C. George Boeree, Ph.D. - Shippensburg University
Copyright 1997, C.
follows is my effort at showing the relevance of Buddhism to
western psychotherapy, especially existential therapy. Although
it may not sit well with purists, I hope that this article captures
the spirit of the Buddha's message.
Four Noble Truths sound like the basics of any theory
with therapeutic roots:
1. Life is suffering. Life is at very least full of suffering,
and it can easily be argued that suffering is an inevitable
aspect of life. If I have senses, I can feel pain; if I have
feelings, I can feel distress; if I have a capacity for love,
I will have the capacity for grief. Such is life.
the Sanskrit word for suffering, is also translated as stress,
anguish, and imperfection. Buddha wanted us to understand suffering
as a foundation for improvement. One key to understanding suffering
is understanding anitya, which means that all things,
including living things, our loved ones, and ourselves, are
impermanent. Another key concept is anatman, which means
that all things -- even we -- have no "soul" or eternal substance.
With no substance, nothing stands alone, and no one has a separate
existence. We are all interconnected, not just with our human
world, but with the universe.
psychology, we speak of ontological anxiety (dread, angst).
It, too is characterized as an intrinsic part of life. It is
further understood that in order to improve one's life, one
needs to understand and accept this fact of life, and that the
effort one makes at avoiding this fact of life is at the root
of neurosis. In other words, denying anxiety is denying life
itself. As the blues song points out, "if you ain't scared,
you ain't right!"
also has its correlate in the concept of being-towards-death.
Our peculiar position of being mortal and being aware of it
is a major source of anxiety, but is also what makes our lives,
and the choices we make, meaningful. Time becomes important
only when there is only so much of it. Doing the right thing
and loving someone only have meaning when you don't have an
eternity to work with.
-- one of the central concepts of Buddhism -- is likewise a
central concept in existential psychology. As Sartre put it,
our existences precede our essences. That is to say,
we are a kind of "nothingness" that strains to become a "something."
Yet only by acknowledging our lives as more a matter of movement
than substance do we stand a chance at authentic being.
2. Suffering is due to attachment. We might say that at
least much of the suffering we experience comes out of ourselves,
out of our desire to make pleasure, happiness, and love last
forever and to make pain, distress, and grief disappear from
not quite in line with some Buddhist interpretations, is that
we are not therefore to avoid pleasure, happiness, and love.
Nor are we to believe that all suffering comes from ourselves.
It's just that it is not necessary, being shot once with an
arrow, to shoot ourselves again, as the Buddha put it.
is one translation of the word trishna, which can also
be translated as thirst, desire, lust, craving, or clinging.
When we fail to recognize that all things are imperfect, impermanent,
and insubstantial, we cling to them in the delusion that they
are indeed perfect, permanent, and substantial, and that by
clinging to them, we, too, will be perfect, permanent, and substantial.
aspect of attachment is dvesha, which means avoidance
or hatred. To Buddha, hatred was every bit as much an attachment
as clinging. Only by giving those things which cause us pain
permanence and substance do we give them the power to hurt us
more. We wind up fearing, not that which can harm us, but our
aspect of attachment is avidya, meaning ignorance. At
one level, it refers to the ignorance of these Four Noble Truths
-- not understanding the truth of imperfection and so on. At
a deeper level, it also means "not seeing," i.e. not directly
experiencing reality, but instead seeing our personal interpretation
of it. More than that, we take our interpretation of reality
as more real than reality itself, and interpret any direct experiences
of reality itself as illusions or "mere appearances!"
psychology has some similar concepts here, as well. Our lack
of "essence" or preordained structure, our "nothingness," leads
us to crave solidity. We are, you could say, whirlwinds who
wish they were rocks. We cling to things in the hopes that they
will provide us with a certain "weight." We try to turn our
loved ones into things by demanding that they not change, or
we try to change them into perfect partners, not realizing that
a statue, though it may live forever, has no love to give us.
We try to become immortal, whether by anxiety-driven belief
in fairy-tales, or by making our children and grand-children
into clones of ourselves, or by getting into the history books
or onto the talk shows. We even cling to unhappy lives because
change is too frightening.
Or we try
to become a piece of a larger pie: The most frightening things
we've seen in this century are the mass movements, whether they
be Nazis or Red Guard or Ku Klux Klan or... well, you name them.
If I'm just a little whirlwind, maybe by joining others of my
kind, I can be a part of a hurricane! Beyond these giant movements
are all the petty ones -- political movements, revolutionary
ones, religious ones, antireligious ones, ones involving nothing
more than a style or fashion, and even the local frat house.
And note the glue that holds them together is the same: hatred,
which in turn is based on the anxiety that comes from feeling
existential psychology also discusses its version of ignorance.
Everyone holds belief systems -- personal and social -- that
remain forever untested by direct experience. They have such
staying power because built in to them is a catch-22, a circular
argument, that says that evidence or reasoning that threatens
the belief system is, ipso facto, incorrect. These belief systems
can range from the great religious, political, and economic
theories to the little beliefs people hold that tell them that
they are -- or are not -- worthy. It is a part of therapy's
job to return us to a more direct awareness of reality. As Fritz
Perls once said, "we must lose our minds and come to our senses!"
