Buddhist psychology is primarily about self-knowledge- finding out more about who you are, understanding your decisions, actions, thoughts, feelings, etc. It is an expression of the Delphic dictum Know Thyself and the injunction that transformative spiritual paths throughout time and geography have demanded as the central ingredient in authentic happiness.
Buddhist psychology is ‘radical,’ as it aims to challenge your worldview (as all authentic spirituality and psychology does). It is radical in that it addresses the basis or foundation of our psychological functioning, our sense of who we are, and our relationships with others and with the world. As a result, the fruit of applying the psychological insights of the Buddha requires diligence, perseverance and discernment as they will naturally encounter the resistances and obstacles inherent in our conditioned nature.
It is not a coincidence that Buddhism finds itself so welcome in the western world since the last decades of the preceding century. While the appeal certainly includes those who have converted to Buddhism as a faith and have adopted the practices, liturgies and meditations of whatever form of Buddhism speaks to them, the more unique and far-reaching impact of Buddhism, as a psychology, has taken place in academia and among clinical researchers, who have observed that the Buddhist understanding of consciousness, mind, behavior, motivation, personality and psychopathology bear a close resemblance to perspectives held in western psychology and psychotherapy. While the Buddha was not a psychiatrist or psychologist in the formal sense of the word, the vast majority of his recorded teachings, are explicitly concerned with the sources of emotional suffering and their amelioration. No doubt there is much, much more to Buddhism than the psychology he elucidates. Yet, an argument will be made that these more ‘religious’ elements, for the want of a better word, or possibly ‘experience-far’ aspects, are of appeal to those who seek a religious Buddhism, a Buddhism that provides for a level of faith and understanding that speaks to the needs of their heart, but which can be separated out, and set aside, for those who do not seek such a religious experience (possibly content with their own existing faith, or with none at all) but who rather wish to deepen their self-knowledge and happiness. It is these experience-near or psychological Buddhism that speaks loudly in the West and which may be anticipated to be the legacy of the Buddhist encounter with the West.
Let’s examine some of the confluences of Western and Buddhist psychology. There is certainly a high degree of overlap in goals and content areas of both disciplines that focus directly on understanding human behavior, the source or conditions for unhappiness and ways to reduce, attenuate or even eliminate such unhappiness. Indeed the Buddhist corpus has extensive psychological writings- very explicit and detailed- and not found in other religious traditions. Thus it is not surprising that some aspect of Buddhist psychology has been of interest to those professions in the west dedicated to alleviating human suffering: medicine, psychiatry, psychology, nursing, social work. The professional journals for each of these disciplines have published so much scientific research (especially related to mindfulness practice) that to fully describe the studies would require a book in itself. The Dalai Lama has explicitly encouraged interaction between western disciplines to further establish links with science and clinical practice. The Mind and Life Institute is an expression of this venture of cooperation. Elements of Buddhist psychology have been integrated into psychotherapeutic practices for a variety of psychopathological conditions, including depression, anxiety, addiction and stress. Scientific writers from the entire range of clinical psychology and psychiatry, ranging from psychoanalysis to cognitive to behavioral to humanistic theory, have all addressed aspects of Buddhist psychology. Not surprising, the Buddhist traditions that have been of greatest appeal to western science and psychology have been those that appear to contain a higher proportion of experience-near aspects (Theravadin, Zen) because they carry much less religious baggage and more easily translated into Western concepts. Less impactful has been the teachings of Mahayana and Tibetan or tantric Buddhism which include a strong element of experience-far teachings and thus are more difficult to translate into concepts that are digestible by the western mind. Nevertheless, even these traditions reflect a more esoteric psychology that does find resonance in the West and which full certainly continue to attract significant interest
Buddhist psychology, simply put, is concerned with the alleviation of human suffering, distress, and dissatisfaction. However, the Buddhist idea of suffering much broader than what is usually the focus of western psychology. The notion of suffering includes the entire range of human dissatisfaction and anguish and not the clinical disorders described by psychiatry. And it is also important to note that for the most part the Buddha is referring to emotional suffering rather than physical suffering, per se. The emphasis is on the mental aspects of physical pain rather than the pain itself. The Buddha’s practical project of the understanding and relief of human anguish was also a potent counterforce to metaphysical speculation which the Buddha eschewed. The pursuit of metaphysical, logical or theoretical issues for their own sake was avoided. Such questions could not be answered and spending time on them simply distracted from the urgency of the message the Buddha wished to share. This could also be understood as the Buddha’s advice to leave questions about the nature of the universe, matter, and reality to those disciplines equipped to study and address them (e.g., science). The domain of science was the area of human endeavour which could answer such questions. The Buddha was primarily concerned with the human mind and its activity.
Much of what the Buddha taught could eventually be empirically and personally evaluated by those who were diligent and persistent. This is an important consideration for those who distinguish experience-near (psychological) and experience-far (religious) aspects of Buddhism. While the former could be realized and experienced anyone who put in the requisite effort, that did not mean it would be easy. Any profound and transformative understanding of mind would require dedication and perseverance and could not learn from simply hearing about it or reading it. The Buddha’s was approach empirical and scientific- it did not draw on dogma, philosophy or received wisdom. Analytic and experiential investigation worked together to provide the transformative knowledge the Buddha wished to teach us. The Buddha does not ask that his claims be taken on blind faith, although some faith is necessary to even begin self-exploration. Examine his words on the basis of your reason, experience, and intuition. All of us have the seed of Enlightenment, of authentic happiness, bliss waiting to ‘blossom’ if nourished.
