BUDDHISM is often presented in the West as a form of psychology; using the language of psychology; and portrayed as one among many sorts of therapy. Indeed, the Four Noble Truths do expound the nature of sorrow, discontent and suffering, their cause, and the way to be free of it. The Buddha’s teachings, by his own description and the description of others, have been called “medicine”. Hearing of this, some first come to Buddha practice as a way to liberate themselves from their own suffering through the cure of their neuroses. Perhaps they have been working with a psychotherapist to assist them in this eff ort and they see the Buddha’s teachings as an adjunct, extension, or even a substitute for this process.
Those who are familiar with undergoing psychotherapy, may find that engagement in Buddhist practice provides a very different, surprising, and perhaps unsettling, experience, especially if they approach a Buddhist teacher for personal counseling and expect a similar sort of relationship and process.
Psychotherapy has been labeled as “the talking cure” and this is generally the primary nature of the relationship between psychotherapist and client. One popular, and effective, form of psychotherapy is called “cognitive therapy” whose basis is the belief that suffering is brought about by faulty thinking. By changing one’s thought patterns and interpretations, i.e. by altering one’s stories, one can obtain relief from suffering.
The Four Noble Truths lay out the nature and causes of suffering; the Five Lay Vows, the Six Paramitas, and the Eightfold Path provide a template with concrete actions that one is invited to undertake as a way out of suffering. They include, first of all, those qualities that might be summed up as “character” and include the personal development of generosity, ethics and morality, patience, vigor and endurance, and taking personal responsibility for ones’ thoughts, words and actions rather than claiming that the responsibility is on another or the events of daily life or the world.
The First Noble Truth states that life is “dukkha”, translated variously as suffering, sorrow or discontent. The Second Noble Truth states that discontent is caused by desire. And the Third states that the way to relieve discontent is to remove its cause; to relinquish desire. Thus, every experience of discontent can be traced directly to some desire for things to be other than they are (or were). Often one’s self-identity becomes entwined with the nature of discontent (i.e. “I am an angry person”). Through Buddhist practice one is encouraged to see through the endless manifestations of desire to the root; to recognize no-self rather than a fixed and unchanging identity; to experience that there is nothing “wrong” that requires “fixing”; and to experience the joy of the unconditioned rather than rely upon everchanging, ever unsatisfactory conditioned phenomena in the relative world.
Ultimately, the experience of suffering is resolved not through a cognitive process of psychological insight or more effective skills in dealing with troublesome people, situations or emotions, but through awakening, the manifestation of which is unique to each person, arising from the heart/mind of each individual. Th e teacher acts as guide, not a provider of answers, and there is little discussion of personal stories and problems, which may bring some to think that the teacher is “not taking me seriously” or “not hearing me”. Far from being a “talking cure” or a “cognitive” process, Buddhist practice is a transcendental, transformative process. The resolution arises not through problem-solving discussions, but ironically through a willingness to maintain oneself in a state of discomfort and confusion in the midst of that which one wishes the most to escape, observing it but not owning, or being owned, by it. Th ere are times when further talk and discussion is sought as a means of escape rather than resolution, so the teacher may rebuff attempts to engage in these sorts of conversation, seeing them as a hindrance to the transformative process. Instead she may suggest meditations, devotional or other practices, or perhaps say simply, “sit with it” pushing the questioner back to rely upon his own wisdom nature that resides, perhaps obscured, within his own heart/mind.
In the Morning Service appears the verse Shichi Butsu Tsukaige: “Wishing together with all sentient beings: do not commit evil, do everything that is good, purify the mind. This is the teachings of all the Buddhas. I bow to the sacred clouds.” This verse in a few words expounds the Buddha’s approach to psychology: we live interdependently with all others without exception; we refrain from thoughts, words and actions that bring about suffering for others as well as ourselves; we manifest those thoughts, words and actions that bring benefit to others as well as ourselves; we see directly into the nature of the mind; and we express devotion and gratitude for our human life and experience.