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Gerald Virtbauer has kindly allowed me to print the following article on this website. Please note that some non-English words are misspelled due to my difficulties in formatting the text. I will correct those errors as soon as I am able. ~ Dr. Nielsen

Buddhism as a Psychological System: Three Approaches

By Gerald Virtbauer, University of Vienna

©2008, Gerald Virtbauer

Buddhism has become one of the main dialog partners for psychology since the second part of the last century. The reception of Buddhist psychological thought in the United States began primarily after the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893, where writer and publisher Paul Carus was especially attracted by presentations of Zen Patriarch Shaku Soen. His main student, Suzuki Daisetsu Teitaro (usually known in the West as D. T. Suzuki), consequently moved to the United States to assist Carus in promoting and developing Buddhist thought in the West. Suzuki's approach to Buddhism was focused on the psychological part of the religion. On the one hand, he portrayed Zen as a genuine Asian practice way for developing the hidden capacities of the mind. In this sense, he wanted to show the gap between Asian and Western thinking and challenge the self-centered Western psyche he detected. On the other hand, he was very interested in fostering a dialog between Eastern and Western psychologies and influenced by the main religious psychological thinkers of his time (especially William James). This dialog led to co-operations with famous psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, followed by the first classic works in this field (with Carl Gustav Jung and Erich Fromm); and finally to the Zen boom in the 1960s.

Though many statements of these early beginnings have been widely criticized in recent years, the importance of the dialog between Buddhism and psychology is not in question, contrarily it is growing and expanding. Critics mainly pointed to the interest based interpretations of the respective counterpart. As a consequence of constructive elements in exploring Buddhist and Western psychology--either through the eye of the Western scientific methodology, or the Asian religious background-- interpretations tended to be orientalist or occidentalist.

The situation today is different, as Buddhism has become a subject of intense study and research, in both Asian and Western countries, and an integrated element of many Western cultures itself. Through global exchange, the presence of Asian teachers in the West has been rising and many Western Buddhists have begun to create their own teaching style and philosophy. Buddhism in the West nowadays is a mixture of attempts to present a wide range of textual sources and Buddhist teachings in their specific cultural contexts and original languages and attempts to create a new Buddhism--centered on the basic teachings of the Buddha--which can provide answers to contemporary pressing problems in a globalized world mainly ruled by Western capitalistic systems. Of course, either approach does not necessarily negate the other.

Bearing this situation in mind, I want to describe three different approaches of how the relation between psychology / psychotherapy and Buddhism can be observed and worked with in practice. These approaches should not be understood as exclusive, rather as highly overlapping. My aim is to provide a sort of helping tool for, and brief overview of the current research in this interdisciplinary field.

The first approach is to present and explore parts of Buddhist teachings as a psychology. As many teachers of different Buddhist traditions point out, Buddhism is not primarily a religion based on faith and worship, but a system, or an art to inquire into the human mind. It is difficult, or in many cases in fact impossible, to draw a clear line between the more 'religious' parts--as rituals and daily structures in Buddhist settings--, and the more 'psychological' parts--as meditation practice in all its different variations, as well as the teacher student relationship and the direct transmission of insight and knowledge. But, considering the common definition of modern psychology as a science of human experience and behavior, Buddhism provides psychological methods of analyzing human experience and inquiring into the potential and hidden capacities of the human mind. In this sense, many Buddhist scriptures are kinds of psychological instruction manuals which are pointing to the practical realization of their contents. In modern translations this direct connection and dependency between psychological method and practice is sometimes stated straight in the titles: for example, Caroline Rhys Davids depicts the Pali Dhammasangani ('Enumeration of Phenomena', the first book of the Abhidhammapitaka) as 'A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics', and Stefan Anacker calls the Yogacara philosopher Vasubandhu a 'Buddhist Psychological Doctor'.

The main characteristic of this approach is the close connection to primary sources, and the hermeneutical work with these sources which are often also translated by the author itself. In this way, an insight into the Buddhist understanding of basic human processes of perception and apperception should become apprehensible. The Buddhist system provides a rich psychological anthropology which contains a general view of the human predicament. This is shared by all Buddhist traditions, in addition to many more or less big differences depending on tradition and lineage.

From the point of view of cultural studies, the psychology in Buddhist scriptures shows the dependency of systems of thought to the specific cultural and societal circumstances they are developing in. Buddhism as a psychological system is one example of how psychological knowledge is shaped within certain cultural fundamentals. In intercultural dialog with Western psychological approaches, this can be helpful in questioning tendencies to universal claims of how to research human experience and behavior. Both Western and Buddhist psychologies are entangled in their specific histories and cultural backgrounds. Hence, they are among many other indigenous systems of investigating and understanding human experience and behavior.

The reception of foreign systems of thought can open new doors for dialog and co-operation. This is what has been happening concerning Buddhism and psychology since Buddhist teachers have arrived in Western societies. Currently, almost all streams of psychology and psychotherapy have noticed and reflected Buddhist psychological theory and many of them have integrated parts of the Buddhist teachings in their own theoretical and practical work. The second approach, therefore, is the integration of parts of the Buddhist teachings in already existing psychological or psychotherapeutic lines of thought.

Within the last years, the integration of Buddhist mindfulness and acceptance techniques has been one of the most flourishing innovations in psychotherapy. A development worthy of note within the different schools of psychotherapy is the fact that not only psychotherapies with a traditionally close relation to eastern thought--as Gestalt therapy or transpersonal psychology--engage in dialog with Buddhist traditions, but also the most scientifically orientated behavior therapies have recently been influenced by Buddhist thought. Some even speak of a 'spiritual turn' in behavior therapy. "Technologies of acceptance", as in Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT; Linehan 1998, 23), mirror traditional Buddhist values and are partly drawn directly from Buddhist meditation techniques. Another emphasis, and core value in Buddhism and newer behavior therapies, is mindfulness, based on a non-judging experience in the present moment--examples include Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (MBCT) by Segal, Williams, and Teasdale. A further approach within newer behavioral and cognitive interventions is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which does not have a direct connection to eastern philosophies (ACT is built on Relational Frame Theory (RFT)), but arrives at comparable assumptions. As in Buddhist mindfulness techniques, a non-judgmental acceptance of all parts of the present experience--especially thoughts connected with inner language--is emphasized. The intended shift should be a focus away from inner conditioned language and behavior shaped as a result of thoughts, to a commitment of following one's own personal values, also (and in many situations especially) against inner thoughts and modes of reacting. As Hayes (2004, 652) puts it: "The larger message thus is validating (trust your experience) and empowering (you can live a powerful life from here, without first winning a war with your own history)."

As in the case of ACT, sciences and Buddhism are meeting and informing each other in creating an expanded field for understanding reality. In the Mind and Life Conferences these topics are addressed in a dialog of world renowned scientists and Buddhist authorities, according to the principle of "a mutually respectful working collaboration and research partnerships between modern science and Buddhism - two of the world's most fruitful traditions for understanding the nature of reality and promoting human well-being"--Mind and Life XVIII directs to "The Self, Mental Causation and Free Will: Exchanges between Science and Buddhism on the Human Mind" (Mind & Life Institute,, 2008/10/08). That there is a prolific dialog for both sides can be observed by the statement of His Holiness the XIV. Dalai Lama that Buddhism must be open for change, if there are scientific results which clearly imply a modification of certain Buddhist attitudes.

While in the second approach Buddhism as a psychological system is integrated in Western psychological systems, the third approach which I will sketch briefly relates the other way around. This approach is especially connected with newer developments in Western Buddhism and the active integration of social science knowledge into the Buddhist system. Terms as Engaged Buddhism or New Buddhism refer to these innovative movements, even Post-Buddhism. In the words of Marilyn Evy (2005, 328):

    When former Zen teacher Toni Packer asks her students to listen to birds outside the practice hall and imitate their cries, where is Buddhism? When the Dalai Lama says, "My religion is kindness," where is Buddhism then? Where is Buddhism in the practice of radical attention proffered by contemporary mindfulness meditation teachers? Perhaps we should talk about post-Buddhism instead, an amalgam of therapy, breath awareness, and mindfulness techniques suited for the inhabitants of postmodernity.

What is new about New Buddhism, or Engaged Buddhism in the West is that core Buddhist values as compassion, interdependency, and loving kindness are taken in a literal way, without too close institutional affiliations and historical cultural constraints which have partly taken place in the development of Buddhism in Asian countries. One result of this modern view within Western Zen Buddhism is a focus on gender equality and critical reflections on a male-centered, traditionally grown hierarchical structure.

Recently, also systems of Buddhist psychotherapies have arisen, for instance David Brazier's Zen Therapy, which are integrations of Western psychotherapeutic structures within a Buddhist method of assigning and dealing with psychological problems. Other ground-breaking movements in Western Buddhism are Buddhist chaplaincy programs which are intended to address current burning problems in the societal surroundings and the interdependent global connection of harmful developments. Areas as prison work, end of life care, or environmental protection are dealt with from a Buddhist standpoint in connection with sciences.

In many cases, psychology is one of the most fitting Western systems to build a frame for dialog with newer developments in Buddhism, because Buddhism always sets off from individual experience which is in a deeper way seen as non-divided, non-dualistic, and connected with all phenomena. But only the individual itself can experience non-distinction--the modern scientific definition of psychology, as a science of experience and behavior of the individual, is therefore a link to Buddhism as a psychological and ethical system.

The history of Buddhism is a history of reception in different cultures and societies, with integration in already existing cultural prerequisites. The transference from India to China, for example, was accompanied by an incorporation of present Chinese religions. What is particularly happening now in Western societies, is the active dialog and debate between Buddhism and sciences. From a psychological point of view, discussions might continue to open new ways of understanding the human mind and dealing with the individual potential to happiness and wellbeing. Buddhism as a psychological, and at the same time, ethical system can help to build a bridge to the collective, which, from a Buddhist point of view, is not divided from the individual, but intertwined in individual experience in the here and now.

* Many thanks to my friends at Upaya Institute and Zen Center for fruitful conversations - and especially to Beth Miller for proofreading and important suggestions.

Selected Bibliography


Austin, James H. 1998. Zen and the Brain. Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Coleman, James William. 2001. The New Buddhism. The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fromm, Erich, Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro, Martino, Richard de. 1960/1971. Zen-Buddhismus und Psychoanalyse. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (f p Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis)

Gómez, Luiz O. 2004. Psychology. In Robert E Buswell, Jr (ed). Encyclopedia of Buddhism. 2 Volumes (Volume 2: 678-92). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Luisi, Pier Luigi. 2008. The Two Pillars of Buddhism -- Consciousness and Ethics. From the Proceedings of the meeting Mind and Life XII, 'What is matter, what is life?', held in Dharamsala, India, in 2002, in the presence of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15, No. 1, 2008, pp. 84-107.

Queen, Christopher S (ed). 2000. Engaged Buddhism in the West. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Revel, Jean-François, Ricard, Matthieu. 1997/2003. Der Mönch und der Philosoph. Buddhismus und Abendland. Ein Dialog zwischen Vater und Sohn. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch. (f p Le moine et el philosophe)

Snodgrass, Judith. 2003. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West. Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Wallace, B Alan, Shapiro, Shauna L. 2006. Mental Balance and Well-Being. Building Bridges Between Buddhism and Western Psychology. American Psychologist 61, 7, 690-701.