We pay extreme attention to our physical bodies (vanity, cosmetics, clothes). We can invest incredible amounts of time towards achievements such as careers, sports, art, money and social standing. We pursue social relationships as a key aspect of our happiness. One can make the argument that our sciences and technologies are devoted to increasing comfort, convenience, pleasure, and so on. There is no doubt that we are highly focused on preserving our physical lives, our social status and relationships, and our sensory and lifestyle. Our education system can be said to be geared to achieving all of these aims, all of which are admirable and good. But little attention is paid to mind or consciousness. It is not taught in school, by caregivers, or friends. This may reflect the Western ambivalence towards mind. Many psychologies have either denied the existence of consciousness or have diminished its influence in our lives; modern neuroscience research has reduced consciousness to brain activity that may have not have any causal agency. Yet, consciousness is precisely the focus of Buddhist psychology.
Andrew Olendzki has done an excellent job at describing the key components of Buddhist psychology and it would be valuable to reiterate some of his conclusions here. Buddhist psychology focuses on the direct experience, consciousness, awareness, mind, subjectivity, of the individual. Buddhist psychology can be descriptive phenomenology of mind, a science of experience. Its contribution is the Buddha’s advice to explore the dynamics of subjectivity as it unfolds in the present moment through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Modern scientific views of mind and behavior have tended toward reductionist explanations, explaining mind in terms of physical structures and brain processes. Olendzki has argued that the reductionist approach doesn’t explain lived human experience, the qualia of experience. The absence of the brain in the Buddha’s account of mind leaves a place for the contribution of western science but also suggests that to understand the mind, in the manner that the Buddha discusses, does not require contributions of neuroscience. The Buddha, through his advocacy of a meditative approach to wisdom, points to a process view of experience consisting of several interdependent processes, functions, and events (i.e. dharmas).
As Olendzki has shown, the core Buddhist insight is this: the mysteries of human condition can be explored in the subjectivity of the present moment. The stream of consciousness is a field of investigation. By studying the mind, we come to know ourselves.
(i) Centrality of consciousness/ subjectivity
The radically psychological nature of Buddhist psychology is evidenced by the need to explore the mind through meditation and other forms of contemplation. It is not necessary to explain it, where it comes from, which part of the brain and so on, which is a major focus of many western scientific disciplines. Our subjectivity consists of moments of awareness that appear seamless but with attention placed on it, within the present moment, can reveal how our cognitive processes culminate in the mental phenomena we experience. Investigating this moment, right here, right now, is where wisdom can arise.
(ii) Human experience manifests through 6 sense systems
Along with the 5 senses and their corresponding experiences, mind is considered to be a sense organ, and cognitive events are sense objects. The traditional account of consciousness describes its emergence from interaction of sense organ (e.g., eye) and sense object (e.g., visual object) creating sensory experience (e.g., visual consciousness). Everything we know depends on the activity of these 6 senses. While later developments in Buddhist philosophy posits additional senses, the traditional scriptures focus on these six.
(iii) All experience is constructed
The radically psychological nature of Buddhist psychology can be observed in the emphasis on what appears. What appears is a transformation or translation of the external environment into an internal language of consciousness (e.g., photons >> sight; chemicals >>taste, smell; vibration >>> hearing; pressure >> touch; brain activity >>> cognition). The transformation of raw sensory activation into sensory experience is so radical that no way to know what pre-constructed reality is. All we can know is our own subjectivity. Any discussion of what ‘reality’ is will always be limited by what our senses will permit and what our mind can conceive. The study of reality is the study of the human construction of experience. And whatever such reality may be is irrelevant to the real purpose of the Buddha’s message, to transform delusion into wisdom. This project requires us to explore our inner world. Of course, each individual has their unique, subjective, constructed reality.
(iv) Experience is constantly changing- an incessant succession of events
Each perception, sensation, cognition, image, memory, feeling is a process that can never be experienced identically again. Every moment is unique. Our brains have evolved to reduce our awareness of such flux to increase our ability to survive. For reasons of adaptation sensory reality is filtered thus distorting our experiences. Three major forms of perceptual distortion are described by the Buddha: perceptions of permanence (perceptual-linguistic), satisfaction (cognitive) and self (metacognitive) are examples of this distortion-tendency.
(v) Mind/body (the self) revealed through 5 inter-dependent processes
Five processes or ‘aggregates’ define the self (i.e., mind/body). These five processes consist of physicality, consciousness, perception, affect, and habit. The Buddhist posits a view of self an interaction among these five processes to produce the coherent sense of identity and ‘I’-ness that defines who we are. It is not accurate to claim that there is no self within Buddhist psychology. This would be absurd. What the Buddha clarifies is that the self we experience has no essence or substance but consists of these 5 constantly arising, abiding and subsiding.