July 31, 2014

Buddhism and Psychotherapy: A Perspective

What we typically label as simply "mind" is, in Pali, substantially more precise. Our broad concept might of mind could be translated in Pali as vijnana, or consciousness. Nowhere does it suggest in Buddhist teaching that we can or should "still our consciousness," but the idea Westerners typically struggle with is that meditation means precisely that. Consciousness, in the Buddhist model of the mind, contains sense impressions, chitta (the conscious mind that perceives and recognises), manas (the mind that incorporates the process of "ego" and governs attraction/rejection, aversion/compulsion, and self-image), alaya (that part of mind which is described as the "storehouse consciousness", and what some psychologists refer to as the un- or sub-conscious and the realm of complexes and neuroses, and what Buddhists may refer to as "karma"), and buddhata (that perfected and enlightened "Mind", unrealised by most, which is the naturally perfect state Buddha referred to when he said that all people were perfect just as they were).

Of course, the Buddhists of Buddhist countries don't look upon Buddhism as a psychotherapy. It is mainly understood as a form of religion. Of course, those scholars who study the teaching of the Buddha ... tend to regard the teaching as a philosophy. Now as I see it, these two ways of thinking can be seen as two extremes. Avoiding these two extremes, I would like to take the Middle Path, which is to treat the teachings of the Buddha as a form of psychotherapy. I would say that if Buddhism is introduced into the modern world as psychotherapy, the message of the Buddha will be correctly understood."
- Bikkhu Pannaji, Buddhism and Psychotherapy, Buddhist Quarterly, 10, 1974.

psychotherapy-sm2Our modern age demands that religions find new ways to persuade people their message is relevant and their methods are effective in delivering people from the pain and anxiety of life. The course of the past few centuries has increasingly led people to believe that religions fail to deliver on the promises they make in relation to this suffering. Where religion has failed, science has typically filled the void. But, perhaps ironically, where religion has failed due to its lack of certainty, science has also failed due to its inability to understand the problem at its existential roots. Only in the area of psychotherapy has science attempted to address this fundamental issue of human suffering, and it is through the popularisation of psychotherapy and its methods that many religions have sought to reinvent and communicate themselves to new generations of people sceptical of religion and the promises of spirituality.

Certainly, Buddhism has developed in this age largely due to the fact that the aims, methods and language of psychotherapy seem to be in accord with this ancient religion. But if we are to begin to consider the relationship between Buddhism and psychotherapy we need to understand whether they truly speak the same language, or share the same apparatus of measurement. Do they translate as neatly as many Buddhist teachers and modern psychotherapists insist?

With all due respect to reasonable feminist sensibilities, I am reminded of an old Russian proverb "Translation is like a woman; if she is faithful, she is not beautiful. If she is beautiful, she is not faithful." Does a faithful translation of Buddhism into psychotherapeutic terms cause it to lose its beauty? Does a beautiful and neat translation of psychology into Buddhist philosophy cause it to lose faith with its principle assumptions? We must assume the risk is present in both cases.

Certainly in some ways, we have the right to assume there must be significant shared ground; Buddha is, after all, commonly referred to as "the great physician" and, like any therapist, made it his aim to identify, explain and end human suffering. Does not any therapist make the same claim? There are also many who have identified the Four Noble Truths as adopting a deliberately diagnostic format to explain suffering and its cure; the First Noble Truth identifies the disease, the Second provides aetiology, the Third gives a prognosis, and the Fourth suggests a remedy.

Furthermore, students of psychology introduced to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism must be impressed with the natural affiliation between the two systems. The major schools of psychotherapy appear to fit easily within the prescription of the Eightfold Path.

To briefly highlight this point, let us consider some of these schools: Psychoanalysis, pioneered and popularised by such doctors as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, rests upon the idea that uncovering and making conscious buried complexes and memories is a therapeutic process. The relocation of a complex or neurosis from the unconscious to the conscious easily equates to the principles inherent in Right Meditation and Right Understanding. One might recall that on Jung's deathbed he was reading a translation of Hsu Yun's dharma discourses and was reputedly very excited by the succinct and direct methods of Chan practice in working with the unconscious.

The school of Behaviourism, associated in particular with Ivan Pavlov (or more popularly, his dog) and B.F.Skinner takes a "hard science" approach to psychotherapy, tending to describe (or reduce) human functions to principles of behaviour, which can be manipulated to create positive effects in the life of the patient. In the Noble Eightfold Path we see reflections of this approach in the exhortations to Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood. One may consider the story of the Buddha who was approached by a rich but miserly man who wanted to develop his spiritual life but was constrained by his seeming inability to share his wealth with others. The Buddha addressed this problem by telling him to get into the habit of using his right hand to give his left hand items of value and in so doing learn the art of giving. Any behaviourist would be proud of such an approach.

