In Buddhist sutras and Zen texts, there are many passages with deep implications for Western psychotherapists. The dialogues recorded in them have evidently a psychotherapeutic significance. They could be examples of an Eastern version of psychotherapy. It is certainly interesting to compare them with conversations known from psychotherapeutic sessions today with regard to both form and contents. This leads beyond the concern of the present study. What I would like to propose here is that psychotherapy, as generally considered, is not necessarily of the West. In other words, I contend that Buddhism also has by nature psychotherapeutic elements. (Muramoto, from ‘Awakening and Insight’ – see below*)
As Muramoto writes above, many modern scholars and those working on the science of the mind believe that there is an intrinsic psychotherapeutic aspect to Buddhism. This comes as no great shock to those of us that practice Buddhist techniques such as mindfulness & meditation, of course. Many of us have ourselves experienced the benefits of Buddhist practice, such as feelings of contentment, compassion, and happiness. Moreover, we may have witnessed similar qualities arise in other Buddhists, as well as in those that do not classify themselves as ‘Buddhist’ but practice vipassana, zazen, or the like. Although Muramoto is primarily concerned with the relationship between psychotherapy and Zen Buddhism, other forms of Buddhism have been observed via scientific experiments to have the same positive effects on those that employ their techniques of mindfulness & meditation.
Nowadays there is a development of Buddhism in the West due in large measure to the efforts of Japanese Zen Buddhists such as Daisetsu T.Suzuki, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu and others. It is true enough that the understanding of most Westerners remains on a rather primitive level and is full of prejudices and misconceptions. At the same time, the phase of intensive introduction of Zen Buddhism to the West is gradually coming to an end. The so-called ‘Zen boom’ is certainly passing away. There is less and less ‘Beat Zen’ as one of the phenomena of the counter-culture, and instead there are more and more Western scholars who are no longer satisfied with translations or with introductions written in English, but find it very important to read Buddhist texts in their original languages. In addition, they strive to experience Buddhism directly in the Eastern countries where it has long been a central element of cultural tradition. (Muramoto, ibid.)
What do you make, dear reader, of Muramoto’s claim that “the understanding of most Westerners [of Buddhism] remains on a rather primitive level and is full of prejudices and misconceptions”? It seems true that these days the free-form styled ‘Beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac et al is on the decline, along with various ‘hippy’ interpretations of Buddhism. Nowadays, Western Buddhists are more serious in our application of the Dharma to our lives, are we not? But, is it true that we find it important to study Buddhist texts in their original tongues, or experience Buddhism in its traditional cultural settings? (I, of course, do live in Thailand, and experience the good & bad aspects of Thai Buddhist culture daily, but this is surely not so for most Western adherents of Buddhism.)
We can say nowadays that the so-called encounter between the East and the West is taking place within Buddhism as well as within psychotherapy. No serious problem of the contemporary world, be it politics or philosophy, can be simply said to belong to either the East or the West, but must be recognized as a worldwide problem because it necessarily concerns all the people of the world. In the confrontation with any problem we already find ourselves permanently connected with all people in the world, most of whom we do not know personally at all. (ibid.)
Here, Muramoto seems to be hinting at the interdependence of the modern global society, something that humanity is waking up to, albeit at a rather late stage! Buddhism and psychotherapy have many elements in common, as well as divergences of course. Approaching the world’s problems with the aid of psychological and Buddhist understandings of the mind, as well as techniques for calming and stabilizing it, would appear to be a wise course of action in these troubled times. Muramoto seems to suggest that neither a solely Buddhist approach to this situation, nor a wholly Western, scientific & psychological one, will cure the world of its ills. The suggestion here is that as Buddhists we should realize that the Buddhadharma is not the only answer to the suffering in the world, but that other paths of investigation, including not only science but also other religions, can combine to help us come to our senses. Buddhists alone, no more than Muslims, Christians, scientists, or politicians, can heal the world. Put succinctly, we need one another.
The notion of the cosmos or the world still remains, but it has greatly changed. There seems to be no other principle than a cold mechanism called the ‘laws of nature’. Confirmed only by mathematical procedures, they provide us with the means of technological manipulation of all beings. The personified universe of the good old days does not show us a familiar face any longer. All that we can read in its indifferent countenance is meaninglessness. There appears to be no place where one could live in a way suitable to the word ‘human being’. (ibid.)
Muramoto appears most despondent in the above passage, seeing in the scientific world view nothing but a meaningless nothingness at the heart of all. Is this an accurate representation of science? Or is it an emotional response to what are, after all, theories & views of life based on facts? Science itself is surely no more negative than it is positive. Like the Dharma, it simply is. It’s us human beings that interpret the world this way and that, impregnating it with the meanings that we see fit. Is living in a way suitable to the word ‘human being’ incompatible with a scientific world view? Is living the Buddhist life, moreover, incompatible with a scientific world view? Things would seem pretty hopeless for us Buddhists if this is so, for as suffering human beings in a world full of scientific facts, it would appear that we are barking up the wrong tree with our ancient Buddhist understanding of the universe. Either that, or the worldwide scientific community is off its rocker, and we’re all in trouble, whether Buddhist or not!
The primary concern in a dialogue is not to prove which party is the greater, but to let the truth reveal itself through the dialogue so that both parties gradually and mutually deepen their understanding of each other and confirm their common ground. A dialogue is no competition or conquest but an experiential process of the common participation in finding the truth, and demands the confession that everyone knows the truth a little but not in its totality. It is worthy of practice in our pluralistic world. (ibid.)
Here is where Muramoto gets to heart of the matter, declaring that Buddhism is in a dialogue with psychotherapy (and science). As Buddhists, it surely does us no favors to react against modern understandings of the mind, and the universe in general. To engage with modernity, finding common ground on which to stand together will benefit both Buddhism and the world at large. Psychology and psychotherapeutic techniques, along with physics, genetics, archeology, zoology, cosmology etc, can complement our understanding and practice of Buddhism; it does not have to be an ‘us and them’ situation, as often found between Creationists and Darwinists. Are you open to this dialogue between East and West? And, dear reader, what do you think are the benefits and pitfalls of Buddhists falling in with scientists in their mutual search for truth?
All quotations are from the article ‘Buddhism, Religion and Psychotherapy in the World Today’ written by Shoji Muramoto and taken from the book ‘Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy’, edited by Polly Young-Eisendrath & Shoji Muramoto, and published by Brunner-Routledge, 2002.