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Buddhism and psychology overlap in theory and in practice. Over the last century, three strands of interplay have evolved:
- Descriptive phenomenology: Western and Buddhist scholars have found in Buddhist teachings a detailed introspective phenomenological psychology (particularly in the Abhidhamma).
- Psychotherapeutic meaning: Humanistic psychotherapists have found in Buddhism's non-dualistic approach and enlightenment experiences (such as in Zen kensho) the potential for transformation, healing and finding existential meaning.
- Clinical utility: Contemporary mental-health practitioners increasingly find ancient Buddhist practices (such as the development of mindfulness) of empirically proven therapeutic value.
- 1 Buddhism's phenomenological psychology
- 2 Psychotherapy and Enlightenment
- 3 Buddhist techniques in clinical settings
- 4 The Four Noble Truths vs. the Medical Model
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 External links
Buddhism's phenomenological psychology
The establishment of Buddhism predates the field of psychology by over two millennia; thus, any assessment of Buddhism in terms of psychology is necessarily a modern invention. One of the first such assessments occurred when British Indologists started translating Theravada Buddhism's Abhidhamma from Pali and Sanskrit texts. Long-term efforts to juxtapose abhidhammic psychology with Western empirical sciences have been carried out by such Vajrayana leaders as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the 14th Dalai Lama.
Overview of the Abhidhamma
The earliest Buddhist writings are preserved in the three-part Tipitaka (Pali; Skt. Tripitaka). The third part (or pitaka, literally "basket") is known as the Abhidhamma (Pali; Skt. Abhidharma). Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, president of the Buddhist Publication Society, has synopsized the Abhidhamma as follows:
- "The system that the Abhidhamma Pitaka articulates is simultaneously a philosophy, a psychology, and an ethics, all integrated into the framework of a program for liberation.... The Abhidhamma's attempt to comprehend the nature of reality, contrary to that of classical science in the West, does not proceed from the standpoint of a neutral observer looking outwards towards the external world. The primary concern of the Abhidhamma is to understand the nature of experience, and thus the reality on which it focuses is conscious reality.... For this reason the philosophical enterprise of the Abhidhamma shades off into a phenomenological psychology. To facilitate the understanding of experienced reality, the Abhidhamma embarks upon an elaborate analysis of the mind as it presents itself to introspective meditation. It classifies consciousness into a variety of types, specifies the factors and functions of each type, correlates them with their objects and physiological bases, and shows how the different types of consciousness link up with each other and with material phenomena to constitute the ongoing process of experience." (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 3-4.)
Western recognition of the phenomenological-psychological aspect of the Abhidhamma started over a century ago with the work of British Indologists.
Rhys Davids' early scholarship (1900)
In 1900, Indologist Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids published through the Pali Text Society a translation of the Theravada Abhidhamma's first book, the Dhamma Sangani, and entitled the translation, "Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics" (Rhys Davids, 2003). In the introduction to this seminal work, Rhys Davids writes:
- "... Buddhist philosophy is ethical first and last. This is beyond dispute. But among ethical systems there is a world of difference in the degree of importance attached to the psychological prolegomena of ethics.... [T]he Buddhists were, in a way, more advanced in the psychology of their ethics than Aristotle — in a way, that is, which would now be called scientific. Rejecting the assumption of a psyche and of its higher manifestations ..., they were content to resolve the consciousness of the Ethical Man, as they found it, into a complex continuum of subjective phenomena.... The distinguishable groups of dhammā — of states or mental psychoses — 'arise' in every case in consciousness, in obedience to certain laws of causation, physical and moral — that is, ultimately, as the outcome of antecedent states of consciousness.... It postulated other percipients as Berkeley did, together with, not a Divine cause or source of precepts, but the implicit Monism of early thought veiled by a deliberate Agnosticism.... [S]o Buddhism, from a quite early stage of its development, set itself to analyze and classify mental processes with remarkable insight and sagacity...." (Rhys Davids, 1900, pp. xvi-xvii.)
Buddhism's psychological orientation is a theme Rhys Davids pursued for decades as evidenced by Rhys Davids (1914) and Rhys Davids (1936).
Trungpa Rinpoche and the Naropa Institute (1974)
come to the West
as a psychology."
- Chogyam Trungpa, 1974
In his introduction to his 1975 book, Glimpses of the Abhidharma, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:
- "Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the abhidharma coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom." (Trungpa, 1975, p.2.)
