Psychology, Forum, Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Amaro, Judy Lief, Bodhin Kjolhede, Zen, Insight MeditationX Vajrayana / Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhadharma, Lion's Roar, Buddhsim

Is Western Psychology Redefining Buddhism?

Jack Kornfield, Judy Lief, and Bodhin Kjolhede examine the influence of Western psychology on Buddhism. Introduction by Ajahn Amaro.

By Lion’s Roar

Photo by Doug Fogelson.

Late autumn 1974, I am sitting in a lecture room of the University of London. It is my first term as an undergraduate studying psychology and physiology, and we are being introduced to the teachings of Freud. At a certain point, the lecturer quotes the closing paragraph of Studies in Hysteria:

“… [M]uch will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”

Something snaps. A bone breaks in my heart. NO! We can do better than that.

I can’t recall whether I said anything out loud, but it was painfully vivid inside. My interest in Western psychology took a noticeable dip right at that point, while the search for spiritual solutions to my unhappiness rose up.

Over the ensuing years, the picture did improve. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs promised “self-actualization,” and Claude Steiner assured us that we could “flip out of our script.” But exactly how the flipping and the self-actualizing were to be effected was somewhat blurry.

The influence of psychology on Western Buddhism manifests not just by way of helpful additions—such as defining nuances of self-view as manifested in various neuroses—but also in how it shakes up the priorities of Buddhist practice.

Eventually, in Thailand, I discovered Buddhist meditation and the monastic way of life and found that these provided the “how” I was looking for. Not long after, I headed back to the West and have been residing here ever since.

Once back in the land of my birth and education, I found that the juxtaposition of Buddhism with Western psychology nurtured an ongoing dialogue not only within myself but also in the broader society. It also made me reconsider my earlier disappointment with psychology. I began to wonder whether there were ways in which the Western view of things brought greater light to Buddhist practice.

It’s hard to ignore the influence of psychology on Western Buddhism. This influence manifests not just by way of helpful additions—such as defining nuances of self-view as manifested in various neuroses—but also in how it shakes up the priorities of Buddhist practice.

The skeptical materialist conditioning that most of us have received in the West makes us unable to use a mere belief-based system.

However, this same skepticism lends itself perfectly to the employment of Buddhist practice as a path of self-inquiry. Ironically, the influence of the psychological framework in the West can thus be seen to be helping Buddhism return to its roots—in this case, vibhaj-javada, “the way of analysis,” a term used at the Third Council in the era of Emperor Ashoka to define the practice of buddhadharma. Such a methodology—the analysis of and reflection upon the experience of all phenomena—accords very closely with Western scientific method and echoes the injunction of the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta not to believe something merely on the basis of tradition, hearsay, or logic but to find out for oneself what is true and useful.

The discussion that follows demonstrates what it means to be faithful to this path of inquiry, to look closely and see what is both true and useful in the realms of Buddhist practice and Western psychology and to put it to work for the benefit of all beings. It is just such inquiry and application that will help us realize unshakeable freedom, a well-being far beyond a meager arming against “common unhappiness.”

Buddhadharma: Buddhism has always been shaped by whatever culture it enters. In Tibet it was influenced by the Bon tradition, in Japan by the Shinto religion, and in China by Confucianism and Taoism. Here in the West it seems that it is the encounter with psychology, even more than religion, that is shaping Western Buddhism. What are some of the ways that our psychology- infused culture may be influencing how we receive Buddhism in the West?

Jack Kornfield: Science and psychology are two of the main religions of our time, in the sense that they’re the way we make meaning of our lives. Because Buddhism is a science of the mind as much as it is a religion, it fits very well within our Western culture. Modern neuroscience is validating observations about the mind that Buddhists have known for thousands of years. When I first began to study Buddhism, it was common to hear put-downs of Western psychology and Western psychotherapy in major Buddhist centers. There was a widespread belief that meditation alone would answer everyone’s problems, and if you were a really good Zen or Vipassana or Vajrayana practitioner, you wouldn’t need therapy. Now I could give you the names of abbots of those same centers who are themselves seeing therapists—they have realized that there’s a complementarity between meditation and the interpersonal skills of Western psychology.

