Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology

Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology

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by Harvey B. Aronson

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is the first book to offer Buddhist meditators a comprehensive and sympathetic
examination of the differences between Asian and Western cultural and spiritual
values. Harvey B. Aronson presents a constructive and practical assessment of
common conflicts experienced by Westerners who look to Eastern spiritual
traditions for guidance and


is the first book to offer Buddhist meditators a comprehensive and sympathetic
examination of the differences between Asian and Western cultural and spiritual
values. Harvey B. Aronson presents a constructive and practical assessment of
common conflicts experienced by Westerners who look to Eastern spiritual
traditions for guidance and support—and find themselves confused or
disappointed. Issues addressed include:

  • Our
    cultural belief that anger should not be suppressed versus the Buddhist
    teaching to counter anger and hatred
  • Our
    psychotherapists' advice that attachment is the basis for healthy personal
    development and supportive relationships versus the Buddhist condemnation of
    attachments as the source of suffering
  • Our
    culture's emphasis on individuality versus the Asian emphasis on
    interdependence and fulfillment of duties, and the Buddhist teachings on
    no-self, or egolessness

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the past fifty years, a significant number of Westerners have adopted Buddhist
practice as a spiritual path. We have learned much from contact with inspiring
Asian Buddhist teachers about opening our hearts to others, easing our pain,
and getting in touch with our most fundamental nature. Yet there is a dark side
to the transplantation of this ancient spiritual tradition to American soil.
Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice offer many tools for profound
spiritual development, but they do not address all the psychological concerns
of Westerners. Without more culturally appropriate interventions such as
psychotherapy, even some advanced meditators continue to suffer from anxiety,
depression, isolating narcissism, or numbed disengagement.

the 1970s, when meditation was first taught widely, there was much hope for its
therapeutic potential. New evidence showed that meditation contributed
positively to reducing the physical correlates of stress such as high blood
pressure. In our initial enthusiasm, many of us hoped that traditional
meditation would help prevent the emotional turmoil that occurs in our
relationships and work lives. When it did not, we often blamed ourselves first,
assuming there was something wrong with the way we were practicing. But
gradually we also came to ask, Were our expectations of traditional practice
out of line with what it could actually deliver? Was something missing from the
practices we were doing?

a therapist and a teacher of meditation, I have seen these scenarios play out
repeatedly over the years. Some meditators, overwhelmed by psychological
problems, dropped their Buddhist practice altogether, seeing it as irrelevant.
Others remained committed to practice and grappled with their problems without
seeking professional assistance, sometimes struggling with repeated
disappointments in relationships and career, believing that they needed to
''practice harder.'' Still others, like me, sought professional help while
continuing their involvement in traditional practice.

a new series of issues arose for Western Buddhists who entered psychotherapy.
Buddhist teachers counsel us to abandon anger, develop patience, give up
attachment, and understand the absence of self; this is taught in a context of
disciplined communal practice—the sangha. Therapists, conversely, encourage
those who are emotionally shut down to experience feelings of anger, and they
facilitate the quest for relationship and intimacy; this is done in a context
that supports self-assertion and individuality. How are we to follow both
approaches? How can we productively understand these inconsistencies? Can they
be reconciled?

have not come easily or quickly. Resources for considering these questions in
depth were initially lacking. During the last decades of the twentieth century,
not much attention was paid to the substantial differences in culture and
psychology between traditional Buddhism and modern Western culture. Many of us
initially wanted to ignore such issues, preferring what I would now call the
culturally innocent position, that the ''superficial'' differences represented
by culture do not matter. Indeed, such discrepancies and their import often do
not become clear right away. However, over time they can affect our
relationships with teachers, the tradition, and our practice itself. On the
other hand, the sensitive exploration of these contrasts can bring to light the
unique and valuable contributions that we can cull from both Asian and Western
cultures. Such investigation can clarify in a respectful way the manner in
which teachings and teachers may not address our particular emotional needs or
cultural expectations. For example, a monk who has never had an intimate sexual
relationship and comes from a culture where sharing personal feelings is not
emphasized may find it difficult to respond adequately to the relationship
questions of a Western student who has a deep interest in having a romantic
partner and communicating effectively in an intimate relationship. For such
students, other resources may be much more productive.

is no end to the possible misunderstandings that can arise when students from
our therapy-oriented culture wish to share their thoughts and emotions with a
teacher who comes from a culture that honors restraint and humility. Teachers
who explicitly or implicitly encourage such values may seem to be encouraging
passivity and self-denial, and this can be particularly onerous to women,
people of color, and other oppressed minorities who need to be appropriately
self-assertive in their quest for social justice. When unacknowledged, such
cultural gaps can cause teachers to misunderstand their students, who in turn
suffer feelings of alienation and emotional injury and, in extreme instances,
choose to leave. If we lack a clear understanding of our differences,
opportunities for benefiting from the profound spiritual insights offered by
the tradition can be lost.