Cognitive and cognitive-behaviourists, taking a less mechanistic and deterministic view of therapy, focus more on training the mind to review and question assumptions, phobias, fears and beliefs. These therapists are typically associated with such techniques as visualisation and positive self-talk designed to teach, or unlearn, principles that are, respectively, helpful or unhelpful. Again, the Noble Eightfold Path and its focus on Right Mindfulness and Right Thinking are the corollary in Buddhist thought.

Gestalt Therapy was a radical, though now increasingly conventional, approach created by Fritz Perls which drew heavily on existentialist philosophy and, significantly, Zen Buddhism (among other influences). In Gestalt, the premise is we must work with the whole person, the "gestalt" in German, which echoes the wisdom of Right Understanding. Its techniques encourage Right Mindfulness, and the focus on the immediate, phenomenological and experiential reality of the here and now, in the physical, emotional and mental realms.

Solution-Focussed schools of therapy encourage a "retelling" of one's personal narrative, and a "revisioning" of personal ideals, goals and prospects. Indeed, "all successful counselling is nothing more than teaching the skill of 'reframing'," as one of my psychology lecturers once told me. He understood how the application of Right Thought and Right Understanding could be said to be the basis of all therapeutic change.

David Brazier in his book Zen Therapy makes a thoughtful comparison of some principal Buddhist concepts and Person-Centred (Rogerian) Therapy. Person-Centred Therapy is a profoundly significant and influential development in modern psychotherapy. Developed by Carl Rogers, this therapeutic approach could be said to underpin and influence virtually all effective therapy, either in principle or technique. In basic terms, its goal is to provide the patient a safe place, an environment where he or she may express and "pour out" their problems. The therapist does not direct the process, but works on the assumption the patient has the resources to deal with their own "cure" and self-growth, provided the environment is supportive of them. Like the Buddha, this non-authoritative approach suggests the patient can be "a light unto themselves". But this space is not simply empty. Although the therapist may do little more than provide active and empathic listening, and reflect and validate the thoughts and emotions of the struggling patient, they nonetheless provide three crucial components for change to occur; unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence (or genuiness.) These are the elements that are considered essential to create an environment where the individual can grow, learn and evolve.

This is of particular interest to the Buddhist student who is taught that all suffering stems from the three "bitter roots" or "poisons" of greed, hatred and delusion. Brazier demonstrates how, from a therapeutic perspective, Person-Centred Therapy counters each of these "poisons"; empathy is the "antidote" to hate, unconditional positive regard provides a model of acceptance of self and other which counters the grasping, needy nature of greed, and congruence (genuineness) is the opposite of delusion. Delusion itself, as Brazier suggests, could just as well be translated as "incongruence", the separation of self and mind from what is real and what is present.

In light of all this, it is certainly reasonable to suggest that there is much to offer, and much common ground, between the traditions of Buddhism and Western psychology and psychotherapy. However it is one thing to note the similarities and natural sympathies and quite another to appreciate those differences need be recognised and respected before any genuine accommodation can take place. And as there are many points of congruence between the two traditions, there are also significant differences.

The Problem of Meaning:

As suggested earlier, while religion finds itself increasingly relegated to relative insignificance in the eyes of many due to its lack of perceived relevance, it also finds itself increasingly sidelined as it struggles to justify, or at least explain, its claims in terms that are understandable and considered credible by the modern and rational mind. Much of the decline of religion as a respected way of measuring and interacting with the universe stems from the fact that its principal assertions are considered by many to be irrational and superstitious. The very jargon of the religious is increasingly dismissed as meaningless; people discuss concepts such as "God," "soul," "faith," "grace," "salvation," "heaven," "hell," etc. but appear unable to provide intelligent or consistent definitions of what these words actually mean.

Robert Anton Wilson in his book Quantum Psychology defines as meaningless any idea which we "cannot, even in theory, imagine a way of testing ..." He suggests therefore that propositions such as "the framiis goskit distims the blue doshes on round Thursdays," "all living beings contain souls which cannot be seen or measured," and "God told me not to tell you to eat meat" are equally meaningless.

