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date: 14 August 2020

Psychological Interpreters of Buddhism

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Buddhist traditions, psychology and psychotherapy, religion and psychology, Buddhism and science, William James, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, Thomas Rhys Davids, Caroline Rhys Davids, self-absorption, Anagārika Dharmapāla, Paul Carus, psychology of religion, James Bissett Pratt, Franz Alexander, self-actualization, Zen, satori, psychoanalysis, mindfulness, humanistic psychology, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Jon Kabat-Zinn, nonself, interrelatedness

The Discovery of the Psychological Buddhism

The term Buddhism is a relatively new addition to the English language. Prior to the first half of the 19th century, the word did not exist at all when, as explained by Philip Almond and others, it was coined to name novel phenomena that had been only relatively recently “discovered.”1 By the mid-19th century, a small cadre of English-speaking scholars and philologists were publishing papers, books, and translations that would ultimately serve to explain to readers what the term Buddhism meant, what the word referred to exactly. And these first individuals all held particular assumptions that remain embedded within the word Buddhism. Some of these assumptions may seem so obvious to its definition as to not require mention. Among them are that Buddhism refers to a “world religion,” founded on the teachings of a religious leader—“the historical Buddha,” the Shakyamuni Siddhārtha Gautama—and first practiced by peoples throughout the continent of Asia.2

Many of “the British discoverers of Buddhism” held an additional assumption that was equally central to their definition of the new construct: that the term Buddhism referred to a set of teachings best understood as an “ethical psychology,” that the word referred to a uniquely psychological religion. One such figure, Thomas Rhys Davids, founded and chaired the Pāli Text Society to provide curious English-reading audiences with translations of “the Pāli Canon,” a set of writings they believed formed the basis of Buddhism as a religion (comparable to Christian biblical texts).3 Any reader who picked up the first publication for the Society from Thomas’s wife, the important translator and commentator Caroline Rhys Davids, would find this point announced clearly in its title on the cover: “A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics of the Fourth Century bc”.4

At times, Thomas Rhys Davids collaborated with counterparts in continental Europe such as Hermann Oldenberg who were engaged in the same exercise for readers of their own languages.5 While the Rhys Davids toiled away in England, figures such as Oldenberg and, importantly, Eugène Burnouf helped popularize the terms Buddhismus and Bouddhisme, respectively.6 They, too, introduced and translated Buddhism as a religion via Buddhist texts for German and French audiences. To varying degrees, these figures all shared the presumption that Buddhism or Bouddhisme referred to a religion that was eminently psychological and in which the practitioner plumbed the depths of the interior mind.

Scholars such as Donald Lopez have long described a “psychologization” of Buddhism traditions.7 When they use this term, they mean that, first, the actual communities, teachings, and practices that are commonly referred to as Buddhist have been (mis)interpreted using theories that are typically referred to as psychological and, as a result, reconstructed into something new: a psychologized Buddhism. David McMahan and others have suggested that such transformations contributed to the creation of new, larger contemporary forms that they have named modern Buddhism or Buddhist modernism.8 However, the term Buddhism has always been used to designate a religion that was, at its very core, psychological. The construct was ready-made to be interpreted by psychologists and psychotherapists.

As Luiz Gomez has observed, scholars such as the Rhys Davids and the Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams may have had reason to describe the texts they read as investigations of “psychological” matters.9 While emphasizing that “it would be imprudent to accept uncritically the accuracy of this parallelism” and to miss the ways in which it can be “misleading,” Gomez explains that “the parallel is not totally spurious or devoid of heuristic value: Important aspects of Buddhist doctrine and practice may be construed as efforts at understanding human psychology.”10 There are copious Buddhist textual sources throughout history that engage in deep explications of the nature of cognition and the workings of the human mind. Buddhist thinkers have engaged in debates across continents and over the course of centuries—from the Yogācāra of Indian Mahāyāna traditions to the T’ien-t’ai communities of medieval China to the Kagyü teachings of 11th-century Tibetan Buddhists—over how to categorize various forms of mentation, whether “appearance” is purely an invention of cognition, and which states of consciousness are more or less desirable and thus worth cultivating.

Scholars such as the Rhys Davids believed that the texts containing these discussions laid out the essential thought—the essential belief system, as religions were understood to be defined by inner beliefs—that comprised the new construct Buddhism. At the same time, a growing number of the early European discoverers of Buddhism also observed that the communities across Asia they called Buddhists appeared far more interested in practices of merit-making, propitiation of divinities, and visualizations of Pure Lands than in settling philosophical debates between Svatantrika and Prasaṅgika views on the relationship between the mind and reality. These observers largely resolved this seeming contradiction by positing that followers of the Buddha had strayed from his original teachings very quickly following his death. Even the ancient Sanskrit and Pāli texts that contained the closest approximation of these original teachings were still written many years after the Buddha’s death and, consequently, contained “perversions” of “supernatural interferences.”11 For most early scholars of Buddhist traditions, whatever so-called “lay” or “popular Buddhism” consisted of, the term Buddhism itself, unadorned with qualifiers, should be defined (and introduced to communities in Europe and the United States) as fundamentally rational and, importantly, centered on inner psychology. The Buddhist path was an intrapsychic exploration of “self-absorption.”

Meanwhile, when Caroline Rhys Davids published A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, “psychology” was itself still a relatively new term and very much a nascent academic discipline, often signaled by proponents referring to it as “the new psychology.” To a growing community in Europe and the United States, psychology was an exciting innovation of modern science that promised to reveal the true interior workings of human being. To declare that Buddhism was an “ethical psychology” then was not only to make a descriptive statement; it was intended as a high compliment, an endorsement of the religion’s value. To introduce Buddhism as “the first psychology,” the Buddha as “the first psychologist,” was to announce that the cultural productions of the Pāli Text Society held not only esoteric ancient wisdom but an esoteric ancient wisdom with vital insights for moderns. And announce this the Pāli Text Society did.

Caroline Rhys Davids’s volume, for example, was a translation of Dhammasaṅgaṇi, the first book of the Abhidhamma pitaka, but the opening words of her introduction inform the reader that the work is as important in “the history of psychology” as if “a copy of some manual” belonging to “the young Socrates” had been discovered in “the ruins of Greece.”12 Rhys Davids had been a student of psychology as well as Asian religious traditions, and she presents her translation as deserving of attention because “even a superficial inspection of the Manual should yield great promise to anyone interested in the history of psychology.”13 The volume becomes but a single piece of evidence for Rhys Davids’s larger contention that “early psychological thought in the East” should be “assigned its due place.”14

When speaking before new audiences, Buddhist popularizers—Asian as well as European—seized upon the idea that Buddhist doctrine held psychological truths. Many scholars have pinpointed the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a watershed moment when listeners in the United States were first introduced to prominent figures they believed were representative of Buddhist communities throughout Asia.15 Though the Japanese monk Shaku Soen led a very different community of Buddhists than the Sri Lankan/Ceylonese Anagārika Dharmapāla did, both drew upon the language of the psychological when they spoke at the event. In their efforts to legitimate Buddhist teachings and practices, figures such as Dharmapāla built upon the notion that Buddhism could stand alongside Christianity as a world religion and suggested that, more than that, it could offer an alternative for the age of science. It may have come as a surprise to Dharmapāla’s listeners to hear that Buddhist thought anticipated the then-revolutionary theory of evolution, but its association with the science of psychology often needed little explanation.

Dharmapāla and Soen’s interlocutors in Europe and the United States, such as the theosophist Henry Steel Olcott and the author Paul Carus, further advanced the idea that Buddhism was a scientific religion par excellence. It was a religion of the mind in its intellectualism and logical, rational, philosophical discourse and, moreover, abundant with a wealth of practices for inner exploration previously unparalleled until their recent unveiling by brave travelers in the mysterious “East.” Most of this was already implicit in the texts that figures such as Carus and Olcott first read in order to learn that Buddhism existed at all. Both Carus and Olcott held the putative assumption that Buddhism was a fully developed ethical philosophy of the mind. When they encountered Buddhist practice that diverged from an adherence to the purely rational “original teachings” of the Buddha, they became determined to offer correction.

