It has become so common, if not trite, to speak of "Buddhism as a psychology" that the idea no longer seems peculiar or surprising in either Asia or the West. The parallel is not totally spurious or devoid of heuristic value: Important aspects of Buddhist doctrine and practice may be construed as efforts at understanding human psychology. Yet, it would be imprudent to accept uncritically the accuracy of this parallelism. The present entry summarizes some of the reasons why we have come to assume that there are overlaps in perspective and goals that seem to argue for an interpretation of Buddhism as a "psychology," and some of the reasons why this seeming parallelism can be misleading.
Why Buddhism and psychology?
Early in the twentieth century Buddhism became associated in the Western imagination with the objectives of Western psychology. This presumed connection has also been accepted by many Asian exponents of Buddhist doctrine. In suggesting a parallel we often imagine "psychology" as an idealized source of unassailable truths about better living and human happiness, and perhaps with the mythic, almost mystical, power that many Westerners attribute to the disciplines and discourses of Buddhism. The vagueness of many of these comparisons may also be attributed in part to the fact that there is no autonomous Buddhist discipline of psychology—that is, a discrete genre of discourse (let alone a scientific discourse) corresponding to the many meanings that the term psychology has in contemporary academic and popular conversation. Conversely, contemporary scientific discourse does not as yet have a language to speak reliably about the wide range of concepts and practices that we intuitively call "Buddhist psychology."
The temptation to link observations and normative conceptions about Buddhism with our ideas about psychology does not reflect a single view of Buddhism. "Buddhism as psychology" is usually grounded on ideas that include a number of separate, at times overlapping, and at times competing, conceptions about religion and spirituality. First, it is common to imagine Buddhism as a therapy, as a way to heal a sick soul—a mind in error or a person in pain. Second, some consider Buddhist theories of mind parallel to Western psychological inquiry—perhaps conflating somehow a broad spectrum of Buddhist doctrines with the equally diverse set of Western philosophical and empirical psychologies. Third, since the inception of the Western discipline of psychology, religion has been seen as one among other objects to be understood with the methods of scientific psychology (e.g., in both Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud). Yet, simultaneously, religion (and perhaps Buddhism in particular) has been regarded as somehow coextensive with many of the doctrines and goals of popular psychologies. Hence, as a fourth historical connection, one must note that several of the above factors have helped to anchor in our collective mind the otherwise imprecise modern ideal of an ahistorical "spirituality" that transcends the "traditional dogmas" of institutional religions.
Buddhism as psychology: Traditional views
Traditional Buddhist sources often compare the Buddha to a physician; his dharma is the prescription that cures all ills. The preferred interpretation of this metaphor imagines this cure as a healing of the mind—repairing a mind otherwise immersed in an error that leads to repeated, almost interminable, suffering across many lives. But the cure also entails a transformation of other aspects of the person: bodily demeanor, behavior toward others and care of self, emotion and desire. In other words, Buddhists may be suggesting that important parts (if not the most important or core aspects) of their religious practice can be seen as a project of comprehensive behavioral modification, with "behavior" including body, speech, and mind. However, this transformation of body and mind is also taken to entail the development of extraordinary powers that are not within the usual Western conception of the mental. Such special faculties include the capacity to transform and replicate the body, the power to know past lives, and so forth.
Even if it is conceived as purely the healing of an afflicted human mind, the Buddha's cure is believed to have the power to remove all suffering, because the total removal of the error, and of the mental turmoil arising from the error, leads to the end of rebirth and the elimination of all duḤkha (suffering) of mind and body. In this sense, Buddhism is primarily a psychology if we assume that the cure is fundamentally a mental cure, or if we imagine the desired state of health as being "psychological" in the sense that it encompasses the totality of the human being as a sentient being capable of intentional behavior. Or, one may also adopt the popular notion that all physical ills are ultimately psychosomatic, so that "psychological" mental culture is simultaneously a technique of the whole person. Additionally, the concept of "psychology" may be applied to Buddhism by extending the notion of mental disease beyond the apparent limits that death imposes on an individual body, and beyond the limitations of the mind of a single individual in a single existence.
Thus, generally speaking, the Buddhist tradition may be interpreted as a religious tradition with a prominent emphasis on the mind and liberation of the mind, but still a tradition for which the release from all suffering—if not the total release from an inherently painful embodiment—is the ultimate goal. Significant exceptions are found in traditions that have either sidelined the schemata of rebirth or have demythologized it. This is the case, for instance, with the Madhyamaka school and traditions that adopt similar rhetorical or dialectic understandings of the dichotomy between rebirth (saṂsĀra) and liberation (nirvĀṆa). In such traditions it is not at all clear that belief in "rebirth" is to be taken to imply the acceptance of a psychosomatic process existing outside of, or independently from, the imaginative faculties of the individual. The Madhyamaka school, for instance, offers tantalizing, yet paradoxical and baffling claims that rebirth and all the suffering that it brings is only the construction of mind or language, and that suffering disappears when it is shown to be a mistaken notion.