The cultural lens in Buddhist Asia is largely one of devotion and karma; people make offerings and pray at temples for their children to get into a good school or for their business to perk up or to have better karma in the future. Our lens is more scientific and psychological: how do we live with our own minds in ways that make us happy or unhappy?

Buddhadharma: Do you think our Western psychological lens is limiting the kinds of Buddhist teachings that we take in? Is it forming a kind of cultural container that isn’t as porous as it might be?

Bodhin Kjolhede: Yes, I think it does, in the way that any cultural idiom limits anything. Take, for example, the Buddhist teaching of the six realms. I suspect that most Westerners tend to see them in a psychological sense, as states of mind—hellish, craving, heavenly, and so on. We find these realms more meaningful when interpreted this way. Similarly, it can be extremely helpful for Westerners to see the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism not as separate beings outside of ourselves but as aspects or archetypes of our own nature. These are natural ways in which Buddhist teaching has adapted to our own culture.

Judy Lief: Certainly, one cultural frame that Buddhism falls into in the West is that of self-improvement. We tend not to think of the dharma as a way of life, as something that completely infuses everything. Westerners also have a bias toward rationality; we tend to be quick to dismiss what we perceive as magical thinking. I think we lose something in the Western emphasis on fixing our sorrows and becoming more at ease, rather than being willing to step into what is unfathomable.

Jack Kornfield: We live in a compartmentalized culture, where the body is tended to at the gym, money in the marketplace, and religion, if you have it, in the church, synagogue, or mosque. But Buddhist teachings are of a whole. They’re an invitation to liberation, to live from a free heart and spirit no matter where you are, so when the dharma gets translated into only psychotherapeutic terms, it can limit the imagination of human possibility. Western psychology is largely based on a pathological model of curing disease. Through that lens, we can lose the vision of liberation that’s possible for all human beings, no matter their circumstances. Buddhist teachings lead to dimensions of well-being and joy beyond anything known in the Western tradition.

Buddhadharma: Do you find that students enter into the teacher-student relationship with expectations based on a therapeutic model, one in which the focus is on serving the needs of the client?

Judy Lief: My students don’t state their expectations, but they tend to come seeking help in dealing with the pain in their fives. I do think students, at least initially, seek out a parental model; we’re always looking for someone who can care for us and support us in a pure way. Students go through a lot of different views of the teacher on the journey, and as we realize that they’re not quite the point of that relationship, those ideas tend to melt away, one after the other.

Jack Kornfield: And yet maybe, in a way, they’re all the point. My teacher, Ajahn Chah, often had people come to him whose children had died, and he would put their heads in his lap and grieve with them. Soldiers would come, and he would talk to them about what it meant to enter into that life without anger or vengeance. Corrupt government officials would come, and he would talk to them about the karma of living with integrity. People came with eating problems or anxiety, and all of those problems were amenable to the medicine of the dharma. There wasn’t any notion that this part is your meditation, and that part you have to go to therapy for, and that part you take to the gym. All of it was amenable to the four noble truths. I see people coming to us in the same way, with the full range of the human condition. A wise teacher doesn’t compartmentalize but can meet and respond to students where they are with the medicines of the dharma.

Judy Lief: As a counterpoint to that, I do think there is a lot of projection onto teachers, an expectation that they know everything and can help with everything. The questions brought up during dharma discourses and retreats are sometimes less about the dharma than they are about soliciting psychological advice. It strikes me as odd that someone would ask a monastic Tibetan teacher about marital relations, for example, so I wonder about the confluence of these realms.

Buddhadharma: Bodhin, do you think that students bring the expectations of therapy into their relationship with a teacher?

Bodhin Kjolhede: Yes, that’s the water we swim in in this culture. Psychology is all around us; it’s become part of our language and our expectations. Still, I make clear to my students that if they want therapy, they need to get it elsewhere. As to the question of why students might expect a monk to give advice on marital matters, I think it’s because they tend to idealize teachers, to expect more of a teacher than he or she can reasonably provide.

