Analyzing Enlightenment

Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures: Essays on Theories and Practices and The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra reviewed by Mark Epstein.

Mark Epstein
1 September 2006

Mark Epstein, MD, reviews “Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures: Essays on Theories and Practices” edited by Mark Unno, and “The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra” by Rob Preece.

Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know. But at conferences on Buddhism and psychotherapy, the spoken word is all we have to go on. What is the point? The hope at such conferences is always for someone to explain what Buddhist awakening actually consists of, what enlightenment actually means.

To this day, Buddhism retains its aura of intuitive, esoteric knowledge—the sense that it harbors the key to the mystery, the answer to the riddle, the lost piece of the puzzle. People come to such conferences, and buy the books of the proceedings, in the hope that something essential will be revealed. All too often, they leave exhausted and disappointed after a series of numbingly academic or superficially glib presentations, glad to return to the comforts of worldly existence.

Mark Unno’s recent volume, Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures, skirts this problem by focusing on what one contributor, Richard K. Payne, describes as “what Buddhism is not.” This is an age-old strategy in the history of Buddhist philosophy and it is remarkably effective, as far as it goes. By exposing and refuting many of the preconceptions about a given subject, room is created for an intuition to surface about what emptiness or egolessness or enlightenment or awakening might actually be. In a series of helpful articles, weighted toward the beginning of the collection, contributors lay out a startlingly succinct series of insights challenging many of the conventional notions of what Buddhism and enlightenment actually are. Beginning with an extraordinary article by Jack Engler, an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and a scholar of the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, this work begins to address a disconcertingly obvious phenomenon concerning the Buddhist path: Buddhist meditation, at least as practiced in this country, does not seem to eliminate neurosis.

Engler, who has contributed a series of penetrating articles over the past thirty years to the expanding dialogue between therapists and meditators, begins his most recent piece with an exchange between the late American Zen master Philip Kapleau and a student:

Questioner: But doesn’t enlightenment clear away imperfections and personality flaws?
Roshi: No, it shows them up! Before awakening, one can easily ignore or rationalize his shortcomings, but after enlightenment this is no longer possible. One’s failings are painfully evident. Yet at the time a strong determination develops to rid oneself of them. Even opening the mind’s eye fully does not at one fell swoop purify the emotions. Continuous training after enlightenment is required to purify the emotions so that our behavior accords with our understanding. This vital point must be understood.

As Engler makes clear, this vital point is not what most people want to believe. Our tendency to idealize things colors our perceptions of both Buddhism and enlightenment and makes us think about them in naive, or childlike, ways. We all wish for a magic potion that could clear away our personality flaws, and if it is not the jewel in the heart of the lotus, then what could it be?

Compounding the problem, Engler argues, is the fact that many, if not most, Buddhist teachers are not trained in (or particularly interested in) an exploration of the psychodynamics of their students’ experiences. In their focus on ultimate truth, they tend to disparage or ignore the relative reality of the self’s struggles. Engler tells one poignant story about the only visit of the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, one of the great Burmese meditation masters of the twentieth century, to the West, in which he was asked by Jack Kornfield, “What do you do when students bring psychological problems?” After a hurried consultation with his attendants, Sayadaw responded, “What psychological problems?” Upon leaving the country, he was heard to remark that he had uncovered a new form of dukkha in his visit, one that he called “psychological suffering.” Burmese meditators, we are left to assume, either leave their neuroses at the door, do not acknowledge them at all, refuse to discuss them with their meditation teachers, or are neurosis-free.

The result of this collision between Westerners’ hope for immediate relief from psychological suffering and Buddhist teachers’ relative indifference to their students’ psychodynamics is a kind of guilt for many Western practitioners over the persistence, and continuing subjective importance, of their emotional lives. Engler’s article, and this volume in general, go a long way toward exposing that guilt and opening up emotional life as a legitimate subject, in itself, of meditation. As Engler puts it, “The Buddhist teaching that I neither have nor am an enduring self should not be taken to mean that I do not need to struggle to find out who I am, what my desires and aspirations are, what my needs are, what my capabilities and responsibilities are, how I am relating to others, and what I could or should do with my life. Ontological emptiness does not mean psychological emptiness.”

One of the treats of this collection is the inclusion of the work of Middlebury College’s Buddhist scholar William S. Waldron, whose brand of essential academic knowledge is often relegated to the shadows of such gatherings. While Engler’s discussion about the neglect of emotional life in Buddhist circles emphasizes the importance of working directly with conventional truth, Waldron addresses an equally pervasive problem: a misunderstanding of ultimate truth. In his paper, Waldron presents a beautiful argument, entitled “On Selves and Selfless Discourse,” in which he lays out the two different ways in which Buddhist discourses describe self. In one, in the language of conventional truth, persons are described in much the same way as in conventional psychoanalytic discourse. In the other, in the language of ultimate truth, impersonal processes of cause and effect are described in an attempt to answer the question, How is there experience without an experiencer?