Trungpa Rinpoche's book goes on to describe the nanosecond phenomenological sequence by which a sensation becomes conscious using the Buddhist concepts of the "five aggregates."
In 1974, Trungpa Rinpoche founded the Naropa Institute, now called Naropa University. Since 1975, this accredited university has offered degrees in "contemplative psychology."
The Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life dialogues (1987)
Every two years, since 1987, the Dalai Lama has convened "Mind and Life" gatherings of Buddhists and scientists. Reflecting on one Mind and Life session in March 2000, psychologist Daniel Goleman notes:
- "Since the time of Gautama Buddha in the fifth century BC, an analysis of the mind and its workings has been central to the practices of his followers. This analysis was codified during the first millennium after his death within the system called, in the Pali language of Buddha's day, Abhidhamma (or Abhidharma in Sanskrit), which means 'ultimate doctrine'.... Every branch of Buddhism today has a version of these basic psychological teachings on the mind, as well as its own refinements" (Goleman, 2004, pp. 72-73).
Psychotherapy and Enlightenment
British barrister Christmas Humphreys has referred to mid-twentieth century collaborations between psychoanalysts and Buddhist scholars as a meeting between "two of the most powerful forces operating in the Western mind today." Ever since, a variety of renowned teachers, clinicians and writers such as D.T. Suzuki, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Alan Watts and Jack Kornfield have attempted to bridge and integrate psychology and Buddhism in a manner that offers meaning, inspiration and healing. More recently, some traditional Buddhist practitioners have expressed concern that attempts to view Buddhism through the lens of Western psychology diminishes the Buddha's liberating message.
Suzuki & Jung (1948)
A number of psychologists have identified a pivotal collaboration between Buddhism and psychology was when psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote the foreword to Zen scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism, first published together in 1948. In his foreword, Jung highlights the enlightenment experience of satori as the unsurpassed transformation to wholeness for Zen practitioners. And while acknowledging the inadequacy of Westerners' attempts to comprehend satori through the lens of Western intellectualism, Jung nonetheless contends:
- "The only movement within our culture which partly has, and partly should have, some understanding of these aspirations [for such enlightenment] is psychotherapy. It is therefore not a matter of chance that this foreword is written by a psychotherapist.... Taken basically, psychotherapy is a dialectic relationship between the doctor and the patient.... The goal is transformation...." (Suzuki & Jung, 1948, p. 25).
Suzuki & Fromm (1957)
- "...[T]here is an unmistakable and increasing interest in Zen Buddhism among psychoanalysts" (Fromm et al., 1960, pp. 77-78).
Suzuki, Fromm and other psychoanalysts collaborated at a 1957 workshop on "Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis" in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In his contribution to this workshop, Fromm declares: "Psychoanalysis is a characteristic expression of Western man's spiritual crisis, and an attempt to find a solution" (Fromm et al., 1960, p. 80). Fromm contends that, at the turn of the twentieth century, most psychotherapeutic patients sought treatment due to medical-like symptoms that hindered their social functioning. However, by mid-century, the majority of psychoanalytic patients lacked overt symptoms and functioned well but instead suffered from an "inner deadness":
- "The common suffering is the alienation from oneself, from one's fellow man, and from nature; the awareness that life runs out of one's hand like sand, and that one will die without having lived; that one lives in the midst of plenty and yet is joyless" (Fromm et al. pp. 85-86).
Paraphrasing Suzuki broadly, Fromm continues:
- "Zen is the art of seeing into the nature of one's being; it is a way from bondage to freedom; it liberates our natural energies; ... and it impels us to express our faculty for happiness and love (p. 115).
- "...[W]hat can be said with more certainty is that the knowledge of Zen, and a concern with it, can have a most fertile and clarifying influence on the theory and technique of psychoanalysis. Zen, different as it is in its method from psychoanalysis, can sharpen the focus, throw new light on the nature of insight, and heighten the sense of what it is to see, what it is to be creative, what it is to overcome the affective contaminations and false intellectualizations which are the necessary results of experience based on the subject-object split" (p. 140).
Mainstream teachers and popularizers
In 1961, Philosopher and Orientalist Alan Watts wrote:
- "If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.... The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people." (Watts, 1975, pp. 3-4.)
Since Watts's early observations and musings, there have been many other important contributors to the contemporary popularization of Buddhism-informed psychology including Kornfield (1993), Epstein (1995) and Nhat Hanh (1998).
