Psychotherapy and Religion


In 1996, a friend reported to me a conversation he had had with Sangharakshita, the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). It had come to Sangharakshita's attention that Jack Kornfield Jack Kornfield, 2002had said in a published interview that through meditation practice a person cannot bring all negative emotions to an end, but one can at least learn to manage them better. Sangharakshita's reported reaction was to say that anyone who held such a view was, in effect, denying that nirvāṇa is possible, since nirvāṇa is traditionally defined as the cessation of all mental afflictions (kleśa). Moreover, since nirvāṇa is the Dharma to which a Buddhist goes for refuge, to deny that nirvāṇa is possible is inconsistent with going for refuge to the Dharma. And since going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha is what defines one as a Buddhist, anyone who says the kleśas can only be managed but not eliminated is not really a Buddhist at all. After reporting this conversation to me, my friend asked me what I thought. I agreed with Kornfield. My friend agreed with Sangharakshita. The debate that followed was animated-perhaps a little too animated.

Whether or not the conversation with Sangharakshita took place in just the way reported in that anecdote, the anecdote does illustrate a division of opinions on the exact relationship between psychotherapy and Buddhist practice. Some are inclined to view Buddhist practice within an essentially psychoanalytic framework, while others are inclined to view modern psychotherapy within an essentially Buddhist framework. At various points along the spectrum we can find a number of psychotherapists, such as psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, who openly discuss psychotherapy in terms of Buddhist theory. Ron Leifer, M.D., for example, wrote a book called The Happiness Project, (Leifer, 1997) which draws on principles of Tibetan Buddhist practice. Drawing on a skillful blend of Theravāda, Zen and Tibetan texts, Mark Epstein, M.D. presents an explicitly Buddhist-flavored presentation of psychoanalysis in his book Thoughts Without a Thinker. Jack Kornfield, a former Theravāda monk who now practices psychotherapy and teaches insight meditation, blends features from both his Buddhist and his Western psychological training in his influential book A Path With Heart. Polly Young-Eisendrath In her more recent publications (e.g., 1996 and 2000) the Jungian analyst Polly Young-Eisendrath draws heavily on her many years of Zen and vipaśyanā practice in her discussions of the practice of psychoanalysis. The reflections of a lifetime devoted to studying philosophy, teaching Buddhist meditation, practicing the Sufi path and working as a psychotherapist are offered in Mitchell Ginsberg's The Inner Palace (Ginsberg, 2002). In addition to these psychotherapists who have been influenced by their Buddhist practice, one can also think of Buddhists, such as Stephen Batchelor and Chogyam Trungpa, whose presentation of Buddhism has been noticeably influenced by their study of or training in Western psychology. Almost every time one visits the Buddhism section of an American bookstore one can find new titles indicating a combined influence of Buddhism and psychotherapy.

It would be my hunch that in the early years of the twenty-first century it would be considerably less risky for either a psychoanalyst to openly admit Buddhist influence or for a Buddhist to show psychoanalytic influence than it would be for either of them to readily admit being strongly influenced by Christian principles. Clearly the relationship between Buddhism and Western psychotherapy is a potentially cozy one. And yet, as the reported remarks of Sangharakshita make clear, there are some Buddhists who feel uneasy about letting the affinity between these two arts be perceived as an identity of goals and methods. So it may be worth asking: what is the difference between viewing Buddhism within a psychotherapeutic framework and viewing therapy within a Buddhist framework?

HollisThe answer to this question would have to take into consideration many factors, but one that looms largest in my mind is the issue of whether or not one thinks it is possible to eradicate all the negative emotions that cause pain to oneself and others. At one end of the spectrum we find the view attributed in the anecdote related above to Jack Kornfield: it is not possible to eradicate them, but one can at least manage them more effectively by being more aware of their presence so that one is not taken by surprise by them. This view would be held by almost all modern psychotherapists, many of whom would go on to say that Buddhism, by giving a false promise of an unattainable goal, could actually be a cause of unnecessary pain and frustration to those who continually fail to achieve what they have been taught is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. Modern psychotherapists, in other words, tend to hold a position similar to the great rivals of the Indian Buddhists, namely, the followers of the Nyāya school, who said that as long as one has a physical body, one will always be prone to such potentially painful responses as anger, jealousy, desire, guilt and melancholy-the emotions that the Jungian analyst James Hollis (1996) has called the swamplands of the soul—for these emotions are built into the physical body.