In the course of his thesis, Waldron punctures one of the most cherished notions of the spiritual path, the belief in consciousness as an active, almost transcendent agent within the mind-body continuum, a kind of impersonal self that stands in when our grosser layers of self are exposed as dependently arisen. The reification of consciousness is one of the great misunderstandings of many Buddhists, Waldron explains, and he cites text after text from the usually impenetrable Buddhist psychological texts to support his argument. Cognitive awareness, concludes Waldron, is itself dependently arisen. It is, he shows, a process of interaction, a “phenomenon that only arises at the interface, the concomitance, of a sense faculty and its correlative object.” Consciousness, like self, has no independent, autonomous existence, and the direct experience of this is one of the primary ways in which grasping can be reduced.

Writing about very similar material, but from an entirely different angle, British psychologist and longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner Rob Preece has given us one of the most illuminating unpackings of Tibetan tantra yet to emerge in the English language, in his recently published The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra. Tantra, shows Preece, using the psychological language of Carl Jung as an intermediary, exists in the liminal space, at the boundary between conventional and ultimate realities. It is a vehicle for negotiating the interface of the two, to help us see how the two truths of conventional and ultimate reality are really one. Picking up on Engler’s point, Preece makes clear from the start of his book that the practice of tantra is predicated upon a stable enough sense of self. He quotes the great Tibetan tantric practitioner Milarepa as saying, “It is easy to meditate upon the sky, but not so easy to meditate upon the clouds.” Interpreting this statement for us, Preece proposes that Milarepa means it is easy to understand the spacious quality of emptiness but difficult to work with emotions or to understand how conventional forms, like the ego, exist.

Form and emptiness, according to the tantric teachings, are dynamically interrelated, like a couple locked in a sexual embrace. Tantra, explains Preece, is predicated upon an appreciation of emptiness but directed toward the experience of form. The recognition of emptiness allows the practitioner to, in effect, wipe his or her psychic slate clean and begin again, using the powers of creative visualization or imagination to rebuild the psychic world according to Buddhist principles.

One of the primary means of recreating the psychic world is the use of a deity, another frequently misunderstood aspect of tantric Buddhism. The deity, Preece assures us, is not a god in the usual sense of the word; it is, rather, “a symbolic aspect of forces that arise on a threshold between two dimensions of reality, or two dimensions of awareness.” Having understood the insubstantiality of the conventional self, the tantric practitioner superimposes the deity, a new kind of transitional object, as an intermediary between the self and the world. The world is then experienced through the eyes of the deity, creating a channel for the practitioner’s own enlightened energies.

Not just any deity will do: the one that is chosen for an individual’s tantric meditations must correspond, in some important way, to the practitioner’s own potential. An angry person will choose a wrathful deity, a jealous person a passionate one, and so on. “When the Tibetans say the Dalai Lama is an embodiment of Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion,” says Preece, “they mean he has fully opened to this disposition in his own psyche, and is now the perfect vehicle for its expression in the world.”

The compelling thing about the tantric path, as Preece describes it, is that it makes direct use of the very instinctual and emotional energies that the conventional self — so often ignored or derided in Buddhist circles — is built upon. By situating the meditative vehicle of the deity at the threshold between conventional and ultimate realities, the tantric path endeavors to transform emotional energies, not by acting them out or by repressing them, but by recruiting them into the subjective expanse of meditative awareness.

In his beautiful descriptions of the psychology of Buddhist tantra, Preece lays out how comprehensively the tantric path seeks to remember the vital point that Philip Kapleau was brave enough to articulate: “Continuous training after enlightenment is required to purify the emotions so that our behavior corresponds with our understanding.” Both Preece’s work and Mark Unno’s collection point toward a real integration of Buddhist thought into our culture, our lives, and our worlds. By showing us what Buddhism is not, they reveal not just what it has become, but also what it can be, as perfected by each of us in our own way.

Other new titles on Buddhism and psychology:

Nothing to Lose: Psychotherapy, Buddhism, and Living Life, by Nigel Wellings and Elizabeth Wilde McCormick (Continuum)

Buddhist Psychology: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, by Geshe Tashi Tsering (Wisdom Publications)

Minding What Matters: Psychotherapy and the Buddha Within, by Robert Langdon (Wisdom Publications)

The Wisdom of Imperfection: The Challenge of Individuation in Buddhist Life, by Rob Preece (Snow Lion Publications)

Mindful Therapy: A Guide for Therapists and Helping Professions, by Thomas Bien (Wisdom Publications)

Mark Epstein

Mark Epstein, M.D. is author of Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart.