Buddhism and Western psychology have been in conversation with each other for over a century. This conversation began when British Indologist Rhys Davids translated Abhidhamma Pitaka from Pali and Sanskrit texts in 1900, which she published as “Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics”. In 1914, she wrote another book, “Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind”. Since then, many psychoanalysts and Buddhist scholars have attempted to bridge and integrate psychology and Buddhism in a way that offers meaning, inspiration, and healing to the common man’s suffering.
Buddhism and Western Psychology overlap in theory and in practice. Experts have written about many commonalities between Buddhism and the various branches of modern Western psychology, such as phenomenological psychology, psychoanalytical psychotherapy, humanistic psychology, cognitive psychology, and existential psychology.
Any assessment of Buddhism in terms of psychology is necessarily a modern Western invention. Western and Buddhist scholars have found in Buddhist teachings a detailed introspective phenomenological psychology. Rhys Davids wrote that “Buddhist philosophy is ethical first and last. Buddhism set itself to analyze and classify mental processes with remarkable insight and sagacity”. The Abhidhamma Pitaka articulates a philosophy, psychology, and ethics, all integrated into the framework of a program for liberation. The primary concern of the Abhidhamma is to understand the nature of experience, and thus the reality on which it focuses is conscious reality. For this reason, the philosophical enterprise of the Abhidhamma shades off into a phenomenological psychology.
Long-term efforts to integrate Abhidhammic psychology with Western empirical sciences have been carried out by leaders such as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the 14th Dalai Lama. In the introduction to his 1975 book, “Glimpses of the Abhidharma”, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote: “Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the Abhidharma coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the Abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom”. Every two years since 1987, the Dalai Lama has convened “Mind and Life” gatherings of Buddhists and scientists. Reflecting on one Mind and Life session in March 2000, psychologist Daniel Goleman, the author of the best-selling “Emotional Intelligence” and “Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama” noted: “Since the time of Gautama Buddha in the 5th century BC, an analysis of the mind and its workings has been central to the practices of his followers. This analysis was codified during the first millennium, after his death within the system called Abhidhamma (or Abhidharma in Sanskrit), which means ultimate doctrine”.
Buddhism and humanistic psychology
Humanistic psychology is a branch of psychology that emerged in the 1950s and emphasized subjective experience, free will, and the inherent goodness of people. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, believed that individuals have a natural drive towards self-actualization or the realization of their full potential. Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy emphasized the importance of the therapeutic relationship and the client’s subjective experience.
Buddhism also emphasizes the importance of subjective experience and the cultivation of positive qualities such as compassion, wisdom, and equanimity. Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and meditation have been integrated into various forms of humanistic psychotherapy, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
In MBCT, individuals learn to become more aware of their thoughts and emotions and to develop a non-judgmental, accepting attitude towards them. This approach has been found to be effective in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
In ACT, individuals learn to accept and embrace their thoughts and emotions, even if they are painful or uncomfortable. They are encouraged to focus on their values and take action towards achieving their goals, rather than trying to eliminate difficult thoughts and emotions.
Buddhism and cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that studies mental processes such as perception, attention, memory, and problem-solving. Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and meditation have been integrated into cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes the role of thoughts and beliefs in shaping behaviour.
CBT aims to identify and challenge negative and maladaptive thoughts and beliefs and to replace them with more realistic and positive ones. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) combines elements of CBT with mindfulness meditation to help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and develop a more accepting attitude towards them.
Buddhism and existential psychology
Existential psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the human experience of meaning, purpose, and choice. Existential psychologists believe that individuals are responsible for creating their own meaning in life and that they must confront the existential dilemmas of freedom, choice, and mortality.
Buddhism also addresses these existential themes, emphasizing the impermanence and interdependence of all phenomena and the need to cultivate wisdom, compassion, and ethical conduct. Buddhist teachings on the nature of suffering and the importance of compassion and ethical conduct have been integrated into various forms of existential psychotherapy, such as logotherapy and existential-humanistic therapy.
The integration of Buddhism and Western psychology has the potential to offer meaningful, inspiring, and healing approaches to the challenges of modern life, from stress and anxiety to depression and addiction. However, it is important to approach this integration with sensitivity, respect, and humility, recognizing that these are two different traditions with different histories, cultures, and worldviews.