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Buddhism and psychology

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Buddhism and psychology overlap in theory and in practice. Over the last century, four strands of interplay have evolved:

Buddhism's phenomenological psychology

The establishment of Buddhism predates the field of psychology by over two millennia; thus, any assessment of Buddhism in terms of psychology is necessarily a modern invention. One of the first such assessments occurred when British Indologists started translating Theravada Buddhism's Abhidhamma from Pali and Sanskrit texts. Long-term efforts to juxtapose abhidhammic psychology with Western empirical sciences have been carried out by such Vajrayana leaders as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the 14th Dalai Lama.

Overview of the Abhidhamma

The earliest Buddhist writings are preserved in the three-part Tipitaka (Pali; Skt. Tripitaka). The third part (or pitaka, literally "basket") is known as the Abhidhamma (Pali; Skt. Abhidharma). Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, president of the Buddhist Publication Society, has synopsized the Abhidhamma as follows:

Part of the Tipitaka written in Thai on traditional wood slices.

"The system that the Abhidhamma Pitaka articulates is simultaneously a philosophy, a psychology, and an ethics, all integrated into the framework of a program for liberation.... The Abhidhamma's attempt to comprehend the nature of reality, contrary to that of classical science in the West, does not proceed from the standpoint of a neutral observer looking outwards towards the external world. The primary concern of the Abhidhamma is to understand the nature of experience, and thus the reality on which it focuses is conscious reality.... For this reason the philosophical enterprise of the Abhidhamma shades off into a phenomenological psychology. To facilitate the understanding of experienced reality, the Abhidhamma embarks upon an elaborate analysis of the mind as it presents itself to introspective meditation. It classifies consciousness into a variety of types, specifies the factors and functions of each type, correlates them with their objects and physiological bases, and shows how the different types of consciousness link up with each other and with material phenomena to constitute the ongoing process of experience."

Western recognition of the phenomenological-psychological aspect of the Abhidhamma started over a century ago with the work of British Indologists.

Rhys Davids' early scholarship (1900)

Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids was one of the first to conceptualize canonical Buddhist writings in terms of psychology.

In 1900, Indologist Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids published through the Pali Text Society a translation of the Theravada Abhidhamma's first book, the Dhamma Sangani, and entitled the translation, "Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics". In the introduction to this seminal work, Rhys Davids writes:

"... Buddhist philosophy is ethical first and last. This is beyond dispute. But among ethical systems there is a world of difference in the degree of importance attached to the psychological prolegomena of ethics.... [T]he Buddhists were, in a way, more advanced in the psychology of their ethics than Aristotle — in a way, that is, which would now be called scientific. Rejecting the assumption of a psyche and of its higher manifestations ..., they were content to resolve the consciousness of the Ethical Man, as they found it, into a complex continuum of subjective phenomena.... The distinguishable groups of dhammā — of states or mental psychoses — 'arise' in every case in consciousness, in obedience to certain laws of causation, physical and moral — that is, ultimately, as the outcome of antecedent states of consciousness.... It postulated other percipients as Berkeley did, together with, not a Divine cause or source of precepts, but the implicit Monism of early thought veiled by a deliberate Agnosticism.... [S]o Buddhism, from a quite early stage of its development, set itself to analyze and classify mental processes with remarkable insight and sagacity...." (Rhys Davids, 1900, pp. xvi-xvii.)[b]

Buddhism's psychological orientation is a theme Rhys Davids pursued for decades as evidenced by Rhys Davids (1914) and Rhys Davids (1936).

Trungpa Rinpoche and the Naropa Institute (1974)

"Buddhism will
come to the West
as a psychology."
- Chogyam Trungpa, 1974

In his introduction to his 1975 book, Glimpses of the Abhidharma, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:

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Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the abhidharma coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom."

Trungpa Rinpoche's book goes on to describe the nanosecond phenomenological sequence by which a sensation becomes conscious using the Buddhist concepts of the "five aggregates."

In 1974, Trungpa Rinpoche founded the Naropa Institute, now called Naropa University. Since 1975, this accredited university has offered degrees in "contemplative psychology.

The Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life dialogues (1987)

Every two years, since 1987, the Dalai Lama has convened "Mind and Life" gatherings of Buddhists and scientists.[e] Reflecting on one Mind and Life session in March 2000, psychologist Daniel Goleman notes:

Since the time of Gautama Buddha in the fifth century BC, an analysis of the mind and its workings has been central to the practices of his followers. This analysis was codified during the first millennium after his death within the system called, in the Pali language of Buddha's day, Abhidhamma (or Abhidharma in Sanskrit), which means 'ultimate doctrine'.... Every branch of Buddhism today has a version of these basic psychological teachings on the mind, as well as its own refinements"

Buddhism and Psycho-analysis

A variety of teachers, clinicians and writers such as D.T. Suzuki, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Alan Watts, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg have attempted to bridge and integrate psycho-analysis and Buddhism.

British barrister Christmas Humphreys has referred to mid-twentieth century collaborations between psychoanalysts and Buddhist scholars as a meeting between

Two of the most powerful forces operating in the Western mind today.
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More recently, some traditional Buddhist practitioners have expressed concern that attempts to view Buddhism through the lens of Western psychology diminishes the Buddha's liberating message.

D.T. Suzuki

One of the most important influences on the spread of Buddhism in the west was Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki. He collaborated with psycho-analists Carl Jung and Erich Fromm, and also influenced the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Suzuki & Jung (1948)

Carl Jung wrote the foreword to Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism, first published together in 1948.[g] In his foreword, Jung highlights the enlightenment experience of satori as the "unsurpassed transformation to wholeness" for Zen practitioners. And while acknowledging the inadequacy of Westerners' attempts to comprehend satori through the lens of Western intellectualism,[h] Jung nonetheless contends:

The only movement within our culture which partly has, and partly should have, some understanding of these aspirations [for such enlightenment) is psychotherapy. It is therefore not a matter of chance that this foreword is written by a psychotherapist [...] Taken basically, psychotherapy is a dialectic relationship between the doctor and the patient [...] The goal is transformation.

Suzuki & Fromm (1957)

Referencing Jung and Suzuki's collaboration as well as the efforts of others, humanistic philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm noted:

There is an unmistakable and increasing interest in Zen Buddhism among psychoanalysts

Suzuki, Fromm and other psychoanalysts collaborated at a 1957 workshop on "Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis" in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In his contribution to this workshop, Fromm declares:

Psychoanalysis is a characteristic expression of Western man's spiritual crisis, and an attempt to find a solution

Fromm contends that, at the turn of the twentieth century, most psychotherapeutic patients sought treatment due to medical-like symptoms that hindered their social functioning. However, by mid-century, the majority of psychoanalytic patients lacked overt symptoms and functioned well but instead suffered from an "inner deadness":

The common suffering is the alienation from oneself, from one's fellow man, and from nature; the awareness that life runs out of one's hand like sand, and that one will die without having lived; that one lives in the midst of plenty and yet is joyless"

Paraphrasing Suzuki broadly, Fromm continues:

Zen is the art of seeing into the nature of one's being; it is a way from bondage to freedom; it liberates our natural energies; ... and it impels us to express our faculty for happiness and love. What can be said with more certainty is that the knowledge of Zen, and a concern with it, can have a most fertile and clarifying influence on the theory and technique of psychoanalysis. Zen, different as it is in its method from psychoanalysis, can sharpen the focus, throw new light on the nature of insight, and heighten the sense of what it is to see, what it is to be creative, what it is to overcome the affective contaminations and false intellectualizations which are the necessary results of experience based on the subject-object split"

David Brazier

David Brazier is a psychoanalyst who combines psychoanalysis and Buddhism. Brazier points to various possible translations of the Pali terms of the Four Noble Truths, which give a new insight into these truths. The traditional translations of samudhaya and nirodha are "origin" and "cessation". Coupled with the translation of dukkha as "suffering", this gives rise to a causal explanation of suffering, and the impression that suffering can be totally terminated. The translation given by David Brazier gives a different interpretation to the Four Noble Truths.