Although many, particularly those of a religious persuasion, would argue vehemently with this assertion, an increasing multitude is becoming ever more sympathetic to this insistence on reliable and consistent definitions of meaning, and expects it to be transparent and demonstrable in any presented idea or theory. What Wilson here describes as "meaningless ideas" is echoed by logical positivists who would describe them as "abuses of language" and by existentialists such as Neitzsche who have called them "swindles", while Korzybski's school of General Semantics call them "noise", and the philosopher Max Stirner (deeply influenced by Zen) simply calls them "spooks".

Buddhism is not immune to this problem of meaning. However this is not so much because of a lack of coherence in the principles of Buddhism but more a problem of translation. Many of the basic ideas of Buddhism were developed in a linguistic culture, particularly Pali, which enabled a degree of precision in communicating essential concepts which we do not have in our language.

A pertinent example of this is the word "mind." Buddhism, perhaps particularly Chan, suffers when trying to describe this word accurately in English. How often do we find students, and even teachers, failing dismally in their meditation practice and teaching because of very basic misunderstandings regarding this? "I can't meditate because I can't make my mind stop having thoughts," many would-be practitioners moan. This concept of meditation, very prevalent in the West, is a direct result of our not having a language which allows for subtle but important differences in what is meant by "mind" in Buddhist teaching.

What we typically label as simply "mind" is, in Pali, substantially more precise. Our broad concept might of mind could be translated in Pali as vijnana, or consciousness. Nowhere does it suggest in Buddhist teaching that we can or should "still our consciousness," but the idea Westerners typically struggle with is that meditation means precisely that. Consciousness, in the Buddhist model of the mind, contains sense impressions, chitta (the conscious mind that perceives and recognises), manas (the mind that incorporates the process of "ego" and governs attraction/rejection, aversion/compulsion, and self-image), alaya (that part of mind which is described as the "storehouse consciousness", and what some psychologists refer to as the un- or sub-conscious and the realm of complexes and neuroses, and what Buddhists may refer to as "karma"), and buddhata (that perfected and enlightened "Mind", unrealised by most, which is the naturally perfect state Buddha referred to when he said that all people were perfect just as they were).

We can see then that Buddhism sits uncomfortably with the lack of exactitude in our English language and many Western inquirers are as repulsed by this lack of coherence as when they are told they must believe in "God". More relevant to this particular essay is the recognition that Western psychology has failed to come to any consensus about what constitutes "mind" and is therefore severely constrained in being able to converse intelligently with the more precise Buddhist model. It is only in recent history that psychoanalysis in particular has coined or reinvented such essential terms as "self," "ego," "unconscious," or "subconscious," for instance. But even here there is no consensus among Western traditions regarding what these terms actually represent. A Freudian and a Jungian analyst, for example, could not converse about anything containing the words "ego" or "unconscious" without significantly misconstruing the other's position.

The problem of meaning is a particularly acute one and represents a formidable obstacle in any fruitful discourse between Buddhism and Western psychology.

The Problem of Reason:

Buddhism, at least in the form it has taken in the West, seems to sit well in an environment where untested and untestable beliefs and doctrines are largely dismissed as unworthy of an intelligent and inquiring mind. Scientists, ethicists, environmentalists and futurists consistently find common ground with Buddhism in a way they rarely do with other religions. This is not surprising as Buddhism, at its best, is an approach to life and oneself based on personal action and verifiable experience. It requires little in the way of adherence to doctrine or belief based on faith or authority. The modern mind warms to this undemanding philosophy and typically considers it a "reasonable religion," unencumbered by the excesses of fundamentalism and superstition. It is held by many to be free of the "irrationality" that characterises many religious traditions.

To an extent this is true. However, especially in Chan, we would be loathe to measure the relevance of our tradition by how well it matches up to modern ideas of reason, or the belief that reason is the highest measure of credibility. To be frank, we would argue something very close to the opposite. A fundamental Chan realisation is that the Absolute lies beyond reason and it transcends those measures which depend entirely on the premise of duality - right/wrong, good/bad, consistent/inconsistent, etc. Chan is derided by many, even by many Buddhists, as being so deeply irrational as to be even beyond criticism! One need only examine the koans that have become veritable clichés to know that the veneration of reason or rationality is not a Chan hallmark!

So then, to indulge another duality, is Chan rational or irrational? Where does it stand in relation to the modern sciences, for instance? Is it a useful ally, even close friend, or is it a hopelessly implacable foe to any who try to make rational sense of the world?

