This is a piece I wrote in August 2012
Somebody showed me a piece of writing about how counselling and Buddhism relate to one another that suggests that counselling is only really appropriate for people who have not yet discovered the true Dharma path. I am myself a follower of the Dharma, but I find that kind of approach less than helpful. Of course, I agree with some of the points made about the great value of Buddhist teaching in helping people to progress spiritually, but that to me, means that Buddhism has some good things to say about counselling. To some extent it hinges on one's definitions. As I see it, if a Buddhist teacher talks to a disciple, that is a form of counselling. I do not agree, therefore, that counselling cannot be a path toward enlightenment or a proper activity for a spiritual guide - they do it all the time. The fact that many spiritual guides think that they have nothing to learn from other counsellors might be true in a very small number of cases, but is probably just narrow mindedness born of ignorance in the majority. Very few spiritual guides really are enlightened and so they are prone to narrow-mindedness just like anybody else; why wouldn't they be? Having subscribed to the idea that the method of their particular school of spiritual practice is supreme they cannot afford to admit that there may be other ways and they perhaps fear that if their disciples find anything else useful it will undermine their own work. However, Shakyamuni's interactions with Kisagotami, Patacara, Angulimala and others show that he was inventive and flexible in generating therapeutic interventions of many kinds.
If we are going to generate a genuinely Buddhist form of counselling and psychotherapy then I suggest that we take Shakyamuni as our first exemplar. I also suggest that we base our thinking in the psychology that is to be found in the Buddhist texts, both Abhidharma and Sutra. In the simplest terms, Buddhist counselling is to talk to another person from within a spirit of love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These and many other classic Buddhist teachings are simply good counselling theory. The difficulty comes in the facts that firstly none of us are so enlightened that we exhibit these qualities perfectly and consistently and secondly that things do not happen in a completely straight-forward way in this world. One can love and wish happiness to another but that does not mean that one knows how to deliver happiness to that person, especially when, as for such as Kisagotami, the path to happiness leads through much grief.
So, as I see it, counselling and spiritual guidance are not two things, they are one thing and within that one thing there are many ideas and methods, some associated with psychology and some associated with various religions, and some of these ideas and methods are more conducive to enlightenment, liberation, happiness and sanity than others, and there is room for all of us to learn some things from others. Claims to be the possessor of the one supreme way should be treated with extreme caution. Those who make such claims are probably deceiving themselves. Of course, we are all probably deceiving ourselves in various degrees so even a therapist, counsellor or guide who thinks that he or she has the perfect method may be of some use to some people, but the situation is much more open than such people realise. Nor is the possession of some key idea, like non-self, or emptiness of inherent existence a panacea for human ills. Nor is it legitimate to say that counselling is always attached to theories inconsistent with such ideas. It is not the ideas as such that make the difference anyway, it is the lived life of the person and their ability to communicate. For my money, Buddha was a great counsellor and the Buddhist texts very largely consist of records of his consultations.
Thank you for this text, David. I like the sentence "Claims to be the possessor of the one supreme way should be treated with extreme caution." I think clinging to the Buddhist (or any) teachings is just as unhelpful as clinging to anything else - particularly when working as a counselor (or therapist). It is a great skill to be rooted in one's own insights and being aware that others might have completely different insights, themes and perspectives.
Warm wishes, Tineke
Nice to hear from you, Tineke. Yes, I agree.