light of the experience of numerous Western Buddhist students in a variety of
traditions, it has become clear that integrating Buddhist practice in a
meaningful way requires us to move out from under the protective canopy of
Buddhism to seek additional perspectives. Combining the skills of nuanced
awareness cultivated through meditation with the reflectiveness that comes from
sensitive cultural and psychological exploration provides a new opening on the
process of adopting traditional practices in a modern venue. Few teachers and
authors, however, acknowledge that given our values there will of necessity be
enormous cultural and psychological pressure on us when we seek guidance from
teachers who value tradition, communal support, discipline, and liberation from
this world. Yet it is not a simple matter to discard the habitual inclinations
of our personality and culture, and this can prove to be quite an obstacle in
practice. For example, many of us, through direct experience with therapy or
under its ubiquitous influence in our culture, will use time on the cushion to
immerse ourselves in the contents of our mind, rather than observe its process
as traditional teachers would instruct. Through engaging in the former, we may
indeed further our psychological understanding of ourselves, but we prevent
contact with a specific path to deeper reaches of freedom. It is through the
mindful experience of such inclinations and a detailed emotional understanding
of their workings that we can begin to have some control over the pervasive
cultural influences that limit our lives.

process is incremental. The longer I study and practice Buddhism, the better I
understand its traditional context in relation to the psychological emphasis
found in modern Western culture. Once we acknowledge our differences, it
becomes possible for us to consider if there is something we wish to alter in
our orientation. The more differences we can discern, the more opportunities we
have to reflect on who we are and what we may wish to become. Along with these
cultural differences, certain predominant psychological propensities and
vulnerabilities lend themselves to particular interpretations of Buddhist
teachings. Individuals who find difficulty with commitment and motivation often
find refuge in Buddhist language that counsels renunciation and nonattachment.
Such students see only what they psychologically need to see rather than what
is actually there, and consequently they limit what they can absorb from the
tradition. Such an approach involves a similitude of spiritual life but
prevents real personal change. Are we willing to look patiently at the
obscuring emotional issues that we bring to our practice? Can we carefully
discard our psychological distortion while leaving the nurturing kernel of
Buddhist guidance? I believe we can take a curious, reflective, and
wholeheartedly engaged approach to this process.

Practice on Western Ground
traditional teachings that illustrate the fundamental vision of Buddhism—a
path to free our minds of limitation and open our hearts—along with
cross-cultural and psychological reflections on approaching these teachings in
a way that is respectful and appreciative of their—and our—cultural context.
Choosing depth over breadth in this work, I have limited my focus to four
central themes in Buddhist teachings that have significant yet often confusing
psychological correlates: self, anger, love, and attachment. Considering the
Buddhist and psychological teachings on these subjects has brought to the
surface my deepest questions and led to the deepest positive change I have

have felt tremendous appreciation for the breakthroughs provided by my
experience of Buddhist practice and psychotherapy and my inquiries into their
differences and convergences. Through the various reflections, instructions,
teachings, and contemplations offered here, I hope to provide opportunities for
Western students to look anew at the meaning and quality of their lives and to
enhance and deepen their spiritual experience. In considering our emotional
life from both a Buddhist and a therapeutic perspective, I look at ways in
which both disciplines can be used to reduce harm to others as well as
ourselves, while promoting sensitivity, enhancing autonomy, and opening paths
to honest and intimate relationships. It is my hope that those who are new to
Buddhist practice can bring greater clarity to their spiritual endeavors from
the start. For those already immersed, this book offers a new way of working
with the traditional teachings that can multiply the rewards of practice.

Meet the Author

Harvey B. Aronson, Ph.D., M.S.W., is a psychotherapist in private practice and a Buddhist meditation teacher. He is founder and teacher-in-residence at the Dawn Mountain Tibetan Temple, Community Center, and Research Institute in Houston, Texas. He travels and lectures on Buddhist philosophy and psychology at universities and at academic and Buddhist conferences around the country.

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Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The clarity with which he writes, the depth of what he knows about Buddhism and Psychology, and his insights into both--how how they can and do work together--made this book invaluable to me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dr. Aronson has written a gem. His psychological insights are warming and wonderful. His bridge to Buddhist meditation practice is both unique and invaluable. Rarely have I seen a psychotherapist who understands and communicates the quality of a successful psychotherapy so well. Coupling that gift with his ease in personal revelations, Dr. Aronson creates a warm holding environment, one that encourages the reader to feel equally comfortable and at ease in looking at his or her own vulnerable feelings. The ability to communicate both the value of a good psychotherapy and to capture its warm essence is very rare. Dr. Aronson has another gift. As a long-time Buddhist practitioner and professor, he possesses a deep personal knowledge of how the practice is used, and misused, by Westerners. Dr. Aronson captures this by providing a very interesting cross-cultural perspective, picking up strengths and weaknesses as Buddhism has been both transplanted and translated from Asia to the West. He has a unique and invaluable perspective on the way Buddhist teachings are recruited to one's individual neurosis. Dr. Aronson retranslates Buddhist proscriptions against 'anger.' He believes the Asian teachers were not admonishing one to avoid an emotional state, but rather to avoid destructive actions. Aronson believes that angry feelings are often helpful, or even necessary for some people to grow, and to become able have an effective meditation practice. This opinion is consistent with his gloss that the advice to avoid anger should be read as avoiding destructive action. This is so because if a person was the victim of destructive actions, or a longer destructive upbringing, hiding or disavowing those destructive actions perpetrated against the person would actually be to collude with one or more aggressors, and that can only done at a high personal cost. The cost could take many forms, including disengaging with the world, having symptoms of depression or guilt, substance abuse, chronic relational problems, etc. In this discussion, we see Aronson capturing therapy at its best. My only criticism of this book is that its title didn't offer a way to easily capture the imagination of the psychotherapeutic world, as I think psychotherapists, and people interesting in psychotherapy are a natural audience. I appreciate this wonderful book and encourage others to enjoy this fascinating and stimulating book. Mark Siegert, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist, Psychoanalyst