Friday, August 04, 2006

Zen and therapy

Godo Guy Mercier talked of zazen at times in terms similar to self-help therapy - with destructive emotional and mental habits resolved through careful observation over a long period of time. Not radically dissimilar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I suppose.

In a recent podcast I was listening to, Cho Bo Ji was similarly describing Zen, free from mythology and in terms of acceptance of reality and avoidance of getting 'mentally stuck'.

And Stephen Batchelor describes Buddhism in secular terms, stripped of religious beliefs, leaving just a path to a positive way of being.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me. Yet there was quite a strong backlash against Batchelor from the Buddhist community, who apparently rejected his agnosticism about rebirth and karma, apparently seeing Batchelor's version of Buddhism as a pale, secular shadow of their noble religion, with it's talk of other worlds, heavenly realms and cycles of birth and death.

So, were they right or can Buddhism be described in terms of psychotherapy?

While it's natural for people to hold onto religious beliefs and be attached to myths about creation, life after death and so on, however I never really saw such beliefs as the essence of Buddhism. Buddha tended to refuse to answer metaphysical questions either on the basis that they are irrelevant to finding an escape from suffering or that the questions themselves were misconceived. Certainly I don't see Buddhism as intended as a belief system. It's for these reasons that I practice Zen rather than one of the schools of Buddhism, which are heavier on metaphysical or supernatural belief.

There are a number of therapists who have made similar claims (references needed), regarding Buddhism as an example of self-realisation which goes beyond ordinary therapy. There are countless therapists who incorporate Buddhist techniques and countless Buddhist books sold as theraputic self-help books.

One difference is that therapy is seen as a cure for the abnormal psychology of the section of society which is regarded as pathological, in other words, 'sick'. Buddhism on the other hand is seen as a universally appropriate practice. It is for this reason, that practicing Buddhism may been seen as having less of a social stigma than receiving therapy. To be precise, this is not because Buddhism does not pathologise one section of society, but because Buddhism regards virtually every sentient being as 'sick' in a sense. Only arahants and/or buddhas are free from this 'disease' that is existence. I think the key difference here is that our attitude towards mental health tends to be normative, that is, the goal of therapy is to make the abnormal normal. Buddhism on the other hand points out that normal people are in a state of suffering too and proposes that it is possible to be better than just 'normal'.

Far from being shameful, to practice Buddhism is regarded in Buddhist societies as a noble pursuit. Wouldn't this attitude of respect for one who has taken responsibility for his or her own welfare be more conducive to mental health and to people's preparedness to deal with these problems, than the current dominant one of castigating those who take such steps as 'the sick' and 'abnormal'? Perhaps it relates to a western attitude of scorn towards those who seek to find happiness in favour of those who are stoically productive?

So perhaps both Buddhism and therapy can be seen as not fundamentally different, just with different cultural meaning and with goals set at different points. But, if this is the case, what about Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist insights? Well, in Buddhism, thoughts are inseparable from the thinker - philosophy is just the mental acts of a particular being at a particular time - there are no Platonic thought-forms existing in some transcendent abstract plane.

One of the most brilliant and influential philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, saw metaphysical philosophy as a sort of sickness - an overextension of linguistic terms beyond their valid scope, attempting to speak about that which is ineffable. There is a lot of overlap between this an Zen. In Buddhist terminology this might be described as a confusion between conventional and ultimate truths. Wittgenstein's cure was Linguistic Philosophy - language is based on convention and needs to be reigned in when it is applied as if universally applicable.

Our grandest philosophies and most penetrating insights are still just thoughts. Our insights are just the dropping away of our delusions and in that sense are dependent upon them. This is one reason not to get attached to any insights we have. Even if we become 'fully enlightened', we are still entirely human.

18 Comments:

At August 04, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

Our grandest philosophies and most penetrating insights are still just thoughts. Our insights are just the dropping away of our delusions and in that sense are dependent upon them.

I think it might be a little more on-target to say "Our insights are just our ideas about the dropping away of our delusions...

This is one reason not to get attached to any insights we have. Even if we become 'fully enlightened', we are still entirely human.

Yes, and I suspect that even if we do get 'fully enlightened' for a moment or two, there are no guarantees about the next moment, or the next... but that starts getting into what the word enlightenment means again, and down that path lies many long, meaningless, tedious arguments.

 
At August 04, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Thanks Justin, nice article.

I became interested in Buddhism in my late teens, but did not fully embrace it at that time because of the superstitions that I thought were part of the philosophy. Years later, I discovered the teachings of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a Thai Theravada Buddhist monk. He was a respected Buddhist scholar, and made it his mission to clear up the misconceptions and superstitions that he saw as corrupting the Dharma.

Through his teachings, I came to better understand how superstition took root in many schools of Buddhism and how, in some cases, these superstitions reflect misunderstanding of real Buddhist principles. Examples of this include the concepts of rebirth and karma.

I think something similar happened in Christianity. Over the years, elaborate belief systems, myths, rituals, and superstitions corrupted the fairly straight-forward teachings of an 'enlightened' being.