  1. Dukkha: existence is imperfect, it's like a wheel that's not straight into the axis;
  1. Samudhaya : simultaneously with the experience of dukkha there arises tanha, thirst: the dissatisfaction with what is and the yearning that life should be different than it is. We keep imprisoned in this yearning when we don't see reality as it is, namely imperfect and ever-changing;
  1. Nirodha: we can confine this yearning (that reality is different than it is), and perceive reality as it is, whereby our suffering from the imperfectness becomes confined;
  1. Marga : this confinement is possible by following the Eightfold Path.
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In this translation, samudhaya means that the uneasiness that's inherent to life arises together with the craving that life's event would be different. The translation of nirodha as confinement means that this craving is a natural reaction, which cannot be totally escaped or ceased, but can be limited, which gives us freedom.

Mark Epstein

Mark Epstein relates the Four Noble Truths to primary narcissism as described by Donald Winnicott in his theory on the True self and false self. The first truth highlights the inevitability of humiliation in our lives of our narcissistic self-esteem. The second truth speaks of the primal thirst that makes such humiliation inevitable. The third truth promises release by developing a realistic self-image, and the fourth truth spells out the means of accomplishing that.

Buddhist techniques in clinical settings

For over a millennium, throughout the world, Buddhist practices have been used for non-Buddhist ends.[k] More recently, Western clinical psychologists, theorists and researchers have incorporated Buddhist practices in widespread formalized psychotherapies. Buddhist mindfulness practices have been explicitly incorporated into a variety of psychological treatments. More tangentially, psychotherapies dealing with cognitive restructuring share core principles with ancient Buddhist antidotes to personal suffering.

Mindfulness practices

Fromm distinguishes between two types of meditative techniques that have been used in psychotherapy:

  1. auto-suggestion used to induce relaxation;
  2. meditation "to achieve a higher degree of non-attachment, of non-greed, and of non-illusion; briefly, those that serve to reach a higher level of being" (p. 50).

Fromm attributes techniques associated with the latter to Buddhist mindfulness practices.

Two increasingly popular therapeutic practices using Buddhist mindfulness techniques are Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Marsha M. Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Other prominent therapies that use mindfulness include Steven C. Hayes' Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Adaptation Practice founded in 1978 by the British psychiatrist and Zen Buddhist Clive Sherlock and, based on MBSR, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) (Segal et al., 2002).

Clinical researchers have found Buddhist mindfulness practices to help alleviate anxiety, depression and certain personality disorders.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

Kabat-Zinn developed the eight-week MBSR program over a ten-year period with over four thousand patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Describing the MBSR program, Kabat-Zinn writes:

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This 'work' involves above all the regular, disciplined practice of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness, the complete 'owning' of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly. This is the essence of full catastrophe living. Kabat-Zinn, a one-time Zen practitioner,[m] goes on to write:
Although at this time mindfulness meditation is most commonly taught and practiced within the context of Buddhism, its essence is universal.... Yet it is no accident that mindfulness comes out of Buddhism, which has as its overriding concerns the relief of suffering and the dispelling of illusions.

In terms of clinical diagnoses, MBSR has proven beneficial for people with depression and anxiety disorders; however, the program is meant to serve anyone experiencing significant stress.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

In writing about DBT, Zen practitioner[n] Linehan states:

As its name suggests, its overriding characteristic is an emphasis on 'dialectics' – that is, the reconciliation of opposites in a continual process of synthesis.... This emphasis on acceptance as a balance to change flows directly from the integration of a perspective drawn from Eastern (Zen) practice with Western psychological practice."[o]

Similarly, Linehan writes:

Mindfulness skills are central to DBT.... They are the first skills taught and are [reviewed] ... every week.... The skills are psychological and behavioral versions of meditation practices from Eastern spiritual training. I have drawn most heavily from the practice of Zen

Controlled clinical studies have demonstrated DBT's effectiveness for people with borderline personality disorder.[p]

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT did not explicitly emerge from Buddhism, but its concepts often parallel ideas from Buddhist and mystical traditions. ACT has been defined by its originators as a method that "uses acceptance and mindfulness processes, and commitment and behavioral activation processes to produce psychological flexibility."