Be that as it may, the most common normative principle in elite Buddhism is the belief that liberation is the consequence of a cognitive and affective shift, brought about not so much by an intellectual effort, but by contemplative exercises, and ascetic and moral training, that entail radical transformations of the person. In other words, changes in behavior and belief are understood to derive their liberating power from changes that can be described as "psychological" only in the broadest possible sense of the idea of "psychology": shifts in the way in which a person perceives what is real, worthy, desirable, or satisfying, or changes in passion and affect, in behavior and demeanor, and in the bodily, sensory, and intellectual faculties. Such changes are "psychological" also in the sense that they are behavioral, they require modifications in the mode and orientation of a person's mental, verbal, and bodily action.
A certain "primacy of mind" is a common, and at times dominant, orientation in elite Buddhist doctrines of self-cultivation, soteriology, and ontology. One may also state with a certain degree of confidence that this elite characterization of the tradition has a mythic value even outside the small circles of monastic specialists who engage in the practice of meditation or in formulating the theory of meditation and sainthood. This makes Buddhism a tradition in which ideals and techniques of psychological or psychosomatic self-cultivation play a central role as markers of religious identity and continuity of tradition.
A philosophy of mind
But the question then arises as to whether or not there will be any heuristic or practical value in understanding this psychological orientation—or, for that matter, explicit Buddhist theories about the structure and the vicissitudes of the "mental"—as significantly parallel to Western psychological inquiry, or as viable alternatives that can be compared by means of common criteria of truth or effectiveness. The systematic exploration of such parallels can take us simultaneously in various directions and across difficult issues of epistemology and the philosophies of mind and science. This is fertile ground for future research, but we shall explore in this entry only cursorily what there is in the Buddhist tradition, if anything, that may be called a "psychology."
Buddhism shares with other Indian systems of religion and philosophy an interest in how the human self is constituted, including the nature and origin of the mental and the bodily broadly understood (nāmarūpa), as well as the nature of awareness (vijñapti) and consciousness (vijñana). Early Buddhist speculation separated itself from other early śramaṇic systems by formulating unique theories about the embodied self (jīva and kāya) and the state of a liberated being (tathĀgata), as well as by formulating critiques of those who denied the consequences of intentional actions (kriyā), or of those who overemphasized the pervasiveness of moral causation.
Related to these broad issues were, on the one hand, early theories of liberation and the path, and, on the other, structural conceptions of the mind-body complex, which sought to explain the origins, processes, and ultimate liberation of this complex by identifying the components and arrangement of mental states and processes. Some, presumably early, texts show attempts to reduce the sentient person to elementary substances, such as water, fire, earth, air, and space. But, among the most influential of the protoscientific theories are the structural theories of skandha (aggregate), dhātu (sensory domains), and āyatana (sense faculties). The three theories show obvious signs of having originated independently from each other, but one can still treat them, as the tradition does, as three components of a single theory, which is summarized below.
We may assume naively that each human person (pudgala) is a single living (jīva) and a sentient entity (sattva) that is the objective referent of the word "self" (ātman). Buddhist introspection and inference, however, claim that the real referent for this idea is a constellation of phenomenal, transient entities that can be summarized under five headings or "sets" (skandha). Strictly speaking, these sets are "aggregates" of related phenomena held together in the idea of a single self by our own persistent grasping (upādāna). The five—matter, sensation, conceptions/perceptions, habitual tendencies, and awareness—include body (matter, sensations, habitual tendencies) and mind (sensation, conception, habitual tendencies, and awareness). The mental components can also be analyzed in terms of a sensorium that includes a mental sense sphere and organ (manas), resulting in a hierarchical system of six senses (āyatana), with mind as gatekeeper. The system is further analyzed into twelve sensory elements, each sense faculty being paired with an organ and an object (the object being internal for the mind sense). These twelve are called dhātu (perhaps "domain" or "basis").
The system of the twelve sense dhātus maintains the close connection between body and mind already noted (organ and input, in fact, appear to be placed on a similar ontological plane). The connections are further developed by proposing three faculties and processes of awareness (vijñāna) for each domain (dhātu). This additional layer of analysis emphasizes the privileged status of the mind, insofar as mental awareness (consciousness proper) occupies a higher position in the hierarchy, serving as the center for both sensory and mental processes.
Early speculations about the constitution of the self used these analytic categories to explain how a human person (sattva) could be constituted, in the absence of a simple, autonomous, and unitary self (ātman). In psychological terms, this may seem to undermine our experience of being an autonomous agent capable of its own perceptions, ideas, sensation, and feelings, with the capacity to choose the path to liberation. But the tradition insists that intentionality, moral responsibility, and personal continuity can be explained by using the above building blocks.