Jack Kornfield: I think that degree of expectation is really Buddhism’s fault—a lot of texts and teachings portray the enlightened person as being free in every respect, without the usual problems. It’s been an education over time in the West for people to realize that teachers are wise in certain dimensions and not in others. I’ve tried to extend those dimensions on our retreats in some ways by having most of the teachers that I’ve trained also get training in the best Western trauma work. Because when people sit in meditation and get quiet, their traumas and other unfinished business naturally come up. It’s enormously helpful to recognize and skillfully respond to trauma with a sophisticated understanding of how to work with it in the body and in the heart. So we’re learning to bring that wisdom of the West into the work of liberation.

Buddhadharma: Many Western Buddhist teachers have training and even careers in psychology. Is it safe to say that the transmission of Western Buddhism is to a large extent in the hands of psychology professionals?

Jack Kornfield: I see it as the opposite. I see transmission happening between people who are deeply devoted to the dharma and who also have additional skills. Almost every dharma teacher I know who has training in psychology sees this training as one dimension of the vastness of dharma. I think it’s an additional intelligence that we need in this culture. When people came to practice Zen, Vipassana, or Vajrayana in the 1960s and seventies and their trauma came up, a lot of the teachers were clueless and didn’t know how to help. I see the dharma as being liberating and robust enough that we can use the skills that fit our culture to enhance the greater task of remembering who we really are, to discover our own buddhanature.

Bodhin Kjolhede: Jack, do you see a downside to mixing the psychological tradition with the strictly Asian dharma tradition?

Jack Kornfield: Well, I don’t see “strictly dharma” anything; I think that idea is a mistaken one. If you read the texts, you see people coming to the Buddha with every kind of problem, like Kisagotami with a child who died in her arms or King Pasenadi asking how he could avoid war with the neighboring king. The Buddha didn’t shy away from any of those questions. He responded with his knowledge as a warrior when he spoke to warriors and with his knowledge of farming when he spoke with farmers. Using Western psychological tools falls in that same tradition of skillful means. Of course, psychology can in some unconscious ways limit us, but dharma used in unconscious ways can limit us too, and meditation can be used or misused. Fundamentally, I see psychology as being complementary to Buddhism.

Judy Lief: I’m not a therapist, but I too see a very natural connection between Buddhism and psychology; both psychologists and students of dharma are interested in the nature of mind, and in issues of suffering and mental health. We’ve had only a brief slice of history with dharma in the West so far, and even in the last twenty years, we have seen shifts in the language used to describe dharma practice. In addition to psychology, neuroscience has become more prevalent in the discussion of mind and behavior. I worry that something that may be lost in the paradigm of the therapeutic model, which is really an individual one, is the relationship to community, whether in terms of sangha or society as a whole.

Jack Kornfield: The psychological lens, whether Buddhist or Western, is a very limited part of dharma. Community, devotion, interconnection, our relationship to the earth—all of these other parts that make for a wise human life—are so central to the dharma, and they’re lost if Buddhism is only seen as a psychological practice.

Teachers like Chogyam Trungpa who came to the West used a lot of psychological language: the language of ego, neurosis, and so forth. But Trungpa also taught a huge breadth of dharma that included engagement and devotion. I think we’re now seeing the hunger for a broader dharma than meditation, something that can empower us in these difficult times. People want a dharma that encompasses social engagement, environment, and ritual, not just the individual meditation path that so many were first drawn to.

Buddhadharma: Buddhism doesn’t cater to personal preferences; on the contrary, it insists on a certain degree of surrender and relinquishment. But culturally, it seems that the tendency is to pick and choose the parts of Buddhism that we like or that we think will serve our mental health. Do you see a tension between what Buddhism asks of us and what we’re asking of it?

Bodhin Kjolhede: I do think one of the basic challenges for American Buddhists is that rather than accommodating to Buddhism, we want Buddhism to accommodate to us. Expecting that we will have our preferences met is a perilous habit. We are reared to expect that we will be able to arrange our lives to avoid adversity and get our desires met. Working toward a more balanced, integrated sense of self has its place, but we don’t want to settle for the dharma being reduced to that. Psychology is about personal suffering, whereas Buddhism is about the suffering that’s inherent in the human condition.