Living in British colonial Ceylon, Olcott attempted to clear away the mass of superstition that he perceived had grown up in indigenous Buddhist communities there. He penned his Buddhist Catechism as a distillation of true Buddhist psychological wisdom of the mind and an accessible source so that this wisdom could proliferate.16 Carus’s The Gospel of the Buddha, meanwhile, was a more widely influential text that collected passages from a variety of Buddhist translations produced by the Rhys Davids and others. Carus had long been interested in the “new psychology” as a primary epistemological tool for devising the belief system of his “Religion of Science.”17 (One of his first publications, The Soul of Man: An Investigation of the Facts of Physiological and Experimental Psychology, was an attempt to recover a concept of the soul by using the latest psychological scientific research of the day.18) Carus believed that Buddhist thought held powerful resources for the refinement and dissemination of the Religion of Science in no small measure because it held such rarified knowledge of the psychological. Carus is also famous for his interaction and influence not only on US and European communities but on important Japanese Buddhist figures such as D. T. Suzuki (discussed further in “Psychologists of Religion”) who studied with and worked for Carus at his Open Court Publishing Company for over a decade. It is likely that Suzuki’s own beliefs about the relationship between Buddhist traditions and psychology have their seeds in his relationship with Carus.

Psychologists of Religion

Contextualized in the activities of early translators and popularizers of Buddhist traditions, it becomes clear why psychologists and psychotherapists would begin their analyses of Buddhism holding the a priori assumption that the object of this study was itself a psychological religion. During the early years of psychology and psychotherapy—throughout the 19th century—there were few who gave Buddhist teachings and practices sustained attention. Nonetheless, the construct Buddhism held a significant position in the general theories of religion of figures such as William James and James Henry Leuba. Those first clinicians and psychologists to take a stronger interest in Buddhist traditions accepted the presumption that the way to learn about those traditions was to study certain ancient texts. Most did not do this, however, but instead read the publications of those who had, texts written by translators and comparative religionists such as Olcott, or, importantly if reading in German, Leopold Ziegler and Friedrich Heiler.19 In these texts, psychologists and psychotherapists read that the Buddhist’s path was an exploration of the inner mind, a turning inward summarized by the oft-used phrase “self-absorption.”

The first academic psychologists of religion attended to the topic of Buddhism to lesser or greater degrees. To an observer such as James, Buddhist traditions were important because they represented a possible complication in efforts to define the category of religion.20 The dominant understanding of James’s day was that Buddhism was an “atheistic religion.” It was often cited, then, as the exception that disproved the commonly held rule that religion should be defined based on belief in a deity or deities. At the least, Buddhist traditions required explanation in surveys of the budding field of comparative religion. But it was useful for the project of a thinker such as James. James raises the topic of Buddhism while presenting his own redefinition of religion. He cites Buddhism as evidence that religion should no longer be defined by faith in metaphysical realities but instead by inner religious experience, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”21 This divine may not be a deity at all but a numinous transcendence he calls the “More.” Leuba similarly turned to Buddhist traditions as “a famous example of the independence of religious experience from those intellectual concepts” of “belief in a beneficent personal divinity.”22 Buddhism served as source of encouragement to Leuba in his search for a “religion of the few bred in the atmosphere of intellectual freedom and scientific thought, whose strong faith in nature boldly discards the ragged garments inherited from the past.”23

Another of the first psychologists of religion, James Bissett Pratt also highlighted Buddhism as “that great stumbling block to most definitions”24 of religion, but he engaged in a more intensive investigation of Buddhist teachings and practices (and Asian religious traditions in general). Furthermore, unlike many who were interested in the topic, Pratt traveled extensively throughout Asia and interacted with living Buddhist communities. These travels produced books such as The Pilgrimage of Buddhism and a Buddhist Pilgrimage and India and Its Faiths, works in which he displayed a curiosity about Buddhist traditions as more than only a historical artifact.25 Pratt had a desire to understand contemporaneous Buddhist practice, and he reflectively speculated about the future of Asian Buddhist communities—communities that he implicitly acknowledged were being shaped by interactions with foreign observers such as himself.

Pratt, like his colleagues, helped solidify some key prevailing assumptions about what defines Buddhist traditions. He, too, recapitulated the already-dominant understanding that a Buddhist path is defined by practitioners’ investigation of their inner psychology. But from his position as an esteemed psychologist, Pratt more persuasively argued for what Caroline Rhys Davids had also sought: a recognition that “not only in physics but in psychology, also, the early Buddhists anticipated by two thousand years or more the general analytic methods of Western science.”26 Pratt and his cohort forwarded the then-common construction of the historical Buddha as both the “great man” founder of a religion and an inimitably scientific thinker. But Pratt emphasized that “Gotama Buddha was probably the greatest psychologist of his age.”27

The concept that the Buddha both was a protopsychologist and had the mind of what Pratt called a “scientific physician”28 remains fundamental to contemporary understandings of Buddhist traditions. Such sentiments from Pratt and his cohort served to increase the stature of Buddhist teachings by associating them with their new discipline of psychology. In fact, the story is often told that when William James saw Dharmapāla visiting one of his classroom lectures (given in conjunction with the monk’s participation in the 1893 World Parliament), he insisted that the monk “take my chair. You are better equipped to lecture on psychology than I. This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now.”29

Perhaps James’s prophesy is still coming to fruition today; the claims that Buddhism was not only created by “the first psychologist” but is also uniquely psychological and anticipates psychological truths are certainly still evoked on a regularly basis. There are aspects of Buddhist traditions, however, that early psychologists of religion such as Pratt also attended to that are far less audible at present. The first psychologists and psychotherapists to study and interpret Buddhist teachings believed that the goal of Buddhist practice was the achievement of nirvāṇa, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Dismissing them as metaphysical realities, they used psychological and psychotherapeutic theories to explain the origins of belief in nirvāṇa, rebirth, and other Buddhist truths. Another topic that is often deemphasized by later psychological interpreters of Buddhist traditions but that was a fundamental assumption of the first psychologists to examine them is the ethical system that these thinkers believed Buddhist teachings and practices were intended to inculcate in followers. For example, the moral psychology of Buddhist doctrine (the sorting of wholesome from unwholesome cognition) was, to Pratt, part of what distinguished Buddhist thought from the new psychology. It seemed to him that, although he and his contemporaries strived to maintain the scientific value of total objectivity, “Buddhist psychology is badly mixed up with moral concepts.”30 The highly developed ethical system of Buddhist doctrine created some confusion, meanwhile, for the early psychoanalyst Franz Alexander.

Early Psychoanalysts

In a 1922 lecture that he later published as the paper “Buddhistic Training as an Artificial Catatonia,” Franz Alexander expressed some consternation that “nowhere in the Buddhistic literature”—that is, nowhere in the German-language commentaries that Alexander read—“has sufficient account been taken of the deep contradiction between the absorption doctrine and Buddha’s practical ethics. . . . The goal of absorption, Nirvāṇa, is a completely asocial condition and is difficult to combine with ethical precepts.”31 Alexander’s interpretation of Buddhist traditions is often portrayed as representative of the general response from early psychotherapists to Buddhist traditions. Psychotherapy or “talk therapy,” as such, was invented in the late 19th century by Sigmund Freud, a strident atheist who believed that his new scientific biomedical modality, psychoanalysis, would help dispel the illusions of religious belief by revealing their true psychodynamic origins. The religion and psychology scholar William Parsons has elucidated a possible Freudian perspective on Buddhist practice by studying Freud’s famous dialogue with Romain Rolland on Hindu-associated meditative states.32 Nonetheless, Freud himself never took up the subject of Buddhist traditions directly. It was left to a follower such as Alexander to apply Freud’s analysis of religion more generally to Buddhist teachings and practices.