Attempts to explain the natural illusion of the elemental reality of self and will led to the creation of theories of mind. Such theories developed as speculation entered the more systematic stage of the abhidharma and as the Buddhist philosophical schools engaged other Indian philosophical systems in a centuries-long polemical dialogue. In the abhidharma literature the psychological categories of the sūtra literature were organized according to canonical sets and analytic categories. Systems of terminological matrices (mātṛkā) helped organize sets of terms in concepts like the Dhammasaṅganī and the Dhātukāya (Taishō 1540). In the latter work, for instance, canonical terms for mental states are reorganized under categories such as universally present states and states only present when the mind is confused and afflicted (kliṣṭa). The universally present states or processes (sensation, conception, volition, etc.) are also organized into six groups of six each (so-called hexads) that correspond to the inner and outer spheres (āyatana) of sentience: factors of consciousness, of sense contact, of sensation, of perception, of conception, and of drive (or desire, tṛṣṇā).
In the abhidharma, the apparent unity of the self is explained by a variety of theories, but the most common types (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive) are theories of causal continuity and theories of the location of awareness. The first is epitomized by the concept of santāna—the cause and effect series of bodily and mental events that constitutes a human life and personality. The second is illustrated by the concept of ādāna or ālaya (site, container, holder), according to which past experiences leave traces on a foundation or base of the personality (the āśraya), so that their proximity and interaction can create the illusion of a single person.
Ethics and liberation as theories of mind
Both types of theories share in varying degrees a general Buddhist tendency to see intentionality or will (cetanā) as the governing force behind the causal series, and various levels of the mind as the locus for the encoding and "storage" of karma and its consequences. These models generate, and attempt to explain, a variety of problems that can be covered only briefly in this entry. One may mention, as representative examples, the doctrine of vāsanā (traces), the theory of unmanifest processes (avijñapti), and the problem of mentation and mental construction (prajñapti).
The doctrine of vāsanā was fundamental to Buddhist "moral psychology" in India, and represented an attempt to explain both moral habits (propensities) and the process of karmic traces and consequences. The interaction between mental states and consequent suffering was seen as a process whereby intention and its behavioral manifestations left faint traces (bīja, planted seeds) that constituted a system of habitual and mostly unconscious drives. The process was summarized in the metaphor of a cloth impregnated by a perfume or a dye (the technical sense of the term vāsanā). In the same way that the perfume instills some of its properties on the cloth, and that the cloth retains the faint aroma, intentional action leaves traces in the human causal chain. The predisposition as trace is known as anuśaya, and as manifest character and mental state it is known as kleśa (a term that means both "stain" or "dye" and "torment"). The character state and the action generate and maintain habitual tendencies and cause future karmic effects. The kleŏas may be regarded as a psychological condition, whereas karma (action) is an ostensive or behavioral cause, although it too generates latent or potential consequences. The two constitute the pervasive ruling conditions (adhipatipratyaya) for all suffering, and of the sentient being's beginningless wandering in the realm of rebirth.
The category of kleśa subsumes under a single rubric habits of emotion, intentionality, and cognition, such as three fundamental unhealthy mindsets: concupiscence, animosity, and delusion (the Dhātukāya's inventory includes five: the cravings of sense desire, craving for nonsensuous pleasures, craving for disembodied bliss, animosity, and doubt). The idea is found outside Buddhism (e.g., in the Yogasūtras) and constitutes a common assumption of religious moral psychology in India: Unhealthy frames of mind are at the root of suffering; healthy mindsets are at the root of liberation. The idea presupposes a virtue epistemology in which attitudinal character flaws are intertwined with errors of cognition, and error is abandoned and replaced with certainty only if the whole person cultivates and masters the highest moral, attitudinal, attentional, and cognitive virtue.
However, Buddhist philosophers often separate, at least theoretically, the processes that transcend the kleśas (meditative processes, or bhāvanā) from those that transcend error (cognitive-meditation process of correct seeing and discernment, or darśana). In the MahĀyĀna tradition, the distinction is summarized in the idea that rending the veil of the kleśas (kleśa-āvaraṇa) is only part of the process of liberation. A separate cognitive shift is needed, overcoming the obscuration caused by a veil that covers the objects of cognition (the veil called jñeya-āvaraṇa), a veil maintained by the habitual tendency to cognize by way of dualities: being/nonbeing, self/object, and so forth.
The preceding theoretical constructs sometimes parallel and sometimes overlap with the idea that acts of mentation and acts of manifest behavior generate bodily changes that, although unseen, are powerful determinants of future experience and behavior. This unmanifest transformation is known as avijñapti ("lacking the capacity to make itself noticeable," hence, that which is "unnoticed, unreported, latent, not manifest") and is a type of material or bodily change. Generally mental states are, by definition, nonmanifest, and Buddhist thinkers do not appear to have explored the possibility of unconscious conflicts or processes.
