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The Meeting of Buddhist and Western Psychology
Experience and Theory
Buddhist psychology emphasizes the importance of direct experience in psychological work. If one relies upon theory alone, then something basic is lost. From the Buddhist viewpoint, the study of theory is only a first step and must be completed by training in the direct experience of mind itself, in oneself and in others.
Buddhist tradition, this experiential aspect is developed through the practice of meditation, a firsthand observation of mind. Meditation in Buddhism is not a religious practice, but rather a way of clarifying the actual nature of mind and experience. Traditionally, meditation training is said to be threefold,
including shila (discipline), samadhi (the actual practice of meditation), and prajna (insight).
Shila is the process of simplifying one's general life and eliminating unnecessary complications. In order to develop a genuine mental discipline, it is first necessary to see how we continually burden ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations. In Buddhist countries, shila might involve following a particular rule of life as a monk or a nun, or adopting the precepts appropriate to a Buddhist layperson. In the Western secular context, shila might just involve cultivating an attitude of simplicity toward one's life in general.
Second is samadhi, or meditation, which is the heart of Buddhist experiential training. This practice involves sitting with your attention resting lightly and mindfully on your breath. The further discipline of meditation practice is to note when your attention has wandered from the breath and to bring it back to breathing as your focus. An attitude of bare attention is taken toward the various phenomena, including thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise in your mind and body during practice. Meditation practice could be called a way of making friends with oneself, which points to the fact that it is an experience of nonaggression. In fact, meditation is traditionally called the practice of dwelling in peace. The practice of meditation is thus a way of experiencing one's basic being, beyond habitual patterns.
Shila is the ground of meditation and samadhi is the actual path of the practice. The fruition is prajna, or the insight that beings to develop through one's meditation. In the experience of prajna, one begins to see directly and concretely how the mind actually functions, its mechanics and reflexes, moment to moment. Prajna is traditionally called discriminating awareness, which does not mean discriminating in the sense of developing bias. Rather prajna is unbiased knowledge of one's world and one's mind. It is discriminating in the sense of sorting out confusion and neurosis.
Prajna is immediate and nonconceptual insight, but at the same time it provides the basic inspiration for intellectual study. Because one has seen the actuality of one's own mental functioning, there is a natural desire to clarify and articulate what one has experienced. And there is a spontaneous curiosity about how others have expressed the nature and operation of mind. But at the same time, while one's immediate insight leads to study, it is necessary to maintain an ongoing discipline of meditative training. In that way, concepts never become merely concepts, and one's psychological work remains alive, fresh, and well grounded.
In the Buddhist culture of Tibet, where I was born and educated, a balance was always maintained between experiential training and theory. In my own upbringing, time was allotted in our regular monastic schedule to both study and meditation practice. During the year, there would also be special times set aside for intensive study and also for meditation retreats. It was part of our
Buddhist tradition that such a balance was necessary for genuine learning to occur.
I came to the West, to England in 1963, I was quite surprised to find that in
Western psychology, theory is emphasized so much more than experience. Of course, this made Western psychology immediately accessible to someone from another culture such as myself. Western psychologists do not ask you to practice, but just tell you what they are about from the very beginning. I
found this approach very straightforward and something of a relief. But at the same time, one wonders about the profundity of a tradition that relies so heavily on concepts and opens its doors so easily.
On the other hand, Western psychologists do seem intuitively to recognize the need for greater emphasis on the direct experience of mind. Perhaps this is what has led so many psychologists to take an interest in Buddhism. Especially in relation to Zen, they are attracted to the enigma of it. And they are tantalized by the flavor of immediate experience, the possibility of enlightenment, and the impression of profundity. Such people seem to be looking to Buddhism for something they find lacking in their own traditions. This interest strikes me as appropriate, and in this respect Buddhism has something important to offer.
One important question always seems to come up when Western psychologists begin to study Buddhism. Does one have to become a Buddhist in order to learn about
Buddhism? The answer is that of course one does not, but it must be asked in return, what does one want to learn? What Buddhism really has to teach the
Western psychologist is how to relate more closely with his own experience, in its freshness, its fullness, and its immediacy. To do this, one does not have to become a Buddhist, but one does have to practice meditation. It is certainly possible to study only the theory of Buddhist psychology. But in doing so one would miss the point. Without experience to rely on, one would end up simply interpreting Buddhist notions through Western concepts. A good taste of meditation is actually necessary in working with oneself and others. It is a tremendous help, whatever interest one may take in Buddhism as such.
Sometimes it is very hard to communicate to Westerners the importance of the experiential dimension. After we had started Samye Ling, our meditation center in Scotland,
soon after I came from India to England, we found that a great many people with psychological problems came to us for help. They had been in all sorts of different therapies and many of them were quite neurotic. They looked on us as physicians carrying out medical practice and wanted us to cure them. In working with these people I found that there was a frequent obstacle. Such people often wanted to take a purely theoretical approach, rather than actually experiencing and working with their neuroses. They wanted to understand their neuroses intellectually: where they themselves went wrong, and so on. They often were not willing to let go of that approach.
