Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Buddha & Science: Psychotherapy

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.


JD said...

As always this is well done here Gary.

"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”? "

If taken as a blanket statement covering all Buddhists in the West then I think this guy is dead wrong. I think a middle way approach to his statement is more accurate. There is a alot of garbage and junk in Western Buddhism but there are also many western Buddhists who seem to be upholding the true Dhamma.

I would suggest that Western Buddhism is still in it's infancy and that when the smoke clears there will be camps who subscribe to right view and others who don't the same way as has probably happened anytime Buddhism emerged in another culture. Being in Thailand you see some of the garbage that still passes for Buddhism within some of the Bhikkhus I'm sure.

I agree with this guy that the problems of the world cannot be solved by any one religious or non religious way of looking at things. Quite frankly, I think most people should try to live the best they can in whatever tradition they are already practicing since there will never be a one stop shop solution to the ills of the world.

The question I ask is this; How can all the respective religious tradtions and non religious traditions help bring people within their own ranks to a place of peace and understanding so we can live together without conflict? I think the idea of dialogue across traditions is a good idea but why not just accept we are all different and then try to work within our own ways and cultures to foster peace and understanding amongst ourselves?
If everyones respective cultures and traditions did that and brought about peace in the hearts of their own followers then would be the time to come together but until then this multicultural thing should proceed with caution since historically not much good has ever really come of it.

That sounds better then starting from the half baked assertion that everyone is basically the same and that we can all just live together happily ever after the way some people do. Peoples actions do not support that at all and any glance at the headlines in Europe with the very real culture clash between Muslims and secular Europeans or in the history books should show that this is not really the time and place to try to bring differing people together when neither side is at peace within their own tradition.

Muramoto seems to hit the nail on the head in regard to science's literally cold dead view of the cosmos but you bring up points as well when you ask the question as to whether it is partly an emotional answer. It is, it's how man feels when faced by the facts of materialism that render life meaningless. In this I feel that all the religious traditions are important in keeping people focused on something more. Every tradition teaches life after death and of something more then the cold dead facts of science. I think the world would be a terrible place without religion and I don't mean just Buddhism.

Science has no real code of ethics and no real reason why there should be any at all.
Just look at the Nazi Medical experiments or the things scientists do to animals today to support their research to see how dangerous nihilist materialism can get when it has no moral compass outside the very collectivist "greater good" stuff.

Unfortunately if all there is to the universe is cold mechanical processes and karma is false then there is no real need for understanding or morality outside protecting our own families from the other animals out there.

At least something like the precepts which are based on the Buddhas insight into karma are immutable and unchanging. Taking religious morality to heart in a deep non intelectual way really keeps people from doing harm. Secular society just has constantly changing laws and values that shift like a desert sand. And it isn't just the Buddhist precepts that help bring morals and values to the world but the religious precepts of other faiths as well. It will be a sad day when the only high priests in the world have Ivy League degrees, wear white lab coats and bring forth the answers to the universe in abstruse and complicated mathematic equations and jargon unfit for anyone outside a narrow speciality to understand.

Religion gives meaning to peoples lives and when I read the Canon and the words of the Masters I feel there is something that science cannot take away. Science has facts but they are based only on empirical evidence. That is all well and good but even in Buddhism there should be some faith because with just empirical evidence there is no limit to the evil that can be done since empirical evidence gives no support for morality or the deeper teachings of any religious tradition whatsoever.

"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."

