Former Tibetan Buddhist Monk Nick Ribush on a Buddhist Perspective on Mental Health and Wellbeing

Name: Nicholas Ribush
Role: Director, Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive
Based in: Lincoln, MA
Age: 79

1. In your own words, describe who you are.

I’m a 79-year-old Australian who’s been living in Boston, USA, since 1989. I graduated from Melbourne University Medical School in 1964, practiced medicine for seven years, then set out to travel the world. I encountered Buddhism in Asia in 1972 and since then have devoted my life to its study and practice. Since 1996 I have managed the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, the collected works of my Tibetan teachers, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche.

Nick Ribush, Lake Arrowhead, 1975. This photo is from a three week retreat the lamas taught at Camp Arrowpines on Lake Arrowhead, East of Los Angeles, USA, 1975. Photo by Carol Royce-Wilder.

2. What specifically about medicine left you feeling disillusioned and restless? How did this lead you to seek Buddhism? 

Most of my medical work (1965–71) was in hospitals, where it seemed that more than 50% of the patients were there because of the ill-effects of tobacco, alcohol or analgesics. To me, most of our work appeared to be to patch them up and send them back out into the circumstances that made them sick in the first place. These substances that were responsible were not just freely available; they were heavily advertised. I felt I could help improve people’s health more by stopping advertising and easy accessibility than by simply treating the symptoms, and to do that I would need to get out of medicine and go into politics. That was such a distasteful option that I decided to take a break and travel for a while. There was much more to it than that, but that’s it in a nutshell! 

3. From your experience, do most Buddhist teachers support the practice of Buddhism while actively seeking professional psychological help or medication? 

Most of the Buddhist teachers with whom I’ve studied and who’ve addressed the issue seem to support Western psychology and medication as adjuncts to deeper Buddhist practice.

4. Given that you’ve been practicing Buddhism for over 46 years, what is something you wish others knew about being well or pursuing wellbeing? 

Both physical and mental health depend on the mind, as do suffering and happiness. It is much more important to understand and work with the mind than the body.

5. Do you think as a whole that schools of Buddhism destigmatize mental health?

It depends upon what you mean by mental health. Western psychology/psychiatry simply seeks to make people “normal”—to fit into society or to get back to being themselves when something goes wrong: depression, anxiety etc. From the Buddhist point of view, that kind of normal still counts as mentally ill. I was with Lama Yeshe for this interview with psychiatrists at my old hospital in Melbourne, Prince Henry’s: A Buddhist Approach to Mental Illness.

6. In the Buddhist practice, what is considered the root cause[es] of mental illness (i.e, environment, genetics, etc.)  

In Buddhism, the root cause of all suffering is ignorance: ignorance of conventional reality and ignorance of ultimate reality. This is the very first thing the Buddha taught following his enlightenment. The root ignorance—grasping at the wrong conception of the self—gives rise to attachment, which in turn gives rise to anger; all other distorted ways of thinking and negative minds come from these “three poisonous minds,” as the Buddha termed them. Acting physically, verbally or mentally under the influence of these delusions leaves imprints on the consciousness: karma. Under the right circumstances, these karmic seeds ripen into experiences of suffering: physical illness, mental illness, dissatisfaction, loneliness, boredom and so forth. I spoke above about “simply treating the symptoms.” From the Buddhist point of view, physical illnesses like cancer or mental illnesses like schizophrenia, for example, are actually symptoms of the underlying delusion and karma. So, unlike Western medicine or psychiatry, Buddhism attacks the actual causes of these illnesses, which lie in the mind. In retrospect, once I understood a little about Buddhism, I realized this was my problem with the medicine we were practicing. Unbeknownst to us, people coming to hospital as a result of their use of toxic substances were there because of their attachment to these substances and their belief that they were the principal cause of the high or relief they experienced. In fact, these substances were merely cooperative causes; the principal cause was karma. And that was something we knew nothing about. I wrote about this in Meditation Against Drug Dependence

7. What is purification? What does this have to do with physical or mental healing?

Purification is the eradication of the root causes of suffering, basically delusion and karma, as outlined above. It is accomplished through study, contemplation and meditation. And there are specific meditation practices (the four opponent powers) to counteract the four suffering karmic results that negative actions can bring. Engaging in these practices can gradually eliminate both physical and mental illness completely.

8. Studies have shown how meditation can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Can you briefly discuss some practical tips and actionable steps for a Buddhist approach to meditation? 

The purpose of practicing Buddhism is to lead all beings from suffering to enlightenment. Reducing stress, anxiety and depression might be beneficial side-effects of Buddhist meditation, but they are not the point. I explain more about this topic in Meditation in Tibetan Buddhism and An Outline of the Path to Enlightenment.

9. What about an individual that struggles with mental health and seeks to practice Buddhism?

As I mentioned before, we’re all mentally ill because we’re all under the influence of ignorance, attachment, aversion and so forth. So people who practice Buddhism properly are helped as a result. For Buddhists who are what we might say clinically ill, I know many who have been helped by modern psychology and pharmacology. I’m not sure, however, that someone who has serious mental problems is able to practice Buddhism properly. Only a small percentage of people on earth are able to do that. 

10. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be? 

Well, it’s hard to see how my life could have unfolded any better, really. Clearly, I had strong mental imprints of Tibetan Buddhism from previous lives. One’s karma has to evolve at its own pace, somehow. When I first met my teachers and decided to stay in the East, people would ask me how come I’m not helping the poor people of India and Nepal by practicing what I’d been trained to do: medicine. My reply (sometimes just to myself) was that I’m helping more than just the people in India and Nepal—I’m helping not only them, not only all the people on earth, but all sentient beings throughout the universe by practicing a more profound form of medicine: Buddhadharma, which through wisdom treats the actual cause of disease, ignorance, not just the symptoms. And after all, isn’t that what we were exhorted to do in medical school?

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

To learn more about the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, click here

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