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Mindfulness in ACT is defined to be a combination of four aspects of the psychological flexibility model, which is ACT's applied theory:

  1. Acceptance (openness to and engagement with present experience);
  2. Cognitive defusion (attending to the ongoing process of thought instead of automatically interacting with events as structured by prediction, judgment, and interpretation);
  3. Contact with the present moment (attention to the present external and internal world in a manner that is flexible, fluid, and voluntary);
  4. A transcendent sense of self or "self as context" (an interconnected sense of consciousness that maintains contact with the "I/Here/Nowness" of awareness and its interconnection with "You/There/Then").

These four aspects of mindfulness in ACT are argued to stem from Relational Frame Theory, the research program on language and cognition that underlies ACT at the basic level. For example, "self as context" is argued to emerge from deictic verbal relations such as I/You, or Here/There, which RFT laboratories have shown to help establish perspective taking skills and interconnection with others.

Most ACT self-help books (e.g., ) and many tested ACT protocols teach formal contemplative practice skills, but by this definition of mindfulness, such defusion skills as word repetition (taking a difficult thought, distilling it to a single word, and saying it repeatedly out loud for 30 seconds) are also viewed as mindfulness methods.

Adaptation Practice

The British psychiatrist Clive Sherlock, who trained in the traditional Rinzai School of Zen, developed Adaptation Practice (Ap), the foundation of mindfulness, in 1977 based on the profound mindfulness/awareness training of Zen daily-life practice and meditation. Adaptation Practice is used for long-term relief of depression, anxiety, anger, stress and other emotional problems.

Cognitive restructuring

Dr. Albert Ellis, considered the "grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapy" (CBT), has written:

Many of the principles incorporated in the theory of rational-emotive psychotherapy are not new; some of them, in fact, were originally stated several thousands of years ago, especially by the Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers (such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) and by some of the ancient Taoist and Buddhist thinkers (see Suzuki, 1956, and Watts, 1959, 1960).

To give but one example, Buddhism identifies anger and ill-will as basic hindrances to spiritual development (see, for instance, the Five Hindrances, Ten Fetters and kilesas). A common Buddhist antidote for anger is the use of active contemplation of loving thoughts (see, for instance, metta). This is similar to using a CBT technique known as "emotional training" which Ellis describes in the following manner:

Think of an intensely pleasant experience you have had with the person with whom you now feel angry. When you have fantasized such a pleasant experience and have actually given yourself unusually good, intensely warm feelings toward that person as a result of this remembrance, continue the process. Recall pleasant experiences and good feelings, and try to make these feelings paramount over your feelings of hostility.

Popular psychology & spirituality

Mainstream teachers and popularizers

In 1961, Philosopher and Orientalist Alan Watts wrote:

If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.... The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people."

Since Watts's early observations and musings, there have been many other important contributors to the contemporary popularization of the integration of Buddhist meditation with psychology including Kornfield (1993), Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Epstein (1995) and Nhat Hanh (1998

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (undated) identifies broad commonalities between "Romantic/humanistic psychology" and early Buddhism: beliefs in human (versus divine) intervention with an approach that is experiential, pragmatic and therapeutic. Thanissaro Bhikkhu traces the roots of modern Western spiritual ideals from German Romantic Era philosopher Immanuel Kant through American psychologist and philosopher William James, Jung and humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow.


Thanissaro asserts that there are also core differences between Romantic/humanistic psychology and Buddhism. These are summarized in the table to the right. Thanissaro implicitly deems those who impose Romantic/humanistic goals on the Buddha's message as "Buddhist Romantics."

The same similarities have been recognized by David McMahan when describing Buddhist modernism.

Recognizing the widespread alienation and social fragmentation of modern life, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

When Buddhist Romanticism speaks to these needs, it opens the gate to areas of dharma [the Buddha's teachings] that can help many people find the solace they’re looking for. In doing so, it augments the work of psychotherapy [...] However, Buddhist Romanticism also helps close the gate to areas of the dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned [...] [T]he gate [of Buddhist Romanticism] closes off radical areas of the dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered

Romantic /


psychology early

Buddhism spiritual

illness divided self clinging ultimate

experiencefeeling of

onenessknowledge of



integration Awakening


Wikipedia:Buddhism and psychology