More traditional Buddhists, on the other hand, would be at the other end of the spectrum and would insist that Buddhism surpasses psychoanalysis, since the latter can only lessen neurotic suffering but cannot eliminate it altogether, whereas the former is a path that leads to the removal of the root causes of all psychological pain. Mark Epstein (1995, p. 222), for example writes:

When Freud wrote about oceanic feeling as the apotheosis of the mystical feeling and when Fromm extolled well-being as the fruition of Buddhist meditation, they were overlooking a simple but essential point: meditation is not just about creating states of well-being; it is about destroying the belief in an inherently existing self.
Can the belief in an inherently existing self ever be completely destroyed? Those who work within a Buddhist framework tend to say Yes; those who work within a psychotherapeutic framework say No. And some of us are prepared to try to have it both ways by saying “Well, ....”

The entries below, taken from various periods in the history of buddha-l and buddhist, are a few examples of how subscribers to those groups have thought about these issues.

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Does Buddhism help?

September 27, 1997

Nikolai writes:

Richard Hayes wrote: “I think Buddhism is utterly destroyed as soon as one sees Dharma as a religion in any sense that the word `religion' has in the modern West.” Richard can you elaborate on that?

Actually, I have written an entire chapter on that topic in my book, Land of No Buddha ( Hayes, 1998, pp.  139-152). Rather than going here into all the detail I went into there, let me relate the results of a series of interviews I once did. In the mid-1980s, Bhante Punnaji (a very influential monk in my life, and a man whom I deeply admire and to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude) was quoted by the religion editor in The Toronto Star as saying that Buddhism is not a religion but comes closer to being a form of psychotherapy.

This statement caused a huge stir.Samu Sunim Samu Sunim, the Zen master I was training under at the time, was especially irate. He telephoned me and asked me to write an article for The Toronto Star repudiating Bhante Punnaji and denouncing his statement. I said I would be happy to write an article on the topic, but first I wanted to consult several other Buddhist teachers in the Toronto area and ask them how they felt. So I called several people and asked them all the same question: “What in Buddhism would people fail to see or appreciate if Buddhism were called a religion instead of a philosophy or a form of therapy?”

The answers that I got really surprised me. People said such things as “If Buddhism is not called a religion, then people will not realize that we Buddhist monks and priests perform funeral services, weddings, blessings of children, blessings of houses, and exorcisms.” Every single thing that people said we would miss by failing to use the label “religion” was a way of making money for the expensive institutions that Buddhists had built. Monks and priests have a way of developing a rather parasitic relationship with people who have money; and the laity have a way of feeling they must have buildings, cultural centers, permanent meditation facilities, and teachers, who usually do not do any honest work for a living and therefore must be supported by charitable donations. It is all this unnecessary stuff that deserves to be called religion. (Recall that “religio” is a Latin word that means “bondage.”)

Anyway, after calling all these Buddhist monks and priests, I went to Samu Sunim and said “I am now ready to write my article repudiating Bhante Punnaji. I am now convinced that instead of calling Buddhism a form of psychotherapy, we should just call it a big business. We must make it very clear to every potential customer that we are eager to accept their dollars in return for performing services of dubious value.” Sunim withdrew his request that I write the article.

In any event, when I spent some time with folks of the Western Buddhist Order (ordained members as well as mitras) they were quite insistent that Buddhism is indeed a religion—whatever they meant by that.

I do not know what the people you talked to meant by that. I have had many conversations with FWBO people on this topic, and I have found that there is quite a wide range of views. As with all matters in the FWBO, there is no official dogma. There is quite a lot of debate among people—some of it a bit heated—, but so far no faction has emerged as the clear victors in these debates.

As I think you know, Nikolai, my book is published by Windhorse Publishing, an FWBO publishing company, and my book takes all kinds of positions that are quite opposed to positions that other FWBO people (including the order's founder, Sangharakshita) have taken. I doubt, for example, that many Buddhist publications have taken such a hard look at the dogma of rebirth as the one I take. I actually quite admire Windhorse for daring to publish a book that could stir up a bit of controversy. I suspect that a few people will get pretty upset by the book, but I think there will also be some people who will like quite a bit of what is said there. Three other Buddhist publishing companies looked at the manuscript and decided they could not risk publishing something quite so seemingly heretical. “Heresy,” as you know, is a term used by religious people for an unwelcome truth that cannot be easily ignored. The Windhorse people were eager to publish the book, heresy notwithstanding, because they saw it as something that would probably make people think.

The subject line asks: “Does Buddhism help?” The answer is: “There is absolutely no doubt that Dharma helps. There is also no doubt that religion hinders. When Buddhism becomes religion instead of Dharma, it stops helping and starts hindering.” There, that is pretty well the final word on this topic, I should think.