First Approach

Anacker, Stefan. 2005. Seven Works of Vasubandhu. The Buddhist Psychological Doktor. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed). 1993/2007. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma. The Philosophical Psychology of Buddhism. The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha. Bhikkhu Bodhi, General Editor. Pali text originally edited and translated by Mahathera Narada. Translation revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Introduction and Introductory Guide by U Rewata Dhamma & Bhikkhu Bodhi. Abhidhamma tables by U Silananda. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

De Silva, Padmal. 1990. Buddhist Psychology: A Review of Theory and Practice. Current Psychology, 9, 3.

Dhs - Dhammasangani. Translated with Introductory Essay and Notes by Caroline A F Rhys Davids. 1900/2004. A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Ghose, Lynken. 2004. A study in Buddhist psychology: is Buddhism truly pro-detachment and antiattachment? Contemporary Buddhism, 5:2, 105 -- 120.

Kalupahana, David J. 1987. The Principles of Buddhist Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Virtbauer, Gerald. 2008. Psychologie im Erkenntnishorizont des Mahayana-Buddhismus. Interdependenz und Intersubjektivität im Beziehungserleben. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Wallace, Alan B. 2001. Intersubjectivity in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8, 5-7, 209-230.

Second Approach

Budman, Simon H. 1985. Psychotherapeutic Services in the HMO: Zen and the Art of Mental Health Maintenance. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 16, 6, 798-809.

Davidson, Richard J, Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Schumacher, Jessica, Rosenkranz, Melissa, Muller, Daniel, Santorelli, Saki F, Urbanowski, Ferris, Harrington, Anne, Bonus, Katherine, Sheridan, John F. 2003. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 65:564-570.

Daya, Roshni. 2000. Buddhist psychology, a theory of change processes: Implications for counsellors. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling 22: 257-271.

Hayes, Steven C. 2004. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Relational Frame Theory, and the Third Wave of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Behavior Therapy 35, 639-665.

Heidenreich, Thomas, Michalak, Johannes (hg). 2004. Achtsamkeit und Akzeptanz in der Psychotherapie. Ein Handbuch. Tübingen: dgvt-Verlag.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 1990. Full Catastrophe Living. Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York: Delta.

Linehan, Marsha M. 1998. An Illustration of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. In Session: Psychotherapy in Practice, 4, 2, 21-44.

Magid, Barry. 2002. Ordinary Mind. Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychotherapy. Boston: Wisdom.

Pickering, John (ed). 1997. The Authority of Experience. Essays on Buddhism and Psychology. Richmond: Curzon Press.

Rubin, Jeffrey B. 1996. Psychotherapy and Buddhism. Toward an Integration. New York: Plenum Press.

Ryan, Richard M, Brown, Kirk Warren. 2003. Why We Don't Need Self-Esteem: On Fundamental Needs, Contingent Love, and Mindfulness. Psychological-Inquiry 14(1), 71-76.

Safran, Jeremy D (ed). 2003. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. An Unfolding Dialogue. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Segal, Z V, Williams, J M G, Teasdale, J D. 2002. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: a new approach to preventing relapse. New York: Guilford Press.

Young-Eisendrath, Polly, Muramoto, Shoji (ed). 2002. Awakening and Insight. Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Third Approach

Brazier, David. 1995. Zen Therapy. Transcending the Sorrows of the Human Mind. New York: Wiley.

Brazier, David. 2001. The New Buddhism. New York: Palgrave.

Cho, Sungtaek. 2000. Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7 (2000): 76-85.

Halifax, Joan. 1999. Radical Optimism. Online Document, 2008/08/16.

Halifax, Joan. 2008. Being with Dying. Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death. Foreword by Ira Byock. Boston: Shambhala.

Ivy, Marilyn. 2005. Modernity. In Donald S Lopez Jr (ed). Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kraft, Kenneth. 1995. Practicing Peace: Social Engagement in Western Buddhism. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 2 (1995): 152-172.

Loy, David R. 2000. How to Reform a Serial Killer: The Buddhist Approach to Restorative Justice. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7 (2000): 145-168.

Loy, David R. 2008. Money, Sex, War, Karma. Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

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