There are Many Different Forms of Buddhism and Psychotherapy

This (Spring 2018) article, which Tricycle magazine is resharing through its multimedia platforms, by C.W. Huntington, Jr., a translator of Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhism, raises interesting questions, but is hampered by the way the author treats Buddhism and psychotherapy as singular entities, making sweeping over-generalizations about both. The categories of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism have as many or more differences within them as they do between them. (By the way, most of these various approaches claim to be the original teachings of the Buddha, but academics agree such claims are fideist (based on faith or revelation) rather than on historical evidence.)

There are also, of course, many different forms of psychotherapy, many of which are continuing to evolve and influence each other. Some of them have also been influenced by various forms of Buddhism. For example, psychoanalysis (e.g., Epstein, 1995, 1998, 2001; Safran, 2003), forms of behavioural therapy (e.g., ACT, DBT, even MBSR), and CBT (e.g., MBCT; compassion-focused therapy (CFT)) have had longstanding dialogues with various forms of Buddhism. Cognitive science has also been influenced by Buddhism — for example, consider the work of Evan Thompson. Comparing Buddhism and psychotherapy is further complicated by how many seasoned Buddhist practitioners and teachers in the West are psychotherapists and psychoanalysts.

I blogged about parallels and differences between emotion-focused therapy and Buddhist principles in my post Being Somebody and Being Nobody, including discussing the psychoanalyst, researcher and Buddhist practitioner Jack Engler’s (2003) paper from which Huntington also draws. I also discussed related issues in my paper on emotion-focused mindfulness therapy (Gayner, 2019).

Huntington claims: “Buddhist teachings remind us that we will never achieve real or lasting satisfaction by adopting a different, better way of thinking or acting.” However, classic* forms of Buddhism emphasize an eightfold path as the way to achieve nirvana, one that highlights the importance of “right” ways of thinking about and understanding life and “right” ways of acting and speaking. (The word “right” is traditional; I find the word “appropriate” more helpful.)

Huntington writes: “This brings us to the central concern of Theravada Buddhism, and to mindfulness meditation as the primary means for stepping away from the whole project of searching for happiness by judging and choosing, rejecting some things while accepting others.” However, classic* forms of Buddhist meditation especially in Theravada Buddhism but also Tibetan Buddhism tend to emphasize discerning between wholesome/skillful and unwholesome/unskillful states, letting go the unwholesome ones, and carrying forward the wholesome ones, so that unwholesome states are less likely and wholesome states more likely to rise. The language used in the Pali cannon describing this choosing can be harsh and warrior-like.

It is telling that Huntington concludes his article by quoting from a Chan Buddhist practitioner:

One of the most prominent and elegant of all Chinese Buddhist texts is the Hsin Hsin Ming, a poem attributed to the third patriarch of the Chan school. Its opening lines are traditionally considered to capture the essence of Buddhist meditation:

The Supreme Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.

— trans. Master Sheng Yen

(Huntington, Spring 2018)

This poem is about a nondual* style of Buddhist meditation that emphasizes letting go of all forms of discernment and distinctions: “do not pick or choose, neither love nor hate.” In contrast, classic styles of Buddhist practice emphasize discerning between the wholesome and unwholesome and choosing the wholesome, for example, choosing compassion over hate. Some Buddhist schools combine nondual and classic styles, such as the lineage of Ajahn Chah, who was Jack Kornfield’s major teacher. Kornfield co-founded the two flagship centres of the American vipassana movement, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) and Spirit Rock, where many mindfulness-based clinicians go on retreat.

Mindfulness meditation in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and therefore mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is based primarily in nondual forms of Buddhist practice, reflecting Jon Kabat-Zinn’s extensive background in Korean Zen (Kabat-Zinn, 2011; Husgafvel, 2018). Kabat-Zinn, a micro-biologist teaching anatomy at the UMass medical school, was studying to be a Korean Zen teacher and was director of the Cambridge Zen Centre. However, he was fascinated by how the American vipassana movement had stripped away so many Asian cultural and ceremonial aspects from mindfulness practice and how IMS teachers like Kornfield drew inspiration from diverse poets such as as Rainer Maria Rilke, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, as well as Sufi and American Transcendental poets and writers. It was in this fresh, inspiring context on retreat at IMS that he first envisioned MBSR. IMS tends to emphasize classic forms of mindfulness derived from Theravada Buddhist schools, but also has nondual influences through Ajahn Chah’s Theravada Buddhist lineage as well as through its co-founders Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein’s studies with nondual Tibetan Buddhist teachers and Advaita Vedanta teachers, a Hindu tradition with ancient Buddhist influences (Ginn, fall 2019).

* For a discussion of the differences between nondual and classic Buddhist mindfulness and contemporary clinical mindfulness meditation see Dunne (2015).