Eastern Perspectives & Western Psychology

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Eastern Perspectives & Western Psychology

“Buddhism will come to the West as a psychology,” observed Chogyam Trungpa, recognized as one of the greatest figures in both Tibetan and Western Buddhism. But Eastern influences on Western thought long predated Eastern influence on Western psychology. Bishop Berkeley, who famously suggested that in fact there was no material world at all and that all that we see is inherently imagined and/or spiritual, inspired a furor of attempts at refutation; the definitive attempt, by Immanuel Kant, followed Berkeley more than half-way by making the case that, while an external world existed, the human mind had intrinsic categories – time and space, causality, logic – which it could not transcend, although it might apprehend such ultimate realities as God, right and wrong, and spiritual immortality through intuition.

But outside such intuition, ultimately reality was unknowable. A subsequent Kantian philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, failed to intuit either God, right and wrong, or spiritual immortality, but strongly argued that ultimate reality, which he called Will, instead manifested itself by somewhat blindly authoring our bodies, thoughts, and intuitions.

All three philosophers raised the notions that the external world, and, to a degree, our external selves which participate in that world, are to various degrees illusory; but Schopenhauer was key, in that he was a noted student of the Eastern religious literature of that time and both somewhat popularized several of their notions, and was able to elaborate the consonance they exhibited with the new philosophical trends. In addition, his views on the origins of conscious thought resting on factors outside consciousness itself prefigured both the Freudian unconscious, behavioral views on environment and mind, and even contemporary medical views on the brain and its direct impact on thought and emotion.

While Eastern influences on Schopenhauer were wide, deep, and explicit, the influence of Schopenhauer’s later psychology theories was wide, deep and subtle, and it is fair to say that the East played little explicit part in the development of Western psychology – until, that is, the Second World War and the Cold War. Earlier efforts by researchers such as Rhys Davids noted the connections between Buddhism and psychology: “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).

But conflict with Japan first brought America into direct contact with Japan and with Zen – seminal American Zen teacher and Zen priest Robert Aitken was introduced to Zen in a Japanese POW camp – and the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese led to the scattering of an extraordinary diaspora of quite literally millions of monks and lay practitioners fleeing torture, imprisonment and extermination, and ultimately introducing Buddhist teachings to Western thought leaders.

Since then the interplay of Buddhism and psychology has been profound, involving clinicians, psychologists and teachers, and writers ranging from Carl Jung, D.T. Suzuki, Erich Fromm, Alan Watts, and Jack Kornfield, all of whom to some degree sought to integrate psychology and Buddhism in ways illuminating to both.

Introduction to Zen Buddhism

The historically defining moment may have taken place when psychoanalytic icon Carl Jung wrote a foreword for Japanese Zen scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s 1948 Introduction to Zen Buddhism. In the foreword, Jung discusses Zen and Zen practice not in religious or metaphysical terms at all, but instead chose to present satori or enlightenment as the supreme transformation to psychological wholeness. Speaking of satori, Jung writes: “The only movement within our culture which partly has, and partly should have, some understanding of these aspirations is psychotherapy.

It is therefore not a matter of chance that this foreword is written by a psychotherapist…. “ Soon after humanist, popular author and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm took up the work of synthesis, collaborating with Suzuki and other psychoanalysts at a 1957 workshop on “Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis” in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and writing of the “unmistakable and increasing interest in Zen Buddhism among psychoanalysts” (Fromm, 1960). Averring that many contemporary psychoanalytic patients suffered not from clinical illness so much as from an “inner deadness”, Fromm observed, “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”, adding, “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… 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.”

These early, somewhat romantic celebrations of the links between psychology and Buddhism were further popularized by writers such as Orientalist Alan Watts, who wrote: “If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga… [w]e find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy…. 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.” (Watts,1975).

Not all psychologists – or Buddhists – were quite so ready to equate humanist psychology and Buddhist analysis. Disparaging what he termed such “Buddhist Romanticism”, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:”True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned. … [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.”

Such romanticism soon metamorphosed under the increasing attention given to Buddhist psychology from clinicians and neuroscientists. Therapeutic practices explicitly using Buddhist mindfulness techniques are Marsha M. Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and former Zen practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Writes Linehan, “Mindfulness skills are central to DBT…. The skills are psychological and behavioral versions of meditation practices from Eastern spiritual training.” Controlled clinical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of such meditation-based practices in cases involving borderline personality disorder. Behaviorists have taken note as well.