Training of a Therapist
In the training of a psychotherapist, theoretical and experiential training should be properly balanced. We combine these two elements in our Naropa Institute psychology program: one begins with a taste of meditation, then applies oneself to study, then experiences meditation more fully then does more intensive study, and so forth. This kind of approach actually has an interesting effect:
it enhances one's appreciation of what one is doing. The experience of one's own mind whets the appetite for further study. And the study increases one's interest in observing one's own mental process through meditation.
In addition, when study is combined with meditation practice, it has a different flavor. Where direct experience is lacking, study tends to be mainly memorizing terms and definitions and trying to convince oneself of their validity. When balanced with meditative discipline, study takes on much more life and reality.
It develops clarity about how the mind works and how that knowledge can be expressed. In this way, study and practice help one another enormously, and each becomes more real and satisfying. It is like eating a sandwich—because of the bread, you appreciate the meat much more.
One question comes up when you try to balance the experiential and the theoretical sides of training. How much time should be spent on each? Generally I would say it should be roughly equal. But at the same time the amount of hours put into practice, for example, is not as important as the attitude with which it is done. If the trainee is wholehearted enough, and if his practice is sufficiently intent, then his meditation will have its proper role and permeate his study and daily life.
All of this is not to say that there is no experiential training in Western psychology. But, from the Buddhist viewpoint, it is greatly underemphasized.
And when it does occur, it seems to happen almost exclusively in the interpersonal situation of people talking to one another, such as the classical training in psychoanalysis. Some Western psychologists have asked me whether the direct experience of meditation practice is really necessary. They have wanted to know whether the "interpersonal" training is not enough. To this I would answer that the interpersonal training is not adequate in itself.
First, it is necessary to study and experience one's own mind. Then one can study and experience accurately the mind in the interpersonal situation.
We can see this by looking at how the Buddhist tradition of abhidharma works.
First, there is an exploration of how the mind evolves in itself and how it functions. The expression of this is the first half of the abhidharma. The second half is concerned with how that mind begins to respond to things from outside itself. This parallels how a child develops. In the beginning he is mainly concerned with himself. Later, in adolescence, his world begins to grow bigger and bigger.
In order to understand the interpersonal situation correctly, you have to know yourself in the beginning. Once you know the style of the dynamics of your own mind then you can begin to see how that style works in dealing with others.
And, in fact, on the basis of knowing oneself, the interpersonal knowledge comes naturally. You discover that somebody has developed his own mind. Then you can experience how the two minds interact with each other. This leads to the discovery that there is no such thing as outside mind and inside mind at all. So mind is really two minds meeting together, which is the same mind in some sense.
Therefore the more you learn about your own mind the more you learn about other people's minds. You begin to appreciate other worlds, other people's life situations.
You are learning to extend your vision beyond what is just there in your immediate situation, on the spot, so your mind is opened that much more.
And that reflects in your work with others. It makes you more skillful in deeds and also gives you more of a sense of warmth and compassion, so you become more accommodating of others.
Viewpoint of Health
Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good.
Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence, and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience—the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for
Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.
Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. When I was at Oxford
University, I studied Western religious and philosophical traditions with interest and found the notion of original sin quite pervasive. One of my early experiences in England was attending a seminar with Archbishop Anthony Blum.
The seminar was on the notion of grace, and we got into a discussion of original sin. The Buddhist tradition does not see such a notion as necessary at all, and I expressed this viewpoint. I was surprised at how angry the Western participants became. Even the Orthodox, who might not emphasize original sin as much as the Western traditions, still held it as a cornerstone of their theology.
In terms of our present discussion, it seems that this notion of original sin does not just pervade Western religious ideas. It actually seems to run throughout
Western thought as well, especially psychological thought. Among patients,
theoreticians, and therapists alike, there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake which causes later suffering—a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.
It seems that this feeling of basic guilt has been passed down from one generation to another and seems to pervade many aspects of Western life. For example,
teachers often think that if children do not feel guilty, then they won't study properly and consequently won't develop as they should. Therefore, many teachers feel that they have to do something to push the child, and guilt seems to be one of the chief techniques they use. This occurs even on the level of improving reading and writing. The teacher looks for errors: "Look, you made a mistake. What are you going to do about it?" From the child's point of view, learning is then based on trying not to make mistakes, on trying to prove you actually are not bad. It is entirely different when you approach the child more positively: "Look how much you have improved, therefore we can go further." In the latter case, learning becomes an expression of one's wholesomeness and innate intelligence.
The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hindrance to people. At some point, it is of course necessary to realize one's shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one's vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful,
and in fact it seems unnecessary. As I mentioned, in Buddhism we do not have any comparable ideas of sin and guilt. Obviously there is the idea that one should avoid mistakes. But there is not anything comparable to the heaviness and inescapability of original sin.