Around the same time that Alexander gave his talk at the Eighth International Psycho-Analytical Congress, a short paper titled “Psychology in Primitive Buddhism,” ascribed to the pseudonymous Joe Tom Sun, was published in the journal Psychoanalytic Review.33 It may be telling that the little-known analyst Joseph Thompson would have used a pseudonym for his article (one that today would be recognized as offensive). He offers a positive assessment of Buddhist teachings and practices to a community taught that religious adherence originates in pathological, obsessional patterns of behavior. Thompson, however, examines Buddhist concepts such as nirvāṇa, karma, and taṇhā (desire) and suggests that they are consistent with psychoanalytic theory. He goes so far as to quote psychoanalysis’s founder, Freud, and then simply to insert parenthetical Buddhist equivalents for each psychoanalytic concept that Freud mentions: “The teachings of Buddha and Freud,” Thompson begins, “are absolutely identical upon the subject of determinism as it applies to the individual personality. . . . Freud, in speaking to Putnam, said: ‘We are what we are because we have been what we have been (the Law of Karma). And what is needed to solve the problem of human life is not moral estimates (maya, illusion) but more knowledge’ (vijja, wisdom).”34

Thompson’s short essay demonstrates that there was not a universal dismissal of Buddhist traditions by early psychoanalysts. Nonetheless, the pathologizing critique of Buddhist practice by Alexander, the far-more influential figure, is likely typical of psychotherapists of this period. In “Buddhistic Training,” Alexander also sought to raise Freud to the level of the Buddha for having created a comparable new movement destined to change the world. He, too, catalogs a series of “striking similari[ties] between the analytical method [of Freud] and the doctrine of Buddha” but concludes that “there remains an insurmountable difference between the two doctrines, deeply founded within the difference between Indian and European culture.”35

In Alexander’s view, the central failing of the Buddhistic doctrine is that it is essentially asocial. He acquires this understanding that the Buddhist path is one of self-absorption and world renunciation from the sources he relies on: German translations and commentaries by figures such as Ziegler and Oldenberg. Whatever these “Neobuddhists,”36 as Alexander calls them, might believe about Buddhist teachings, however, “the central core of Buddhism can be understood in its deepest meaning only in the light of psycho-analytical interpretation.”37 As Parsons has explained,38 to Alexander, the “central core,” revealed by the psychoanalytic method, was the Buddhist’s’ wish to return to a state of narcissistic union with the mother. “Buddhistic regression,” Alexander finally concludes, even “goes back to the beginning of embryonic development.”39 Buddhist practices were intended to achieve this aim, an aim that Buddhists called nirvāṇa.

Despite concluding that Buddhist practice developed out of a pathological wish to return to an immature, infantile state, Alexander acknowledged that Buddhist traditions seemed to have a growing appeal in Europe and the United States. He watched as an interest in Buddhist teachings increased over his lifetime until, in the 1960s, then-popular Zen Buddhist teachings eventually took in even colleagues and friends such as the important psychoanalysts Karen Horney and Erich Fromm. Alexander advanced a psychosocial explanation for the attraction of Buddhist traditions to communities in the United States and Europe.40 He believed that such communities were increasingly unable to adhere to their traditional religious beliefs in the face of scientific advancement (such as that offered by psychoanalysis). Religious traditions, however, had once offered individuals methods for meaning-making and self-exploration. With their loss, communities sought replacements, and the putatively atheistic Buddhist practice of turning inward would understandably appear attractive.

Perhaps the most famous psychological interpreter of Buddhist traditions, Carl Jung, had a similar explanation for what led communities in Europe and the United States to Buddhist teachings and practices.41 Jung also anticipated an imminent secularization of society that left people bereft of their traditional means for an inner exploration of the self. In Jung’s theories, this loss is of dire consequence, as he believed that psychological health depended on the individual’s ability to turn inward. Only through a process of self-exploration could human beings achieve their full self-actualization, a phenomenon he often referred to as individuation. Jung posited that all human beings have an irrepressible drive toward this self-actualization, and without traditional religious institutions, societies in Europe would inevitably turn to new methods for the self-exploration necessary to attain it. Buddhism would understandably have an appeal, defined as it was as a psychological religion that was equipped with tools for investigating the psyche. More than only compensatory, Jung envisioned the introduction of Buddhist and other Asian religious traditions to communities in Europe as the result of a displacement of psychic energy. With the waning of traditional (i.e., traditional Christian) religious belief, new avenues for investigating the interior were destined to arise.

Jung played a singular role in the introduction of Buddhist teachings and practices to Europe and the United States. In fact, as Gomez has observed, Jung wrote prefaces and “introductions to some of the most popular and influential books on Asian religions by European authors or by Asian authors publishing in English,” including a commentary to W. Y. Evans-Wentz’s influential edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.42 Often, the first words that the curious read when they took up one of these texts to learn more about the nature of Buddhist doctrine were from Jung. He explained to readers that they were about to hear teachings from a religion that contained superior means for exploring the hidden recesses of the human mind. Furthermore, Jung would introduce Buddhist texts as ancient exotic wisdom that, again, anticipated the latest findings of his analytical psychology. For instance, Jung states that if one reads The Tibetan Book of the Dead backward, one discovers that the text’s stages of death and rebirth are an exquisite rendering of a deepening journey into the interior, a “penetration into the groundlayers of consciousness[,] . . . a bringing forth of psychic contents that are still germinal, subliminal, and as yet unborn.”43

In 1939, when preparing his Introduction to Zen Buddhism for translation in Germany, D. T. Suzuki wrote Jung to solicit a foreword for his volume.44 This foreword was included in the work’s translation into English a decade later. Large audiences of readers in Europe and the United States were thus introduced to a Zen Buddhism that was defined as fundamentally concerned with individual psychology. After concerted study of psychologists such as William James and having served as a translator for enthusiasts such as Paul Carus, Suzuki contacted Jung and convinced him that Zen teachings could offer unprecedented resources for understanding and accessing the human psyche. In his foreword, Jung endorses Suzuki’s presentation of Zen, declaring that “the psychotherapist who is seriously concerned with the question of the aim of his therapy cannot remain unmoved when he sees the end towards which this Eastern method of psychic ‘healing’—i.e., ‘making whole’—is striving.”45 Jung explains that the “satori” that Suzuki positions as the ultimate goal of the Zen path is a form of self-actualization, “the individuation process—which is my term for ‘becoming whole.’”46

Jung is often portrayed as an unabashedly romantic advocate of Buddhist wisdom. However, he consistently emphasized his firm belief that only Asians should take up Buddhist practice. Regarding Suzuki’s Zen, for example, Jung asserted that as “great as is the value of Zen Buddhism for understanding the religious transformation process, its use among Western people is very problematical.”47 Throughout his writings, Jung cites a number of reasons that direct Buddhist practice is “neither commendable nor even possible” for non-Asians, but his position may ultimately have been based on what Gomez calls a “psychology of race . . . [wherein] the so-called Indian mind seems to have no regard for external, empirical reality, but directs its eyes inward . . . an organization of the mind that places the Asian both beyond and below the limits of European normality.”48

Jung’s interpretations of Buddhist teachings thus reinforced a definition of Buddhism as psychological religion with a set of practices for inward-facing self-absorption. And yet, although previous commentators often portrayed the turn inward of self-absorption to be world-denying narcissism, Jung shifted the conversation by asserting that it has a highly positive purpose. And, even while maintaining that it should go untouched by communities in Europe and the United States, he helped solidify the notion that Buddhism was therapeutic. Going even further, when writing of the Zen described by Suzuki, Jung stated that there was no exact equivalent for it in “Western” culture and that “the only movement inside our civilization which has, or should have, some understanding of these endeavours is psychotherapy. It is therefore no accident that it is a psychotherapist who is writing [the] foreword” to Suzuki’s book.49 The ultimate aims of Buddhist practice were more than only the achievement of an enlightenment that meant the ethical transformation that Pratt and others had previously emphasized. Instead, Jung meant to reveal that the seemingly “transcendent” and “mystical” processes of Buddhist enlightenment were actually a psychotherapeutic attainment of self-actualization. Subsequent generations of psychological and psychotherapeutic interpreters of Buddhist traditions advanced highly similar theories. And some of these interpreters worked in direct concert with D. T. Suzuki.