To answer this we need to further address this issue of reason and rationality. In the West, our medical, scientific and psychotherapeutic traditions rest entirely upon the presumption of the primacy of reason. But as we have pointed out this is not necessarily the case in the Buddhist approach. Where, then, is safe ground and the potential for meaningful communication between the traditions?

Perhaps we need to poke a hole in this apparent duality of "rational" as opposed to "irrational" to start with. Few dualities, even in samsara, are absolute and this is a typical example. Although we may consider these terms self-explanatory and concise, the reality is they are not. On closer examination we can see that "irrational" may well describe two positions which stand in different relationship to the idea of "rational." On one hand something may simply violate reason; for instance, insisting that one can fly then jumping off a cliff is irrational and unreasonable given the reality of gravity and our lack of capacity to overcome its effect. However, another description of "irrational" may refer to something beyond reason, or outside its scope. At the most basic level, our emotions are "irrational" in that they do not conform to the laws of reason (though we may be able to reasonably describe what prompts the arising of an emotion), but nor do they violate them. Love, for instance, may be described as a result of hormonal and chemical interactions, and biologists and anthropologists may even be able to tell us what sort of person we may "fall in love" with, prompted by pheromones and visual cues. But these do not indicate an understanding or explanation of the emotion, they are merely elements involved in its arising and its application. Similarly, there is no capacity for reason to be involved in measuring whether Bryon is a better poet than Ginsberg, or if Bach composed better music than Metallica.

Simply put, that which is "irrational" can describe that which violates the laws of nature, but also that which transcends them. Where Aristotelian logic suggests there are only "true" or "false" propositions, some modern quantum physicists such as Dr Anatole Rapoport add "indeterminate" (not yet testable) and "meaningless" (forever untestable) propositions. "Rational" versus "irrational" can, in this light, be viewed in a significantly broader manner. Readers of pop-physics literature (or those more blessed who can actually understand the real thing) can marvel at how modern physics has taken itself to the point of sublime irrationality; how light in its subatomic nature can be seen as both a particle and a wave depending on how you choose to look for it, despite the fact that particles and waves, the material and the non-material, are meant to be mutually exclusive. At the sub-atomic level, modern scientists recognise the quest for absolutes is fraught with difficulty, and there is probably no measure we can apply to enforce reason or predictability. The best we can do is try to arrive at "statistical probabilities." And in that understanding every certainty tends to collapse - every possible "irrationality" may occur. Even gravity is only a scientific theory, not fact. One day, an apple may fall from a tree and fly off down the road. The mathematics of quantum physics suggest that, while the laws of reason remain inviolate, they may well be transcended.

So then, we have seen how the potential common ground of Buddhism and psychotherapy (as with any Western science, "hard" or "soft") need not necessarily be constrained to presumptions once considered axiomatic; perhaps the common ground of the traditions lies as much in the uncertain and the immeasurable as it does in the apparently "rational" or measurable. Chan is the "mystic" path of Buddhism; its aims and its language exist within the realm of the "irrational," in the sense that its goals and premises are not dependent on terms defined by reason and dualistic descriptions. It is not hot or cold, it not hot and cold, it is beyond hot and cold. It just is. This is Chan. The non-dualist, mystic path is always beyond dualities, beyond good and evil, beyond right and wrong. As such, it often offends the religious roots from which it springs and with which it co-exists. It is sometimes both the essence of a religion, and also its utter repudiation. This tendency towards the irrational means it stands in precisely the same position in relation to science, but in an inverse manner. Even the "hardest" sciences now increasingly question the nature or even existence of any absolutes, and baulk at how what remains can be definitively explained. At best, we look for "statistical probabilities", and in the classic "divide" between religion and science, the "irrational" performs exactly the same function for both; it is both its essence and its final resting place, as it is also its bane and contradiction.


Although there may well be (increasingly fascinating) common ground between the two traditions of Western science and Buddhism, they nonetheless typically operate in different ways, and are liable to depart company at disconcertingly frustrating points. From the Chan standpoint, any of the absolutes that a Western science (even a "soft" science such as psychology) arrive at are likely to be confounded by the tendency of the Buddhist mystic to "shift the goalposts" and offend premises and principles that a Western psychotherapist may consider to be self-evident and necessary. Especially so in relation to any discussion about the purpose of any system of thought whose aim is to eradicate, or at least address, suffering.

