Buddhism and Western Psychology By Padma
The Buddhist approach to the mind is, first and foremost, one of seeing its potential for development. The mind is not a fixed thing but can be developed into something far beyond its current state. Buddhist texts detail various models for facilitating this development which are so far-reaching that, if one undertakes them fully, impact on every aspect of the practitioner’s life and in the end lead to a state that Buddhists call ‘Bodhi’ (Awakening). The goal of Western psychology is much more limited. The word ‘psychology’ in Western culture has a range of meanings. At its most reductive, psychology can be defined as the branch of science concerned with the study of human and animal behaviour1. A broader definition might include within this field of study, such concepts as ‘mental processes’2 and even ‘mind’3. Western psychology is concerned with understanding behaviour, and perhaps also personality and the mind, and to some extent, with changing them. This change however, is limited to eradication of anti-social and grossly self-destructive behaviours. It does not presume to lead to any state which resembles Bodhi.
Many discussions of Western psychology, also take as read that this should include comment on psychotherapy. As Lee comments, "psychology is not identical with psychotherapy, although psychology and psychotherapy do overlap"4 . Psychotherapy is primarily concerned with change and development and therefore is more closely related to the approach of Buddhism. For the purposes of this paper, Western psychology will be defined in its more academic sense, as the scientific study of behaviour. Due to its relevance in the discussion however, psychotherapy will also be considered, since this area can perhaps be seen as that most likely to contain ground for fruitful interaction with Buddhist approaches to the mind.
Historically, Buddhism and Western psychology have struggled to interact in any meaningful way, since the Buddhist approach to investigation of the mind is most definitely ‘unscientific’ as defined by Western science. Science attempts to create conditions where impartial, objective observations may be recorded. The scientist concerns him or herself with a hypothesis, designs an experiment which will allow this hypothesis to be tested, and notes the results. If the results can be replicated and if all other possible reasons for the recorded result have been eliminated, the scientist concludes that his or her hypothesis is robust and will submit their findings to the scientific community. If the scientific community after testing the hypothesis itself, is satisfied that the experiments were properly conducted according to its own criteria, the hypothesis becomes a law. A law is the closest thing to ‘truth’ that science acknowledges. This law is supposedly independent of any kind of bias, such as the particular views of the scientist, or of the culture within which the experiment took place5.
Buddhism, on the other hand is not concerned with laboratory conditions, control groups, or ‘objectivity’ in the sense of the experimenter being separate from and impartial to the subject. Indeed in Buddhism, the person conducting the ‘experiment’ and the subject are the same. Buddhists too seek truth, objectivity and an unbiased view, but have an entirely different approach to achieving it. The mind of the unenlightened scientist, according the Buddha, is defiled and thus cannot possibly be objective:
This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is defiled by defilements which arrive. But this is not understood as it really is by those who are spiritually uneducated, so they do not develop the citta.6
For as long as defilements remain, according to Buddhism, there will be bias. The four biases (asava) present in the unenlightened mind are towards sense experience (kamasava), existence (bhavasava), views (ditthasava) and spiritual ignorance/deludedness (avijjasava). Any truth found while such biases are present can only be conventional (sammuti). Ultimate (paramattha) truth is the privilege of the enlightened. The entire Buddhist path is practised in order to remove these obscurations to objective perception. Once at the end of the path, one lives on the basis of ultimate truth, though one will still make use of conventional truth, on its own level.
Although both science and Buddhism are concerned with truth then, their two approaches to its apprehension and comprehension are significantly different. Because of this one could perhaps conclude that there is no possibility for fruitful interaction between the two. Science, it would seem, sees the world as something external, which can be observed and understood. The inner life of the scientist is irrelevant to achieving understanding. Buddhism on the other hand sees one’s perception as a fundamental part of the process. If one’s perception is warped, there is no possibility of correctly interpreting data gathered from ‘outside’.