In its 'purest' form, Theravada Buddhism is very similar to Zen in its perspective. The approach is scientific, as recommended by the Buddha. Don't believe anything that you cannot verify for yourself.

In case anyone is interested, here is the Wikipedia link to information on Buddhadasa:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhadasa

And here is a free online book that I think nicely sums up Buddhadasa's teachings:

http://www.buddhanet.net/budasa.htm

It's a quick read, and is especially compelling if you are interested in the roots of "Buddhist" superstition.

A friend of mine who is a western monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition once got angry with me for my criticism of Tibetan Buddhist superstition. He pointed out that the Buddha taught thousands of people from different backgrounds, and was a master at communicating in "a thousand different ways." According to my friend, what I consider mythology and misguided superstition is a valid and helpful finger, pointing at the same moon that I am squinting to see.

 
At August 05, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Interesting article.

Buddhism does have some superficial similarities to CBT. In CBT you find a reference point to reality (usually via a therapist) that is in contrast to your deluded thoughts about reality. By seeing that your delusions do not match reality you can choose to let go of that delusion or to shrink it.

Eg. "Everyone loves me" might be countered by a therapist saying "Well, I don't love you" and working from there to a more accurate "some people love you and some don't". CBT can be fast because once you have identified a thought it is easy to change it.

I would like to speculate that Buddhism has been 'decorated' with a lot of additional ideas and beliefs that are of a 'spiritual' nature that were added later by followers who might not have understood the original teachings and were trying to 'explain' it or to 'help' other people.

I have recently finished reading the spiritual teachings that underly yoga namely The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras.

It struck me that these texts are both older than Buddhism and suspiciously similar (including stages of enlightenemnt) with the key variances being over the theory of the Soul and of Reincarnation and of Caste. So I do have to wonder given that Buddhism has roots in Yoga if all that Buddha did was trim out some of the spiritual theory and leave the meet.

I personsally like to think of Buddhims as the science that is masquerading as a religion. No belief is necessary, just follow the steps and they will work despite your beliefs.

 
At August 05, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Jules,

I think it might be a little more on-target to say "Our insights are just our ideas about the dropping away of our delusions...

Yes OK I see what you mean. This is also remarkably similar to Wittgenstein's

"the problems vanish when you are in the nonverbal dimension of consciousness. You see the answers to all the questions that theologians and metaphysicians ask and you see why their questions are absurd. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. "

and

"The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem."

I think that 'enlightenment' as some sort of ultimate, perfect and transcendent state is a myth.

 
At August 05, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

anatman,

Through his teachings, I came to better understand how superstition took root in many schools of Buddhism and how, in some cases, these superstitions reflect misunderstanding of real Buddhist principles. Examples of this include the concepts of rebirth and karma.

Can you elaborate? Surely karma and rebirth were the original teachings of Buddha.

He pointed out that the Buddha taught thousands of people from different backgrounds, and was a master at communicating in "a thousand different ways." According to my friend, what I consider mythology and misguided superstition is a valid and helpful finger, pointing at the same moon that I am squinting to see.

Perhaps he's right. I like to think that Buddha did not believe these superstitions himself and used them as a way of teaching Buddhism within the context of Hindu metaphysical thought. He tended to refuse to engage in metaphysical speculation. Surely he was intelligent enough to question literal interpretations. I don't know. There is a book I'm saving for called How Buddhism Began which explores these issues.

 
At August 05, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

It struck me that these texts are both older than Buddhism and suspiciously similar (including stages of enlightenemnt) with the key variances being over the theory of the Soul and of Reincarnation and of Caste. So I do have to wonder given that Buddhism has roots in Yoga if all that Buddha did was trim out some of the spiritual theory and leave the meet.

Yes. Buddhism is essentially revised Vedism/Hinduism, challenging the notions of an absolute self and an absolute Absolute. There is no continuous or transcendent self to be incarnated in other bodies. Hinduism aims to find oneness with the Absolute. I believe that Buddha saw himself as rediscovering the true way. And he realised that you cannot find 'oneness' while holding onto notions of distinct selves, of reality divided into matter and soul and into 'oneness' and 'multiplicity'.

 
At August 05, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

"And he realised that you cannot find 'oneness' while holding onto notions of distinct selves, of reality divided into matter and soul and into 'oneness' and 'multiplicity'. "

This is also an interesting point since when a sense of oneness exists there is something that has this sense and therefore sees itself somehow as separate.

When there is no sense of 'oneness' I suspect that this is the true 'oneness'. When I look at my arm I don't register it in any way as different or separate from myself ,I just see part of 'me'.

"Yes. Buddhism is essentially revised Vedism/Hinduism, challenging the notions of an absolute self and an absolute Absolute."

That's what I had tentatively concluded.

 
At August 05, 2006, Blogger Bob J. said...