Let us be imaginative for a moment and picture the scenario: The shaven-headed Chan Master and the pipe-smoking therapist eye each other with some mutual bemusement but agree that so far, on the surface, all seems well. They agree the point at hand is "suffering". Where to now? The therapist makes the next (logical, he insists) jump that the point of examining suffering is to work out how to alleviate it. The Buddhist agrees ... but then disagrees. "What" cries the indignant counsellor "can you possibly mean, you agree but you don't?" The old monk shifts a little and points out that yes, our human aim is to transcend suffering, and the Four Noble Truths show us the way to do it ... but at the same time, trying to eradicate suffering, trying to avoid the reality of our present situation, is precisely the cause of suffering in the first place. Buddha also told us, after all, that we are perfect, just as we are! At this point, we see the addled psychotherapist cough uncontrollably, break his pipe, and scramble out of the room, promising never to indulge this particular conversation ever again!

The paradox is that while in Buddhism we don't seek to indulge or resign ourselves to suffering, nor do we attempt to simply escape it. Rather, our goal is to transcend it. This sort of paradox is typical of Chan thinking in particular with such images as "the gateless gate" or teachings that suggest that the path is itself the goal, and yet the goal is simply to follow the path. This is also a position increasingly adopted by modern therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a point I will refer to later in the essay.

There are many such breakdown points in discussing the mystic path and trying to juxtapose it with the scientific perspective, and vice versa. Overlaps and violations both abound. Definition of terms and essential premises is necessary, but sometimes seemingly impossible.


A friend of mine recently asked if Western psychotherapy could actually increase human suffering. My answer was it could because despite the similarities between the two traditions, the differences often meant that, from a Buddhist perspective, the psychotherapeutic approach could reinforce the root causes of suffering.

One important example is where Western psychology (with some interesting modern exceptions) has generally started from the premise that psychological suffering is a pathology and a problem that can be cured. The assumption is there is a way to universal happiness that can be achieved via psychological means - in effect, promising happiness and fulfilment can be found in samsara via "samsaric means". This contradicts the Buddhist First Noble Truth, the fact of the inevitability of suffering in samsara. We may hope, and even believe, that we can find permanent peace and joy in samsara but the example of everyone's life is that it just isn't so.

Buddhism (and some modern "breakthrough" psychotherapies) however, starts from a radically different premise; that suffering, despair, unhappiness, the innate tendency to compare ourselves to other and suffer in that comparison and all the myriad miseries of life are a result of perfectly normal and healthy psychological processes. They are not pathologies, they are not something to be cured but rather are to be accepted and seen for what they are.

It is important not to misconstrue what this means. Where "classical" psychotherapies generally focus on change and control strategies, the focus of Buddhism and some recent psychotherapeutical models puts more weight on acceptance and understanding. Does that mean we resign ourselves ongoing and incurable suffering? No. But our initial focus is not necessarily to alter or eradicate our neurosis but rather to first accept and not struggle with it, to become a "connisseur of our neurosis" (as one teacher puts it). We own it, we know it, we embrace it, and we accept it. From this point we recognise that there are more effective ways of dealing with suffering. We can learn to accommodate and live with (and ultimately beyond, i.e. transcend) our neuroses and problems - just as we can with all our thoughts, feelings and experiences.

This appears to suggest a paradox. Can there be common ground between these perspectives of "change" versus "acceptance"?

This is a conundrum which confronts the classical (and "rational") approach to Western psychotherapy. At one level the question can be as disarming as "to cure or not to cure?" Do spiritual growth and psychological healing alike succumb to Hamlet's confusion as they ask if it is better to "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?" While much of Western science has come to terms with the inherent nature of paradox at the heart of reality, Western psychotherapy is coming to it more slowly. Without hubris, we can say that Buddhist psychology has been aware of this paradox for millennia, and is one of the things that separate the traditions - the ability to understand the need for change, whilst being aware that this need may be the essence of the problem!

An encouraging sign in the evolution of modern psychotherapy are those schools that are beginning to understand, address, and even incorporate the reality of this particular paradox into their therapeutic approach. Recently there has been a radical shift in approach by many schools of thought in Western psychology, described as the "Third Wave of Behavioural Therapies" and includes such modalities as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Functional Analytic Therapy and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Interestingly, consider this comment by an academic describing the paradox of therapy in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).

"It is based on a dialectical world-view, which postulates that reality consists of opposing forces. The synthesis of these forces leads to a new reality, which in turn consists of opposing forces, in a continual process of change. In DBT, the most central dialect is the relationship between acceptance and change. Clients are encouraged to accept themselves, their histories, and their current situations exactly as they are, while working intensively to change their behaviours and environments in order to build a better life. The synthesis of this apparent contradiction is a central goal of DBT."