The approach of science and of Buddhism are not quite as mutually exclusive as this however. This is true for two reasons. Firstly, the ‘purist’ picture of science painted above is now a little dated. The postmodernism of the twentieth century has placed science firmly within a cultural and historical context7. It’s beliefs and assumptions are now generally recognised to be no less free of culture and history than those of any other belief system. This has meant that some scientists are now far more open to interaction with other approaches to knowledge:
Pluralism does not imply integration, but rather the holding within one view of a multiplicity of perspectives. The objective of postmodern psychology is not that of modernist science, namely, to create a unified theory of the mind. Rather it is to bring together the complementary resources of different traditions in order that new understanding may emerge from their interaction.8
Further, the scientific community has come to realise that the optimism of its earlier years was perhaps unfounded, or at the very least premature - "towards the end of the [19th] century some physicists even advised students against entering the subject since it was nearly finished."9
Complete understanding through science does not appear to be getting any nearer. Truth is not something external to and independent of the scientist, to be gathered up once and for all through a finite set of well-designed experiments. As Schroedinger remarked,
All this information goes back ultimately to the sense perceptions of some living person or persons, however many ingenious devices may have been used to facilitate the labour... The most careful record, when not inspected, tells us nothing.10
Given this re-positioning of science within what can only be described as an unscientific context (i.e. the biases of culture, history, sensory input and neural interpretation), some people working in the field of psychotherapy have begun to call for a broadening of acceptable methodology, specifically, the increased use of qualitative data:
Carl Rogers [who developed person-centred therapy], for instance, has emphasised the necessity to develop a methodology which, while upholding the precision and the formal elegance of the behavioural sciences, will not turn a blind eye to the subjective experience of individuals.11
Secondly, Buddhism acknowledges that conventional truth is valid and useful. It only becomes an obstacle to enlightenment when it is confused with ultimate truth. Thus for Buddhists, one may live one’s life on the basis of scientific laws without assuming that truth ends with that law. One may successfully drive a car to the office and at the same time understand that both oneself and one’s car are empty of inherent existence: "these are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathagata uses without misapprehending them"12 .
The Buddhism that is written down and taught is also considered by Buddhists to be conventional truth. It is, to use a well-known Zen expression, a finger pointing at the moon - it is not the moon itself.
Given Buddhism’s recognition of different levels of truth, and science’s repositioning within a postmodern context, there is room for interaction. As Pickering explains,
The postmodern condition is one of radical pluralism in which new meaning is synthesised in conversations between different traditions. No one view or intellectual framework is final nor can its conceptual vocabulary predominate.13
Now that we have an understanding of the context within which interaction can take place, we may look at Western psychological and Buddhist approaches to the mind.
Western psychology as it has developed over the last century can be broadly discussed in terms of behaviourism, cognitivism and connectionism and related models.
Western psychology as a specific field of scientific enquiry began with behaviourism. This limited psychology to the observance of external behaviours and was partly a reaction to introspectionism, which it saw as unscientific and which was unable to produce reliable results. John Watson, considered to be the ‘father of behaviourism’, wrote in 1913:
Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist's total scheme of investigation.14
Concern about the shortcomings of behaviourism, such as the unnaturalness of its experiments and its lack of ability to explain such behaviours as language and creative problem-solving led in the 1950s to a major revolution in the field of psychology. This revolution was known as Cognitivism15.
Cognitivism continues to play a major role in Western psychology. It is based on the theory that the brain functions much like a computer’s Central Processing Unit. It processes data received through the senses and makes decisions based on that data. This view is based on a mechanistic paradigm which pre-dates postmodernism and is now being challenged as a viable model.
Pickering argues that
To propose that the essence of mental life lay in computation, and hence could be formalised, was an attempt to give psychology the identity and authority of modern science (Newell 1991). Following the postmodern turn this restriction is easing. Alternatives to Cognitivism, such as Connectionism and the dynamic systems approach have appeared. Their significance here is that they open the way to more fruitful interaction with Buddhism.16
Connectionism sees behaviours as resulting from connection or relationship, rather than something determined by a biological version of a computer’s central processing unit.
Natural life emerges out of the organized interaction of a great number of non living molecules, with no global controller responsible for the behavior of every part. Rather, every part is a behavor itself, and life is the behavior that emerges from all of the local interactions among individual behavors.17
The dynamic systems approach takes a similar view, based on the complexity of ecological systems and the emergence of the networked computer environment18 .
We shall now explore some key Buddhist approaches to the mind and consider where fruitful interaction between these and Western psychology may occur. The most obvious starting point for this, given our recent discussion of connectionism and dynamic systems, is the Buddhist approach to selfhood.