Caveats regarding "Romantic Buddhism"
Tracing the roots of modern Western spiritual ideals from German Romantic Era philosopher Immanuel Kant through American psychologist and philosopher William James, Jung and humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (undated) identifies broad commonalities between "Romantic/humanistic psychology" and early Buddhism: beliefs in human (versus divine) intervention with an approach that is experiential, pragmatic and therapeutic. However, Thanissaro asserts that there are also core differences between Romantic/humanistic psychology and Buddhism. These are summarized in the table to the right. Thanissaro implicitly deems those who impose Romantic/humanistic goals on the Buddha's message as "Buddhist Romantics."
Recognizing the widespread alienation and social fragmentation of modern life, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:
- "When Buddhist Romanticism speaks to these needs, it opens the gate to areas of dharma [the Buddha's teachings] that can help many people find the solace they’re looking for. In doing so, it augments the work of psychotherapy....
- "However, Buddhist Romanticism also helps close the gate to areas of the dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned. ... [T]he gate [of Buddhist Romanticism] closes off radical areas of the dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered." (Thanissaro, undated.)
Buddhist techniques in clinical settings
For over a millennium, throughout the world, Buddhist practices have been used for non-Buddhist ends. More recently, Western clinical psychologists, theorists and researchers have incorporated Buddhist practices in widespread formalized psychotherapies. Buddhist mindfulness practices have been explicitly incorporated into a variety of psychological treatments. More tangentially, psychotherapies dealing with cognitive restructuring share core principles with ancient Buddhist antidotes to personal suffering.
Fromm (2002, pp. 49-52) distinguishes between two types of meditative techniques that have been used in psychotherapy:
- auto-suggestion used to induce relaxation; and,
- meditation "to achieve a higher degree of non-attachment, of non-greed, and of non-illusion; briefly, those that serve to reach a higher level of being" (p. 50).
Fromm attributes techniques associated with the latter to Buddhist mindfulness practices.
Two increasingly popular therapeutic practices using Buddhist mindfulness techniques are Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Marsha M. Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Other prominent therapies that use mindfulness include Steven C. Hayes' Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and, based on MBSR, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) (Segal et al., 2002).
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR):
Kabat-Zinn developed the eight-week MBSR program over a ten year period with over four thousand patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p. 1). Describing the MBSR program, Kabat-Zinn writes:
- "This 'work' involves above all the regular, disciplined practice of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness, the complete 'owning' of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly. This is the essence of full catastrophe living." (p. 11)
- "Although at this time mindfulness meditation is most commonly taught and practiced within the context of Buddhism, its essence is universal.... Yet it is no accident that mindfulness comes out of Buddhism, which has as its overriding concerns the relief of suffering and the dispelling of illusions." (pp. 12-13)
Not surprisingly, in terms of clinical diagnoses, MBSR has proven beneficial for people with depression and anxiety disorders; however, the program is meant to serve anyone experiencing significant stress.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT):
In writing about DBT, Zen practitioner Linehan (1993a, p. 19) states:
- "As its name suggests, its overriding characteristic is an emphasis on 'dialectics' – that is, the reconciliation of opposites in a continual process of sythesis.... This emphasis on acceptance as a balance to change flows directly from the integration of a perspective drawn from Eastern (Zen) practice with Western psychological practice."
Similarly, Linehan (1993b, p. 63) writes:
- "Mindfulness skills are central to DBT.... They are the first skills taught and are [reviewed] ... every week.... The skills are psychological and behavioral versions of meditation practices from Eastern spiritual training. I have drawn most heavily from the practice of Zen...."
- "Many of the principles incorporated in the theory of rational-emotive psychotherapy are not new; some of them, in fact, were originally stated several thousands of years ago, especially by the Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers (such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) and by some of the ancient Taoist and Buddhist thinkers (see Suzuki, 1956, and Watts, 1959, 1960)." (Ellis, 1991, p. 35.)
To give but one example, Buddhism identifies anger and ill-will as basic hindrances to spiritual development (see, for instance, the Five Hindrances, Ten Fetters and kilesas). A common Buddhist antidote for anger is the use of active contemplation of loving thoughts (see, for instance, metta). This is similar to using a CBT technique known as "emotional training" which Ellis (1997, pp. 86-87) describes in the following manner:
- "Think of an intensely pleasant experience you have had with the person with whom you now feel angry. When you have fantasized such a pleasant experience and have actually given yourself unusually good, intensely warm feelings toward that person as a result of this remembrance, continue the process. Recall pleasant experiences and good feelings, and try to make these feelings paramount over your feelings of hostility."