The Postwar Period

D. T. Suzuki is likely the most famous Japanese Buddhist of the post–World War II period to examine how Buddhist teachings could be compatible with contemporaneous psychological theory. Around this time, however, entire communities of Japanese psychologists came together with the intention of integrating Buddhist and psychotherapeutic frames. One prominent product of the cross-cultural conversation between psychoanalytic therapists in the United States and figures within the newly burgeoning psychotherapeutic communities in Japan was the journal Psychologia, first published in 1957. Founded by the Japanese analyst Koji Sato, the notably English-language journal contained numerous articles comparing psychoanalytic and Buddhist concepts alongside scientific research on, for example, “The Prediction Validity of Seven Manual Dexterity tests.”50 In the pages of Psychologia, one found comparative analyses of “Hypnotism and Samadhi” and exchanges on “The Art of Ambiguity” between the formative psychologist and cognitive learning theorist Jerome Bruner and the “Zen Master Hisamatsu”—the professor and Nishida philosopher Shin’ichi Hisamatsu.51

The Japanese participants in these conversations tended to go beyond what, for their colleagues in the States, were largely theoretical exercises of comparative metapsychology. These Japanese clinicians developed new therapeutic modalities that combined Buddhist and psychotherapeutic ideas and techniques. The groundwork for such integrative approaches had previously been laid back in the 1920s with the appearance of Morita Shoma’s Morita therapy. Both Morita therapy and later successors such as Naikan (inner-reflection) therapy, which was developed by retired businessman Yoshimoto Ishin in 1953, remain in use in Japan. These therapies were not only intended to achieve symptom reduction for psychiatric disorders; they were also intended to assist individuals in attaining forms of self-realization and self-actualization.

During this period, psychotherapists in the United States were drawn to similar theories from the more prominent Suzuki. In fact, the 1960s saw a more general fascination in the United States not only with the writings of Suzuki but with other popular representations of Zen, ranging from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery to the countercultural poetry of the beat generation.52 Convert Buddhists of European descent assisted in the establishment of their own Zendos and meditation groups based on these modern Zen forms. Texts such as Jung’s commentary on Zen were commonplace in Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center or Shunryu Suzuki’s San Francisco Zen Center, and the communities that practiced at these institutions largely accepted psychologically attuned Zen teachings such as those of Suzuki. Suzuki had asserted that Zen practices were uniquely suited to access unconscious material and bring an awareness about one’s place in the world. Whatever the appeal that such claims had to the descendants of the “the Dharma bums,” they were naturally of special interest to psychologists and psychotherapists.

Psychoanalytic and humanistic therapists such as Karen Horney, her protégé Harold Kelman, and, most prominently, Erich Fromm all investigated whether Buddhist teachings could inform psychotherapeutic models of the self.53 Suzuki had once reached out to a psychologist, Jung, in hopes that the association would grant him both entrée and an air of authenticity within new communities in Europe. Now, it was clinicians such as Fromm who sought out Suzuki on their own initiative, believing they could have common cause.

The relationship between Fromm and Suzuki ultimately had a significant effect on the way that psychologists approached Buddhist traditions for decades to come. Fromm arranged a now-famous meeting between Suzuki and nearly fifty psychoanalysts in 1957 at the University of Mexico. The edited volume that resulted from that meeting, a collection of a handful of the papers delivered at this gathering, remains highly influential today. Similarly to the articles of Psychologia, the essays of the now-seminal Zen and Psychoanalysis were a performance of comparative exercises between psychoanalytic and Zen Buddhist concepts, in which points of compatibility and, in some cases, even identity are found.54 For example, as Parsons has explained at length, Suzuki’s contribution delved deeply into Freud’s concept of the unconscious, asserting that Zen practice uncovered multiple layers of unconsciousness beneath that of the personal unconscious.55 In the relationship between teacher and student in Zen, Fromm detected a helpful analog for that of the analyst and analysand, and useful lessons about therapeutic presence for training analysts. But Fromm went beyond only detecting such areas of similarity between psychotherapies and Suzuki’s Zen. He posited that both Buddhist traditions and an authentic psychotherapy were aimed at the same goal.

Such claims were unusual among psychoanalysts who followed Freud in believing that religious practice was intrinsically pathological. Though his own psychotherapeutic orientation differed in important ways, Fromm always presented himself as fundamentally aligned with the work of Freud despite the forerunner’s critique of religion. Fromm believed that his intellectual hero would have embraced Buddhist traditions if he had been properly introduced to them. Fromm explained that Freud’s concern about religious adherence stemmed from the thinker’s contention that religions inculcate a submissive and, ultimately, dehumanizing way of being. As a Jewish refugee from the Nazi menace and a dangerously close observer of the rise of totalitarianism across Europe, Fromm was highly sympathetic to such concerns. He was, however, especially attracted to Suzuki’s Zen Buddhist teachings precisely because he perceived them to be a guide to a self-actualization that meant liberation from the psychic structures that perpetuated authoritarianism.

Jung perceived prescriptions for achieving the religious experience of a Zen satori—as he had read it explained by Suzuki—as unhealthy for Europeans for whom, he thought, self-actualization required what Fromm described as a “surrender.”56 (However it had previously been understood by religious practitioners, this was a surrender to, an opening up to and integration of, the universal cultural wisdom contained in what Jung called the collective unconscious.) For Fromm, meanwhile, it was precisely Zen’s seeming emphasis on human autonomy that made it so appealing. In fact, the “religious transformation” or religious experience of surrender that Jung described was, in Fromm’s view, at the core of “authoritarian religions” that fostered a submissiveness that could be equally transferred to oppressive state entities. Buddhist traditions, on the other hand, seemed to him to be “one of the best examples of humanistic religion,” religious traditions that raise up and exalt humanity’s capacity for love and creativity.57

Fromm’s treatment of Buddhist teachings and practices can be understood as a logical extension of the first constructions of Buddhism as a category. Thinkers such as Ziegler and Heiler, authors whom Fromm would have read while still in secondary school, had introduced Buddhist doctrine as based in self-absorption. Jung believed that this self-absorption was generated by a basic biological human instinct toward the ultimate in health, individuation, or self-actualization. The Buddhists, however, had erred in their path toward it, or, at the least, Europeans err by attempting to follow them. Where Jung saw error, Fromm detected a model. Buddhist practice appeared to be aimed toward the same ends as an authentic psychotherapy, a cultivation in which the individual culls those conscious and unconscious barriers to self-liberation, including a self-liberation that would allow people to resist politico-economic oppression. For some of Fromm’s contemporaries, however, self-realization or self-actualization meant an attainment still grander.

Humanistic Psychotherapists

While Fromm was developing his humanistic psychoanalysis, a number of his contemporaries were theorizing new approaches to clinical practice that have come to be grouped under the larger heading of humanistic psychotherapy. Clinicians such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow challenged psychotherapies that were patterned off a medical model.58 Conceptualizing the purpose of the therapist as focused on curing illness and reducing symptomology was, to these clinicians, a kind of dehumanization. The psychotherapist should no longer place an emphasis on people’s brokenness but instead their innate goodness, their inherent capabilities for growth. The true purpose of the psychotherapeutic healer was to assist people in reaching their full human potential. For some, particularly the therapists Richard Price and Michael Murphy, Asian religious traditions in general and Buddhist traditions in particular held special resources for this task.

The Esalen Institute that Price and Murphy founded in Big Sur, California, was a central site for psychotherapists’ experimentation with Asian religious teachings and practices. The religion and psychology scholar Jeffrey J. Kripal called Esalen “one of America’s most sophisticated mystical expressions” a center where visitors could participate in therapeutic “encounter groups” alongside classes on yoga and Zen Buddhist meditation practices.59 Along with Rogers and Maslow, the important gestalt therapist, Fritz Perl—who, while dismissing meditation practice, extolled listeners to “be here now”—was among the invited speakers to teach classes at Esalen.60 But Price and Murphy also welcomed lectures from scholars of “comparative religion” such as Joseph Campbell. One such lecturer—Alan Watts—was a major influence on this cohort’s understanding of Buddhist teachings.