The Buddhist tradition spans 2500 years and much of the world. Over half of the world’s population lives in a place where Buddhism either is now, or has been, the dominant cultural force19. Because of its historical and geographical spread, Buddhism is now more akin to a family of traditions, not all of which agree with each other on all points. The Buddhist position on anatta, or not-Self however, is shared amongst all Buddhist traditions:
Bikkhus, material form is not self. If material form were self, this material form would not lead to affliction, and it could be had of material form: ‘Let my material form be thus; let my material form be not thus.’... Feeling is not self... Perception is not self... Formations are not self... Consciousness is not self. If consciousness were self, this consciousness would not lead to affliction and it could be had of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus; let my consciousness be not thus.’20
Buddhism, like connectionism and related models of cognition, does not see any central Self controlling the actions of the body, or the making of decisions, or the thinking of thoughts, or feeling a certain way about them. Instead, Buddhism sees only the interaction of khandas, or aggregates (listed in the above quotation). Self is this interaction, it is not a fundamental core around which this interaction occurs. Buddhism argues that it is possible to observe this within oneself, without recourse to scientific experiment. Buddhism teaches various meditation techniques for achieving this direct experience . The usual method (although there are others) would be firstly to practice techniques to help settle one’s mind and build its ability to remain undistracted (samatha) and then observe the body, sensations, and emotional and mental processes directly (vipassana cf. The Satipatthana Sutta). It should also be noted that these five aggregates are not in themselves regarded as ‘things’ but as groups of processes. These can be further divided and observed. Most Buddhist schools (with the notable exception of the Sarvastivada) argue that this process can go on indefinitely, since the dhammas (mental and physical phenomena) which make up the kandhas are themselves empty of svabhava (independent existence or selfhood)21.
One important difference between the Buddhist approach to mind and that of connectionism and the dynamic systems approach is that Buddhism does not see mind purely in terms of the physical body. It is not a network of neurons, though it is conditioned by these. This can be demonstrated by the fact that Buddhism acknowledges the existence of non-physical beings, such as devas (gods) and petas (hungry ghosts). It is also suggested by the following oft-quoted verse from the Dhammapada. It should be noted that the text does not say ‘brain’ or ‘neurons’ or ‘electrical activity’ precedes all mental states, but ‘Mind’:
1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow 22
Approaching the mind directly as mind and mental states, rather than as brain or as behaviours is a significant break from Western psychology and is only possible because of Buddhism’s meditation-based approach to information gathering. This approach allows the Buddhist to suggest models of the mind which are impossible to develop through the approach of traditional Western psychological research. One of the most important, characteristically Buddhist approaches to mind then, is the map of the mind and mental and physical processes detailed in the various Abhidhamma (skt. Abhidharma) texts. Abhidhamma is a list of mental and physical events, along with their characteristics and their relationships to each other.
It is a spiritual psychology with a very practical purpose. It gives detailed knowledge of the working of the mind, and thus can guide a person in meditative development, and it facilitates the proper understanding of personality as an interaction of impermanent, unsatisfactory, ownerless and insubstantial events23
This meditative development is key to the Buddhist approach to mind. Meditation in some form is a feature of many religions and some Western therapies. The use of meditation to develop Insight (vipassana ) however, is characteristically Buddhist. Compared with Western psychology at least (as opposed to Hinduism for example), the cultivation of super-conscious states or jhana through samatha (Calm) practices is also characteristically Buddhist. Western psychology and psychotherapy, other than those therapies influenced by Eastern religions (psychosynthesis for example), has no context for understanding jhana. The idea that there could be significant psychological benefit to cultivating such states is alien to Western approaches.
Buddhism, unlike Western science but not unlike some Western psychotherapeutic schools, does not consider intellectual understanding alone as sufficient proof that one has really understood. Even though one may directly observe something and acknowledge that it is so, one may continue to live as if it were not the case. Thus Buddhism recommends not simply knowledge but Wisdom (panna). Wisdom, in Buddhism, is "that intuitive knowledge which brings about the four stages of holiness and the realisation of nibb?na."24. It is therefore necessarily transformative. It consists of the penetration of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta).