The theory of the avijñapti and the vāsanās do not appear to have cross-fertilized in any significantly productive manner. Although both theoretical constructs explain in part how contradictory, unexpected, or unwilled behavior can occur, they were not used to explain inner conflict or struggles between the forbidden and the tolerated. Nonetheless, one may argue that Buddhist philosophers, especially in India, struggled with the idea that some of the most potent determinants of human experience and behavior are not readily accessible to consciousness, much less to willful control. Thus, suffering in general was understood to be more than simply the awareness of painful states, cognitions, and vicissitudes: The most powerful and pervasive form of suffering is understood only by the saints, for it is the innately or inherently painful nature of the very construction (saṁskāra-duḥkhata) of the person's psychosomatic makeup. It is the profound ache behind the conscious and unconscious, the ever-frustrated attempt to hold on to the false idea of a self. Suffering is, therefore, like desire and delusion, a pervasive free-floating drive, a thirstlike unquenchable drive that pushes us not only toward sense-enjoyment, but toward wanting to be and wanting not to be.
These principles help explain in part the process by which a sentient being effects psychosomatic movements in the direction of either psychic health or psychic "disease." However, to explain the possibility of liberation, the scholastics had to propose explanations for the possibility of error. With regard to this problem, the fundamental question for the Buddhist philosopher was how one could see a self where there was none, or see an object of desire and pleasure in phenomena that were inherently undesirable and painful. Furthermore, if our perception of the world is in essence a construct of mentation (abhisaṃskṛta), one needed to explain the process of verbal and mental reification that led to delusion and suffering.
The theory made a common assumption that convention constructs, or at the very least, distorts reality—either through a process of discursive elaboration (prapañca) or conceptual imagination (vikalpa). A key term behind such theories was that of "conventional designation" or "provisional conceptual distinctions" (prajñapti). The idea led in some schools to the denial of a correspondence theory of truth and to a phenomenalistic theory of perception and conception.
The idea of conventional reality as construct seems to have followed three distinct, but at times overlapping, lines of inquiry: one epistemological-linguistic, one phenomenalistic, and the other mentalistic (sometimes called idealistic). The linguistic view is relevant to psychology in the sense that it presupposes that mind itself is constructed (vikalpita), or, at the very least, conditioned by discursive thought (so that, for instance, we will perceive what words tell us to perceive or what the inner interplay between desire and mental chatter drive us to think). This is generally the tendency in the Madhyamaka traditions. The phenomenalistic view, represented by schools that have been identified with the SautrĀntika traditions, is a theory of representation: Perception is an inner, mental process in which one becomes aware of the mental representation of external things (an almost natural derivative of the hierarchy of the six senses). From extreme phenomenalistic positions one can easily slide into an idealistic understanding of how the apparently real can feel real yet be an illusion: If the mind needs only an inner representation of the world to feel like it knows an external world, then all of conventional reality may very well exist in the mental sphere, perhaps only as mere mentation (vijñapti).
Perhaps the most significant derivatives of this third line of speculation were the positions adopted among followers of the YogĀcĀra school. The idea of the real as mere mentation (vijñaptimātratā), originally proposed by AsaṄga (ca. 320–390 c.e.) and Vasubandhu (fourth to fifth century c.e.) was developed by Dharmapāla (sixth century c.e.), who attempted to explain how there could be both an ultimately real inner world (consciousness) and a world that is objective (external to the mind) and ordered (subject to causes and conditions). Dharmapāla developed further the school's idea of a consciousness that is the repository (ĀlayavijÑĀna) of karmic traces, manifesting itself in eight forms of consciousness: the consciousness corresponding to each of the five sense organs, mental consciousness (manovijñāna), a foundational but still deluded consciousness (kliṣṭamanovijñāna), and the ground consciousness (ālayavijñāna).
This eightfold division of consciousness has been arguably the most influential Buddhist topography of the mind. Its applications extend, naturally, into the questions of what makes the mind become pure, and whether or not there is an inherently pure level of consciousness (amalavijñāna) or a mind that is inherently awakened. The schema was central to theories of the path, even among those East Asian Buddhists for whom the theory of karma and the doctrine of rebirth had lost its earlier importance—as was the case, for example, in the use of the theory to explain Zen satori (awakening) in Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1768).
Also important in scholastic theories of the development of mind was the difficult concept of the "basis" (āśraya) for the action and transformations of karma. According to this conception, all aspects of the psychosomatic person are in constant transformation; if the person follows the path of the buddhas to its completion, this basis is transformed or inverted (āśrayaparāvṛtti), so that it is perfectly pure and the normal faculties become the special powers and knowledges of a buddha.