Ordained as an Episcopalian minister, Watts had been writing about his interpretation of Buddhist doctrine since 1936, when he published The Spirit of Zen (a book that, as Donald Lopez notes, is “largely a summary of the writings of D. T. Suzuki”).61 Price and Murphy studied with Watts in their own investigation of Asian religious traditions. Though not a therapist himself, Watts’s conversations with clinicians helped shape his culturally significant volume, Psychotherapy East and West, published in 1961.62 In many ways, the text carries forward assumptions that originated in the European “discovery” of Buddhism. Watts grouped a wide swath of Buddhist and Asian traditions together under the monolithic construct the East and sought points of connection between “Eastern” and “Western” cultural elements. His thesis was that “if we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.”63 Watts’s assertion relies on specific understandings of the constructs Buddhism and Taoism as well as psychotherapy, all of which, he believed, were, in essence, practical guides for the transformation of human consciousness.

As with the perspectives of most of the earliest psychologists and psychotherapists, Watts’s views were heavily shaped by evolutionary and developmental theories. His ideas relied on a vision of an ever-evolving, ever-progressing humanity. In Watt’s own universalist version of this theory, humanity’s development is discernable across cultures from East to West. Humanistic psychotherapists such as Price, Murphy, and, perhaps most significantly, Maslow all held comparable beliefs about the evolution of humankind. Later clinicians in this lineage, communities of transpersonal psychotherapists, went further by formulating fully synthetic psychologies that weaved together widely disparate historico-cultural elements. The popular writer Ken Wilber, a major source of inspiration for this group, sought a “perennial psychology”—as psychological equivalent to Aldous Huxley’s “perennial philosophy”—that would be a universal psychology applicable to all humanity across space and time.64 Wilber makes frequent special reference in his writings to Asian and Buddhist religious traditions (he makes little distinction between these two categories) for offering especially useful descriptions of the “spectrum of consciousness” that he intended to map in his own writings.

From the humanist and humanistic psychotherapists of the 1960s to the later “fourth force” transpersonal psychologists and therapists, a marked shift had occurred among certain communities of psychotherapists in their views of religious teachings and practices. Whereas other communities of clinicians often remained suspicious, therapists such as Maslow perceived resources in religious traditions that could be incorporated into their clinical work. However, decades earlier, even a psychoanalyst such as Franz Alexander, who had pathologized Buddhist experience, had pronounced what Watts made into a thesis statement: Buddhism was a therapeutic (“The aims of Buddhistic teaching are therapeutic, the conquest of age, sickness, and death”).65

The idea that Buddhist traditions offered a “therapeutic” may have been quite old, but it gained considerable strength in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, both within and outside Buddhist communities. In the course of creating his Naropa Institute (which ultimately became the contemporary Naropa University), the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa declared that psychology and psychotherapy would be a primary means by which Buddhist doctrine would take hold in these new communities.66 Trungpa was a key figure for furthering an interpretation of Buddhism that saw it as repository of wisdom for exploring the realm of the intrapsychic and declared that the Buddhist practitioner could activate their own intrinsic “brilliant sanity.” He developed maitri retreats, which incorporated Buddhist practices such as metta compassion cultivation into a psychotherapeutic group-therapy structure.

An acceptance of blending religious-identified elements—like those found in Buddhist traditions—with psychotherapy was thus gaining ground, but communities of clinicians did not lack for the cautious and the critical. Those psychotherapists who struggled with such activities initiated new sorts of approaches to Buddhist traditions.

“The Mindfulness Movement” and the Neuropsychological Study of Buddhist Traditions

In the early 1980s, John Teasdale, a psychologist researching depression-relapse prevention techniques, heard a lecture from the US-born Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho (né Robert Jackman) offered by the Oxford University Buddhist Society. Teasdale later recalled that he was “struck by the parallels between the core ideas of the Buddhist analysis of suffering, as described by Sumedho, and the basic assumptions of cognitive therapy.”67 That Teasdale found these parallels may be understandable. The traces of earlier psychotherapeutic interpretations of Buddhist thought are easily detectible in the teachings of Sumedho, as a leading convert voice in the Thai Forest tradition, a modern(ist) meditation revival movement whose participants often employed psychological frames in their teachings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the discourse of teachers in the Thai Forest tradition such as Sumedho especially resonated within new, psychologically-inflected European and US Buddhist communities such as the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. It also strongly resonated with Teasdale. As a cognitive therapist, Teasdale believed that psychological distress originates in the mind, in the individual’s cognitive distortions. Buddhist practices such as meditation seemed to train people to have a new relationship to cognition that could be compatible with his therapeutic approach. The difficulty, however, was that Buddhist traditions were religious and, for Teasdale, should consequently not be incorporated into secular psychotherapy.

The curiosity of Teasdale and the rest of his research team, Zindel V. Segal and J. Mark G. Williams, was therefore piqued when they learned of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. A researcher who had earned a PhD in molecular biology from MIT, Kabat-Zinn believed he had translated Buddhist meditation into secular, scientific terms. He was convinced that this meditation practice could have clinical benefit for stress reduction and pain management. In collaboration with Kabat-Zinn, Teasdale, Segal, and Williams designed a new psychotherapeutic modality called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). They acquired the word mindfulness from Kabat-Zinn, who explained that it refers to a particular experiential state long sought by Buddhists practitioners and cultivated through meditation. Kabat-Zinn titled his therapeutic program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) because he believed the word mindfulness would not betray a Buddhist association with biomedical authorities who prohibit religious practice in mainstream secular-designated institutions such as hospitals. For the team that developed MBCT, even the word meditation had too much of a religious tenor, and they instead labeled the new mindfulness practices they used as “attentional control training.”68

The MBCT team consisted of cognitive therapists and communities of cognitive and behavioral therapists, who are especially invested in their status as biomedical, scientific practitioners. These communities intend to use exclusively what they call “evidence-based treatment interventions.” This is in part intended to assure individuals coming to see these therapists for care that they will be provided with methodologies that are research-tested and proven to be effective for symptom reduction. Therapeutic mindfulness practices, particularly meditation practices, are some of the most frequently studied Buddhist elements in the United States, Europe, and beyond. However, researchers have employed scientific means to investigate Buddhist traditions dating back to the early psychologists of religion who sought to explain Buddhist experience using what were the high technologies of their day. The latest iteration of such efforts is the neuropsychological study of Buddhist meditation practices.

The 14th Tibetan Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has been an active supporter of these endeavors. He has worked with neuroscientists such as Francisco Varela and Richie Davidson since the 1980s, sending monks to be attached to fMRI machines to study, for example, the neuropsychology of experiential states of lovingkindness. The Dalai Lama’s conversations with neuroscientists, called the “Mind and Life Dialogues,” ultimately spurred the creation of the Mind and Life Institute, a key site for the development of contemplative studies. Carrying forward the tradition of the earliest psychologists of religion, the neuroscientific study of Buddhist traditions has further solidified understandings of Buddhist traditions as fundamentally psychological. Contemporary observers such as Donald Lopez express some of the same concerns as those early psychologists of religion (e.g., William James) who warned against interpreting religious experience through the lenses of medical materialism.69 Whether the true function of Buddhist meditative experiences can be elucidated by tracking gamma and alpha waves or not, researchers herald scientific research for demonstrating the positive health effects of Buddhist practice. To a collaborator at the Mind and Life Institute such as psychiatrist and interpersonal-neurobiology researcher Dan Siegel, scientific studies that purportedly prove the health benefits of Buddhist practices legitimates their use in secular-designated psychotherapy.70

Cognitive behavioral therapists have translated multiple items from Buddhist traditions, items they believed to be religious, for use in clinical settings. Although their originators each came to the term mindfulness in remarkably different ways, enough clinicians had created mindfulness-based psychotherapies by the 1990s that one such practitioner, Steven Hayes, declared the period to be a “third wave” of cognitive behavioral therapy.71 Alongside MBCT, the two other main mindfulness methodologies that Hayes includes in this third wave were his own Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (initially developed out of Hayes’s desire for more effective means to decrease anxiety symptoms) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which was developed by the psychologist Marsha Linehan as a treatment for people struggling with borderline personality disorder.