The idea that intellectual knowledge is not enough has parallels within cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which has been developed out of cognitivism and behaviourism. A Cognitive Behavioural therapist will not simply explain what a person is doing that is causing their difficulty, but will ask them to practise alternative behaviours and/or thought processes, in order to bring about a re-learning. A new, helpful, habit then replaces the old unhelpful one. Unlike Buddhism however, CBT does not attempt to encourage the arising of Wisdom (in the sense of panna) in the client, only the adoption of habits which make the life of the client less painful and more in harmony with societal norms.
This is an important point. The goals of most Western psychological therapies and the goal of Buddhism (Nirvana - pali: nibbana) are significantly different. Freud saw the goal of psychoanalysis as being to return us to a state of "common unhappiness"25. This is, in a sense, where Buddhism starts. The Four Ennobling Truths (ariya sacca) of the Buddha begin with dukkha, which is usually translated as ‘suffering’, ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or ‘stress’, and is certainly synonymous with ‘common unhappiness’:
Birth is suffering (dukkha); aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; not to obtain what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering. This is called suffering.26
The other three Ennobling Truths deal with the cessation of suffering. Suffering ceases, according to the Buddha, when its cause (craving, tanha) is no longer present (2nd Ennobling Truth). If one undermines the cause of suffering, suffering will not arise (3rd Ennobling Truth). The way to undermine the cause of suffering is to practice the Ennobling Eightfold Path (ariya atthangika magga - 4th Ennobling Truth). The Ennobling Eightfold Path is a model for the entirety of Buddhist practice. It contains, according to the Buddha, everything necessary for the complete and permanent cessation of suffering, i.e. for the attainment of nibbana.
Not all of Western psychology has such limited criteria for success, however. Carl Rogers for example, sees what he calls the ‘fully functioning person’, one who is living ‘the good life’, not as someone who as achieved a common unhappiness, but as someone who is growing towards limitless freedom:
The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination. The direction which constitutes the good life is that which is selected by the total organism, when there is psychological freedom to move in any direction.27
Rogers goes on to say that this process of movement has certain characteristics, such as an increasing openness to experience, increasingly existential living and an increasing trust in his organism28. This account of what Rogers calls ‘the good life’, based on his observations of his clients, would resonate strongly for many Buddhists as a description of their experience of the fruits of Buddhist practice. The idea that a person will select the good life when there is psychological freedom has some resonance with the Mahayana Buddhist concept of Tathagatagarbha (Buddha nature). His ‘fully functioning person’ would also sit comfortably for many as going some way to describing what they imagine a spiritually developed person to be. Here then, we have some clear ground for fruitful interaction between Buddhist and Western psychological approaches to mind.
When considering mental health difficulties and ‘abnormal’ psychology, we can again see how Western psychology has, in investigating the boundaries between mental health and mental ill health, increased possibilities for its receptivity to Buddhist approaches to the mind: "the narrow gap between the mentally sick and the healthy has been questioned; whole societies have sometimes been sick and psychologists like Fromm refer to the pathology of normalcy"29.
Buddhism positions itself as a corrective to the miscomprehension of reality. Because we misperceive reality, argues Buddhism, we think and act unskilfully (akusala), i.e. in ways which cause us, and those around us, suffering (dukkha). This misperception of reality centres around mistaking what is impermanent as permanent, what is painful as pleasant and what is not-Self as Self30. Sometimes mistaking what is unlovely as beautiful is also added31.
The Buddha said that anyone who was not enlightened was in a sense mentally ill, in that they do not have knowledge and vision of things as they really are. As discussed above, the Buddhist path is offered as the antidote to this affliction and thus is seen as the path that leads to the end of suffering:
Monks, there are to be seen beings who can admit freedom from suffering from bodily disease for one year, for two years, for three, four, five, ten, twenty ... who can admit freedom from bodily disease for even a hundred years. But, monks, those beings are hard to find in the world who can admit freedom from mental disease even for one moment, save only those in whom the ?savas are destroyed.32
Another key component of the Buddhist approach to mind is that a healthy mind is necessarily an ethical mind. Ethics or morality (sila) underpins the whole of the Buddhist path. According to Buddhism ethical action has a positive effect on the mind and aids meditative concentration (samadhi) which in turn sets up the conditions whereby wisdom (panna) can arise. Further, wisdom will naturally lead to ethical action. This is because the Buddha’s Dhamma, in line with classical Indian thought in general, "combines in the one concept two facets that we [as Westerners] tend to keep distinct. These are the facets of ‘is’ and ‘ought’, that is, the dimensions of how things actually are and how things ought to be (Gombrich 1996: 34)"33.
