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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
winter 2007| 46 |buddhadharma (clockwise from top left) Jack kornfield is a clinical psychologist and founding teacher of the insight meditation society and spirit rock. his forthcoming book is titled the wise heart: a guide to the universal teachings of buddhist psychology. Judith lief was a senior student of chögyam trungpa rinpoche and is now an acharya in shambhala international. she is the author of Making friends with death: a buddhist guide to encountering Mortality. harvey aronson is a licensed therapist in private practice in houston and the author of buddhist practice on western ground: reconciling eastern ideals and western psychology. One of the world’s first great psychologists, the Buddha often said that he taught one thing and one thing only: suffering and its release. Mental health, he seemed to say, rests on the willingness to acknowledge mental distress. There is no pretending in Buddhism, no effort to seem healthier than one really is. One is simply encouraged to admit the truth—that anxiety, pain, fear, and grief are our constant companions. Somehow, this internal honesty creates healing reverberations. The composer John Cage used to say that his favorite Zen story was of the master who said, “Now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as I ever was.” Nothing changes, even while something fundamental shifts. We suffer because we misperceive, taught the Buddha. We experience ourselves as all alone in the world: disconnected and struggling. We exaggerate our aloneness and operate as if we are always on the defensive. If we could see things through his eyes though, the Buddha affirmed, we would see that we are already living in bliss. Our misery would no longer be the last word. We could start celebrat- ing now. The Buddha was constantly refining his message, adapting his approach, changing his tune. To one person, he would say one thing; to another person, he would say something different. Sometimes he taught that there was a self, sometimes that there was no self, sometimes that there was neither. He was nothing if not flexible, improvising to meet the needs of his listeners. Buddhism, too, has been in an almost continual state of evolution throughout its history, yielding a multiplicity of forms, prac- tices, teachers, and approaches. Constantly shifting to meet the needs of new cultures and populations, the Buddhist path twists and turns and keeps on going, now having entered the terrain of psycho- therapy. Today, the Buddhist path is still opening into new vistas. The following discussion is evidence of this evo- lution. It is heartening to find Buddhist teachers in frank conversation about the place of therapy in the Buddhist constellation. There is evidence of a profound paradigm shift in process. If Buddhism is Forum: Psychology and Buddhism What they share, how they differ, and why the both can help complete in itself, what need is there for therapy? If it is not complete, what does that say about Buddhism? But is not this tendency to try to make something complete unto itself, be it an ideology or a religion or a self or a neurosis, the very thing that the Buddha warned against? Didn’t Freud echo this warning, cautioning against the ego’s defensive attempts to freeze or fix the self? Both therapy and Buddhism enlighten by mak- ing us conscious of what we don’t know. They mock our vain attempts at self-sufficiency and celebrate the inspiration that comes unbidden when we relax the grip of our misperceptions. As John Cage put it after attending Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia in the early 1950s, “A sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams.” Buddhism and therapy, like sensations and dreams, are agents of surprise, allies in the continual human struggle with reality. Why should either Buddhism or therapy have to be complete in order to be useful? Freud delighted in undermining the human tendency to place the self at the center of the uni- verse. He found new ways to talk about the infin- ity within and without. In spirit, he was very much in the Buddhist tradition. Like Copernicus insist- ing that the sun does not revolve around the earth or Darwin claiming that man bears “the indelible stamp of his lowly origin,” Freud treasured his discovery that man is not even master in his own house. The absolute self, the self that exaggerates its own solidity, the target of the Buddha’s own psychological teachings twenty-four hundred years earlier, came under renewed attack in Victorian Vienna. The Buddha would have smiled to have seen such an unlikely avatar of his teachings. One hundred years later, we are still working on inte- grating the two perspectives. mark epstein is a psychiatrist in private practice in new york. his new book, psychotherapy without the self: a buddhist perspective, is published by yale university press. IntroductIon by mark epsteIn, m.d . sculptures by jaume plensa ©JaumePlensa,CourtesyGalerielelonG,neWyorkJaCkkornfieldbyChristinealiCino;JudithliefbyrebeCCarome