This discussion recites some common errors about the relative history of Hinduism and Buddhism and the common misperception that Buddhism somehow grew out of Hinduism. Actually, Buddhism is among six non-Hindu religions that grew out of the pre-Hindu Vedic period. Both the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita were written after the life of Gautama; usually, modern Hinduism cannot be said to begin until at least the period of the Upanishads. Pre-Hindu Vedic worship was more like Norse mythology than Buddhism or modern Hinduism. See the works of Heinrich Zimmer.

Not that this has anything to due with the original post. As to that, Zen is Zen and therapy is therapy; they are not at all the same.

 
At August 05, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I see therapy as being something quite different from Buddhism. Therapy looks at how the individual is functioning or not functioning and fashions a goal to be reached. The goal being to be able to function more effectively in ones life when the therapy is over. Buddhism, in my eyes, only looks at what is right now. Certainly there are people who need to go through therapy so that they can be more productive in relationships whether at home or work etc. Buddhism is not a substitute for therapy. If you are quite dysfunctional, you may become more so if you think you can use practice to cure your mental problems. Usually I think people do this unconsciously. For example, I will practice, be pious and do all of the things that the Buddha said are necessary to be a good person and have a happy life. The problem with that is people practice to be something they are not. If you are already confused about your life, you will become only more so. If however you are one of the many who have found that money, jobs, possessions are not where your happiness is to be found, you can practice with those observations directly without the help of a therapist, to come to the source of your true dissatisfaction.

 
At August 06, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Actually, Buddhism is among six non-Hindu religions that grew out of the pre-Hindu Vedic period. Both the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita were written after the life of Gautama; usually, modern Hinduism cannot be said to begin until at least the period of the Upanishads.

Thanks for clarifying

 
At August 06, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I see therapy as being something quite different from Buddhism. Therapy looks at how the individual is functioning or not functioning and fashions a goal to be reached. The goal being to be able to function more effectively in ones life when the therapy is over. Buddhism, in my eyes, only looks at what is right now.

Surely, by only looking at what is right now it fulfills a function of retraining the individual and changing their habits of thought, emotion and behaviour gradually over a long period?

Certainly there are people who need to go through therapy so that they can be more productive in relationships whether at home or work etc. Buddhism is not a substitute for therapy.

I never suggested it was. I don't think therapy is much of a substitute for buddhism either. I'm suggesting not that they are exactly the same but that what difference there is is not fundamental.

If however you are one of the many who have found that money, jobs, possessions are not where your happiness is to be found, you can practice with those observations directly without the help of a therapist, to come to the source of your true dissatisfaction.

Yes

 
At August 06, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

I don't mean to be offensive, but imagine a Nazi Storm Trooper who has trouble with his duties and goes to a therapist to resolve his feelings of guilt and then goes back to his job with renewed enthusiasm. Surely there is the little matter of values. Zen is not value free as commitment to transcending ego is a commitment to a very definite set of values. It's this difference in values that separates Zen from therapy and Wittgenstein.

 
At August 06, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I think what I was trying to say is that traditional therapy is a step by step look at what the problem is and how that particular problem will be resolved. There is a goal or resolution sought to dissolve the anxiety that brought about the condition in the first place. And I think that there is a place for getting therapy. When I was dealing with an anxiety and panic disorder, no amount of sitting was going to re-route my thinking process because I needed in-depth help with someone else pointing out to me that my thought process was skewed. Cognitive Behavorial Therapy and Rational Emotive Thinking saved me. That being said, there are levels of skewed thinking. When I returned to a "normal" level of skewed thinking and practiced, I realized that there was nothing to fix and nothing for me to make better. The thoughts I had entertained about being a better person etc were part of what had fed the roots of the anxiety. I found that in my acceptance of myself as being fully human, I took the pressure off of myself to live up to something and could get down to the fact that the best parts of us are always with us and not something we have to be trained in. Acceptance of the human condition and recognition that I would never be perfect was a big leap forward for me. Then I could practice with an open heart, both to myself and others.

 
At August 06, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

well said

 
At August 07, 2006, Blogger flecktones said...

Jinzang,
Is there really a difference between a psychotherapist helping a Nazi General to resolve his guilt, and a Zen Master helping a samuri to not fear death in order to kill more effectively?

 
At August 07, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Great question!

 
At August 07, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Both therapy and Zen include some sort of ethical basis, but either one is capable of being misused.

 
At August 07, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Can you elaborate? Surely karma and rebirth were the original teachings of Buddha.

The Buddha did discuss karma and rebirth, but he also refused to address issues of what happens after death, pointing out that this is irrelevant.

Also consider that the Buddha spoke of the impermanent nature of the self and "dependent origination," which is to say that nothing exists in and of itself, but rather, the existence of every single thing is completely dependent on the existence of other 'things,' or everything.

With this no-self principle in mind, the traditional concepts of rebirth and karma have to be reconsidered.

If you accept that the self is illusion and the only existence is the here and now, then karma and rebirth can still have meaning, but their meaning is immediate.

Rebirth is the arising of thoughts of self, and attachment to and identification with those thoughts.

Karma is the effect of past actions and memory of those actions that determine the nature of the sense of self that arises in the present.

 

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