3. Suffering can be extinguished. At least that suffering
we add to the inevitable suffering of life can be extinguished.
Or, if we want to be even more modest in our claims, suffering
can at least be diminished.
that, with decades of practice, some monks may be able to transcend
even simple, direct, physical pain. I don't think, however,
that us ordinary folk in our ordinary lives have the option
of devoting those decades to such an extreme of practice. My
focus, then, is on diminishing mental anguish rather than eliminating
is the traditional name for the state of being (or non-being,
if you prefer) wherein all clinging, and so all suffering, has
been eliminated. It is often translated as "blowing out," with
the idea that we eliminate self like we blow out a candle. This
may be a proper understanding, but I prefer the idea of blowing
out a fire that threatens to overwhelm us, or even the idea
of taking away the oxygen that keeps the fires burning. By this
I mean that by "blowing out" clinging, hate, and ignorance,
we "blow out" unnecessary suffering.
I may be
taking a bit of a leap here, but I believe that the Buddhist
concept of nirvana is quite similar to the existentialists'
freedom. Freedom has, in fact, been used in Buddhism
in the context of freedom from rebirth or freedom from the effects
of karma. For the existentialist, freedom is a fact of our being,
one which we often ignore, and which ignorance leads us to a
4. And there is a way to extinguish suffering. This is what
all therapists believe -- each in his or her own way. But this
time we are looking at what Buddha's theory --dharma -- has
to say: He called it the Eightfold Path.
two segments of the path are refered to as prajña,
view -- understanding the Four Noble Truths, especially
the nature of all things as imperfect, impermanent, and insubstantial
and our self-inflicted suffering as founded in clinging, hate,
aspiration -- having the true desire to free oneself from
attachment, hatefulness, and ignorance. The idea that improvement
comes only when the sufferer takes the first step of aspiring
to improvement is apparently 2500 years old.
existential psychologist, therapy is something neither the therapist
nor the client takes lying down -- if you will pardon the pun.
The therapist must take an assertive role in helping the client
become aware of the reality of his or her suffering and its
roots. Likewise, the client must take an assertive role in working
towards improvement -- even though it means facing the fears
they've been working so hard to avoid, and especially facing
the fear that they will "lose" themselves in the process.
next three segments of the path provide more detailed guidance
in the form of moral precepts, called sila:
speech -- abstaining from lying, gossiping, and hurtful
speech generally. Speech is often our ignorance made manifest,
and is the most common way in which we harm others. Modern psychologists
emphasize that one should above all stop lying to oneself. But
Buddhism adds that by practicing being true to others, and one
will find it increasingly difficult to be false to oneself.
action -- behaving oneself, abstaining from actions that
hurt others (and, by implication, oneself) such as killing,
stealing, and irresponsible sex.
livelihood -- making one's living in an honest, non-hurtful
way. Here's one we don't talk about much in our society today.
One can only wonder how much suffering comes out of the greedy,
cut-throat, dishonest careers we often participate in. This
by no means means we must all be monks: Imagine the good one
can do as an honest, compassionate, hard-working accountant,
business person, lawyer, or politician!
I have to
pause here to add another Buddhist concept to the picture: karma.
Basically, karma refers to good and bad deeds and the consequences
they bring. In some branches of Buddhism, karma has to do with
what kind of reincarnation to expect. But other branches see
it more simply as the negative (or positive) effects one's actions
have on one's integrity. Beyond the effects of your selfish
acts have on others, for example, each selfish act "darkens
your soul," and makes happiness that much harder to find. On
the other hand, each act of kindness, as the gypsies say, "comes
back to you three times over." To put it simply, virtue is its
own reward, and vice its own hell.
of moral choice has been a central concern of existentialism
as well. According to existentialists, we build our lives
through our moral choices. But they view morality as a highly
individualistic thing -- not based on simple formulas beginning
with "thou shalt not..." and handed down to us directly from
God. Actually, moral choice is something involving a real person
in a real situation, and no one can second guess another's decisions.
The only "principle" one finds in existentialism is that the
moral decision must come from a certain position, i.e. that
I should also pause here to explain what is meant by the existential
idea of authenticity. The surface meaning is being real rather
than artificial or phony. More completely, it means living one's
life with full acceptance of one's freedom and the responsibility
and anxiety that freedom entails. It is often seen as a matter
of living courageously. To me, it sounds suspiciously like enlightenment.
another similar ethical philosophy I'd like to mention: the
situated ethics of Joseph Fletcher. He is a Christian
theologian who finds the traditional, authoritarian brand of
Christian ethics not in keeping with the basic message of Christ.
Needless to say, he has raised the hackles of many conservative
Christians by saying that morality is not a matter of absolutes,
but of individual conscience in special situations. He believes
that, if an act is rooted in genuine love, it is good. If it
is rooted in hatred, selfishness, or apathy, it is bad. Mahayana
(northern) Buddhism says very much the same thing.