The Four Noble Truths vs. the Medical Model
Broadly speaking, differences between traditional Buddhism and contemporary institutionalized Western psychology can be conceived in terms used in the following table.
|Buddhism (Four Noble Truths)||Western psychology|
|problem||suffering (dukkha)||significant distress, disability, pain, loss of freedom, suicidality|
|etiology||craving (tanha), ignorance (avijja)||genetics, biology, childhood development, socialization|
|goal||Enlightenment (bodhi), Nirvana||normal or higher functioning, lack of initial symptoms|
|treatment||Noble Eightfold Path||counseling, therapy, medication, systems advocacy|
- Buddhism and science
- Buddhist philosophy
- Eastern philosophy and clinical psychology
- Health applications and clinical studies of meditation
- Buddhism and psychotherapy
- Buddhist doctrine was first articulated by the Buddha (ca. 563 BCE to ca. 483 BCE). The establishment of a self-conscious field of psychology as the empirical assessment of human mental activities and behavior is often identified with the work of Wilhelm Wundt (August 16, 1832 – August 31, 1920).
- The notion that consciousness is a sequence of states, like cells in a film strip, while not explicitly contrary to notions of consciousness found in the Pali nikayas, is found explicitly in the Pali Abhidhamma (see Bodhi, 2000, p. 29).
- Cited in Goleman, 2004, p. 72. Goleman, who was teaching psychology at Harvard University at the time, goes on to write: "The very idea that Buddhism had anything to do with psychology was at the time for most of us in the field patently absurd. But that attitude reflected more our own naivete than anything to do with Buddhism. It was news that Buddhism — like many of the world's great spiritual traditions — harbored a theory of mind and its workings" (p. 72).
- Naropa University has also been a training ground and meeting place for many of today's most prolific popularizers of a Buddhism-informed psychology such as Jack Kornfield and a psychologically savvy Buddhism such as Joseph Goldstein (Schwartz, 1995, pp. 315-16).
- Books that have documented these meetings include Begley (2007), Davidson & Harrington (2002), Goleman (1997), Goleman (2004), Harrington & Zajonc (2006), Haywood & Varela (2001), Houshmand et al. (1999), Varela (1997), and Zajonc & Houshmand (2004).
- Fromm et al., (1960), back cover. Explicitly, in regards to the book associated with the 1957 Cuernavaca, Mexico conference mentioned below, Humphries wrote: "This is the first major attempt to bring together two of the most powerful forces operating in the Western mind today."
- As referenced further below, both Fromm (1960) and Ellis (1962) cite this text as influential.
- In particular, Jung quotes Rudolf Otto's stating, "Zen is neither psychology nor philosophy" (Suzuki & Jung, 1948, p. 11, n. 1).
- To support this statement, Fromm (1960, p. 78, n. 1) refers to Jung's foreword to Suzuki (1949), Benoit (1955), and Sato (1958). Fromm et al. (1960, p. 78) also refers to Karen Horney who "was intensely interested in Zen Buddhism during the last years of her life."
- Fromm et al. (1960, p. vii). Selected presentations from this conference are included in Fromm et al. (1960). Fromm's interest in Buddhism extended to multiple Buddhist schools as evidenced by his writing the foreword for Nyanaponika et al. (1986).
- For instance, ninth century Chinese Patriarch Kuei-feng referred to non-Buddhist uses of Buddhist meditation practices as bonpu meditation. For more information, see Kuei-feng's "Five Types of Zen".
- For an authoritative source regarding Buddhist mindfulness meditation, Fromm (2002) references Nyanaponika (1996). Fromm (2002, pp. 52-53) goes on to write:
- "...[T]here are two core doctrines acceptable to many who, like myself, are not Buddhists, yet are deeply impressed by the core of Buddhist teaching. I refer first of all to the doctrine that the goal of life is to overcome greed, hate, and ignorance. In this respect Buddhism does not basically differ from Jewish and Christian ethical norms. More important, and different from the Jewish and Christian tradition, is another element of Buddhist thinking: the demand for optimal awareness of the processes inside and outside oneself."