These approaches do not say that if one has suffering, or any form of neurosis, they are fated to endure it forever or that there is any problem with wishing it gone. However there is a recognition that attempts to eradicate it may well be doomed to failure and that these attempts, and the attendant unwillingness to accept and be mindful what is real, here, and now, are the ultimate guarantors of ongoing misery.

Buddhism has historically and culturally been well equipped to accommodate this approach; what Westerners have often simplistically dismissed as "fatalism" on the part of Buddhism with its insistence on "passive acceptance of karma" can now more accurately be seen as recognising that karma, or suffering, cannot be changed by simply wishing it away. Denial, escapism and all the other control strategies we use, the "problems we have about problems" as the cognitive-behaviourists say, are the real cause of ongoing misery. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the terms used to highlight this are "clean discomfort" and "dirty discomfort." Clean discomfort is the natural pain of life, while dirty discomfort is the desperation, fear, guilt, and misery that accompany the urge to escape or control those experiences. Buddha explains it in the story where he describes suffering as like being hit by two arrows; the first is painful, but the second we fire at ourselves as we try to rationalise, escape, or minimise the reality of the pain of the first arrow.

In Buddhist terms it is not the world that causes suffering but rather what we demand of it. We demand a life free of suffering - but we will not find it in samsara, the quest is a fool's errand. Such is the nature of the paradox of "change" versus "acceptance". We cannot change the first of Buddha's arrows, but through acceptance we can avoid the more problematic second arrow, the "dirty discomfort," the "problem with the problem."


Another interesting development in psychotherapy is the increasing move towards mindfulness as a psychotherapeutic technique in its own right. In this we have a particularly clear example of how the traditions of Buddhism and psychotherapy interrelate. If you type "mindfulness" into an internet search engine it is a fascinating exercise to see how this one technique bridges not only Buddhism and psychotherapy, but the broader fields of spirituality and therapy in general. Indeed, it would be difficult to find any other technique or approach which does so as comprehensively. A benefit of this is that in the same way modern psychotherapy has learned much from Buddhism, Buddhists can learn much about mindfulness from those academics and researchers whose approach is based on both quantitative and qualitative research into its effects.

With the increased use of mindfulness as a psychotherapeutic technique we again see less of an insistence on controlling and changing the world, and ourselves in it, and more of a focus on observing it as it is. There is less inclination to change the "thinking mind" - the chattering monkey-mind - and more an attempt to simply observe and accept it.

With such an approach there is increasing common ground between Buddhism and psychotherapy. It is interesting to note that much of the criticism of these "Third Wave" therapies is the fact that they are seen to parallel, and draw from, the mystical traditions of the East, and Buddhism in particular.


In conclusion to this brief perspective on the relationship between Buddhism, particularly Chan, and Western psychotherapy we may suggest there is indeed a realisation of shared common ground. Inevitably, the impetus of this movement comes from the "younger" science following in the path of an ancient tradition. There is "nothing new under the sun" and it is inevitable that any system of thought which addresses the problem of suffering will find that other traditions have been focused on this same concern for millennia.

In this essay I have scratched the surface of how the traditions intertwine, where they come together in fruitful dialogue and where they tend to diverge. It is easy to see how Buddhism has influenced psychotherapy and many of its pioneers, particularly with the advent of "Third Wave" therapies and Transpersonal Psychology, and perhaps the way forward now will include Buddhists becoming more familiar with the techniques and measures of Western psychology and incorporating them into their practice.

Perhaps the importance of Western psychology for Buddhism lies in the fact that it provides a language with which we may be more familiar, and feel more comfortable. The very fact that the language and experience of the West sometimes fails to align with the language and experience of the East (the cultures in which Buddhism developed) probably suggests the need to find our own way of translation. Where a disciple in China may proceed through trust in a master, perhaps we need the evidence of quantitative science. Where the traditional Asian Buddhist may accept much of life in a more "fatalistic" sense than we do, attributing much to an implicit belief in "karma," perhaps the Western mind needs to explore the dialectical paradoxes of such concepts as "change" versus "acceptance" in a more uniquely Western manner.

In a previous essay I have cited as a reference a book called "Zen And The Brain: Towards An Understanding Of Meditation And Consciousness" by professor and neuro-scientist Dr James Austin. Without putting too much emphasis on any one text, this extremely well-researched and insightful volume characterises what may well be the future of Buddhism in the West - the use of Western experience and language to explore and express the time-honoured teachings of Buddhism.