It is always
a matter of amusement to me that my students, unaware of all
the great philosophical and religious debates on morality, all
seem quite aware that intentionally hurting others (or oneself)
is bad, and doing one's best to help others (and oneself) is
good. If you look at Buddha's pronouncements on morality --
or Christ's -- you find the same simplicity.
last three segments of the path are the ones Buddhism is most
famous for, and concern samadhi or meditation. I must
say that, despite the popular conception, without wisdom and
morality, meditation is worthless, and may even be dangerous.
effort -- taking control of your mind and the contents thereof.
Simple, direct practice is what it takes, the developing of
good mental habits: When bad thoughts and impulses arise, they
should be abandoned. This is done by watching the thought without
attachment, recognizing it for what it is (no denial or repression!),
and letting it dissipate. Good thoughts and impulses, on the
other hand, should be nurtured and enacted. Make virtue a habit,
as the stoics used to say.
four "sublime states" (brahma vihara) that some Buddhists
talk about. These sublime states are fully experienced by saintly
creatures called boddhisattvas, but the rest of us should
practice them every moment of every day as an exercise in self-improvement.
They are loving kindness to all you meet, compassion for those
who are suffering, joy for others without envy, and equanimity
or a peaceful, evenly balanced attitude towards the ups and
downs of life.
mindfulness -- mindfulness refers to a kind of meditation
involving an acceptance of thoughts and perceptions, a "bare
attention" to these events without attachment. It is called
vipassana in the Theravada (southern Buddhism) tradition,
and shikantaza in the Ch'an (Zen) tradition. But it is
understood that this mindfulness is to extend to daily life
as well. It becomes a way of developing a fuller, richer awareness
of life, and a deterent to our tendency to sleepwalk our way
One of the
most important moral precepts in Buddhism is the avoidance of
consciousness-diminishing or altering substances -- i.e. alcohol
or drugs. This is because anything that makes you less than
fully aware sends you in the opposite direction of improvement
into deeper ignorance.
are other things besides drugs that diminish consciousness.
Some people try to avoid life by disappearing into food or sexuality.
Others disappear into work, mindless routine, or rigid, self-created
oneself in entertainment is one of today's favorite substitutes
for heroin. I think that modern media, especially television,
make it very difficult to maintain our balance. I would like
to see a return to the somewhat Victorian concept of "edifying
diversions:" see a good movie on PBS or videotape -- no commercials,
please -- or read a good book, listen to good music, and so
We can also
drown awareness in material things -- fast cars, extravagant
clothes, and so on. Shopping has itself become a way of avoiding
life. Worst of all is the blending of materiality with entertainment.
While monks and nuns avoid frivolous diversions and luxurious
possessions, we surround ourselves with commercials, infomercials,
and entire shopping networks, as if thery were effective forms
of "pain control!"
concentration -- meditating in such a way as to empty our
natures of attachments, avoidances, and ignorance, so that we
may accept the imperfection, impermanence, and insubstantiality
of life. This is usually thought of as the highest form of Buddhist
meditation, and full practice of it is pretty much restricted
to monks and nuns who have progressed considerably allong the
like the earlier paths provide a foundation for later paths,
later ones often support earlier ones. For example, a degree
of "calm abiding" (shamatha), a beginning version of
concentration, is essential for developing mindfulness, and
is taught to all beginning meditators. This is the counting
of breaths or chanting of mantras most people have heard of.
This passifying of the mind is, in fact, important to mindfulness,
effort, all moral practice, and even the maintaining of view
and aspiration. I believe that this simple form of meditation
is the best place for those who are suffering to begin -- though
once again, the rest of the eightfold path is essential for
know: Anxiety is the most common manifestation of psychological
suffering. And when it's not anxiety, it's unresolved anger.
And when it's not anger, it's pervasive sadness. All three of
these can be toned done to a manageable level by simple meditation.
Meditation will not eliminate these things -- that requires
wisdom and morality and the entire program -- but it will give
the sufferer a chance to acquire the wisdom, morality, etc!
simple meditation, therapists might recommend simplification
of lifestyle, avoidance of sensationalistic or exploitative
entertainment, a holiday from the news, a retreat to a monastery,
or a simple weekend vacation. One of my favorite expressions
is "less is more!"
I mentioned earlier, some Buddhists have an expression "nirvana
is samsara," which means that the perfected life is this
life. While there is much talk about great insights and amazing
enlightenments and even paranormal events, what Buddhism is
really all about, in my humble opinion, is returning to this
life, your very own little life, with a "new attitude." By being
more calm, more aware, a nicer person morally, someone who has
given up envy and greed and hatred and such, who understands
that nothing is forever, that grief is the price we willingly
pay for love.... this life becomes at very least bearable. We
stop torturing ourselves and allow ourselves to enjoy what there
is to enjoy. And there is a good deal to enjoy!
friends often use the term "practice" for what they do. They
encourage each other to "keep on practicing." Nobody is too
terribly concerned if they aren't perfect -- they don't expect
that. As long as you pick yourself up and practice a little
more. A good basis for therapy.