By KAISA PUHAKKA, professor in the Clinical Psychology Department at CIIS
Recent decades have seen a fertile encounter between Buddhism and Western psychology. Unique among religious and spiritual traditions, Buddhism does not have a theology or beliefs of any kind as its foundation. In its 2,500 year history it has taken root in many countries and possessed an amazing capacity to adapt to rather than oppose the cultural mores and beliefs of its host countries. But none of these mores or beliefs is essential to Buddhism. For example, many but not all Buddhists accept re-incarnation, karma, etc., which were prevalent beliefs in the early host countries. As much as we know of the historical Buddha, he counseled his disciples to not take any teachings on faith—not even his—but to verify their truth in direct personal experience and observation. It is this insistence on verification in direct observation, along with the concern with alleviation of suffering, that naturally aligns Buddhism with Western psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy has indeed taken advantage of this alignment in widespread and successful adaptations of mindfulness meditation for managing stress, chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
But there is so much more to Buddhism than these simple adaptations. Buddhism has big ideas that reach through your innermost self all the way through the vast cosmos —like pratityasmutpada or the interdependence of all beings, or sunyata, the no-thingness or voidness of reality. And they are not just ideas but something to be realized in the immediacy of one's experience. I once asked a famous mathematician at a Zen monastery about the secret of his apparently inexhaustible creativity (he was 50 then). He said, “It's about being closest to my true self. You know, of course, my self is nothing at all,” he smiled and described how when sitting in the Zendo, mathematical forms spontaneously arise out of the void (sunyata). He had been sitting through sesshins for 24 years when I came to my first. Something coming from nothing—true creativity!
No Western psychology is big enough to fully contain these ideas, but we have bigger containers that could do more than symptom-focused cognitive-behavioral psychology—like psychodynamic psychotherapy, which considers the whole person and all of the psyche including the unconscious. It is indeed heartening to see the door being slowly cracked open in contemporary psychoanalytic circles not only for meditative techniques but for deeper inquiry into the self. Like Buddhism, psychodynamic psychotherapy is concerned with alleviating suffering and also believes in disciplined self-inquiry and dispelling of illusions as key to liberation from suffering. In both, the inquiry is carried out in a formal relationship—between student and teacher in many forms of Buddhist practice and between patient and therapist in psychodynamic psychotherapy. There is enough common ground between the two traditions to meaningfully explore some of the vast differences that are there also. I believe it is in the dynamic tension of these differences that new discoveries and developments will take place, both for the grounding of Buddhist practice in Western cultural soil, and for awakening the spiritual soul of psychodynamic therapy.