Perhaps it is best to consider where this continued intertwining of traditions may lead. Will we come to any new understandings? I think not. But what may occur is that as we study the sutras and meditate, whilst also exploring the ongoing advances and discoveries of Western psychology and psychotherapy, we may begin to see the One reality from multiple perspectives. In so doing we will become more confident in our progress and in our practice, confident in its freedom from superstition and blind belief, and knowing the dharma progresses and reveals itself through all dimensions of the human experience, regardless of the age and the culture in which it expresses itself. Buddhist teachings say there are many "dharma doors", and perhaps we in the West are currently developing our own, in our own language and according to our own temper.

The Buddha taught that his teachings were simply a boat to find the other shore; when the other shore was found, the boat would be seen as simply a vehicle, no longer necessary. The boat the Enlightened One built flies an exotic sail, and uses ancient oars. It is a boat that will always float, but some of us don't necessarily feel comfortable in that boat with that sail and those oars, and perhaps we need to bring new accessories to make that boat move - perhaps a new sail, perhaps new oars, and who knows, we might even take advantage of the fact that we have since invented the outboard motor! But the waters we traverse will be the same, the shore we seek is the same, and the reason we embark upon the journey is timeless, and common to all travellers. But we grow, and we are different.

In continuing to develop together alongside each other in a new age and a new culture, the communication between the two traditions of Buddhism and psychotherapy may help us to focus more on the moon, by using different fingers to guide our gaze towards it.

May all beings be happy
May all beings be free from suffering

Amitofo!

Fa Gong Shakya
January 2009

Part 2: Conflicts of Agreement

As we have discussed on many occasions, Buddhism lives; it is not a museum oddity, a relic from another time, nor is it simply an excursion into a vista of exotic ethnic customs. That it may sometimes be presented as such by both its advocates and its detractors is simply an unfortunate  but probably inevitable fact.

Buddhism in its journey to the West necessarily faces a two-fold challenge. It comes from significantly different cultures into a social context driven by divergent values and customs, and it also arrives on our shores in the midst of social, religious and political upheavals which have riven many of the assumptions and values of the Western social paradigm.

In short, modern Western ideas and values are in a volatile state of transition. Whether that is disastrous or evolutionary is only a matter time, and revision, can determine.

Buddhism, the new kid on the block, can scarcely hope to fit easily into this confused milieu. The degree to which it does reflects the degree to which it has seen, understood, and adapted to the neighbourhood. Buddhism needs to accommodate the reality that it may well be misunderstood, and sometimes actively resented. It also needs to accommodate the necessity for mindful and appropriate adaptation to its new home in order to survive.

Well, it will undoubtedly always survive, but whether it does so with any degree of vitality or relevance is probably the key issue.

Over the past week, I have had ample opportunity to reflect on both these considerations. The former concern, that Buddhism may find itself misunderstood and misrepresented in the Western context, I will address in this essay as it relates to the field of psychotherapy. The latter concern, that Buddhism may need to adapt its message in a society which is used to a different way of understanding and valuing religious and psychological issues, I will address in the third essay of this “Buddhism and Psychotherapy” series.

I recently completed a therapists’ course in a mindfulness-based cognitive-behaviourist therapy. Much that was raised by the presenters and members of the course highlighted the potential area of conflict, or misunderstanding, between Buddhism and psychotherapy (and, by extension, other facets of the modern Western and philosophical mindset).

However, let me first outline why this need be an issue of concern. As the first essay in this series “Buddhism and Psychotherapy” suggested, I am largely of the belief that Buddhism’s relevance in the post-modern West will largely be conditioned by secular considerations. “Ethnic Buddhism” (which I define as the rituals and practices of various Asian traditions practiced by Asian practitioners within those ethnic boundaries) and “cultic Buddhism” (the rituals and practices of various Asian traditions by Westerners who believe the essence of Buddhism lies within its cultural accretions) will certainly continue to flourish; however I have also suggested these forms of Buddhism hold little relevance to the broader social, philosophical or religious construct of modern Europe, America, Australia, or any other countries of the “modern West.”

The “Buddhism of Einstein” (referring to his suggestion that "Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual; and is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity," and “If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism,”) represents the approach to Buddhism, a modern and contextually-relevant Buddhism, that I am referring to here.

I suggest a Buddhism which can be expressed as a sort of “existentialist philosophy and psychology” is the natural manner in which Buddhism can both be true to its fundamental purpose whilst acknowledging the largely secular prejudice, and scientific sympathies, of our modern Western world.

