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“Naikan” 内観 is a self-reflective form of meditation founded by Yoshimoto Ishin 吉本伊信 (1916–1988), who developed it from a lay Shin Buddhist practice called mishirabe身調べ. After Yoshimoto used it to help prisoners in the 1950s, psychiatrists in the 1960s started to use it as a psychotherapy. Today in Japan it is the most popular psychotherapeutic method that originated in Buddhism. Naikan involves self-reflection on three questions: What have I received from a significant other? What have I given back to that person? What troubles and difficulties did I cause that person? People doing Naikan ask themselves these questions in relation to a family member or some other person during particular times in their lives. There are two types of the practice: intensive Naikan (shūchū naikan集中内観) and daily Naikan (nichijō naikan日常内観 or bunsan naikan分散内観). The former is done continually for a week at a Naikan training center, of which there are about twenty-five in Japan and several outside Japan in Austria, Germany, and the United States. During intensive Naikan, those doing Naikan report individually eight or so times a day their answers to the three questions to an “interviewer” (mensetsusha面接者). Daily Naikan is done as part of a person’s everyday normal routine for as short as a few minutes or as long as two hours a day. Intensive or daily Naikan is offered as a therapy at about twenty medical institutions in Japan and another fifteen in China. Intensive Naikan is commonly done for one of four reasons. First, it is done to solve a specific problem, such as alcoholism, gambling addiction, a psychosomatic disorder, or a bad relationship with a family member. Second, it is used to train employees so they can interact better with customers and colleagues. The Toyoko Inn, for example, which has over 230 hotels throughout Japan, requires all its full-time employees to do intensive Naikan. Third, it cultivates greater self-awareness with regard to, for example, how our minds work. Finally, it is done to discover the true nature of our lives through a spiritual awakening, which commonly entails the realization of how we live due to the care of others and how we suffer because of our own self-centeredness. This final purpose is in accordance with Yoshimoto’s view of Naikan as a method for learning how to live happily regardless of one’s life circumstances. Those who do Naikan for non-psychotherapeutic purposes sometimes use the term “Naikanhō” 内観法 (Naikan method) to distinguish their aims from Naikan therapy (Naikan ryōhō) 内観療法, which is used to solve a particular problem. But regardless of whether Naikan is done for self-developmental, spiritual, or for therapeutic reasons, the Naikan method of reflecting on the three Naikan questions is the same.

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The philologists and cultural commentators who first introduced the word Buddhism into the English lexicon intended it to refer to a “world religion” that was eminently psychological in nature. Finding in Buddhist texts intricate treatises on the function of mentation or on classificatory systems of human cognition, early European and US translators such as Thomas Rhys Davids defined Buddhism as an “ethical psychology.” Through the 19th century, Asian Buddhist leaders from the Japanese monk Shaku Soen to the Sri Lankan/Ceylonese Anagārika Dharmapāla sought to legitimate Buddhist doctrine with appeals to the language of the psychological. Their interlocutors in Europe and the United States, including figures such as Paul Carus, explicitly attempted to align Buddhist doctrine not only with rationalist scientific truth but, in particular, with the then-nascent discipline of psychology. When psychologists and psychotherapists began to examine Buddhist teachings and practice, they thus presumed they would find a protopsychology. Early psychologists of religion such as James Bissett Pratt were predisposed to conclude that “Gotama Buddha was probably the greatest psychologist of his age.” The first psychoanalysts to take an interest in Buddhist traditions likewise assumed that Buddhist practices of a putative “self-absorption” were ancient esoteric means for what Carl Jung called a “penetration into the groundlayers of consciousness.” Jung further pronounced his analytical psychology to have revealed that Buddhist “enlightenment” was, in actuality, a form of psychotherapeutic self-actualization, an idea that frequently resurfaced in later psychological interpretations of Buddhist traditions. Into the early 1960s, Buddhist religious figures such as D. T. Suzuki worked directly with psychological interpreters, including the humanistic psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. In these conversations, Suzuki further advanced ideas such as that Zen Buddhist practices accessed otherwise unreachable depths of the unconscious. As Buddhist communities populated predominantly by so-called “converts” of European descent developed in the United States, they were often based on doctrine that interpreted concepts such as rebirth in psychological terms. Through the 1990s, Buddhist meditative states continued to be the object of psychological and neuropsychological research and experimentation, often with the participation of major Buddhist figures such as the Dalai Lama. And although earlier psychotherapists largely compared psychological and Buddhist frames as a theoretical matter, Buddhist elements began to be increasingly incorporated into actual clinical work. Such activities are perhaps most prominently represented by the ubiquitous use of therapeutic mindfulness practices, but psychotherapists have been influenced by a wide diversity of teachings and practices drawn from diverse contemporary Buddhist communities. Those communities have long been shaped by the idea that a Buddhist path is uniquely psychological, but, strikingly, some have also been founded and led by individuals such as Jack Kornfield or Barry Magid who hold dual roles as psychologists and psychotherapists.