Systematic reflections on the nature of mind overlap with ontological speculation, but the above three theories of error and true knowledge also provide at least part of the foundation for the ethical, contemplative, and soteriological dimensions of Buddhist theory and practice. For instance, the transformation of the psychosomatic basis (āśrayaparāvṛtti) is believed to result, predictably, in a radical transformation of cognition (jñāna): body and mind become the living wisdom (active cognition) of a buddha. This wisdom has five aspects. It is perfectly and constantly aware of the true nature of things (dharmadhātu-jñāna); it is a serene, mirrorlike reflection of all things (ādārśajñāna); it cognizes the semblance and equivalence of all things (samatā-jñāna); yet, it discerns clearly (pratyavekṣā-jñāna) and engages freely in the work of a buddha (kṛtyupasthāna-jñāna). Furthermore, this wisdom is all-knowing, all-compassionate, and free from any notion of a self. With such implications to be derived from at least one Buddhist theory of mind, the Western observer needs to be constantly aware of the nuances that separate the intent and underlying question in Buddhist speculation from those that tend to drive Western psychological research.
Comparing psychological theories
What may appear as a similar interest in the disphase between conscious and unconscious storage and retrieval is not understood in Buddhism as a question of psychoneurology or intrapsychic conflict, but as a distinction between memory and karmic causation. The contemporary reader may understand karma as a kind of memory—an inscription of a trace upon the self, which, once recovered informs consciousness of a previous psychic event—but one needs to note the ethical and soteriological meanings that the Buddhist discovers in such processes. One may imagine (by projecting on the Buddhist tradition a psychodynamic schema) that the process by which awareness is fostered and transformed to achieve awakening is some sort of transformation of the repressed; but even granting this stretching of Buddhist doctrine, the most common Buddhist conceptions of what is "healthy" (kuśala) about this process would not come close to contemporary views of mental health as autonomy, acceptance, and enjoyment of human sexual desire, and the like.
Furthermore, for most traditional Buddhist elites, the traces left on consciousness by human action remain and develop as part of an inexorable law of moral responsibility and retribution that is only transcended by a path out of our imperfections, not by a simple acceptance of human shortcomings or a celebration of the body and the emotions. Moreover, the final discovery of the forgotten and the unraveling of its meaning is reached through extrasensory perception, and only by those who attain the yogic power of the remembrance of past lives (jāti-smara). Most traditional Buddhist philosophers, unlike Western empirical psychologists, took it as a given that the extrasensory perception of a yogi (yogipratyakṣa) is a valid source of empirical evidence—in fact, one that needs no corroboration and is not open to falsification when the cognizer is one of those deemed awakened.
Nonetheless, one could argue that it is precisely in the soteriological and moral dimensions of Buddhist psychology that one may find avenues of thought that complement or challenge some contemporary views of mental health. Of particular theoretical and historical importance are those Buddhist theories dealing with the techniques of meditation—arguably the most typically Buddhist "therapeutic" techniques and the place where Buddhism as religion and ethical system can be said to become a way of overcoming "dis-ease," and therefore, as perhaps a psychological cure or a therapy. Theories of meditation often attest to the keen psychological awareness of those who reflected on Buddhist doctrine and practice. In their application, these theories at times suggest the techniques of Western psychosocial healing practices, despite an apparent difference in their presuppositions and goals.
Meditation, consciousness, and healing
Buddhist theories of meditation are concerned with the transformation of rigid habits and turbulent states of mind that may roughly correspond to contemporary notions of maladaptive or dysfunctional behaviors; but the underlying theory and questions hiding behind diverging ideas of dysfunction may be disparate enough to make comparison difficult. The meditator seeks to make the mind pliable, aspiring to achieve a "tranquil flow of mind" (upekṣā) that is effortless and free from the extremes of mental turpitude and excitation (laya and auddhatya). A mind that is in such a state is no longer dominated by the mind's usual tendencies toward inertia (dauṣṭhulya) and unrest (kleśa). Nonetheless, although the goal is a state free of confusion and anguish, freedom from distress and dysphoria is not here a condition for increased autonomy and adaptation in negotiating inner drives and outer social reality, as it is generally understood in Western psychologies, but a condition often described as desireless, free of conceptual constructs, and empty (the three "doors to liberation," vimokṣamukha).
Defects of thought (doṣa) are superseded by cultivating antidotes or opposite states (pratipakṣa) that lead to a removal of both the veils (of kleśa and of the object of knowledge), and hence lead to liberation. But such antidotes are also substitute behaviors, that is, they are virtues, and they transform the confused person into the person of serene insight. But the state of liberation, at least as understood by the major scholastic systems, is not comparable to Western ideas of individual autonomy, adaptive acceptance of the body and its drives, and resolution of intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict. It is liberation from rebirth, hence, from birth, aging, and death, as well as from desire and suffering. Furthermore, in systems following traditional Mahāyāna scholastic definitions, liberation is accompanied by the omniscience and the miraculous powers of a buddha, or at the very least the superior wisdom and wonder-working powers of the bodhisattva.
