Buddhism and Western Psychology
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
Karma Triyana Dharmachakra
October 9, 2010
Buddhism and western psychology and western psychotherapy have a somewhat long history, which I am sure many of you are familiar with. It is in some respects an uneasy relationship because, on the one hand, many people actually believe Buddhism is a form of psychology. I am sure you have heard this before: ‘Buddhism is not a religion; it is more like a psychology.’ On the other hand, the very people also say Buddhism is not complete and that we need western psychology and psychotherapy because to follow Buddhism may cause us to develop all kinds of neuroses. They say Buddhism actually can cause us to become neurotic and we would then need to rush to a therapist. After visiting a Buddhist teacher or doing a ten-day intensive meditation course, your mind is stretched to the limit with all kinds of thoughts that were not there before doing the course. Many of the people who say those things also say while Buddhism and psychotherapy are sort of complimentary, we need western psychology.
One of the common arguments used to support of that idea is that Buddhism does not encourage individual development and freedom while western psychology does support them. However, we have to really think about these things carefully, because from what I understand, that is not true. It is not true that western psychology promotes the idea of individual development, freedom and liberty while Buddhism is restricted by its belief in some kind of karmic determinism and things of that kind. Most of sociological thought and psychological theories of human nature—including Freudianism and all kinds of psychologies and psychotherapies—have their own idea of determinism.
In many instances, they actually do not tell you anything you do not already know! They say such things as, ‘If you are born into a bad family it is more likely you will develop disturbances.’ Well, that is obvious. If a father is beating on his wife and being abusive to his children then of course the children are not going to be all that happy. There are many different ideas like that, including the idea that if you are born into an underprivileged family or socioeconomic environment you will have less chance to prosper and flourish, but if you are born into a more advantageous environment you can prosper and so on. Even the idea that we are not really conscious of many of our thoughts, ideas and feelings and that many of these thoughts, ideas and feelings have an unconscious origin, also says that we are not really free. There are all these unconscious processes at work. These things are often talked about in the dialogue between western psychology and Buddhism.
However, as far as I understand it, it is not the case that Buddhism deprives us of our individual welfare and personal concerns. Not all concerns about our well-being have to be egoistically based. There is that issue as well. Many people think that Buddhism says that we should not think about ourselves and that not thinking about ourselves we are engaging in a form of self-neglect, while psychotherapy gives us an opportunity to nurture ourselves, to tend to our needs, to our emotional and psychological well-being. But Buddhism does not say that to think about your own well-being means that you are being selfish or self-centered or too self-concerned, so even that idea is suspect, at least in my view. It is one thing to be egocentric, narcissistic, self-engrossed and self-obsessed and another thing entirely to think about our own growth.
Buddhism, more than any other religion, focuses on that idea, as you know. The Buddhist ‘noble person’ is called the Victorious One because the noble person has looked into him- or herself and come to terms with that self. In other words, he or she has gained peace with the self. Buddhism says that a lot of our problems arise from conflict within ourselves. A lot of the conflict we actually experience with other people—and with the world—comes from fighting that is going on in our own minds. We are fighting with ourselves, we are constantly shadow boxing, and so become disturbed and the real cause of that conflict comes from our egoistic preoccupations.
These egoistic preoccupations do not cater for our genuine self-interest. There is what we may call ‘genuine self-interest’ and then there is ‘egoistic preoccupation’ which is egocentric, narcissistic and self-obsessed. Even psychologists will tell you that psychoses and so forth have their origin in self-obsession. The psychotic person is the one who actually does not care about anybody except him- or herself. That self-obsession may drive an individual to extreme lengths to indulge in their own pleasure, even if it means somebody else is going to suffer at the receiving end of their egoistic preoccupations and self-obsession. As we all know, even an obsession with our own appearance, leads to psychological disturbances. As do obsession with what we want to get, what we desire, our emotional needs, feelings and so on.
In Buddhism, we are not just trying to know what we already know; we are trying to know about ourselves in ways that we do not know. That is really what Buddhism is about. From my limited understanding, it seems increasingly that there is a growing voice that Buddhism is saying that what we do not know is not worth knowing. Buddhism is good when it talks about our immediate experiences and things like that, but when we start thinking about things that we actually do not currently experience, we should regard it as mere speculation and something that may not be real. That perspective seems to arise quite frequently because Buddhism is often presented as supportive of the scientific way of looking at things. We should only talk about what we can actually experience and not think about things we do not experience.
