth with depression is only the actualization of a mental habit that may even affect brain chemestry as all experiences and actions do to a certain extant.