Despite the fact that many decades earlier, Fromm had explicitly declared that Suzuki’s Zen Buddhist practice should not be treated as technique, Linehan sought—in developing DBT—to make a “Zen without the Buddhism.”72 Her use of mindfulness skills in DBT was based on the premise that certain practices and concepts can be detached from what their originators believed were Buddhist frameworks and reconstructed into treatment interventions. Ironically, late in his life, Fromm came to believe that a Buddhist practice that would likely be recognized by many today as mindfulness meditation was superior to Suzuki’s Zen precisely because it seemed to him to resist, among other ills, such instrumentalization. And he learned this practice directly from the German-born monk Nyanaponika Thera (né Siegmund Feniger), a figure recognized by many to be one of the most significant influences on current dominant understandings of mindfulness.

Nyanaponika’s 1954 publication, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based on the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness, popularized a version of the Burmese Mahāsī method and was read widely by Kabat-Zinn and many others of his generation.73 In this regard, Nyanaponika’s psychological interpretation of Buddhist traditions can be considered one of the more significant of the last half century. He helped solidify the common understanding that Buddhism refers to a religion defined by meditation practice for the cultivation of a particular psychological attainment that transcends tradition and is effective as a treatment not only for the ills of the individual but of society at large.

More than half a century since Nyanaponika published his seminal text, the use of therapeutic mindfulness practices has boomed into what is commonly referred to as “the mindfulness movement.” Responding uneasily to this intense popular interest, clinicians have themselves increasingly voiced concerns about the effects of decontextualizing teaching and practices from Buddhist frameworks. Linehan, for example, has argued that the training and competency of mindfulness practitioners could suffer without the collective wisdom and teaching traditions of Buddhist communities.74 Therapists such as Christopher Germer and Ron Siegel have suggested that the way to prevent misuse in corporate or military settings is to teach what they call “right mindfulness,” which is recontextualized back into the Eight-Fold Path.75 Others, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, have recently claimed that such a move is unnecessary.76 This contingent suggests that mindfulness practices will always evoke deep insights into reality if preformed properly and diligently; it will always bring a complete ethical transformation equivalent to what they define as a Buddhist enlightenment, regardless of the initial motives that drive the practitioner.

Debates about whether therapeutic mindfulness practices are authentically Buddhist or whether their use results in unwholesome ends continue. Their use is so ubiquitous that today they can sometimes appear to be the only manner in which psychologists and psychotherapists have approached Buddhist traditions, though this has clearly not been the case throughout history. Furthermore, even as mindfulness practitioners were designing their methodologies, other clinicians and researchers were relating to Buddhist teachings and practices in different ways.

Self/Nonself/Interrelated Self

MBCT was initially created in a search for new methods of preventing people from relapsing into depressive episodes. However, following in the footsteps of Carl Rogers and others, many contemporaries of the MBCT team saw their role as healers to go beyond symptom reduction. A number continued to believe, as Carl Rogers did (and, more dramatically, as participants in the antipsychiatry movement claimed in the 1970s), that the medical model was not only counter to an authentic psychotherapy but harmful to the patients who had it inflicted on them. A growing number of psychotherapists became convinced that Buddhist teachings offered a useful counterpoint for theorizing the true purpose of human being and that this alternative model could help guide their clinical practice.

The idea dated back to the interpretations of Jung. Analysts such as Kelman had encouraged psychoanalysts to study Buddhist metapsychologies.77 Others such as Fromm had further believed that Buddhist practice could be a useful parallel adjunct to psychotherapy.78 It was later clinicians, however, who began to theorize how Buddhist and psychotherapeutic frames could be integrated. Some were convinced that a common essence enabled nearly all religio-cultural elements to be integrated with each other (and into their psychologies). Others sought approaches that were less fully synthetic. They often began by conducting the same sort of comparative analyses that the earliest psychological interpreters of Buddhist traditions had previously. Now, however, similarity was intended to demonstrate compatibility, to demonstrate that Buddhist and psychotherapeutic elements could be mixed together. And yet the vast majority always found significant differences between Buddhist and psychotherapeutic traditions. At times, they described such differences as incommensurable.

Fromm had believed that Buddhist and psychoanalytic paths were aimed toward the same goal of liberating self-actualization but had very distinct means to achieve that goal. For a group of therapists into the 1980s and 1990s, it was the ends that Buddhists and psychotherapists were attempting to achieve that were radically different. In one of the first book-length studies of this topic, Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration, the psychotherapist Jeffrey Rubin went so far as to suggest that Buddhist and psychotherapeutic goals were “antithetical.”79 His view has roots that stretch back to the European “discovery” of Buddhism. The first individuals to use the word Buddhism believed that Buddhist adherents engage in an immersive psychological exploration of the interior mind—which they called “self-absorption.” Later interpreters perceived this self-absorption to be a practice for achieving variations of self-actualization or self-realization. For psychotherapists in the United States through the 1970s, this self-actualization became a self-liberation and, increasingly, a liberation from certain views of the self. To Rubin and others, such a self-liberation was a liberation from the self, an ego dissolution they identified with a word they read in English-language explications of Buddhist doctrine: nonself.

In the decades that followed, psychological interpreters of Buddhist doctrine debated how exactly psychodynamically to explain reported experiences of awakening to the illusory nature of the permanent self. But for those seeking to integrate Buddhist and psychological frames, the doctrine of nonself—as they understood it—seemed completely incompatible with the goals of most psychotherapies. Psychotherapy, by and large, was directed toward assisting people to restore a whole, healthy self, not toward teaching that the self is a delusion at the root of all suffering. Whereas the first psychological interpreters of Buddhist traditions strived to explain concepts such as karma, nirvāṇa, and rebirth in psychological terms, clinicians such as Rubin barely mentioned terms such as rebirth. Instead, psychological theorists have often focused on a concept such as nonself and debate how, or whether, it can be integrated with psychotherapy, whether this seeming irreconcilability between Buddhist and psychotherapeutic aims can be resolved, though there would seem to be no goal more incommensurable with those of psychotherapists than striving for release from samsara as a literal cycle of rebirth.80

A number of psychologies have been developed as solutions to the self/nonself question. The most famous came from the humanistic psychotherapist Jack Engler, who suggested a stage or developmental model for organizing the seemingly opposing ideals. Engler’s approach can be summarized by the now-often quoted phrase “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”81 In his schema, psychological health, defined as a secure sense of self, is necessary before one can strive for release from the illusion of a permanent self. Psychotherapists seeking to integrate Buddhist traditions would still first seek to heal the self in those coming to see them for care. Only when the individual is sufficiently healthy and, for example, no longer feels an emotional emptiness, would the clinician begin to introduce a Buddhist understanding of the emptiness of all apparent reality.

Following Engler, a number of other psychotherapists have innovated additional methods for mixing the Buddhist and the psychotherapeutic. Some have suggested that, rather than simply creating a hierarchy between Buddhist and psychotherapeutic conceptions of the self, the former should replace the latter. The Buddhist self, as understood by these clinicians, seems far superior to dominant psychological models of the autonomous individuating self. Feminist and relational-cultural therapists such as Jan Surrey have long critiqued the “self” at the center of dominant psychologies.82 They noted that this self had been theorized almost exclusively by men based on research employing largely male subjects. The Buddhist texts that Surrey read seemed to offer an alternative to the individual(ized) self. They described a relational self that seemed far more accurate to human being.

As journalist and author Christina Robb has written, “Surrey psychologizes the Buddhist notion of ‘dependent co-arising,’ the idea that everything comes to be in relationship with everything else.”83 Of course, as has been explained by McMahan, such an understanding of “interrelatedness” is highly divergent from those conveyed in most Buddhist doctrine throughout history.84 Buddhist communities had perceived interdependence as a fundamental aspect of samsara, a web one sought to escape rather than become more deeply enmeshed within. But, to Surrey, Buddhist teachings reveal that the true aim of psychotherapy should be to assist people in achieving what she understands to be the equivalent of Buddhist enlightenment, awakening to one’s fundamental interconnectedness.