Judy Lief: We tend to look for a way to weasel out of anything uncomfortable and to avoid having to face ourselves. Trungpa Rinpoche, my teacher, used tell us, “Don’t edit the teachings, don’t pick and choose,” but it’s an ongoing struggle; we all tend to pick and choose. We go for what’s easier and avoid what’s harder. But we have to start somewhere. People make initial connections with the dharma for a variety of reasons. Over time, expectations tend to drop away, when one realizes they really aren’t the point anymore. It is perhaps then that the more mystical aspect of the dharma is revealed.

Jack Kornfield: The essence of dharma is the teachings of emptiness and selflessness. Of course Buddhism offers lots of medicine, ways to reduce personal suffering and live in a wise, skillful, and nonharming way. But without the perspective of emptiness and selflessness, the dharma wouldn’t be the great gift that the Buddha gave to us. I think in every culture, people start where they are, and then the invitation is offered to move into the greater dimension of mystery and liberation that brings the truest human happiness and freedom.

Buddhadharma: Are there ways in which our familiarity with psychology might help us be more receptive to that larger invitation? By understanding ourselves better through psychology, can we perhaps open more easily to Buddhist teachings and absorb them more fully?

Bodhin Kjolhede: Most Westerners are familiar with the concept of the unconscious, which may help them be more receptive to the Buddhist teaching of alayavijnana, the storehouse consciousness. A student of mine who reached the age of forty having always broken off intimate relationships had begun to feel distressed and to wonder whether there was some spiritual bypassing he wasn’t seeing after twenty years of practice. He found a good therapist, and just a few months of therapy precipitated a profound questioning about his sense of self. He was gripped by the question “Who am I?” That questioning brought on by therapy then triggered the deepest opening of his life. Within a year he was married, and he still is twenty- three years later. I think this clearly shows how psychotherapy can contribute not just to psychological self-insight but also to spiritual self-realization.

Judy Lief: I think another benefit is the way in which psychological or scientific language has made the dharma more accessible to many people. A lot of the trappings of dharma can seem very alien culturally. I had a student who wasn’t really understanding meditation until I spoke in terms of neuroplasticity, and then she said, “Oh, I get it!” Familiar language can provide the inspiration to begin practice.

Buddhadharma: Sometimes a word like “ego” comes up in a Buddhist context, and it can be confusing to figure out whether we’re really talking about ego in Buddhist terms or in terms of what we learned in Psych 101. Do you see the overlap of the language of Buddhism and psychology as a source of some confusion?

Jack Kornfield: Yes. Trungpa Rinpoche used the word “ego” in a Buddhist context probably before almost anybody else did, but unfortunately, he used it in a way that was almost the opposite of how it’s understood in Western psychology. That leaves practitioners confused and believing that ego is bad. There needs to be some reeducation on this point so that people understand there’s a healthy sense of self, or ego, that grows even as we let go and come to a deeper understanding of our true nature.

Bodhin Kjolhede: For Westerners, ego too easily becomes a kind of Buddhist Satan or Mara. Certainly I used to see it that way. My teacher used the word “ego” very freely as a kind of a shorthand for all of our afflictions—the root of our greed, anger, and delusion. Because it tends to cause a lot of confusion. I’ve tried to avoid using the word, and mostly where necessary to distinguish between ego in the psychological sense, which means a kind of a strength of mind, and ego as the bad guy.

Judy Lief: When Trungpa Rinpoche was introducing Buddhism in America, he stated that he was using psychological language to avoid the trap of religiosity, which he felt really stifled the freshness of Buddhist teachings. I can see where the confusion crept in, though he didn’t totally represent ego as a boogeyman; he also talked about it as just another translation of atman, the self.

Buddhadharma: Are you noticing any changes in the ways psychology is filtering through our culture? What might these shifts mean for Buddhism?