- In Kabat-Zinn (2005, p. 26), for instance, he writes:
- Because I practice and teach mindfulness, I have the recurring experience that people frequently make the assumption that I am a Buddhist. When asked, I usually respond that I am not a Buddhist (although there was a period in my life when I did think of myself in that way, and trained and continue to train in and have huge respect and love for different Buddhist traditions and practices), but I am a student of Buddhist meditation, and a devoted one, not not because I am devoted to Buddhism per se, but because I have found its teachings and its practices to be so profound and so universally applicable, revealing and healing."
- According to Kabat-Zinn (2005, p. 431): "Marsha [Linehan] herself is a long-time practitioner of Zen, and DBT incorporates the spirit and principles of mindfulness and whatever degree of formal practice is possible...."
- The parenthetical "(Zen)" is included in Linehan's actual text.
- Regarding DBT's empirical effectiveness, Linehan (1993b, p. 1) cites Linehan et al. (1991), Linehan & Heard (1993), and Linehan et al. (in press). Clinical experience has shown DBT to be effective for people with borderline personality disorder as well as other Axis II Cluster B disorders.
- Elsewhere in Ellis (1991, pp. 336-37), in response to concerns voiced by Watts (1960) regarding overly rationalistic psychotherapy, Dr. Ellis expresses a caveat specifically regarding Zen-like spiritual pursuits. Dr. Ellis notes that "perhaps the main goal" of a patient of rational-emotive therapy "is that of commitment, risk-taking, joy of being; and sensory experiencing, as long as it does not merely consist of short-range self-defeating hedonism of a childish variety...." Dr. Ellis then adds:
- "Even some of the Zen Buddhist strivings after extreme sensation, or satori, would not be thoroughly incompatible with some of the goals a devotee of rational-emotive living might seek for himself — as long as he did not seek this mode of sensing as an escape from facing some of his fundamental anxieties or hostilities...."
- In the example cited from Ellis (1997), a person attempts to replace their hostile feelings with pleasant feelings associated with the same individual. In general, with Buddhist metta practice, one elicits feelings of loving kindness by contemplating on a benefactor and one then uses these self-elicited warm feelings to then permeate the experiencing of a perceived "enemy." Moreover, Buddhist metta practice directs loving kindness towards all beings, near or far, kind or brutal, human or non-human.
- For instance, as embodied by the DSM-IV-TR.
- In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha defined suffering (dukkha) in the following terms:
- "Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects." (Ñanamoli, 1993.)
- For example, the DSM-IV states:
- "In DSM-IV, each of the mental disorders is conceptualized as a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a paniful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom." (APA, 1994, p. xxi).
- Ignorance (avijja) is not identified as part of the Four Noble Truths but is seen as the ultimate cause in the analysis of fundamental Buddhist articulation of Dependent Co-arising.
- In terms of the Four Noble Truths themselves, the identified goal is the "cessation" (nirodha) of suffering (dukkha). For Theravada practitioners, this is synonymous with Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana). For Mahayana practitioners, this is often associated with "Enlightenment" (bodhi).
- The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path has been categorized as a Threefold Training of virtue, mental development and wisdom. From a Buddhist psychological perspective, virtuous thoughts, speech and behaviors diminish tendencies that hinder full mental development. Mental development through mindfulness and concentration meditation further fosters virtuous behavior as well as enables one to develop mental factors sufficient to unroot the fetters that obscure true freedom. Through the pursuit of virtue and mental development, one develops wisdom. Thus, the whole course is one of psychological development. In Western psychology, Buddhist notions about the psychological benefits of virtuous behavior (and the mental factors that foster virtue) are generally relegated to the philosophical fields of ethics and theology.
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- Watts, Alan W. (1961, 1975). Psychotherapy East and West. NY: Random House. ISBN 0-394-71610-8.
- Zajonc, Arthur (ed.) with Zara Houshmand (2004). The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama. NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515994-2.
- Rowell Havens, Teresina (1964). "Mrs. Rhys Davids' Dialogue with Psychology (1893-1924)," in Philosophy East & West. V. 14 (1964) pp. 51-58, University of Hawaii Press.
Mainstream teachers and popularizers
Caveats and criticisms
- "Buddhist Romanticism," talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (03/25/02)
- "Buddhist Romanticism Discussion," follow-up to Thanissaro Bhikkhu talk by Gil Fronsdal (04/01/02)
Buddhism and depression
- Domanassa: a site dedicated to the Buddhist view on depression.
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