Other clinicians have emphasized the need, not only to highlight differences transparently between Buddhist and psychotherapeutic frames but to preserve those differences actively, even while seeking integration between them. Clinician Pilar Jennings, for example, also draws on relational psychoanalysis to explain that it is essential to maintain differentiation and healthy boundaries in all relationships, including the “relationship between Buddhism and psychoanalysis.”85 Contemporary therapists, such as analyst and Zen Buddhist teacher Magid, goes so far as to critique the explicit insertion of Buddhist teachings or practices into clinical sessions, even as he publishes multiple books with titles such as Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis.86 Magid believes that the transformative Buddhist experiences he has had in his personal life fundamentally influence his therapeutic practice, but he argues that directly incorporating Buddhist elements into psychotherapy means an instrumentalization that compromises the integrity of Buddhist truths.

Rubin, meanwhile, believes that integration is possible, but it must be conducted based on an “egalitarian relationship . . . between Buddhism and psychoanalysis.”87 He critiques the hierarchy in formulations such as Engler’s assertion “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody” and worries that, while psychotherapists once held a “Eurocentric” attitude, they now overenthusiastically adopt what he calls a “Orientocentric” idealization of Buddhist teachings and practices. Therapists, indeed, do continue to critique aspects of Buddhist doctrine, for instance, for purportedly teaching disconnection from the healthy emotional experiences of anger or sexual desire. Some believe that their psychotherapies can, in this regard, provide helpful resources to Buddhists communities.

Beyond Influence

As has been shown throughout this article, Buddhist communities in the United States and beyond have been shaped by psychological interpretation for nearly two centuries. Leading Asian Buddhist figures and leaders of Asian Buddhist communities used psychological theories to legitimate and explain their teachings—from Dharmapāla and Soen in the 19th century to Suzuki and Nyanaponika in the 20th century and to the Dalai Lama in the 21st century. US “convert” Buddhist communities, from the Zen Centers of the 1950s and 1960s to the so-called “insight” meditation groups of the 1990s, often simply assumed without discussion that Buddhist concepts such as rebirth should be viewed as psychological metaphors. These communities may not have always consciously drawn on psychological frames in their practice of a Buddhism that was understood to be, by definition, fundamentally psychological (as discussed in “Discovery of the Psychological Buddhism”). However, a marked turn was taken through the 1990s as a growing number of voices began to advocate explicitly for the active use of psychotherapeutic insights and practices within Buddhist communities.

Contemporary psychoanalytic clinician Paul Cooper suggests that the psychotherapeutic process can help unblock unconscious material that can otherwise thwart Buddhist meditators.88 Meanwhile, as Ann Gleig has discussed, “teacher scandals” are often cited as a prime example of how psychotherapeutic, and specifically psychoanalytic, theories can be essential for Buddhist communities.89 Psychoanalytic teachings, it is suggested, can help these communities work through the idealization of authority figures and transform an unhealthy repression of sexual desire into creative sublimation. Claims that psychodynamic concepts could be of benefit have not only come from psychologists who may be inclined to think their work has utility. Figures such as Cooper belong to communities of both Buddhists and psychotherapists. Aside from his practice as a clinician, Cooper holds the dual role of leader of Buddhist community, serving as the head teacher of the Two Rivers Zen Community in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, prior to becoming a psychotherapist, Harvey Aronson was a Buddhist studies scholar and translator and cofounded the Dawn Mountain Community Center in Houston, Texas. A lama in the Nyingma lineage, Aronson has stressed that monks or teachers from “traditional Buddhist cultures” often do not possess the same psychotherapeutic norms and values of “modern” audiences in the United States.90 Convert Buddhists raised in contemporary US culture, for instance, may expect a Buddhist teacher to offer relational support, and they may feel disillusioned when it is not forthcoming. Drawing on intercultural psychology and comparative religious studies, Aronson has formulated an approach to reconciling Buddhist and psychotherapeutic theories not for clinical practice but for the betterment of contemporary Buddhist communities.

Aronson and Cooper are representative of a striking feature of the state of Buddhist practice. Beyond only being influenced by psychological and psychotherapeutic frames, Buddhist communities have increasingly been founded and led by psychologists and psychotherapists. Some of the most prominent convert Buddhist figures in the United States—perhaps most visibly, Jack Kornfield—have doubled as both psychologist/psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher, and their leadership of Buddhist communities is inevitably shaped by these multiple identities.91 Future psychological interpreters of Buddhist traditions will analyze Buddhist doctrine that is not only informed by psychotherapists but is written by them.

Further Reading

Gleig, Ann. American Dharma: Buddhism beyond Modernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.Find this resource:

Gleig, Ann. “External Mindfulness, Secure (Non)-Attachment, and Healing Relational Trauma: Emerging Models of Wellness for Modern Buddhists and Buddhist Modernism.” Journal of Global Buddhism 17 (2016): 1–21.Find this resource:

Gleig, Ann. “Wedding the Personal and Impersonal in West Coast Vipassana: A Dialogical Encounter between Buddhism and Psychotherapy.” Journal of Global Buddhism 13 (2012): 129–146.Find this resource:

Gomez, Luis. “Oriental Wisdom and the Cure of Souls: Jung and the Indian East.” In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, edited by Donald Lopez, 197–251. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Gomez, Luis. “Psychology.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by Robert Buswell, 678–692. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003.Find this resource:

Helderman, Ira. “‘The Conversion of the Barbarians’: Comparison and Psychotherapists’ Approaches to Buddhist Traditions in the United States.” Buddhist Studies Review 32, no. 1 (2015): 63–97.Find this resource:

Helderman, Ira. “Drawing the Boundaries between ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ in Psychotherapists’ Approaches to Buddhist Traditions in the United States.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 4 (2016): 937–972.Find this resource:

Helderman, Ira. Prescribing the Dharma: Psychotherapists, Buddhist Traditions, and Defining Religion. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.Find this resource:

Imamura, Ryo. “Buddhist and Western Psychotherapies: An Asian American Perspective.” In The Faces of Buddhism in America, edited by Charles Prebish and Kenneth Tanaka, 228–238. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Kripal, Jeffrey. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Metcalf, Franz Aubrey. “Buddhism and Psychology: A Perspective at the Millennium.” Religious Studies Review 27, no. 4 (2001): 349–354.Find this resource:

Metcalf, Franz Aubrey. “The Encounter of Buddhism and Psychology.” In Westward Dharma Buddhism beyond Asia, edited by Charles Prebish and Martin Baumann, 348–365. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Parsons, William B. “Of Chariots, Navels, and Winged Steeds: The Dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.” In Disciplining Freud on Religion: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences, edited by Gregory Kaplan and William B. Parsons, 107–146. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.Find this resource:

Parsons, William B. “Psychoanalysis Meets Buddhism: The Development of a Dialogue.” In Changing the Scientific Study of Religion: Beyond Freud?, edited by Jacob A. Belzen, 179–209. New York: Springer, 2009.Find this resource:

Unno, Mark, ed. Buddhism and Psychotherapy across Cultures. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2006.Find this resource:


(1.) Philip Almond, The British Discovery of Buddhism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(2.) Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 121–147.

(3.) For example, T. W. Rhys Davids, trans., The Questions of King Milinda (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1890), 58n2.

(4.) Caroline Rhys Davids, trans., A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics of the Fourth Century bc (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1900).

(5.) Hermann Oldenberg, Buddha: sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde (Berlin: W. Hertz, 1881).

(6.) Eugène Burnouf, Introduction à l’histoire du Bouddhisme Indien (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1844).

(7.) See for example Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

(8.) David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(9.) Luis Gomez, “Psychology,” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Robert Buswell (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003), 678–692; and Monier Monier-Williams, Buddhism: In Its Connection with Brahmanism and Hinduism, and in Its Contrast with Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1889).

(10.) Gomez, “Psychology,” 679.

(11.) R. Spence Hardy, Eastern Monachism (London: Williams and Norgate, 1850), 173. See also R. Spence Hardy, Manual of Buddhism (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1853); and R. Spence Hardy, The Legends and Theories of the Buddhists, Compared with History and Science: With Introductory Notices of the Life and System of Gotama Buddha (London: Williams and Norgate, 1881).