Dr. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and one of leading influences on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has said, “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… by some of the ancient Taoist and Buddhist thinkers.” Nor has the Buddhist influence on psychology been limited to Western practitioners. Shomo Morita, father of Morita Therapy, has been called the “Sigmund Freud” of Japan and is widely regarded as the leading psychological figure produced by that nation. Morita Therapy’s debts to both Zen perspectives and meditational practices permeate his unique psychology, which, popularized by anthropologist David K. Reynolds in the form of a paradigm called Constructive Living, shows vividly how Western and Eastern psychologies have become less a matter of influence than of mutual influence and dialogue.

What specific notions are responsible for that resonance, however? What is it about Buddhist notions and Buddhist practice that provoke such responses from western psychologists, and which core concepts in particular. This article examines only some of the more prominent practices:

The Primacy of Mind

Buddhism has been called a non-theistic religion, an atheistic religion, or simply not a religious discipline at all, but no simple categorization applies. Suffice it to say that while Buddhism has a very religious shell, rich in monk tradition and rooted in monasteries, chants and prayer, rituals and prostrations, these are explicitly considered to be means to an end, and the end is psychological state of enlightenment or liberation. That end is best achieved through analytical study of the contents of one’s mind, developing an alert detached awareness of those contents, and gradually, through clear and specific techniques, fostering superior levels of awareness and psychological functioning that lead away from delusion and toward peace, serenity and bliss.

Whatever one may say about its effectiveness – and testimonies as to the beneficial effects of Buddhist practices such as mindfulness and meditation are legion – clearly this is an approach similar to psychological and psychotherapeutic endeavors: examination of mind, deepening understanding of motivations and beliefs, and ultimately an improved manifestation in external reality of thought and desire.

A Secular Practicality

Buddhist perspectives on psychological change are utterly self-reliant. Buddhism has nothing to do with notions such as grace or redemption, wherein radical psychological change or ethical justification or forgiveness comes about from outside, as it were, as a generous response to supplication. Rather, Buddhists feel that one’s psychological destiny is entirely the result of one’s own efforts, and that those efforts are time-tested and efficacious: the best analogy is with physical exercise – simply do the practices and abstain from bad (psychological) habits and nutrition, and positive results will eventually and inevitably manifest. Faith is not a requirement: indeed, the Buddha himself explicitly told followers not to accept any ideas which he espoused purely on the basis of his own personal authority, but rather to verify them for themselves through practice.

Buddhism has arrived from Eastern cultures, and cultural accretions and assumptions are there to a greater or lesser degree. But accepting them is not part of the package. In Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, Batchelor affirms his Buddhism within a framework of total secularity that dispenses even with the notion of reincarnation, thought to be a core belief. His response to critics is that there are no core beliefs other than observation of mind and practice. Whatever else may be said, clearly this resonates well with psychologists given to scientific modes of analysis.

While Buddhism can be highly ritualistic and organized, at core it is an experimental study of mind that requires few if any metaphysical beliefs – indeed, the dropping-away of all conceptual thought and a complete embrace of immediate experience is a goal of many Buddhist practices. Western practitioners need not adopt Eastern metaphysics, nor even abandon their own: Christian Zen abounds, and Jews, Protestants and even Catholic priests have received the inka (confirmation) of enlightenment.

Interdependence and Causality

Two further areas resonate well with Western psychology: what may be called the ecological element of the Buddhist approach, and one of its implications: karma. The ecological aspect embraces more than nature: in the Buddhist view, all things are interdependent. Nothing is independent. Everything is affected by what surrounds it, and has its effects in turn, effects that ripple out infinitely and that return to affect the person once again. Such an approach does in fact foster a greater awareness of, and care for, the surrounding world of nature, society, family and friends. It also points up one of the core ideas of the Buddhist perspective: karma.

Karma is often, and quite mistakenly, viewed as simple immutable determinism. In this view, karma is regarded as saying “You were destined to be this, so be it.” On the contrary: karma does affirm that one reaps what one sows, but it affirms it in the context that one reaps what one sows now as well. The person who is overweight has reaped the effects overeating and lethargy, and if that same person exercises and eats better, he or she will reap slenderness and improved health. Far from being imprisoning, karma asserts that liberation from any and all situations of suffering is possible, given the proper actions and practices and intentions.

