Sometimes we talk about Buddhist psychology. Here I’d like to say a little bit how I understand this term. What is Buddhist psychology? Often you encounter things in the West which purport to be Buddhist psychology, but when you look at them closely, what you often find is that they are not really Buddhist. They are the use of Buddhist techniques, sometimes even some Buddhist ideas, certainly some Buddhist terminology, in the service of what is essentially a Western psychology.

What I’ve tried to do in my lifetime - it has been one of my major works, I suppose - is to try to do the converse. I started from the position of asking the question: “Is Buddhism itself a psychology?” Buddhism is many things. We can say Buddhism is a religion, Buddhism is an education, it’s a culture. Perhaps, it’s also a psychology? And I think, this is easy to assert: Buddhism is a science of the mind. That’s not all that it is, but it certainly is that amongst other things.

So, Buddhism is perhaps the most psychological religion, we can say. The Abhidharma, part of the Trikaya fundamental texts of Buddhism, is concerned with the nature of the mind. What is the mind? What does the mind consist of? How does the mind work? How does it function, and so on? And the basic principle that is annunciated here is, at a simple level: the mind, we say, is “clear and cognising”.

In other words: the mind is always busy and the mind always has an object, it always has something going on, and that process of the mind going on is conditioned in a whole variety of ways. What the mind does, how the mind constructs things, rests upon conditions. Some of these conditions are, you might say simplistically, in the outside world and some of these conditions are in the internal world, but there is a structure. Buddhism provides a lot of insight into how that structure operates. It talks about dependent origination: mind-states arise in dependence upon a constellation of conditions. There may be many different conditions that contribute to a single mind-state. Even the term “state” is perhaps slightly missing the point because these are all processes. The mind is all the time in “being” and in “becoming”. The mind is “becoming”; and what the mind becomes, how the mind becomes, rests upon conditions; and in the Abhidharma there are lists of these conditions, there are “mental factors” - an attempt to isolate the mental factors that contribute to the shaping of the mind. And very basic Buddhist texts like the Dhammapada is says:

Mind is chief
Mind is the forerunner

According to how the mind is, so life unfolds

So, in Buddhism there is a great stress upon the mind and how the mind shall be awakened and how the mind shall be cultivated. Buddhism essentially consists of those two things: the awakening of the mind and then the cultivation of the awakened mind. Each person’s mind is awakened to varying degrees and we have the notion of enlightenment as a fully awakened mind. This is Buddha. But, short of that, there are many degrees of awakening. Buddhist psychology has to do with the understanding of that and the implementation of that understanding in a process that liberates beings.

So, this is the stuff, the content of Buddhis psychology.

Thank you very much
Namo Amida Bu


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  • Awakening and enlightenment are often used synonymously. I never really know how to understand either term. Sometimes it seems that enlightenment is held out as the unattainable carrot designed to pull the horse and cart forward without the horse having any idea where it is going. Sometimes several horses gather together and speculate, but none seem to know.

    In your talk there is the hint that awakening is the state of the mind freed of its fetters of conditioning. And that that mind, in turn, can be cultivated. But how can this really be possible? And aren’t we dependent on our conditioning to provide structure for the mind, to provide those objects of mind through which we can know the world (internal & external (though this distinction creates it own confusion)?

    If I need a set of eyeglasses to see— the glasses organize light into coherent objects, a coherent view in tandem with the mind itself. Is this akin to clarity or conditioning?

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