(12.) Rhys Davids, Dhammasaṅgaṇi, xv.

(13.) Rhys Davids, Dhammasaṅgaṇi, xvi.

(14.) Rhys Davids, Dhammasaṅgaṇi, xviii.

(15.) See for example Judith Snodgrass, Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

(16.) Henry Steel Olcott, The Buddhist Catechism, 44th ed. (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1915 [1881]).

(17.) Paul Carus, The Gospel of the Buddha Compiled from Ancient Records (Chicago: Open Court, 1917).

(18.) Paul Carus, The Soul of Man: An Investigation of the Facts of Physiological and Experimental Psychology (Chicago: Open Court, 1891).

(19.) Leopold Ziegler, Der ewige Buddho: Ein Tempelschriftwerk in vier Unterweisungen, vol. 4 (Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen and Neumann, 2004 [1922]); and Friedrich Heiler, Die buddhistische Versenkung: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Munich: Verlag Von Ernst Reinhardt, 1922).

(20.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature (Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901–1902), First Library of America ed. (New York: Penguin, 2010 [1902]), 36.

(21.) James, Varieties, 36.

(22.) James Henry Leuba, “A Study in the Psychology of Religious Phenomena,” American Journal of Psychology 7, no. 3 (1896): 314.

(23.) Leuba, “Study,” 314.

(24.) James Bissett Pratt, The Religious Consciousness (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 4.

(25.) James Bissett Pratt, India and Its Faiths: A Traveler’s Record (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915); and James Bissett Pratt, The Pilgrimage of Buddhism and a Buddhist Pilgrimage (New York: Macmillan, 1928).

(26.) James Bissett Pratt, “Buddhism and Scientific Thinking,” Journal of Religion 14, no. 1 (1934): 21.

(27.) Pratt, “Buddhism,” 21.

(28.) Pratt, “Buddhism,” 22.

(30.) Pratt, “Buddhism,” 21.

(31.) Franz Alexander, “Buddhistic Training as an Artificial Catatonia (the Biological Meaning of Psychic Occurrences),” Psychoanalytic Review 18 (1931): 145n11.

(33.) Joe Tom Sun, “Psychology in Primitive Buddhism,” Psychoanalytic Review 11 (1924): 38–47.

(34.) Tom Sun, “Primitive Buddhism,” 40.

(35.) Alexander, “Buddhistic Training,” 144.

(36.) Alexander, “Buddhistic Training,” 144.

(37.) Alexander, “Buddhistic Training,” 138.

(38.) Parsons, “Psychoanalysis”; and Parsons, “Chariots.”

(39.) Alexander, “Buddhistic Training,” 140.

(40.) See for example Franz Alexander and Sheldon Selesnick, The History of Psychiatry: An Evaluation of Psychiatric Thought and Practice from Prehistoric Times to the Present (New York: Harper, 1966), 26.

(41.) See for example C. G. Jung, “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man,” in Civilization in Transition, vol. 10 of Collected Works of C. G. Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series, no. 20 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964 [1928]), 86.

(42.) Luis Gomez, “Oriental Wisdom and the Cure of Souls: Jung and the Indian East,” in Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, ed. Donald Lopez (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 242n46; C. G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, vol. 11 of Collected Works of C. G. Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series, no. 20 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969 [1953]), 509–529; and W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering (London: Oxford University Press, 1960 [1927]).

(43.) Jung, “Commentary,” 515.

(44.) D. T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1964 [1927])and C. G. Jung, foreword to Suzuki’s “Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, vol. 11 of Collected Works of C. G. Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series, no. 20 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969 [1953]), 538–558.

(45.) Jung, foreword, 554.

(46.) Jung, foreword, 556.

(47.) Jung, foreword, 553.

(48.) Jung, foreword, 553; and Gomez, “Oriental Wisdom,” 210.

(49.) Jung, foreword, 553–554.

(50.) Y. Rim, “The Prediction Validity of Seven Manual Dexterity Tests,” Psychologia: An International Journal of Psychological Sciences 5, no. 1 (1962): 52–55.

(51.) K. Sasamoto, “Hypnotism and Samadhi,” Psychologia: An International Journal of Psychological Sciences 5, no. 2 (1962): 73–74; and Jerome Bruner, “The Art of Ambiguity: A Conversation with Zen Master Hisamatsu,” Psychologia: An International Journal of Psychological Sciences 2, no. 2 (1959): 101–104.

(52.) Eugen Herrigel, Zen and the Art of Archery (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953).

(53.) Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (New York: W. W. Norton: 1945); and Harold Kelman, “Eastern Influences on Psychoanalytic Thinking,” Psychologia 2, no. 2 (1959): 73–75.

(54.) Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, and Richard DeMartino, eds., Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (New York: HarperCollins, 1960).

(55.) Parsons, “Psychoanalysis”; and Parsons, “Chariots.”; and D. T. Suzuki, “Lectures on Zen Buddhism,” in Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, and Richard DeMartino (New York: HarperCollins, 1960), 77–141.

(56.) Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), 19.

(57.) Jung, foreword, 553; Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, 35; Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, 37.

(58.) Carl Ransom Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1961); and Abraham H. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964).

(60.) Frederick Perls, The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy (Ben Lomond, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1973).

(61.) Donald Lopez, ed., A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 159.

(62.) Alan Watts, Psychotherapy: East and West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961).

(63.) Watts, Psychotherapy, 3.

(64.) Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy (Boston: Shambhala, 2000).

(65.) Alexander, “Buddhistic Training,” 136.

(66.) Chögyam Trungpa, The Sanity We Are Born with: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology, ed. Carolyn Rose Gilman (Boston: Shambhala, 2005).

(67.) Zindel V. Segal, J. Mark G. Williams, and John Teasdale. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse, 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2001), 37.

(68.) Segal, Williams, and Teasdale, Mindfulness-Based, 41–42.

(69.) Donald Lopez, Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Donald Lopez, The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

(70.) See for example Dan Siegel, The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 239.

(71.) See for example Steven Hayes, “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the New Behavior Therapies: Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Relationship,” in Mindfulness and Acceptance: Expanding the Cognitive-Behavioral Tradition, ed. Steven Hayes, Victoria M. Follette, and Marshal Linehan (New York: Guilford Press, 2004), 1–30.

(72.) Erich Fromm, “Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism,” in Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Erich Fromm, and Richard De Martino (New York: HarperCollins, 1960), 138; and Marsha Linehan, interview by David Van Nuys, Wise Counsel, October 20, 2007.

(73.) Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based on the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness (Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Word of the Buddha, 1954).

(74.) Sona Dimidjian and Marsha Linehan, “Defining an Agenda for Future Research on the Clinical Application of Mindfulness Practice,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 10 (2003): 166–171.

(75.) Ira Helderman, Prescribing the Dharma: Psychotherapists, Buddhist Traditions, and Defining Religion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

(76.) Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Some Reflections on the Origins of MBSR, Skillful Means, and the Trouble with Maps,” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 1 (2011): 290.

(77.) Kelman, “Eastern Influences.”

(78.) Fromm, “Psychoanalysis.”

(79.) Jeffrey Rubin, Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration (New York: Plenum Press, 1996), 51.

(80.) Helderman, Prescribing.

(81.) Jack Engler, “Vicissitudes of the Self According to Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: A Spectrum Model of Object Relations Development,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 6 (1983): 29–72.

(82.) Jan Surrey, “Relational Psychotherapy, Relational Mindfulness,” in Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, ed. Christopher K. Germer, Ronald D. Siegel, Paul R. Fulton (New York: Guilford Press, 2005), 91–110.

(83.) Christina Robb, This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (New York: Picador, 2006), 206.

(84.) McMahan, Making, 149–180.

(85.) Pilar Jennings, Mixing Minds: The Power of Relationship in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), viii.

(86.) Barry Magid, Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2002).

(87.) Rubin, Psychotherapy, 41.

(88.) Paul Cooper, The Zen Impulse and the Psychoanalytic Encounter (New York: Routledge, 2010).

(90.) Harvey Aronson, Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology (Boston: Shambala, 2004), 17.

(91.) Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology (New York: Bantam Books, 2008).