However, when Buddhism talks about experience, it is using the word ‘experience’ in a much wider sense than the usual narrow definition promoted in modern discourse. In Buddhism, we can have experiences we have not had before. Furthermore, these experiences are true and will expand our minds. Buddhism actually talks about the expansion of the mind and the expansion of our sense of selfhood. It is not the case that we just try to understand the thoughts, feelings and emotions that we already have, so that we learn to deal with them and work with them until we become more comfortable with them and develop healthier sense of our selfhood. Buddhism actually goes further than that, saying that if we stretch our minds and expand our mental horizons, we will have all kinds of experiences that in many respects are more real than what we already experience. We may think, ‘If I were to think like that it will actually support my crazy ideas and tendencies,’ but from this perspective, that conclusion would be wrong.
We have to be quite careful about what we are talking about here. On the other hand, not stretching our imagination and not stretching our mental capacities is what is meant by ‘being trapped in our samsaric mode’ because we are taking comfort in what is familiar. We do not entertain what is unfamiliar and challenging, that is regarded as being crazy. For example, many people regard the idea of enlightenment, that people can actually become more enlightened and so on, as just a crazy idea, they say that actually nobody becomes enlightened. I am sure you’ve read Buddhist books that say this. There are quite a few floating about. Often people feel good when they read these books. They say, ‘Yeah, even Buddha was not enlightened, man, so I am not so bad after all. I don’t have to think about becoming enlightened. I am off the hook!’ they think this is a good thing, but it is not a good thing; it is very bad to think like that.
What is wrong with the idea that you can actually attain some kind of transcendental perspective on your own life issues and on reality-as-such? There is nothing wrong with that idea. The idea that we should just focus on what we are already experiencing is limiting us. That is what is keeping us in the samsaric mode of thought. Buddhism is suggesting we should learn to break those barriers down and be a little bit more adventurous. Yes, it could be a little bit more nerve wracking; meditation practice is not like going to a sauna. If you practice Buddhist meditation and other practices by thinking, ‘I will spend this weekend in a Buddhist retreat and its going to be so much fun,’ you have got the whole thing wrong. It is only when we test ourselves—when we do what is difficult—that we will realize what we are capable of doing. When we are tested we become better human beings. However, if we keep doing what we already find easy, we will never get better.
There is that elements in our culture these days that says any kind of discomfort is bad for you. If you find something slightly upsetting or slightly provocative, its bad for you and you shouldn’t have to put up with it. However, it really depends on what you find upsetting. Not everything that you find upsetting is bad for you. Many things that you find upsetting are actually good for you. These days, this is not very popular idea and some of you may want to chastise me for saying these things, but not everything that we find difficult, irritating or upsetting is bad for us. Sometimes we need to have such experiences to move forward, to take a leap, to realize how much more we are capable of in dealing with things. That is true.
If it is a mile to walk to work, that is difficult, but if you just jump in you car and drive to work, that is easy. To walk to work is physically good for you while always taking the easy way to travel is not. We always want comfort and we always wanting things to happen immediately. You fall in love with somebody and you immediately expect that person to reciprocate your interest. If that person does not reciprocate, you think, ‘That idiot doesn’t understand how fantastic I am!’ I’m trying to use these analogies to explain a very profound Buddhist insight. When we work on loving somebody or something of that nature, we actually get a better experience of love than when we think that it has to happen ‘just like that.’ In a similar fashion, if we develop ourselves in a real way, such as Buddhism describes, we will develop as a person.
Everything that we find irritating or upsetting is not bad for us. It could be good for us. We should be aiming toward working with those things and gradually finding them easy. Simply finding certain things difficult initially does not mean they have to remain that way. We adapt, and as human beings, we have a lot of unexplored resources that we can turn to in dealing with these issues in life. As a result, we will become stronger.
Thinking too much that upsetting experiences will leave some kind of big scar on your psyche is actually causing a scar. If you think, ‘I found this experience to be really, really upsetting, it was emotional, it was really bad, and now I’m damaged and I can’t get over it, I’m stuck with it.’ That kind of thinking will deepen the scar you believe you have got. This is not to say something bad did not happen, but you have to take a different route if you want to get out of a bad experience. You must not go in the direction where you are always telling yourself, ‘I’m damaged, I’m hurt, I’m the victim’ and so on.
I am mentioning all of these things by way of introduction to the dialogue between Buddhism and psychotherapy. I am not saying that western psychotherapy is not helpful or anything like that. I am trying to say a few things about Buddhism that people seem to have some distorted ideas about. What Buddhism says actually has a lot to do with mental health, on all levels. Not just psychological health, although psychological health does come from seeing the total aspect of ourselves. This is what Buddhism talks about. As human beings, not everything that we experience is psychological.
Having a wider perspective and taking the totality of our own selfhood is necessary for our development and our health. Not everything that we need is related to fulfilling certain emotional needs or longings or things of that kind. Often, there is a danger of that happening. We say, ‘If my emotional needs are fulfilled, then I will develop.’ Nonetheless, even our emotional and psychological needs can change if we have a proper perspective on things. What we think we need, we may not need. That is the thing. We may think, ‘I have to have these emotional needs met to be happy,’ but if we have a wider perspective, we may realize how petty we are being with some of these things. We may not need them as much as we think we do. That is not life denying, that is not anti-life; this is not even this-worldly. We may actually learn to live in the world with much more enjoyment if we can think with a bigger vision. We might lead a richer life because we might find many other things exciting and our needs will be fulfilled.
There are many different kinds of experiences and all different kinds of realities. Some things are more real than others, but our obsessions with what is real and what is not real, thinking that the strange is not real or asking ‘Is it real?’ and obsessing about that and so on, just makes things much more difficult for us. However, if we think, ‘This is just an experience I am having’ and you just deal with it like that, you will actually benefit from whatever you are experiencing.
Ultimately, at least from the Buddhist perspective, Buddhists are the real skeptics, if you look at it carefully. Buddhists are discouraging you from simply believing everything you are familiar with, thinking, ‘this is reality’ and trying to match every other experience with that reality. The real skeptic is the one who does not think in that fashion, the one who is thinking in terms of degrees of realities and different kinds of possibilities. If we use the things we are already familiar with as a yardstick to judge our experiences and we see or experience something different, we immediately refer to what we already know and ask, ‘Is this real or not real?’ however, sometime the experience of something completely new may in fact be more real that what we already now. There is that possibility as well. To keep an open mind is a healthy way to look at things.
To close your mind off to all possible realities and only believe in what you think modern science teaches us is a form of scientism. That is not a scientific attitude; that is a dogma. Science would never have progressed at all if scientists thought that way. There would have been no progress if Einstein thought the same way as Newton. People who say, ‘You can’t believe in karma, karma is not real,’ are not taking the scientific approach to the subject. The scientific way to look at these things is to say, ‘It may be true.’ You cannot foreclose on these ideas because that is not the scientific view. If we say, ‘It can’t happen,’ we are actually depriving ourselves from experiencing another kind of reality. There seems to be this fear in some people that if you start to think about alternate realities, you will cease to think about things in a modern way and our great western scientific tradition will suffer. However, to think about things in an open way is what science has taught us in the first place.
The scientific view does not therefore say that karma and rebirth do not exist. Both karma and rebirth are part metaphysical and part empirical and a lot of scientific theories are also like that. It is a particular ay of looking at one’s life. If you think that karma and rebirth may be true and they turn out not to be true, you have not lost anything because of the empirical grounding of these ideas. But if you dispense with the ideas of karma and rebirth and do not take them seriously and they turn out to be true, you are in deep trouble. It is like the Buddhist version of Pascal’s wager. Buddha actually said as much.
To think about things that are hard to comprehend or hard to understand does not mean you have to think they are true and become very dogmatic about them. However, to think about these things will expand your mental capacity. To think, ‘Well, it’s hard to really take it in but it may be true,’ will expand your mental horizon. However, if you immediately say, ‘It can’t be true, it’s not real,’ without thinking about it, discussing it or contemplating upon it, your mind has shrunk. You just say, ‘It can’t be true because science does not believe in these things,’ and you have limited your mind, which is not good for your mental health but if you think things like karma, rebirth and nirvana could be true, that will expand your mental horizon and be good for your mental health.