Buddhist Psychology has what we in the West might call behavioural, cognitive, humanistic and analytical aspects all together in a single system. In other words, it deals with all aspects of the process of internalising experience and turning it into future action. This is called the skandha cycle about which I have written elsewhere.

This makes it difficult, in some ways, to define Buddhist psychotherapy (Zen Therapy). Intervention in one case might be very different from in another. The client meets the therapist and something happens. The adept meets the Zen master and something happens. It is, perhaps wrong even to use the word “intervention” since the master does not really have an intention to change the adept, merely to do Zen with him. He anticipates that the adept will change, just as he/she himself changes, but not in an easily predictable fashion. Who knows what the destiny of this or that person is to be?

This can, therefore, look different from many Western ideas of therapy, where goal setting and protocols dominate, but it is justified to call it therapy since it is a human interaction from which the adept may well emerge reformed in significant ways. I will here try to bring out briefly some of the distinctive characteristics of a ZT approach.


People are not particularly rational. The kind of issues that they bring to a therapist are often not the kind that can be sorted out in a rational manner. Nor is it a goal that the person necessarily become more rational. Rational and irrational elements harmonise, each playing different parts in human nature. Nonetheless, many therapies purport to try to do so. Thus, it is, for instance, a principle of many therapeutic approaches to do either or both of the following:

1. to establish as a "ground rule" that everything shall be open and honest and to discuss openly the nature of the client's "problem" and assemble information that may throw light upon it, clarifying the client's habits and tendencies that may be contributing; and/or
2. make a therapeutic contract with the client specifying goals and even how these are to be achieved.

I have a number of reservations about this kind of approach. One of the difficulties is that whatever is said is thereby made open to doubt. If I need to say to you that I am going to be open and honest, you wonder if this is really the case. If we make a contract, at least one part of your mind is already thinking of ways to get round it. Furthermore, while the therapist is establishing ground rules and thus telling the client how it is going to be, she is very likely missing communications that the client would be making whereby he sets out his sense of things. These first communications are often vital to the whole process and it is important that the therapist attend and listen rather than impose, since what happens at the beginning sets the tone and provides vital clues.

Whatever is said about it, There is a danger that agreeing an explicit contract with the client and/or setting up ground rules
- puts pressure on the client to conform to the therapist's schema, or
- establishes the therapist in a power position which correspondingly disempowers the client, or

- constrains future work that might have gone in other directions, or
- constitutes a manipulation of the therapy whereby we agree to play the therapy game, but thereby avoid meeting at a deeper level.
Explicit contracts can lead to compliance rather than conviction.

In any case, an agreement that “We are going to change you” directly implies that “You are not satisfactory as you are” which constitutes a rejection, which is not a good place to start.

All this makes me think that contracts should only be used with considerable discretion and that one should maintain an awareness of the downside. The Zen therapist rarely establishes ground rules or makes contracts. There is no need. All that is necessary is implicit. She is not trying to change the person, simply to move in the truth with them. 

Furthermore, the ZT process is not generally a matter of generating insight, except in the very broad sense of such insights as that life is fleeting, death inevitable, and suffering is part of that. Personal insights may happen as part of the process but they are not, in themselves, generally what brings about spiritual maturity. In any case, insofar as personal insight does effect change and growth, by far the most powerful ones are the ones that the client does not tell the therapist about.


Although some approaches assert that they do not make interpretations, this is not actually possible. Any description of a person’s behaviour or characteristics tends to imply something about the meaning thereof and this meaning is an interpretation. The client hears more than just the words. Interactions of the following kind are not uncommon -
Client: My problem is X
Therapist: Your problem is X
Client: Not at all. How dare you accuse me of X. What makes you think I’ve got a problem, anyway.

This kind of thing, even if it is not spoken so clearly as in the above, can lead to a breakdown of trust between therapist and client. The client may continue to collude with the therapy but not really engage with it. Most clients want to please the therapist, even to the extent of saying how successful the therapy is, even when it isn't. What a therapist labels as a diagnosis, the client may easily label as an accusation.

Although there are exceptions, the client generally does not know what the real problem is. Indeed, there might not actually be a problem. Clients come to see therapists for all sorts of reasons, by no means all of which involve a problem in the normal sense. As dialogue continues, what originally seemed to be the presenting issue may disappear into the mist as other things come to light. The therapist needs a gentle skepticism.
Client: My problem is X
Therapist: Really? Is that a problem? Tell me some more.
Client: Well, the other day…

Many therapies these days seek to emulate physical medicine, delineating syndromes and providing protocols for the treatment of each. This is inappropriate. Most of the syndromes listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual are fabrications not representing any entity in the real world and the idea that they can be treated, as one might with a pill, is fantasy. I have a different idea of what therapy is and do not see it as a problem solving process. In therapy, a "problem" might be a starting point, but we go on from there. Problems are part of life and a healthy, active person has many of them. Perhaps, in one sense, an aim of therapy might be that a person get to be able to handle more problems than before. Certainly people on the back wards of psychiatric hospitals do not have as many problems as a young mother or a busy business executive. Therapy is a process of accompaniment of a person on their spiritual journey, or, we could say, in their process of actualising their reason for being on this planet. Furthermore, part of their purpose is to enlighten me. They did not come to me for nothing.

One might say, "But if a person’s life is crippled in some way by a particular problem, should one not engage with them to solve it?" The answer, strictly speaking, is negative. It is for the client to live his life. He might be struggling to overcome something and the therapist is with him in that effort, but the therapist does not take responsibility for it. The therapist does not take the client’s koan away from him, but he appreciates the zest with which the person is grappling with the issue.