I can't really argue there Gary, only I still believe that science believes the mind is really just a higher order function of the brain and that life ends at death, something that would in my opinion destroy Buddhism if it were true. Science is purely empirical and purely materialistic so that already fits into the wrong view category within the Buddhas teachings. Science isn't looking for enlightement since3 it believes that pursuit is fruitless in the first place. It's disheartening to me to see so many Western Buddhists rallying around the science crowd more then approaching the Buddha's teachings as an experiment in their own lives. We have the words of the Buddha and the masters for us to follow. He asks us to approach it like a scientist but to use the methods and the reflections he taught. before we bow down to the gods of materialism we ought to do ourselves a favor and spend at least this one lifetime carefully considering what the Buddha taught and putting it into practice rather then asking cold hearted materialists for answers about enlightement. It's like asking a weatherman to tell you about foresty, he can't do it because it's not his field. He may be able to talk about why some trees might grow in the woods based on the weather patterns but he couldn't give you the same in depth answers you want the way a forest expert could. In this respect I think many Western Buddhists have more faith in science then in Buddhism and perhaps they will suffer for it since science rejects so much of what the Buddha's teachings touch upon. I wish you well Gary.

Barry said...

I'll just respond to one small portion of your post, Gary.

Muramoto writes that, “the understanding of most Westerners remains on a rather primitive level and is full of prejudices and misconceptions."

In my experience, this is true.

However, this is also true of most Easterners.

Very few people in any culture and at any time have a profound awakening to the true essence of the Buddha-Dharma.

Scholars of Buddhism, such as Muramoto, may have a vast and deep cognitive understanding of Buddhist teaching and history. But how has this understanding helped them?

Most scholars are only attached to the finger, and not at the moon. Most scholars enjoy clenching their fingers into fists and then fighting with other scholars ("Easterners are like this, Westerners are like that"). What does this have to do with the moon of enlightenment?

This is kind of discourse is irrelevant to the Buddha-Dharma.

After 20 years of pretty dedicated practice, I'm just beginning to perceive what I've gotten myself into. And it has nothing to do with psychotherapy and the adjustments that therapists make with their clients.

Rather, to attain the Buddha-Dharma means, quite literally, to defeat the sexual, violent, and other afflictive impulses within us, in exactly the same way that Buddha had to defeat Mara.

Unless we're willing to grapple with ourselves in this way - and virtually no therapists are equipped to help us do this - we will only have an "understanding" of Buddhism. We will not have attainment.

They call him James Ure said...

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?

I don't think that they are mutually exclusive. I don't think to be a Buddhist we have to totally discard science. True science isn't the full answer but we can embrace science and still follow the Dharma.

I see it as the left hand and the right hand being apart of the same body. We can not get rid of one hand without hurting the other hand through causing pain to the entire body. The body here being the oneness of everything.

Buddhism and science as you said inter-are.

G said...

Justin, thank you for the excellent reflections you've offered here on 'Buddha Space'. As ever, you have responded in both a thoughtful & Buddhist way to the questions in the post.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that Western Buddhism is a mixture of different interpretations of the Dharma, some closer to the Right View of the Eightfold Path than others. And, as you write, this is certainly so in Thailand, also.

Your insights into how to bring meaningful dialogue between differing cultures & traditions through recognizing their differences (and respecting them) rather than pretending that they're all the same is a wise one, Justin. If religious and secular leaders emphasized the positive and tolerant aspects of their beliefs rather than the confrontational ones, this world would certainly be a more peaceful one.

As far as my meager understanding of the sciences goes, they don't so much render life meaningless as radically change some of the meanings that humans may be clinging to, Justin. Science is beginning to understand the value of morality, for instance, seeing it as a natural force arising in animals and humans (to various degrees) to assist in cooperation and mutual benefit. In time, it is plausible that science will even advocate morality as a necessary part of human existence, based on observations & experiemnts.

As to science & enlightenment, again, science is just beginning to explore the results of meditation & mindfulness in Buddhism. It has already begun to observe that there are profound & positive changes taking place in the mind/brain when regular Buddhist meditation is practiced, with feelings of peacefulness & happiness increasing dramatically. As a practicing Buddhist myself, I am of the conviction that as science explores this area of Buddhism more, it will confirm many or all of the traditionally-described benefits of meditative practice - including 'enlightenment'.

From both the Buddhist and scientific perspectives, we can remember that everything is impermanent, and that this truth includes science. Scientists are constantly coming up with new understandings of the universe, and as this process deepens, surely it will confirm the essential claims of Buddhism, rather than contradict them?