In the classical Buddhist view of "mental health," most normal desires are seen as a sort of madness, and as a "delusion" originating in a beginningless round of past lives; full health is accomplished only when one becomes a full buddha, or when it is approached gradually as one matures in the bodhisattva's spiritual career. It is difficult to imagine how such a view of "mental health" (perhaps, better: "absence of dis-ease") is commensurable with contemporary Western notions, which do not value the renunciation or the denial of desire.
However, some Buddhist doctrinal positions deviate in varying degrees from the above characterization. Important currents within the Chan and Tantric traditions qualify their understanding of renunciation (or are openly critical of the denial of desire) and tend to focus on the problems of self-deception and the tyranny of conceptual constructs and dualities, including the duality between desire and desirelessness, holy and mundane. Nonetheless, even these traditions tend to preserve monastic institutions and practices that draw a boundary between the transcendence of duality of the religious specialist and the need to negotiate dualities and ambivalences in lay life. In this context, acceptance of desire appears to be a stepping stone in the direction of a different form of desirelessness, and not necessarily an acceptance of our instinctual drives in the sense that the West has come to conceive of it after the psychoanalytic revolution.
An ambiguous acceptance of desire may be postulated in the case of the Chan tradition, where despite its iconoclastic rhetoric of immediacy and nonduality, a strict ethos of self-control and unrelenting effort points at least toward a transcendence of individual will (pace radical or mad monks like the fifteenth-century Japanese Zen monk IkkyŪ). In Tantra, where desire is to be transformed rather than abandoned, the transformation is framed in ritual and symbolic contexts that can hardly be assimilated into contemporary notions of the tolerance of strong affect and intrapsychic conflict (such framing occurs even in the radical antinomian rhetoric of the Caryāgīti). In both traditions it may be more accurate to speak of a paradoxical inversion of the normal order of ascetic denial, but not of an acceptance of desire as conceived in the more common contemporary assumptions about psychological well-being.
Nonetheless, much needs to be explored if we are to be able to understand the significance of the insights offered by Buddhist concepts of self-deception and delusion. Such insights include the recognition of a connection between suffering and misuses of language and conceptual labeling, as well as the obsessive quality of unawareness or error. These are elements suggested, for instance, by the speculations of the Madhyamaka school, where desire and unawareness seem to coalesce in the concept of obstinate dwelling in error (abhiniveśa). This idea of an inertia that favors a persistent dwelling in distorted perception seems to echo Western concepts like those of neurotic paradox and the repetition compulsion.
The above digressions suggest that much remains to be understood, not only about the history of Buddhist understanding of desire and its obstinate clinging to imagined objects, but also about the implications of variations within Buddhism. It is not at all clear, for instance, that we are yet in a position to understand the psychological implications (or for that matter, the health valence) of the full spectrum of Buddhist attitudes toward cognition and emotion, and the role of ethical and contemplative discipline in the relief of distress.
Perhaps as an attempt to circumvent some of the above difficulties, some researchers have looked at only one narrow cross section of Buddhist practice by studying selected meditative states. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, researchers investigated the effects of meditation practice on psychophysiological states. Using contemporary physiological and psychological measures, Japanese researchers established a connection between Zen meditation and neural and physiological states associated with rested, wakeful attention (Kasamatsu and Hirai 1966; Hirai 1978 and 1989). Subsequent studies have confirmed and expanded on their results (summarized in Murphy and Donovan).
The most interesting and robust result of these studies was the accumulation of evidence that showed that meditation is not a type of hypnosis, catalepsy, or a "catatonic state," as had been proposed earlier in the twentieth century. By measuring the brain waves of meditators, these experimenters determined that the brain of a subject in deep meditation (especially, but not exclusively, an experienced meditator) emits patterns of alpha and theta waves that are distinct from those emitted by subjects that were anxious, under hypnosis, or in deep sleep. This result of electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements suggests that the meditator is in fact in a state of "calm awareness," as claimed by Buddhist tradition. Subsequent MRI and SPECT studies suggest similar conclusions (Newberg et al.).
These investigations suggest that meditation techniques affect the body as well as the mind, lowering, for instance, blood pressure and galvanic skin pressure. The studies also confirm something noted by the tradition: The obvious importance of the body does not diminish the importance of the mind; a particular way of controlling the body is a precondition of, and perhaps entails, a particular state of mind.