According to the Buddhist perspective, there are problems, but they are temporary and superficial defilements that cover over one's basic goodness (tathagatagarbha).
This viewpoint is a positive and optimistic one. But, again, we should emphasize that this viewpoint is not purely conceptual. It is rooted in the experience of meditation and in the healthiness it encourages. There are temporary habitual neurotic patterns that develop based on past experience, but these can be seen through. It is just this that is studied in the abhidharma:
how one thing succeeds another, how volitional action originates and perpetuates itself, how things snowball. And, most important, abhidharma studies how, through meditation practice, this process can be cut through.
The attitude that results from the Buddhist orientation and practice is quite different from the "mistake mentality." One actually experiences mind as fundamentally pure, that is, healthy and positive, and "problems"
as temporary and superficial defilements. Such a viewpoint does not quite mean
"getting rid" of problems, but rather shifting one's focus. Problems are seen in a much broader context of health: one begins to let go of clinging to one's neuroses and to step beyond obsession and identification with them.
The emphasis is no longer on the problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the nature of mind itself. When problems are seen in this way, then there is less panic and everything seems more workable.
When problems arise, instead of being seen as purely threats, they become learning situations, opportunities to find out more about one's own mind, and to continue on one's journey.
Through practice, which is confirmed by study, the inherent healthiness of your mind and others' minds is experienced over and over. You see that your problems are not all that deeply rooted. You see that you can make literal progress. You find yourself becoming more mindful and more aware, developing a greater sense of healthiness and clarity as you go on, and this is tremendously encouraging.
this orientation of goodness and healthiness comes out of the experience of egolessness, a notion that has created a certain amount of difficulty for
Western psychologists. "Egolessness" does not mean that nothing exists, as some have thought, a kind of nihilism. Instead, it means that you can let go of your habitual patterns and then when you let go, you genuinely let go. You do not re-create or rebuild another shell immediately afterward.
Once you let go, you do not just start all over again. Egolessness is having the trust to not rebuild again at all and experiencing the psychological healthiness and freshness that goes with not rebuilding. The truth of egolessness can only be experienced fully through meditation practice.
The experience of egolessness encourages a real and genuine sympathy toward others.
You cannot have genuine sympathy with ego because then that would mean that your sympathy would be accompanied by some kind of defense mechanisms. For example, you might try to refer everything back to your own territory when you work with someone, if your own ego is at stake. Ego interferes with direct communication, which is obviously essential in the therapeutic process.
Egolessness, on the other hand, lets the whole process of working with others be genuine and generous and free-form. That is why, in the Buddhist tradition,
it is said that without egolessness, it is impossible to develop real compassion.
Practice of Therapy
The task of the therapist is to help his patients connect back with their own fundamental healthiness and goodness. Prospective patients come to us feeling starved and alienated. More important than giving them a set of techniques for battling their problems, we need to point them toward the experience of the fundamental ground of health which exists in them. It might be thought that this is asking a great deal, particularly when we are working with confronting someone who has a history of problems. But the sanity of basic mind is actually close at hand and can be readily experienced and encouraged.
Of course, it goes without saying that the therapist must experience his own mind in this way to begin with. Through meditation practice clarity and warmth toward himself is given room to develop and then be expanded outward. Thus his meditation and study provide the ground for working with disturbed people, with other therapists, and with himself in the same framework all the time.
Obviously, this is not so much a question of theoretical or conceptual perspective, but of how we personally experience our own lives. Our existence can be felt fully and thoroughly so that we appreciate that we are genuine,
true human beings. This is what we can communicate to others and encourage in them.
One of the biggest obstacles to helping our patients in this way is, again, the notion of a "mistake," and the preoccupation with the past that results from this. Many of our patients will want to unravel their past. But this can be a dangerous approach if it goes too far. If you follow this thread,
you have to look back to your conception, then to your family's experiences before that, to your great-grandfathers, and on and on. It could go a long way back and get very complicated.
Buddhist viewpoint emphasizes the impermanence and the transitoriness of things. The past is gone, and the future has not yet happened, so we work with what is here: the present situation. This actually helps us not to categorize or to theorize. A fresh, living situation is actually taking place all the time, on the spot. This noncategorizing approach comes from being fully here rather than trying to follow up some past event. We do not have to look back to the past in order to see what we ourselves or other people are made out of.
Things speak for themselves, right here and now.
In my days at Oxford and since then, I have been impressed by some of the genuine strengths of Western psychology. It is open to new viewpoints and discoveries.
It maintains a critical attitude toward itself. And it is the most experiential of Western intellectual disciplines.
But at the same time, considered from the viewpoint of Buddhist psychological tradition, there is definitely something missing in the Western approach. This missing element, as we have suggested throughout this introduction, is the acknowledgment of the primacy of immediate experience. It is here that Buddhism presents a fundamental challenge to Western therapeutics and offers a viewpoint and method that could revolutionize Western psychology.