You are again right, Justin, that as Buddhists our main focus should be the Buddhdharma, not science. Connecting the dots between them to see the bigger picture from both a Buddhist and a scientific viewpoint can still be a worthwhile exercise, however. They do not have to be in conflict.

Be well in the Dharma,

G said...

Barry, another set of excellent comments - thank you!

As Justin (Dhamma81) has also stated, you are right in that many Easterners as well as Westerners fall short of the ultimate aim of the Buddhadharma - the attainment of enlightenment. (Some falling extremely short!) Your observation that this has been true throughout the history of Buddhism is an important point also.

As to Muramoto being a scholar rather than a practitioner of Buddhism, I don't know about that. Perhaps he's both? As to your general point about scholars and the full practice of the Way, yes, book learning most certainly has its limits in this respect. They do sometimes have useful things to say, though, Barry. (Perhaps Muramoto was a bad choice to illustrate this, however!)

That the heart of Buddhist practice (enlightenment) has nothing to do with psychotherapy is something that I wouldn't disagree with. But as you've already noted, Barry, not everyone is currently able to practice Buddhism to its fullest extent, and in this light it has been used as a form of psychotherapy for millennia by such people. As far as I can tell, there's nothing 'wrong' in this in the least. We can all use the Dharma to the level of attainment that we're able. For one, this may well be full awakening, for another, it may be peace of mind, or simply less suffering in their lives. There are different degrees of attainment, surely?

Be well in the Dharma,

G said...

Hi James.

I agree with you that science & Buddhism are compatible - though not necessarily in that order! :)

I was surfing the net the other day and reading up on different religions' views of evolution. And guess which religion seemed to be the most compatible with evolution? You guessed right - Buddhism! It appears that in most Buddhist circles there's none of the controversy found between many Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. and evolution. This seems typical of the relationship between Buddhism & science, and like you, I find it a wholly positive situation.

Be well in the Dharma,

Barry said...

As happens far too often, I was perhaps a little black/white in my comment. This is an ongoing practice "opportunity" for me.

I do appreciate and value the various efforts to adapt Buddhist practice to different people and situations. This has been the long legacy of Buddhism and is just now beginning to happen in the West.

For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn has achieved considerable success in adapting vipassana practice (as I understand it) for ordinary people who simply seek to reduce stress.

I think this is wonderful, in part because Kabat-Zinn doesn't confuse what he has done with Buddhism. When I saw him talk, a couple of years ago, he seemed to clear understand that the path to enlightenment differed from the path of adaptation to live challenges.

More power to him!

And to all of us! May we all attain enlightenment together.

G said...

Ah, a true Middle Way approach, Barry!

Yes, taking aspects of the Eightfold Path and practicing them to the exclusion of the other parts of the Way of the Buddha isn't really Buddhism. The Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path, not Twofold, Onefold, Fivefold, etc. but the Eightfold Path. Taking meditation & mindfulness out of the Path as a whole and practicing them separately will surely bring many benefits to whoever does so, but it is unlikely that they will realize enlightenemnt as understood in Buddhism.

And, as you wrote, if people do practice wholesome techniques such as meditation and benefit from it in psychotherapeutic ways and the like, then good on them!

May we all alleviate suffering,

buddha pendant said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

G said...

Buddha Pendant - thanks for the positive feedback. It makes writing 'Buddha Space' worthwhile! I look forward to your visits.


G said...

Yes, including sexual problems - so no need to buy viagra! ;-)

Mariko said...

There is a new book just being published on Japanese Psychotherapy by a JCP Psychotherapist who was trained and qualified in Japan under Japanese Senseis and who has been practicing psychotherapy in Japan for 25 years. You may be interested to read it and it is available this week from CreateSpace publisher on Amazon at this e-store:
And you can see a full description of this book at:

G said...

Thanks for the information, Mariko.
May you be happy!