American Folk Buddhism (16)

New Moon, Uposatha, July 18, 2012            Series Index

Psychoanalysis and American Folk Buddhism

The Four Noble Truths are often described in medical terms, in brief: Suffering is the symptom and the Noble Eightfold Path is the cure. Furthermore the causes of suffering that must be addressed are factors of mind. This suggests immediate parallels with Western psychoanalysis and these parallels also inform the popular understanding of Buddhism in the West. It even leads to the popular viewpoint that Buddhism is a kind of psychotherapy.

It should be noted that whereas the European Enlightenment, Protestant Christianity and Romanticism were influences already present in Western culture before there was much awareness of Buddhism, psychoanalysis is hardly a century old and there has been a dialog between it and Buddhism along with other Eastern traditions almost from the start. To a large degree Buddhism has had the opportunity to shape psychoanalysis and that influence has picked up speed with time. William James apparently predicted around the turn of the Twentieth Century that in twenty-five years psychologists would all be studying Buddhism. However in twenty-five years they were all studying Freud, who considered Buddhism, along with all mystical or contemplative religion, a humbug, narcissistic and infantile and beneath the scientific approach he advocated for understanding the human mind. Some of his disciples even considered meditative states a kind of catatonia or dementia. Nonetheless Jung and many of Freud’s other students took an early interest in religious experience and in Buddhism in particular, perhaps initially on the sly, so that the influence of Buddhism seems never really to have gone away. Jung, Fromm and others, most of whom seem to have been conferring with D.T. Suzuki, certainly did much to influence a popular understanding that brought Buddhism and psychoanalysis into close alignment.

I am far from knowledgeable in psychoanalysis nor in its relationship of Buddhism. Just as there are Buddhist adepts whose understanding is generally much more refined than that of Folk Buddhists, there are certainly adepts in psychology whose understanding is much more refined than that of Folk Psychologists and there are also people who are both Buddhist adepts and adepts in psychology who are daily developing a more detailed, and presumably valuable, understanding of the relationship of Buddhism and psychoanalysis than the typical Folk Buddhist or I would be aware of. Of course there is now a extensive literature on this topic. I will confine discussion to those elements of Western psychology that seem to impinge directly on Western Folk Buddhism and whether these are inimical or friendly toward Essential Buddhism.

Emphasis on the Mind. A Buddhism colored by Western psychoanalysis is a Buddhism turned inward, concerned with the mind. This probably differentiates Western Folk Buddhism from most Asian Folk Buddhisms, which tend to be more outwardly directed, toward ritual and community observances, toward lore and toward ethics. This also goes far in according with Essential Buddhism, which is very psychological, very concerned with working with and training the mind even at very subtle levels. I would guess that the inward orientation of psychoanalysis also contributes to the huge interest in meditation in Western Folk Buddhism, in contrast to most of Asian Folk Buddhism. And in fact mindfulness practices in particular seem to have in turn insinuated themselves into modern psychoanalysis shorn of their Buddhist container.

Functions. Traditionally psychoanalysis is about addressing pathologies, and Buddhism in contrast about addressing the things that ail people almost universally. Freud even described the former’s task as removing neurotic misery in order to return people to the common unhappiness that befalls normal people. Buddhism’s primary task in contrast is to produce saints, or at least people with exceptional qualities, qualities of equanimity, kindness, compassion, virtue, penetrating wisdom and absolute humility. Now the function of psychoanalysis has undoubtedly broadened over time, as psychoanalysis has become more broadly dispensed and perhaps as it has come more under the influence of Buddhism, broadened in some instances to what has been described as a science of happiness. However the popular view of psychoanalysis is still oriented around pathology. And the function of Buddhism, especially when regarded as a form of psychoanalysis, has probably narrowed in the popular view accordingly to become something like a cure for unhappiness.

In practical terms people in the West generally come to Buddhism because life has been difficult. When Buddhism is popularly thought of in terms of psychotherapy this makes Buddhism that much more attractive. However then people relate to Buddhism as patients and Buddhist centers become something like hospitals, or at least outpatient clinics. One of the teachers at a meditation center where I once lived once remarked he thought of that center as a hospital; people were there as patients, and impatient for cure. This contrasts markedly with Asian Buddhism communities which are characterized more by a sense of common values, values exhibited by saints, qualities of equanimity, kindness, compassion, virtue, penetrating wisdom and absolute humility. People are not commonly patients in such communities but expect to find role models, kalyanamitta, remarkable people who inspire them to develop such qualities in themselves, perhaps only gradually but occasionally by fully entering a path of intensive practice.

In short, Western Buddhist communities are generally places of cure, Asian are places of refuge. To a great extent this difference is attributable to the way its members enter the respective community, on the one hand because they find life so difficult outside, on the other because they are already born inside. Accordingly Western communities tend to focus on intense practice, while Asian on inspiration and wholesome intercourse with like-minded people. Viewing Buddhism as psychotherapy helps shape the Westerner’s popular relationship to Buddhism and the Buddhist community. Each of these kinds of communities has advantages and disadvantages. Western communities tend to be oriented toward serious practice, but can also be places of frustration and burnout. Asian communities tend to be happy harmonious inspiring supportive family-friendly environments in which more people think about stepping onto the Noble Eightfold Path than actually undertake it.

Contents. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism are both concerned with the development of mind, but psychoanalysis has traditionally had a distinct idea of what that entails. In Freud’s approach this typically involves discovering the roots of psychosis in early childhood trauma or in complex configurations of factors buried in the past. I think this is still part of the popular understanding of psychoanalysis. Buddhism on the other hand is much less concerned with diachronic origins of problematic factors as with simply letting go of defilements as they arise in the present. The Buddhist project is briefly to purify the mind of factors rooted in greed, hatred and delusion, and particularly in an inappropriate sense of self, and to encourage their opposites, generosity and renunciation, kindness and compassion, and wisdom and humility, much like a gardener pulls out weeds and waters beneficial crops without worrying too much exactly where the weeds came from or how their seeds were transported there. In fact from the Essential Buddhist perspective too much attention to past root causes results in an distracted proliferation of self-directed thinking.

Also common in early psychoanalysis and in its modern understanding is the consistent implication of social and cultural norms and constraints in the development of psychosis, as if without these one’s true self would emerge healthy and unfettered. It is easy to recognize the origins of this particular understanding in European Romanticism. There is no counterpart to this role for cultural and social pressures in Essential Buddhism other than to encourage some social norms as healthy and discourage others as unhealthy as determinants along with other innate and acquire tendencies of individuals’ karmic actions.

Secularization. Finally, psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy are often considered the secular counterparts of religion, insofar as they are concerned with psychological and spiritual well-being, yet generally lack the “religiosity,” with its aspects of the sacred, of ritual, of community functions and hierarchy and of ethics and of transcendent aspirations. Essential Buddhism has such religious functions, even if many are less prominent there before they are further enhanced and embellished in much of Asian Folk Buddhism. Therefore regarding Buddhism as a form of psychotherapy reduces the scope of Buddhism’s functions to produce a kind of secularized Buddhism. Certainly psychoanalysis has had an influence in the open advocacy within Folk Buddhism of a “Secular Buddhism” and even in the claim that that is what the Buddha expounded. I doubt that the Buddha gave much thought to he secular-sacred divide that obsesses monderists let alone attention to staying on one side of it.

I’ve written elsewhere on the issue of secularity and religiosity in Buddhism and have had occasion to touch on many aspects of this here. Suffice it to say that psychotherapy generally has no Triple Gem, nor is the capacity of faith and reverence for opening up the full power of practice present, nor is much attention given to community, except for maybe encounter group, as something that embodies and imparts values, and also which provides special support for those who want to get real serious about practice. Perhaps most problematic is that the ethical dimension is largely neglected in favor of personal well-being, whereas everything in Essential Buddhism is imbued with ethics and virtue. Psychotherapy also generally does not reach beyond making this one life more comfortable and toward dedicating this one life to a much greater project as Essential Buddhism encourages.

Conclusion. Almost two millennia ago as Buddhism was beginning to enter China Taoism seems to have provided a conceptual structure and vocabulary that aided in grasping this foreign import. I think however it is an exaggeration to say that that role has fallen to such a great extent to psychoanalysis in the West. Nonetheless psychoanalysis along with the Romanticism that preceded it did, in making the mind important, provide a huge prerequisite for grasping Buddhism’s full foreign import. And yet Essential Buddhism is not psychotherapy, at least in the popular form of the latter, and care should be taken to avoid Folk Buddhist tendency toward conflating the two.

Next week I would like to end this series on American Folk Buddhism with an overview and general conclusions.

2 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (16)”

  1. Randy Says:

    I am struck by your comment “Freud even described the former’s task as removing neurotic misery in order to return people to the common unhappiness that befalls normal people.” and what occurs to me that if one steps back from the ‘human’ condition and looks at the entire natural world one finds that most of it, is, at it’s root, rather boring except that the rest of the natural world is not aware of that nor does it care. The boredom is broken up by these little ‘spikes’ of excitement, usually some sort of threat or if one is a predator the thrill of the chase. My point being that the Human tendency to think of it’s “problems” as unique or “caused” by some sort of failure to perform properly, as death as a punishment is almost ludicrous. Why do I say this? Well I suppose because in a sense the Buddhist idea of bringing an end to suffering, in a sense is yet another snipe chase through fantasy land…


    One takes the position as I understand the meaning of the concept, that escaping from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or finding some ‘place’ (circumstance?) where the ‘unfairness of it all” is not present, is NOT the point. Accepting the ebb and flow of things at some level, hopefully a deeper (or higher?) level and being able to honestly being able to apply the Serenity Prayer effortlessly may be all one can really do in this ‘plane of existence.’

    I suppose my personal “issue” is I still have difficulty believing if one continues one can arrive at a truly higher state of being where the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are in fact no longer in play? Not sure that makes sense at a level since it is those very aspects of existence that make it interesting. What an incredibly interesting double bind.

    One thing is certain. The “practice” does, definitely, without a doubt improve things and at a level it becomes obvious that circumstance becomes less and less of the issue and it becomes almost amusing how terribly bad we feel about losing at a game of solitaire…

    Well shucks.

    There are those moments of pure clarity and bliss. Not sure staying there is the point but it sure has its appeal when one is a Wilderbeast trying to cross a river and a crocodile grabs one’s leg and…

    Silly Wilderbeast.

    Which way is up?

    Miss you.


    By the way, never looked at Buddhism as a fix-it. Vedanta was (is?) my first love but it was like moving to a better neighborhood…

    Never mind.


  2. Kim Mosley Says:

    I’ve been surprised that Buddhism doesn’t work better as a psychotherapy. Or maybe I just don’t notice the changes in people. And on the other hand, the teachers seem to be psychotherapists in many ways.


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