On the one hand, Buddhism is a broad church or umbrella under which many diverse ideas and methods can cluster. Currently there are many popular methods that have some Buddhist connection. Thus we have mindfulness, qi gong, and raiki, and there are a range of derivatives such as mindflness-based stress reduction or other supposedly mindfulness-based approaches. Also Buddhist centres are often hosts to yoga, martial arts, Tai Chi and other groups. We have now also reached the point where almost anything can be included under the mindfulness rubric - after all, minds are always involved - mindful gardening, mindful eating, whatever. This is not very different from how, some years ago, just about anything was being labelled person-centred since, similarly, persons were always in there somewhere.

When we reflect upon this scene, we can see that some things are closer to actual Buddhism than others. So whereas it is true that Buddhism is broad and welcoming, it is also possible to discern that there is a rigorous core Buddhist teaching that is absent from most of the methods mentioned in the first paragraph. If one wants genuine Buddhist psychology it must be based on Buddhism, which is to say that its theory and aims must be Buddhist, and Buddhism is a different paradigm from popular Western psychology. Many of the people operating in this field are completely unaware of this.


The other day I was in a conversation with a person that I respect who has many years of experience in Western psychology. We were talking about a medical problem that I have. He was telling me how to keep exact records of what happens - when there is pain, when other symptoms occur, what I eat, when I rest, and so on. All these things can certainly be interesting. Then he said, so if you do this you can get to be in control, so that, in relation to the illness, you control it rather than it controlling you. This was said with some passion and obvious conviction and with a sense that this was the reason for all that had gone before. I thought about this for a moment and asked, “Why would I want to be in control? I have never wanted to be in control.” The conversation continued but this small interaction stood out as the pivot that revealed our difference of thinking. If I collect all the data, it will possibly enable me to see the nature of the natural phenomenon that currently has a grip on my body, and doing so might be very interesting, but in Buddhism body and mind fall away. In Buddhism we learn, "This is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself." This or that process is passing through. I cannot be in control of birth and death, loss or fortune. Furthermore, if I am always striving to be in control, then when inevitable things happen I am likely to experience them as a frightening and as defeat, rather than meeting them with peace in my heart.


Buddhism is not about self and its power or enhancement. It is not about making the self stronger. It is not about developing a self before you let it go. It is not about self-esteem, self-love, self-anything. The Buddha regarded the conceit of self as the biggest obstacle to spiritual emancipation. It is very difficult for a Western educated person to take this teaching in. We Westerners have been, in the past half century especially, saturated by the idea that wellbeing is all about looking after oneself and one's own wellbeing is all important. We need time for oneself. We need to love ourselves. We even feel guilty when we do not love ourselves enough. Many forms of malaise are nowadays attributed to failure to love oneself sufficiently or in the right way. From a Buddhist perspective, this is all nonsense.


Buddhism begins with the observation that there is suffering, or we might more exactly say, affliction. Whether you are spiritually enlightened or completely ignorant or anything in between, there is affliction. I suffer, you suffer, Buddha suffered, we all suffer. Birth and death, old age and illness, loss and failure - these things all come along. Suffering means that there are things that we dislike that we cannot do anything about. This is not to say that we should not do something if we can, but whatever we do the infirmity of the body will get us in the end. When I take an analgesic for my pain, sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. Sometimes, when I have pain, I take one and sometimes I don’t. Spiritually it is all the same. I do not think that I am getting in control of the pain because evidently I am not. Sometimes it is reduced by the drug and at such times I am grateful, but that is as far as it goes. Life is something that happens to us; it is something we “suffer”. We are born and we are not in control of it. We die and we are not in control of it. In the rather old fashioned sense of the word, these are things we must suffer.

I am not talking here about going to a ridiculous other extreme of passivity in all things. Clearly one has power in small areas of the universe and with this comes responsibility to act in responsible ways. However, even such power is adventitious. I used to be able to do a lot of physical work. Now I am incapable. I did not choose to have a strong body. I did not choose to have a weak one. Such things come along and such things pass.

The Buddhist acceptance of affliction made early Western observers think that Buddhism was a deeply pessimistic creed. Since then, Buddhists in the West have done a huge makeover to nullify this impression. However, in the process, they have mostly lost sight of what Buddhism is about. From the basic observation that we are not in control of birth and death, Buddhism shows us how to live a noble and faith-filled life in this very circumstance. Rather than trying to pretend that things are not as they are, rather than struggling in an endless and futile manner to take control, as if that were possible, Buddhism teaches joy and equanimity through a life of love and compassion. The noble truths of Buddhism show that if one approach our existential circumstance in the right way, one can have a life of wholesome views, thoughts, words, and action, and even experience rapture and bliss. You can’t experience rapture or bliss while being in control.


Buddhist psychology is Buddhism presented as psychology. Its theories of the conditioning of the mind in many different ways, of how all that is real is extenal to self, of how mindfulness of wholesome teachings can stand us in good stead through difficulties and provide a refuge, of how to enter particular raptures, of how non-attachment can free us from creating secondary sufferings on the back of existential ones, of how the mind builds a mentality out of the way that it responds to the objective world, are all immensely useful. A person who is steeped in this wisdom approaches the travails of life, both of self and of others, with a heart full of faith and confidence and is not afraid of the “slings and arrows” of fortune. Such a person is not overly concerned about self, but deals with the miscellaneous circumstances of life in a matter of fact way as and when they come along, finding their own true home not in ephemeral circumstance, but in eternal values.

The body is unreliable. The mind is unreliable. Lifespan may end at any time. Friends leave. Relatives die. Projects do not go on forever. Fortune is dependent upon circumstance. There is no firm ground upon which to build an indomitable self. The gods laugh at such an enterprise. Yet upon this changeable sea it is possible to live a life of dignity, love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Such is the liberation that Buddhist psychology attempts to bring to all sentient beings and we can each be part of that great work, not by establishing ourselves but by taking refuge in the great work that Buddhas already have in hand.

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  • Many thanks, Iris.

  • Dear David, thank you so much for this simple, clear, wise, precise and sensitive way of describing Buddhist Psychology.

    With a bow of love, Iris

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