For the tradition, even for those branches that give the body an explicit central role, the mind is paramount; and yet, paradoxically, the goal of Buddhist meditation is often presented as an experience of nomind. Something about the presumed psychological makeup of the meditator is lost, erased, or shown to be an error or an illusion. Hence the theme of "extinction" or "cessation" that is so common to many theories of meditation. One attains a serene and clear awareness of a state that may be legitimately described as "mindless." Yet, different Buddhist traditions understand the "mindless" in different ways—from a literal absence of thought (P. J. Griffiths) to various notions of freedom from speech in speech (as in the Chan and Tantric traditions). And even in the latter traditions there is much room for variation, from the early Chan notion that the arising of a single thought generates a world of conceptual constructs and confusion to the acceptance of a higher form of discrimination that gains new value after one awakens to nonduality—as in the Yogācāra's five buddha-jñānas or in the mahĀmudrĀ stage of noncultivation (sgom med).
However, these studies have not looked at a number of potential sources for disconfirming evidence or falsification. For instance, it is not clear that they have considered the significance of failure to progress in meditation (who succeeds and when) or cases of psychological distress or physical illness due to meditation (phenomena that are amply documented in Buddhist literature), or the significance of differences among expert meditators regarding the meaning and content of the experiences that correspond to the brain measurements and readings. In fact, it is not at all clear that even expert meditators agree on the significance of various states of mental concentration or samādhi (Sharf 1995 and 1998). One may argue that the psychological significance or goals of meditation point to using body and mind to re-create a new self; one assumes a specific bodily and mental posture, persisting in it until the mind is serene and focused, or one focuses the mind on what appears at first to be the self, in order to dissolve misconceptions about the self, including the misconception of imagining that who we are is identical to this self whom we hold so dear. But this summary of traditional understandings raises a number of questions regarding the significance of neuropsychological and physiological studies of meditation. First, where in these studies do we find any evidence about self and conceptions of the self? Second, the tradition itself is not in complete agreement as to what it is that remains or comes to light once the delusions of self are removed.
Furthermore, the neurological focus still needs to explain what to the Buddhist is paramount: Transformations of mind and self have significant ethical and soteriological implications. Such implications include a vast and complex path theory explaining how one becomes a buddha, and, for instance, acquires the three modes of wisdom described above. These expectations cannot be dismissed or demythologized by assuming an objective cerebral or psychological referent.
Buddhism and scientific psychology
As a corollary to the above, one returns to the question of what in Buddhism may be considered parallel to Western ideas about how one heals intrapersonal and interpersonal distress—and to the related question of whether or not there is a Buddhist tradition similar to Western clinical psychology and psychiatry. Despite the existence of medical traditions in Buddhist countries (T. Clifford), little was done until recent times to create a dialogue between medicine and Buddhist practice, let alone a systematic study of mental diseases and the Buddhist goal of relieving all "dis-ease." There are multiple cultural and institutional reasons for this apparent lack, including the fact that the very notion of mental disease is a relatively recent Western creation. Nonetheless, some Buddhist practices and systems of belief may be considered parallel to Western techniques for healing through the modification of thought and behavior, and conversely, Western specialists have adapted Buddhist ideas with greater or lesser open acknowledgment of their depth.
Historically, one should mention the Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) as the pioneer. Despite certain ambivalence about "the Orient" (Gómez 1995), Jung borrowed generously, especially in his analysis of "mandala symbolism," which combined traditional Buddhist and Hindu understandings about the significance of the maṆḌala with keen clinical observations.
In recent times we have seen the development of biofeedback and behavioral techniques that involve ideas of self-monitoring (Rokke and Rehm) and mindful reassessment of experience (Smyth), and of relaxation as a natural response to specific stimuli (Benson and Klipper), techniques that echo, explicitly or implicitly, Buddhist serenity and mindfulness techniques (de Silva 1984, 1985, and 1986). These efforts go well beyond some of the soft formulations found in the literature of self-help, spirituality, New Age, and pop psychology. In fact, the implicit and the avowed recognition of the influence of Buddhist ideas and attitudes extends beyond associations with contemporary popular expectations. We now count several systematic, and successful attempts to integrate aspects of Buddhist theories of cognition and meditation into empirically testable clinical theory. The most explicit use of Buddhist models is seen in Zindel Segal's mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (Segal et al.). This technique incorporates both the behavioral and the cognitive aspects of mindfulness meditation into the treatment of depression, including the practice of mindfulness of breath (ānāpānasati) as a way to refocus or shift attention away from distorting patterns of cognition and emotion toward adaptive schemas.
Less explicitly linked to Buddhist practice, but now amply tested as an effective therapy is Marsha Linehan's dialectic cognitive-behavioral therapy or DBT (Linehan 1993a and 1993b). This system is a subtle integration of empirically based cognitive-behavioral strategies and a number of elements of Buddhist theory of knowledge and meditation. Linehan, for instance, conceives the processes of dysfunction and therapy in part through the lens of her own experience with Zen practice, but also through her own nontraditional understanding of the practice. The process is a dialectic because it assumes and relies on the "fundamental interrelatedness or wholeness of reality" and the placement of individual experience within a whole of relationships. This means, on the one hand, that the client needs "to accept herself as she is in the moment and the need for her to change" (1993b, pp. 1–2), but also that change requires the cultivation of "core mindfulness skills" through which the client learns to observe and accept without judgment even those behaviors or interpersonal deficits that need to be changed.