Jack Kornfield: I see very positive things, but first I want to say that Buddhism as skillful means, as upaya, is always evolving. The skillful means that evolved in Tibet were different from the ones that arose in India and Japan. In our culture, we have the influence of psychotherapy and of science, and also now in our wired world, the understanding of interbeing from a technological point of view. This is all very natural; it’s the way the dharma reinvigorates itself and re-presents itself in new cultures. Western psychotherapy is also, in turn, being influenced by dharma principles. The three thousand papers and studies in the last two decades on mindfulness, and the neuroscience that is behind it, are affecting our understanding of what’s possible in human development. The emphasis initially may be stress reduction or pain alleviation, but our sense of human possibility in Western psychotherapy and positive psychology is growing tremendously, much of it propelled by Buddhist psychology.

Bodhin Kjolhede: I’m not sure I share your sunny view of the proliferation of mindfulness practices. One can hardly swing a cat these days without hitting a mindfulness teacher. I do wonder about these practice centers limiting themselves to programs such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Practitioners are not exposed to anything beyond mindfulness, and as we know, there’s more to Buddhist meditation than mindfulness.

Judy Lief: What’s most interesting to me is seeing Western psychology becoming much more curious about human potential, not only focused on the pathological. In addition to interest in mindfulness, now there is a lot of study of the nature of compassion, empathy, and interconnectedness.

Our culture has a tendency to medicalize every human state; we expect to find a way to alleviate the symptoms of our sorrows without actually addressing the causes. While that can be helpful to a point, it can also be harmful to put a Band-Aid on something that needs deeper healing. Buddhist practices, and probably really good psychotherapy as well, look below to eradicate root causes rather than cover over symptoms.

Jack Kornfield: It doesn’t worry me, because there’s something innate in us that wants to awaken. Not in everyone; they’re not all ready. But I see those options as a gateway, just as when you go to a traditional Buddhist culture, you find a lot of monasteries where there isn’t really much practice—often the majority of monks don’t meditate—but still, they offer a gateway, a reminder of what’s possible. I trust the way the dharma unfolds over the centuries from culture to culture, and that there will always be people whose hearts awaken to this great possibility—and their doorway may first be through some mindfulness or compassion training that’s quite secular.

Buddhadharma: So how can we as Western Buddhist practitioners hold the benefits of psychology that we’ve been discussing without compromising the integrity of the Buddhist path?

Judy Lief: I think it comes down quite simply to this: as we practice, we need to learn that any view is just view. Recognizing how we solidify our beliefs, no matter what we label them—as dharma, psychology, science, or anything else— helps us keep a more spacious perspective. We can appreciate insights without clinging to them or taking them as more solid than they are.

Bodhin Kjolhede: We should be aware that, as the Lankavatara Sutra says, everything we perceive is the projection of our own mind, and we can’t entirely see what we’re embedded in, just as a fish doesn’t know it’s in water. To maintain that basic questioning, that openness and vigilance about what we might not be seeing—to me, that’s what it’s all about.

But I remain concerned about mixing psychology and traditional dharma teaching. In China, a very stratified society where rank historically held supreme importance, the great Chinese master Linji (Rinzai) emphasized awakening to the Man of No Rank. It occurred to me that we need to be sure to see beyond psychological forms and terminology to the Person of No Diagnosis—the one who is beyond all of this.

Jack Kornfield: Yes. If you meet someone and can see their buddhanature regardless of their conditioning or diagnosis, and if you can remind them to see themselves in that way, that is liberation. I’m not worried about the mixing of Buddhism and psychology particularly. I think the most important thing is that there continues to be a devoted group of practitioners who dedicate themselves to living, discovering, and embodying deep realization and using the skillful means available to them share that dharma with others.

Jack Kornfield is a cofounder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and holds a Ph.d. in clinical psychology. He is the author of Bringing Home the Dharma and The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.

Judy Lief was a close student of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who authorized her to teach in the Vajrayana and Shambhala traditions. She has served as one of the main editors of his teachings for past the twenty-five years.

Bodhin Kjolhede is abbot of the Rochester Zen Center in Rochester, New York. He was ordained by Roshi Philip Kapleau in 1976 and installed as his dharma successor in 1986.

Ajahn Amaro is Abbot of Amaravati monastery in England and former co-abbot of Abhayagiri monastery in California. He was ordained as a monk in the Thai Forest Tradition by Ajahn Chah in 1979.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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