Richard P. Hayes

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Therapy and Dharma

September 27, 1997

Ven. Punnadhammo Bhikkhu Punnadhammo writes:

It comes down to this; all forms of psychotherapy aim to make existence in saṃsāra more bearable. Buddhism seeks to liberate us from saṃsāra altogether.

I have read quite a bit about psychotherapy, but I must say that I have never yet encountered a psychologist who said that the aim of therapy is to make existence in saṃsāra more bearable. “Saṃsāra” is not a term that most psychotherapists use at all.

There are various ways of being liberated from saṃsāra. The one I have found is probably one of the most elegant ones. It involves the simple precaution of not letting one's thinking become trapped by taking mythology too literally. As a mythological structure, “saṃsāra” can be a pretty useful construct. It can be used to refer to the world of avoidable suffering, which one then learns to avoid. Learning to avoid the avoidable suffering of existence is called liberation. Psychologists often use the word “resilience” for this quality. I very strongly believe in liberation, because I myself have achieved it; that is, I have learned to be quite resilient, with the result that I almost never experience animosity or resentment towards anyone and hardly ever experience depression or frustration as a result of failing to achieve a goal. This has been achieved by following the Buddhist principle of letting go of attachments. And that has been done by following quite a wide variety of Buddhist practices, and complementing them with psychoanalysis.


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Superstition and Buddhism

May 14, 1998

Angela writes:

And to gnaw on an old bone, if the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to relieve needless pain by assisting people to change their attitudes (a devilishly difficult task by any measure), then one need look no further than a well-trained therapist.

That, I think, is indisputably true. A good therapist, a great deal of time and a lot of money are all one needs to become liberated. Alternatively, one can seek a good guru. And if one has a great deal of time and a lot of money, that too is all one needs to become liberated.

However, it still leaves me with the question-what is the point in taking refuge?

Making a commitment to do the work necessary to get healed is essential, whether one takes refuge in the Three Jewels or in a good psychotherapist, or both.

To what end do I teach or practice Buddha-dharma?

Only you can answer that, Angela. Perhaps a good therapist could help you ferret out the underlying neurotic complexes that compel you to feel you have to save the world. The bodhisattva complex is a very difficult neurosis to overcome, but if you really work at it, you can beat it. It is perhaps easier to quit smoking than to overcome one's addiction to seeing oneself as a bodhisattva. But as a former heavy smoker and a bodhisattva in remission, I can testify that addictions of all kinds can be overcome.

What need is there of the forms, the language, the psychology of faith and devotion?

Asking what is the need of faith and devotion is like asking what is the need of leprosy and poverty. They are afflictions. But, if one has the right attitudes, one can learn from afflictions. If one has the wrong attitudes, afflictions are debilitating, sometimes even fatal.

You see where I'm going with this. Does Buddhist teaching have anything to offer that distinguishes it from good psychotherapy?

Lots of unrealistic promises and plenty of distractions that undermine its efficacy. But aside from that, nothing.

Buddhism in the West has been described as the religion for those who don't want any.

I would not describe Buddhism as a religion at all. That's how much I don't want any. But I do heartily (but non-religiously) endorse and promote Buddhism.

How does such a statement sit with the Buddhists on this list?

I myself have no opinion on this topic. But beginning tomorrow I am leading a seven-day retreat at a Buddhist retreat center that will deal with most of these questions. Assisting me on this retreat will be several professional psychotherapists who are also ordained Buddhists. Each of them will talk about ways in which his or her psychological training helps, and how it hinders, Buddhist practice, and vice versa.


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Buddhism without religion?

March 26, 1998

An inquiring reader writes:

I was somewhat surprised by a recent post from a usually erudite poster in which he expressed a desire to separate the jewel of the Dharma from the superstitious accretions that have attached itself to it over the centuries. The Dharma has always taken on aspects of the milieu in which it occurs. It Tibet it was influenced by and influenced Bon. In Japan, Shintō, etc. Here in North American it seems to be experiencing an admixture with our own primitive folk religion, psychotherapy. The dharma rarely exists in any form outside that in which it has the appearance of arising.

Carl G. Jung Precisely. The only point being made was that the folk beliefs of Tibet, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, China and Japan have limited effectiveness as conveyances of the Dharma in the West. In the West, as Jung pointed out, the prevailing mythological framework is that of psychotherapy. Since that is the framework with which so many people are familiar, it makes sense to let that framework be one in which dharma is initially presented rather than in the Brahmanic framework of Indian Buddhism, the Confucian and Taoist framework of China, the Confucian and Shintō framework of Japan and the shamanic frameworks of Tibet and Mongolia.

Richard Hayes

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Elite Buddhism

March 26, 1998

Claire writes:

The intention was also expressed to “wash some of that mud off the Dharma Jewel.” Why is this necessary and how does one do that? I wonder if correspondents could give more examples of what they mean.

I think I may have been responsible for this unfortunate metaphor. I hereby renounce it. Let me replace it with a more traditional metaphor, one used by Dharmakīrti. One of his illustrations of cognitive error was the thought of a person viewing the light of a luminescent gem through a keyhole in a door. Because the person sees the light coming from the keyhole, he mistakenly thinks the keyhole itself is the source of the light. So thinking, he fails to become fully aware of the properties of the gem.

Let us imagine the Dharma as a luciferous gem that can be observed only through apertures in doors that separate us from it. Each keyhole might refract and reflect the light in slightly different ways and each gives the light a different apparent shape. Each culture (whatever a culture is) might be seen as a keyhole with somewhat different optical properties. The Dharma can be seen through the keyhole of Brahmanic culture (as Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, Dharmakīrti and so forth saw it) or through the keyhole of Confucian and Taoist culture, or through the keyhole of Confucian and Shintō culture or through the keyhole of a wide range of shamanic cultures. Since there is no way to view the luciferous gem other than by looking through a keyhole, there is nothing wrong with looking through a keyhole per se. But there is no such thing as the one and only right keyhole through which to view the light.

While there is no such thing as the uniquely correct keyhole through which to look at the luminescent gem, there may be some keyholes to which some people have become accustomed to seeing things. If that is the case, why not let them see through the keyhole that best suits them? In the context of this analogy, a superstition just means a keyhole with which one is not familiar or with which one is uncomfortable. Saying that one wishes to discard superstitions means nothing more than that one wishes to view the light through a familiar keyhole.

To be more specific, educated people of European ancestry nowadays have a variety of keyholes through which to view things. Rational skepticism, post-Kantian phenomenology, Jamesian Pragmatism, Rortyan ironic Pragmatism, cognitive science, a range of psychotherapeutic models, secular humanism, neo-Romanticism and various kinds of revivals of gnosticism and mysticism—all these are available to modern people of European intellectual heritage, and all of them have been used as keyholes through which to view the Dharma jewel.

Now it strikes me as a fairly healthy sign that educated people of European intellectual heritage (which some people wish to label “elite,” with somewhat emotive and slightly pejorative connotations) should want to try to sort out the question of how they are viewing the luminescent gem. Perhaps the best thing that can come of this is a greater awareness of the variety of perspectives that are available, which in turn may help people to avoid the cognitive error discussed by Dharmakīrti, viz, the error of thinking that the light is coming from the keyhole itself and not from the gem behind the door.

Here in North America, where civilization is still something that some of us are rather eager to try out, our collective intellectual immaturity manifests itself in the form of an enormous amount of pointless argumentation about which keyhole is The Right Keyhole through which to view the Dharma jewel. People of a gnostic or Romantic bent badmouth those who prefer the orientation of rational skepticism and vice versa. Freudians decry Jungians and vice versa. Nostalgic anti-modernists dismiss psychotherapeutic analysis as a retrograde move, one that kills spirituality. There is no end to the wrangling.

The cacophony of argumentation can become deafening. But it can also be shaped into informative and mindful dialog. It is the latter, I think, that at least some of the people who talk about American Buddhism may be trying to do. I doubt very much that anyone intends to impose their views in any way on others. I doubt that anyone is seriously thinking, for example, of trying to plug all the Asiatic keyholes so that no one will try to look through them any more. Instead, I think people are probably trying to drill a few more apertures through which to view the magnificent gem. May they succeed.

Richard Hayes

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[Epstein 1995]
Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. BasicBooks, 1995.
[Ginsberg 2002]
Ginsberg, Mitchell. The Inner Palace: Mirrors of Psychospirituality in Divine and Sacred Wisdom-Traditions. 2 volumes. Nevada City, CA: Blue Dolphin Publishing, 2002.
[Hayes 1998]
Hayes, Richard  P. Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist. Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1998.
[Hollis 1996]
Hollis, James. Swamplands of the Soul: A New Life in Dismal Places. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1996.
[Leifer 1997]
Leifer, Ron. The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons That Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1997.
[Young-Eisendrath 1996]
Young-Eisendrath, Polly. The Gifts of Suffering: Finding Insight, Compassion and Renewal. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.
[Young-Eisendrath and Miller 2000]
Young-Eisendrath, Polly and Melvin  E. Miller, editors. The Psychology of Mature Spirituality: Integrity, Wisdom, Transcendence. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

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