This means that if one acts ethically (or skilfully - kusala) one is in fact acting in accordance with how things actually are, and therefore encouraging one’s mind to adopt a position which is more in line with reality, and less deluded. This will, sooner or later, result in less suffering (dukkha), and cannot be anything other than psychologically healthy.
There are some parallels of this kind of approach to the mind in Western psychotherapy. A person exhibiting such behaviours as self-harm or the abuse of others, or a person addicted to substances or activities such as sex or gambling, would generally be considered psychologically unhealthy. Again the compulsive thief or liar would be regarded as psychologically unhealthy. The therapist would work with such a person to reduce or eradicate such behaviours, and part of this work would involve reducing their desire to repeat the behaviour. These behaviours, and more importantly the motivations behind them, would be seen as unskilful (akusala) in Buddhism. Harming oneself or others breaks the first of the five precepts (panca-silani) recommend by the Buddha for observance by lay Buddhists34. Addiction to substances, sex or gambling would break the third precept, and perhaps also the fifth. Compulsive lying would break the fourth precept and theft would break the second. What is considered psychologically healthy for Western psychologists and for Buddhism therefore, overlap considerably.
The most characteristically Buddhist of Buddhism’s approach to the mind has to be the importance placed on vipassana (Insight) meditation practices, designed to encourage the direct realisation of Reality in the deepest levels of the practitioner’s psyche. This reality is, according to Buddhism, that of the unsatisfactory, impermanent and ownerless nature of all phenomena. This realisation marks the onset of a radically different perception which, according to Buddhism, brings about an end to the suffering inherent in unenlightened existence. The perspective of Western psychology is radically different from that of Buddhism, since it is based on the scientific study of the behaviours of others, and assumes mind to be a function of the body. Having said that, there are some similarities between the two approaches, particularly since the dawn of the postmodern era. Connectionism and the dynamic systems approach show some similarities with the Buddhist approach to the sense of Self, and both Buddhism and Western psychotherapy link psychological ill health with unethical behaviour. There are also some therapies, such as Person-Centred therapy, which seek to facilitate the client’s development far beyond Freud’s ‘common unhappiness’, and towards a vision of the developmental potential of humans similar to that detailed in the Suttas.
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16. Pickering, J. (2003) op. cit., p.54 Back
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19. Harvey, P. (1990) An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p.1 Back
20. Vinaya Mahavagga 1:6, cited in Nanamoli (1992) The Life of the Buddha, 3rd Edition, Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, p.46 Back
21. Gethin, R. (1998) The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp.238-243 Back
22. Dhammapada 1, The Pairs, Translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita, Access to Insight website Back
23. Harvey, P. (1990) op. cit., p.83) Back
24. Ven. Nanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Buddha Dharma Education Association, p.231 Back
25. Breuer, J and Freud, S., Studies on Hysteria, Standard Edition, 2:305 cited in Epstein, M. (1995) Thoughts Without a Thinker, New York, Basic Books, p.161 Back
26. M. 9 Translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera, edited and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Access to Insight website Back
27. Rogers, C. R. (2004) On Becoming a Person, London, Constable, pp.186-7 Back
28. Rogers, C. R., ibid. pp.187-9). Back
29. De Silva, P. (2000) op. cit. p.9 Back
30. Dhammapada XX.277-9 Back
31. e.g. M.75 Magandiya Sutta Back
32. A.II.143, cited in De Silva, P. (2000) op. cit. p.123 Back
33. Williams, P. (2000) Buddhist Thought, London, Routledge, p.15 Back
34. The five precepts are:
I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstaining from harming living beings (pannatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami)
I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstaining from taking what is not given (adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami)
I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstaining from misconduct concerning sense pleasures (kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami)
I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstaining from false speech (musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami)
I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstaining from unmindful states due to alcoholic drink or drugs (surameraya majja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami)
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