Jeffrey Schwartz, who was also inspired in part by his Buddhist practice, has adapted similar mindfulness techniques into the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In this particular technique, one may posit that Schwartz's behavioral strategy is a variant of Buddhist uses of attention and selective inattention, including the confrontation of disgust and negative emotions while in a serene state. Here Buddhist techniques may be understood as equivalent to Western systematic desensitization, and exposure with response prevention. Yet, although both traditions follow similar paths in reorienting the suffering individual toward a revaluation of the causes of distress and disgust, Schwartz highlights the Buddhist practice of detached, nonjudgmental awareness, rather than the purposeful increase in anxious tension built into exposure techniques.
Unlike attempts to link Buddhism to psychology by demanding a softening of the strictures of scientific research, these applications respond to a critical reflection on Buddhist conceptions followed by systematic clinical trials and empirical testing. But they also represent a willingness to follow the theory and technique in whichever direction is required to achieve effectiveness, including the use of techniques and belief systems that would have been totally foreign to traditional Buddhists.
However, one should note that the danger of missing a valid parallel is as great as the danger of accepting spurious correspondences. An important component of Linehan's technique called "distress tolerance skills" (1993a) parallels psychodynamic concepts of affect tolerance and affect dysregulation (Riesenberg-Malcolm). One would be tempted to regard these principles as unrelated (at least genetically) to any Buddhist technique of self-cultivation, except that a wide range of Buddhist practices pursue similar goals. One may mention, in passing, the contemplation of objects of disgust (corpse meditation or aśubhabhāvanā), as well as the use in the Tiantai school of repentance rituals that both move away from distress and remorse by contemplating emptiness and approach emptiness by contemplating the passions and their effects.
Commensurability and dialogue
The use of Buddhist techniques or beliefs as points of departure for contemporary psychologies or as a partner in scientific dialogue raises issues of commensurability: Are Buddhist psychological conceptions in some way commensurate with Western ideas of psychology and can there be a fruitful dialogue between the two? An obvious risk is to read psychological (scientific) literature the same way one reads religious literature: as statements of eternal truth. But equally tempting is the tendency to read psychological studies as confirmations or equivalents to Buddhist doctrinal speculation and religious practice.
Psychological "conclusions" are essentially provisional heuristic tools, with two functions: prediction and explanation, which are in turn validated (the probability of their disconfirmation reduced) when they themselves set the direction for further research and observation. There are, of course, good reasons to doubt their total independence from culture and the sociology of knowledge, but one risks misunderstanding their scope if one chooses to ignore the research protocols that underlie scientific statements about human psychosomatic processes.
Similarly, religious discourse and practice has its own protocols, and these must be thoroughly understood before one draws comparisons. Even today, practicing Buddhists tend to reject an interpretation of their beliefs and practices that may feel "reductionistic." As already noted, a psychoneurological explanation may ring true, but for it ultimately to have heuristic value or applicability beyond its conceptual conclusions it must account for the belief systems (the truths and myths of tradition) and the actual practices (ritual and contemplative patterns and events) cherished by the believers themselves.
Nonetheless, one may begin to consider, speculatively at this point in our understanding of the issue, ways in which Buddhist traditions may be seen to contain insights or techniques that may help illuminate contemporary problems of psychology. As suggested above, such illumination could be in a number of areas of philosophical and psychological inquiry: theories of consciousness and the unconscious, such as the theories of perception, emotion, and mental health. Some of these issues have been discussed in an ongoing series of symposia involving Western scholars, scientists, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
The discussions point toward interesting possibilities for the future, and the participation of the Dalai Lama also reminds us of the frame of reference within which Buddhist psychological theories have developed—and arguably will continue to develop. Buddhist theories of mind speak of health and "dis-ease," but they also have ethical concerns that do not always overlap with the concerns of Western psychologists. The Buddhist may, for instance, be concerned with total liberation from the bonds of desire that have enslaved us for millions of rebirths, whereas the Western psychologist may be seeking an adaptive compromise in this single life. The Buddhist meditator may value unquestioned acceptance of a teacher's wisdom, whereas the Western psychologist may be interested in the matter of power differentials and authority in the relationship between therapist and client.
Most likely the majority of scientific psychologists, whatever their theoretical leanings, would not want to describe Buddhist doctrine and practices as equivalent to any one of the Western psychologies. Conversely it is difficult to imagine how a person committed to Buddhism in belief, practice, or both would want to reduce his or her preferred set of beliefs and practices to anything similar to what is considered scientific or empirical. And yet, if history is an effective teacher, we may expect to find an increasing cross-fertilization between both styles of studying and healing the human being as a unity of body and mind.
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