Bear in mind, this does not necessarily mean we expunge Buddhism of its religious overtones or selected cultural associations, merely to establish that such things are not fundamental, nor necessary, to a skillful presentation of the dharma.

In his book “Mindfulness In Plain English” the celebrated Theravadan Buddhist teacher Bhante Gunaratana affirms:

Buddhism as a whole is quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm, without assistance from deities or other “agents.” Its flavour is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we might call psychology than to what we would usually call religion. Buddhist practice is an ongoing investigation of reality; a microscopic examination of the very process of perception.

That being said, let me now return to how my experience of the course I attended made me reflect on some friction between the teachings of the dharma and modern Western psychotherapy.  It has increasingly become apparent to me that many of the promoters of the ever-growing raft of Western therapies that have mindfulness at their core seem at times overly keen to dismiss or minimise the role of Buddhism in their promotion  of mindfulness.

I have heard it said by one of these teachers that it is a ''myth'' that mindfulness originated with Buddhism, and that in fact Buddha learned it from a yogi teacher and Daoism has been teaching it for seven thousand years. He also suggests that it was a staple tradition of Jewish mysticism long before Buddha.  I thought it disrespectful to argue this point in public, but suffice to say, his suggestions were simply not in accord with any mainstream credible history I am familiar with. Yes, Buddha learned meditation, absorption and many ways to experience samadhi from his Hindu teachers, but his development of the mindfulness practices we know today were very much a response to the limitations he saw in the yogic methods he was exposed to. This is not to say that there are instances of what may described as mindfulness practice in the Upanishads, but to suggest Buddha merely continued a practice common to Hinduism is misleading.

And while some very ancient, primarily medical, Daoist texts allude to attitudes that could loosely be regarded as demonstrating mindfulness, it is a very long bow to suggest there was any seven thousand year old systematic teaching of mindfulness in that august tradition. Certainly, there is nothing in the Yijing or the Daodejing, the essential texts of Daoism, which even allude to it.

Nor have I seen reference made in the Talmud or the Torah to the practice in any way which is meaningful.

From this historical and religious dearth of material regarding the practice of mindfulness as a systematic process of psycho-spiritual development, it is a revolutionary jump to then observe the outpouring of sutras which very clinically and precisely the uniquely Buddhist approach to the subject.

The teacher of this course also made it quite clear that this particular psychotherapy he was teaching was NOT an Eastern invention, it was founded solidly on Western clinical observation and experience. Nevertheless, as a Buddhist, I could very confidently say that not a single word, article or day of this training contained anything not easily found in foundational Buddhist scripture. Certainly, the quantitative discipline and exposure to clinical measuring of these psycho-therapeutic practices is distinctly modern, scientific and “Western” - but that was not the point being made.

These differences of opinion hardly matter in and of themselves, and would usually be hardly worth disputing. But it is intriguing to note how the traditions of the dharma, presented to a Western audience, can potentially appear a threat and as an encroachment on territory jealously guarded by indigenous secular institutions. Did this attitude - quite explicity framed as ''this is NOT Buddhist, this is a uniquely Western and secular psychological model'' - demonstrate a cultural resistance that may be recognisable in other Western institutions?

Let it be said though, quite possibly many Buddhist teachers (particularly, in my experience, Asian ones) have been culpable in eliciting this proprietorial response from Western psychologists due to their own  tendency to dismiss Western psychology as some sort of ''dumbed-down'' or simplified, potted version of a more sophisticated Buddhist system that predates it by millennia. Indeed, I have read Chinese, Japanese and Thai teachers who have quite blithely implied that Western psychology, in toto, is little more that a plagiarisation, and a childishly-flawed plagiarisation at that!

In such a context, it is hardly surprising that the great contributions of Western psychology to Buddhist mindfulness practice, with its insistence on quantifiable standards and clinical application, being so dismissed does not sit well with Western therapists.

This particular issue is, certainly, but a snapshot. We can only speculate how relevant and how applicable this situation  is to Buddhism  in a broader cultural context. Nonetheless, it provides some basis for contemplation when considering the challenge of translating Buddhism into a modern Western context.

In the potential and natural meeting place of psychotherapy it is natural, but to be avoided, for precisely those similarities between the traditions to lead to potential friction and misplaced demands of ownership. The traditions need not be in conflict, rather, they provide a natural template for how Buddhism can both learn from and establish relevance in the Western world.

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