What is particularly interesting about the notion of karma is that Buddhists make subjective intention – and psychology – the primary karmic driver: harming someone accidentally will produce consequences, but passionately and viciously intending to cause pain and harm to another, and taking joy in successfully doing so, will produce consequences as well, and possibly far worse ones, as the destructive intention metastasizes into general disdain and cruelty. Karma is causality – again, a notion sympathetic to the scientific researcher – but it is also an assertion of psychological causality, of certain thought practices leading to certain cognitive results. At one end, the result is insanity and madness; at the other, serenity and enlightenment. Buddhist analysis maps very clear routes to each.


One aspect of Buddhist psychology that is off-putting to many is the notion of emptiness and non-identity. The assumption is that this is a nihilistic assertion that no one and nothing exists, but that view is flatly rejected by all Buddhist schools. Non-identity (the term may be unfortunate) is a much more fluid and psychologically useful concept, with roots in the concept of interdependence. Non-identity is taught so as to offer an alternative to the notion of a permanent, unchanging self-identity unaffected by anything around it. Of course such a view is untenable, but (asset Buddhists) we fall into same all too easily, and suffer as a result.

By way of example, we need only think of the forty-year-old who endeavors to convince him or herself that he or she is twenty, or who intensively tries to retain that youthfulness with surgery or makeup. Or the faded movie star, or successful business manufacturer of eight-track tapes, maintaining ever-diminishing façades of success or hopes of a comeback. while surrounded by a world that has changed and no longer supports their wishes. The former identity has passed and a new one has emerged. Those able to part gracefully can find new sources of joy; those holding on to outmoded concepts merely create the circumstances resulting in ever-deepening misery.

Non-identity, as with many Buddhist psychological concepts, can seem strange at first, but invariably has a useful aspect. Non-identity means that you are not tied to a given social role, a given set of opinions, a frozen self-image, an unalterable span of possibilities, not even to a given past or history since a re-assessment can alter if not the past then the meaning and significance of the past. In fact, holding on to that limited and limiting range of options is illusory and self-destructive. Change is inevitable, but it is more than inevitable: for those ready to ride the wave, it is beneficial. And for those in need of therapy or seeking self-improvement, the Buddhist take (and techniques) on shedding old and unviable roles can be liberation in itself.


Compassion is something of a paradox in Buddhist thought because the ultimate beneficiary of compassion is not the person receiving it but the person giving it. Buddhism has no such notion as sin, but it has a great many descriptions of mental phenomena that simply do not work well and cause pain, and chief among these is ego. We do all manner of things to feed our sense of self-importance, support our self-image and sense of identity, preen our vanity, and further our self-serving goals and desires at the expense of others. The result is generally disastrous for us and for others. The Western saying, “Pride goeth before a fall” recognizes this, but it prescribes no practice for reducing pride.

The Buddhist prescription is compassion: learn to care for others, cultivate a sympathy for others, seek to help others, and not only might one experience the positive feedback of gratitude and thanks, one might find oneself let out of the prison-house of ego. The person whose affection is centered on others is no longer self-centered, and such a detachment from self, while elementary, is the first step towards the total detachment that heralds nondual consciousness, and the permanent cessation from suffering that is the goal of Buddhist practice.

Ways Out Of Suffering

While Western psychological interest in Buddhist perspectives has long had a conceptual focus, it must also be granted that the interest is not theoretical alone. Psychology aims not only at understanding the mind, but on healing it, and on helping those who suffer and struggle pass beyond frustration to serenity and joy. In this too, psychologists have found a great deal to explore in Buddhism, for its angle on psychological difficulties is utterly optimistic and rigorously practical. All suffering can be overcome, it claims, and following particular techniques and practices will directly achieve that goal.

Freud, towards the end of his life, characterized psychoanalysis as helping lift individuals from madness and wretchedness to a preferable but hardly enviable condition of common everyday misery. That is not the message of Buddhist psychology. Starting from the premise that everything is suffering, it goes on to promise total liberation from all suffering, and describes clear steps to achieve that goal – steps that involve compassionate action, regular episodes of meditative serenity, and deep states of meditative bliss.

The full scope of specific Buddhist visualizations, mantras, breathing exercises are too vast to elaborate here, but that full scope is being both explored and incorporated. And the technological analysis and testing of Buddhist practices with the ever more sophisticated tools of neuroscience may ultimately prove to be the West’s own distinctive contribution to the long river of Buddhist understanding – and, perhaps, how we can use that understanding to temper the heart’s sorrow, and foster lasting joy.


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