Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva [Jizo] famously said, "Not until the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha; not until all beings are saved will I certify to Bodhi [enlightenment]."
According to an excellent article in The New Yorker magazine, by Larissa MacFarquhar titled, Last Call: A Buddhist Confronts Japan's Suicide Culture, a Japanese, Buddhist priest, of the name, Ittetsu Nemoto has become the embodiment of that bodhisattva vow by offering refuge to the suicidal in Japan. In order to rescue the suicidal and/or mentally ill, it is necessary to enter the bowels of "hell." This is a literal "hell" -- not some mythical place where devils with pitchforks dance around. This "hell" is in the minds of those struggling with genetic, biological diseases such as: chronic depression, bipolar and schizophrenia. There's no need to imagine a mythical "hell" when you are living with the very real demons of mental illness. Hell is right here on Earth, it is in our minds.
This past Monday, I wrote about the human brain's evolutionary instinct to focus on the negative in life, rather than the positive (link). This makes it easier to survive physically, but it often leaves us suffering mentally. Now, imagine adding another obstacle that fuels that negativity. Imagine having a biological disease that affects the brain through chemical imbalances causing neurons to misfire, which then leads to the brain sending confusing messages to the body. It often fails to sends the right messages to the body at the appropriate moments. The discomfort, frustration, confusion and mental pain felt from these diseases create the symptoms of "mental illnesses" (chronic depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc).
The misfiring of neurons might tell the body to be depressed when there is no immediate reason to feel depressed. The brain might also send the wrong message to ramp-up the body's "fight or flight" system when it isn't necessary--this disconnect can often create much anxiety, stress and even feelings of suicide to make the suffering stop. Is it so difficult to understand then why some would feel suicide was their only option left to stop the suffering? Medications help calm these symptoms but cognitive therapy is also needed to bring mental perspective and retrain the mind toward healthy, mental habits.
In the West, psychiatrist and psychologists are foremost in providing cognitive therapy and psychological guidance. In Asia, however, in addition to psychological doctors, many turn to their local monks. For example, the Buddhist monk, Ittetsu Nemoto facilitates guided, "death workshops" to help the suicidal. He tells them to imagine that they have been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer giving them only 3 months to live. He then guides them to write down what they'd want to do in those months. The meditation continues as Nemoto shifts from 3 months, to one month; then week; then ten minutes.
One young man sat weeping during the exercise with nothing to write-down. When addressed by Nemoto, the troubled man stated that he had nothing to write-down because he'd never considered these questions. But, he realized, if he'd never really lived, then how could he want to die now? That shift in thinking changed this man's motivations--rather than see only reasons to die, he now saw infinite possibilities. Why die when you haven't truly lived, yet? How can you cast a precious life away so easily if you haven't fully experienced it yet?
If he'd never truly lived before visiting Nemoto then how can he judge it already, at such a young-age, of being so lacking of any value as to be worth killing himself over? Perhaps he'd made his decision about life at much too young of an age to truly judge his life a failure! His curiosity took over--and that is a life-affirming motivation. Who knows what tomorrow might bring? Maybe a reason to live will arrive--do you want to risk missing these opportunities by killing yourself? Why kill yourself when perhaps tomorrow they'll find a cure for chronic depression, bipolar or schizophrenia? As an example, how can you judge a film that is only 1/4 of the way through? He'd focused on what he lacked for so long that he never considered the idea of what his life could be.
We focus so much on the bad that will happen in our future that we forget that good opportunities will appear, too, that might just out-way the bad. This is the essence of the Buddha's teaching on impermanence. I only seem to notice impermanence when something "good" is happening. I might be having a blissful experience with a loved-one, and wish the moment would last forever but I'm very aware of the fact that our wonderful moment will soon come to an end. This encourages us to savor the good moments because they won't last. It's much harder to conceptualize that understanding when we are in the depths of depression, or a seemingly never-ending trial in life. We can't fathom an end to our pain, but if we train our minds to the freedom inherent in impermanence, we will suffer less. This is just a taste of the liberating power of the Dharma.
This is where Buddhism can be of immense help to those suffering from the very real hell of mental diseases. Unlike most religions, Buddhism doesn't resign your fate to the whims of a fickle, "God." It teaches tried and tested "exercises" that anyone can do, thus, empowering the individual to be their own savior. The very essence of Buddhism is psychological in nature. It works by mapping-out how our minds create suffering, and then offering practical, therapeutic practices (such as meditation) and changes in how we perceive the world around us that train our mind toward habits that reduce our mental anguish and leave us with a greater sense of happiness, stability and peace.