Thursday, October 13, 2011

PhD: Here is my argument that Zen Buddhism Psychology is something we should all deeply investigate and consider.

by Monroe Mann, Esq.
PhD Candidate, Capella University
Written August 21, 2011

Despite popular belief, Buddhism and modern Western psychology have much in common. Today, modern psychology is beginning to learn from and embrace the teachings of the Buddhists. Buddhism in turn is benefiting from modern psychology's experiments that are proving that Buddhism has a great deal of scientific merit as a psychological theory of treatment and/or a preventative measure.

Buddhism has for the last 2,500 years focused exclusively on developing a positive and healthy mental state. Clinical psychology, however, has almost exclusively (and historically) focused on curing mental ailments. In many ways, therefore, Buddhism was ahead of its time given the recent advent of positive psychology. (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).

In trying to understand why Buddhism was not embraced in earlier centuries by the West, it may perhaps be understandable given the East’s failure to impress the West with its offerings at the time. In the centuries before our own, Japan and China and the East in general were involved in bitter feuds between warlords, and were not focused on scientific inquiry as was the West. Further, in some cases, e.g. Japan, the East was purposely isolating itself from the West, which further dampened any cross-scientific pollination. (Sato & Sato, 2005). However, today, the world has opened up its scientific trading routes, and the West today even tips her hat to Japan’s automotive prowess and to China’s immense manufacturing empire—a clear sign that the West can (and does) now learn from the East.

For example, Western psychology has recently come to agreement with Buddhist psychology in finding that happiness resulting from internal mental training is far more durable than 'happiness' resulting from stimulus-driven pleasures. (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). This in turn is one of the bases of positive psychology. While there has often been a debate over the merits of Western vs. Eastern philosophies, religion, and science, the recent melding of the two cultural approaches to psychology may ultimately prove how similar we all are, and may introduce new and more effective treatment methods.

On that note, an interesting dichotomy is that which separates mindfulness practice (e.g. Buddhism) from cognitive therapy. (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Mindfulness encourages the practitioner to change one's relationship to thoughts, instead of changing the content of thoughts themselves. On the flip side, cognitive therapy actually emphasizes the changing of the content of thoughts themselves. While at first glance, it appears that the approaches are opposed to one another, further investigation may show that the two therapies can work together, thus melding Buddhism with cognitive therapy. Many studies (such as those cited in this discussion) are beginning to show the similarities between and/or the complementary aspects of Buddhist teachings and cognitive therapy.

In other words, what Buddhist monks and zen masters have practiced for thousands of years as a mere cultural tradition, Western science is now proving to be powerful psychology. Buddhism states that our misguided attempts to find happiness through external means are a result of our confusion about what really brings true happiness. (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Modern Western psychological research by Nanamoli & Bodhi (1995) have helped to confirm these Buddhist beliefs.

Further, Western science has begun to overturn some scientific beliefs as a result of investigations into Buddhist theories. For example, until recently, Western science believed that one's level of happiness was primarily genetically determined. Buddhists, however, have always believed that one's happiness is not fixed but can be consciously cultivated, and have for centuries practiced meditation, claiming that this practice boosts happiness. Indeed, in 2003, Davidson et al. concluded that novice meditation practice was associated with a clear increase in brain activity of the left frontal cortex, an area known to be associated with positive emotions. (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Further, Benson (1997) helped to show a connection between meditation and lower stress levels. (Tyson & Pongruengphant, 2007). In other words, Western science has helped to prove that the Buddhist ideas of 'self', ‘interconnectedness', and 'meditation' may have more relevance to Western clinical psychology than historically presumed.

For these reasons, Western positive and cognitive psychology today embrace Buddhism as a key to better understanding the human condition, and how best to live a life without negative anxiety and stress. Buddhism seeks to do this by endowing its practitioners with a state of well-being that results from "freeing the mind of its afflictive tendencies and obscurations". (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). While traditional psychology once only viewed the self as a fixed entity, Gergen & Kaye (1992) noted that "it is not independent selves who come together to form a relationship, but particular forms of relationships that engender what we take to be the individual's identity." (Sugamura, Haruki, & Koshikawa, 2007). In other words, modern psychology's tendency to view a patient as an island--as a problem in a vacuum--may not tell the whole story. Indeed, no man is an island, and it is not our solitude that makes us who we are, but our interaction with others. In this regard (and in many others), modern psychology is finally beginning to realize that Buddhist psychological teachings have merit, and indeed, great merit.

Nonetheless, modern Western science has not yet fully embraced Zen Buddhism as an effective psychological treatment. This is perhaps ironic because the major objective of Zen teaching is to free the individual from the chains of the physical world and the mental obstacles that cloud a full awareness of the self and the world. (Berger, 1962). Does this not appear to be exactly what positive psychology and the humanists aim to do?

Therefore, perhaps the alleged differences between modern psychology and Buddhism are more a result of cultural blindness and a refusal to 'see'. From the above analysis, it should be clear that these two schools of thought (Western psychology and Buddhist psychology) have far more in common than is popularly recognized.


Berger, E. M. (1962). Zen buddhism, general psychology, and counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 9(2).

Sato, T., & Sato, T. (2005). The early 20th century: shaping the discipline of psychology in Japan. Japanese Psychological Research, 47(2), 52-62.

Sugamura, G., Haruki, Y., & Koshikawa, F. (2007). Building more bridges between buddhism and western psychology. American Pscyhologist, December 2007, 1080-1081.

Tyson, P. D., & Pongruengphant, R. (2007). Buddhist and western perspectives on suffering, stress, and coping. J. Relig. Health, 46, 351-357.

Wallace, B. A., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). Mental balance and well-being -- building bridges between buddhism and western psychology. American Psychologist, 61(7), 690-701.

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