Does Buddhism hold a pessimistic view?
Reading the "Four Noble Truths", one easily gets the impression that Buddhism has a very pessimistic view of life, or rather the enjoyment of it. After all, the first Noble Truth teaches that "Life is suffering". Now how "optimistic" does that sound?
Look for yourself at the first of the "Four Noble Truths" below as described on a Buddhist website, and see what impression you get from it:
1. Life means suffering.
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
Obviously, if the foundation of Buddhism is that "life is all about suffering", then it has a generally grim and dismal view of existence. It certainly isn't a positive one, regardless of the fact that it offers a way out of suffering. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, Buddhism views all enjoyments and pleasures as ultimately leading to suffering as well. If you read books by Buddhist authors, you will see that that's what they teach. Now if that isn't pessimistic, I don't know what is.
But again, this is an overgeneralized black and white type of thinking. As mentioned earlier, not all pleasures and desires are bad or lead to suffering. Life is not just about "suffering". It is a mixture of joys, pleasures, pain, sorrows, ups and downs, and many variations of emotions, feelings and experiences. Some have more joy and pleasures in their life than others, and some have less.
Also, people are not usually 100 percent unhappy/suffering or 100 percent happy/not suffering at any given moment. Rather, they are a mixture of emotions, feelings and thoughts, which lie in positive, negative and gray areas. Such is the complexity of life. But Buddhism overlooks these complexities and overgeneralizes life as full of suffering, as if suffering were the only constant. While it is true that old age and death are constants for everyone, as the first Noble Truth says, that doesn't mean that some do not live generally happy fulfilling lives before passing on. Many do. Buddhism does not acknowledge this.
The key to sustaining happiness is by cultivating a healthy attitude/outlook on life, developing quality relationships with others, and having "just enough" in the areas of life most important to you, in healthy balances. That works. But Buddhism teaches that only by shedding your attachments to desires and pleasures can you be really happy. That is a very puritanical lifestyle that is not for everyone.
Buddhist teachers usually respond to this charge that "Buddhism is pessimistic" by claiming that it is a misconception. They will usually try to refute it with an explanation that goes like this: (I know cause I've read books by Buddhist teachers and listened to their lectures)
"Buddhism is not pessimistic. That is a misconception. It is in fact the opposite. The fourth tenet of the Four Noble Truths offers a solution for the cessation of suffering in this world. To provide a path that will end suffering is the greatest message of hope you can ever give humankind. It is the most optimistic thing in the world!"
Alright, now, step back a minute and look at what's going on here. They are trying to reframe the whole issue by getting you to shift your perspective to theirs, which is that "the object of life is to end suffering and the karmic cycle of death and rebirth". If that is your objective in life, then sure, Buddhism sounds optimistic.
But that's like changing the subject, for our original focus was on THIS LIFE. From THAT perspective, Buddhism is pessimistic in the sense that it teaches that all desires, pleasures and happy times in this world are transient and ultimately pointless. Suffering is the only reality and constant, so it says. So, Buddhism is pessimistic in that regard. Rather than maximizing life to the fullest, it teaches that one should push and withdraw from the enjoyment of life. Therefore, regardless of whether Buddhism is pessimistic or optimistic from your perspective, the bottom line is that it definitely discourages the enjoyment and fulfillment of life, its joys and pleasures.
So that point still stands and I see no logical reason why the "Buddhism is pessimistic" charge is a false misconception, as they claim.
But then again, no one wants their religion to appear negative and pessimistic to others, so of course Buddhist teachers will try to reframe this issue by trying to get you see it from another perspective, namely theirs.
Sure they can do that. But that doesn't change the fact that Buddhism has an obviously negative and discouraging view on the enjoyments and fulfillment of pleasures of life, as demonstrated in the previous section. And in fact part of Buddhist practice is to abstain from pleasures, so it is definitely discouraged. This aspect has not been disproven, merely politely sidestepped.