I am not neutral. I am strongly on the side of the person as they actually are. The client might think that there is something wrong with him or something wrong in his life and might tell me all about it, but I am slow and reluctant to take on the idea that anything is actually wrong. His life is as it is and is so for good reasons. I am interested in all this. His life is an instance of truth and I want to understand that truth and appreciate it. I want to know the here and now detail, but also the trajectory of the t hat makes those details meaningful - to feel what it is like to walk in his shoes, as it were, but also to get the bigger picture.

“As they actually are” includes whatever motivations for change they may have, but I do not see it as my job to take on responsibility for ensuring that those motivations come to pass - that is the client’s business. He may well discover that what he originally intended is not as close to his heart as he at first thought. There may be completely different ways of construing the situation that have not yet come to light. Therapy and problem solving are separate activities. If a problem becomes so clearly defined that it needs a solution, then the client might consult somebody else for that purpose - a doctor, an architect, a lawyer, an advice agency etc.

I am in favour of the client experimenting with their life and thereby finding out more about the world they inhabit and the nature of life therein. I have no preconceived idea of what they might find out thereby, except the basic existential facts that apply to us all.

“As they actually are” includes a host of virtues and abilities, I appreciate them. What a remarkable person I have before me! It also includes what might be considered failings or bad habits. Of course, even failings and bad habits can also be skills and abilities. Nothing is completely one sided. I do not immediately assume that these should be eliminated. Everybody has foibles. That is what makes a person lovable. Nobody is completely honest, fair, generous, self-controlled, etc. Life is full of elements that are invidious or less than ideal. That’s what makes it interesting.

However, although I notice these things, I do not necessarily discuss them with the client. I avoid making their solution the purpose of our encounter. I bear them in mind. I let them shape my interactions with him as other material emerges. Perhaps in this way I will come to understand how it is that he is in the position he has put himself in. Then, perhaps later, I might mention something as if it were the most normal thing in the world - which it probably is - and the client will feel understood.

If a person does something, there are reasons. I’m interested in knowing those reasons, but generally I will glean this information indirectly. I am willing to be the client’s confessor, but I do not give any indication of disapproval or need for reform. I hope that the client will find in me the kind of all-acceptance that I would wish to receive from Buddha. Of course, I never completely achieve this and have to be modest about my limitations. If anything, I lean on the side of resisting the client’s change. Why should I assume there is anything wrong with him? He is adapted to his conditions.

On the one hand, I do try to follow what the client is telling me with acute attention, noticing each minute shift. On the other hand, I let the significance of it all hang in the air and do not press for a diagnosis or explanation. It is as it is.

I am afraid that if I share too much knowledge, the client and I will fabricate a scheme about the client or about the work that will result in us acting toward one another in instrumental rather than personal ways. It is better that I let whatever knowledge I have sink in and ponder what it may mean. I remember how CG Jung used to observe the movements of patients on the ward and then go back to his office and mime the same movements to see what they felt like and what significance they might have.


The client is a precious vessel and what lies therein will never be fully known by either of us. I find the client fascinating and allow myself to be fascinated, especially by apparent contradictions. Perhaps the client says he intends to do something, yet does not do it. How interesting! I do not assume that he should do it nor should not do it. I do assume that there are conditions that are supporting this situation. From the client’s exploration of his rupas I shall probably find out what those conditions are. Then I shall rejoice in knowing my client better, and, hopefully, the client will sense this deeper knowing and feel released. When he sees that the situation he is in is truly recognised, he will feel known.

This does not mean that I never intervene in ways that may shock or disturb the equilibrium of the client. Being straightforward and in accordance with reality can seem very shocking. In social conversation we tend to avoid anything so direct. There has been a lot written about “games” and it is important that the therapist, as far as possible, not get caught up in them, especially therapy games. The client may well be used to living in a world in which nothing is straightforward and manipulation goes on all the time. He will bring these habits into the therapy. The therapist must, as far as possible, not take the bait. Then the client will have the experience of living in a different kind of world. In one sense, therapy is simply a form of communication that is more honest than one is likely to encounter anywhere else.

The client will actualise his life purpose when he is utterly alone. I hope to be utterly alone with him in such a way that he can also be so. This means a total absence of mutual manipulation.

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  • Thank you Dharmavidya for a very clear description of the unique way of Zen Therapy.  I have personally benefited from the approach and seen it being useful to others.  Zen therapy takes all I know about medicine and human beings, turns it on the head and invites fresh perspectives and possibilities.  I particularly resonate with the idea not to change the other but be curious about their truth and being willing to accompany them as they move towards and explore reality.  Again, the basic principles from Dark Side of the Mirror shine through your words.  My understanding is the therapist not being invested in self or the other, nor motivated or manipulated by outcome, simply acts a mirror.  The therapist's darkness/emptiness provides what is necessary to reflect the client's reality back in a way she might struggle to generate herself.  The new reality is then held in a natural, unassuming way with honesty and kindness - this is how it is and it is ok.  Namo Amida Bu.


    It is sometimes assumed that the kind of approach described above is slower than more directive approaches. This is incorrect. How rapidly an approach moves along depends on its accuracy. Most of the encounters in Zen stories are very brief - two minute therapy. Two minute therapy is possible when the exchange is on the ball. To be on the ball in this way, the therapist must, in principle, be empty of self and empty of preconceived ideas. To put the same thing differently, they must be invulnerable to manipulation and have no manipulative intention of their own. Things can then move along without impediment. I imagine this principle applies whatever type of therapy one is talking about.

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