When we were young, we rejected the idea of Buddhism as a religion. We saw it as a philosophy or as psychology. But Buddhism is not just psychology. True Buddhism is not used by the ego to further its goals.- Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure, my Soto Zen teacher (paraphrased)
I've just completed the first programme in my training to become a teacher of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Stress Reduction. These techniques are derived from Buddhist vipassana combined with Cognitive Behavioural methods. There are no religious trappings. Some Buddhist teachings are given but the dominant theoretical frameworks are psychological and physiological.
I've been practicing Zen and studying Buddhism for a few years now this puts me in the very interesting position of being able to compare the practices and to compare Buddhist, psychological and physiological paradigms.
The basic model of the difference between therapy and a true spiritual practice is one that I picked up from my psychology tutor.
Spiritual practices differ from therapy in terms of scope. The aim of the latter is for the individual to reach functional normality, while the aim of the former is self-actualisation or enlightenment that goes well beyond normality.- My undergraduate psychology tutor (paraphrased)
It's quite clear that MBCT teachers see it, not perhaps as Buddhism exactly, but certainly as a practise of what the Buddha taught.
It's the best thing that's happened in Buddhism in 2500 years- Jon Kabat-Zinn (speaking about the new MBCT '3 minute breathing space' practise, paraphrased)
So, the Buddhists were right. They just didn't know what they were doing. They didn't know about neural pathways - how could they?- Jini Lavelle, my mindfulness teacher (paraphrased)
There are many similarities - the mindfulness practice called 'choiceless awareness' is virtually indistinuishable from shikantaza zazen. I was expecting the mindfulness to be more goal-orientated perhaps, but both practices emphasise 'being' rather than 'doing'. Sitting in silence with a group of mutually supportive individuals noticing thoughts arise and any reaction to those thoughts and the sensation of air across the skin and the sounds of birds and traffic outside, and with no objective in mind, I could just as easily be at a MBCT sitting as a Zen sitting. And this is the core of both practices. Does it really matter whether the people I'm with came because they wish for enlightenment or inner peace or an end to depression and anxiety? Does it matter whether people bow to a Buddha statue? Surely the fundamental practice is the same and the effect on people's lives is essentially the same?
SimilaritiesSome techniques involve focussed attention (breath zazen/breath mindfulness)
Other techniques involve open awareness (shikantaza/choiceless awareness)
People encouraged to have upright and dignified posture
Doing discouraged in favour of non-doing or being
Practice continues off the cushion
Compassion seems to naturally appear
Sitting on cushions is encouraged
Hands in universal mudra
Eyes half open/lowered
Emphasis on mind-body unity as well mindfulness
Mindfulness/mind-body unity practiced with traditional, ceremonial practices
Moral code given (precepts)
Compassion to self and others encouraged
Bodhisattva concept of practicing for the benefit of others
Original purpose is enlightenment which may fade with time
Theoretical framework is Buddhism or Buddhism with a little psychology
Formal refuge may be taken
Most people are on chairs
Hands flat or on thighs
Eyes encouraged to be closed
Emphasis on only mindfulness
Mindfulness practiced with ordinary, contemporary practices
No moral code given
Kindness to self encouraged, compassion to others emerges
Awareness of impact of practice on others but no Bodhisattva concept
Original purpose is therapeutic which may fade with time
Theoretical framework is psychology or psychology with a little Buddhism
No formal refuge is taken
As with anything else, Buddhists tend to fall in a range of attitudes from conservative to liberal about matters like this. I tend to see many spiritual and some psycholgical traditions as doing and talking about the same processes and experiences as Buddhism, just with different doctrinal foundations. So this puts me at the liberal end. Others take the teachings very literally and see formal refuge and belief in traditional views of karma and rebirth as essential.
I have no firm conclusions about this. I'd be interested in people's experiences and opinions about it. Can Buddhist practice be seen as psychology? If not, why not?
According to some it cannot - there is no formal refuge in the Buddha. There is no belief in the metaphysical points of doctrine such as literal rebirth (but this is often the case in Western Buddhism anyway especially Zen). Others say there is no goal of enlightenment - yet how much actual difference does having such an aim make? Also, in Soto Zen (according to most instruction at least - I'm not convinced that there is never intentionality at all) goals are abandoned, and in MBCT/SR there is some aim to become free of what could be described in terms of ignorance, greed and desire. In what fundamental sense is this different from the goal of nirvana - which Buddha described as the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states?
According to my Soto Zen teacher, the reason Zen cannot be described as psychology is that a practise that is used to fulfill the goals of the ego is not a true Zen practice. I can see what he means, however it seems to me that there are problems with this distinction, namely there is no clear point at which a practise is ego-driven and when it is not. All goal-oriented activity is the ego using an activity for it's own purposes. This includes Buddhist spiritual goals. Also whether Soto Zen emphasises non-seeking mind or not, it is not free from 'contamination' by intentionality and thus ego. I have met a number of Soto monks and nuns for who - it seems to me - practice is being used by ego at least to an extent. To insist otherwise is to idealise Soto. Also, the mindfulness of MBCT is a practice of non-doing just as Zen is. So there is no clear distinction at all in this case.
A tendency I've seen in many spiritual practitioners is to seek to raise their own practise by diminishing others. This 'spiritual snobbery' seems to be not uncommon in Buddhism, including Zen, even though 'not having preferences' is supposed to be practised. Many seem to regard their own practise as 'True Buddhism' while the others are engaged in some sort of corrupted practise. Mahayana refer to Theravada as the 'Lesser Vehicle', Theravadans accuse Mahayana as deviating from and corrupting the original words of Shakyamuni Buddha, Soto Zen accuses Rinzai Zen of chasing insight experiences and Rinzai Zen accuses Soto of 'dead sitting' without insight. Non-Buddhist practises are typically even further down in their estimation. Yet there are others who see the wisdom of Buddha as an expression of a more universal wisdom that may be found in all forms of Buddhism, even the words of Rumi, Christ and in every experience of life.
The tentative conclusion I'm coming to is that there is no fundamental difference, rather merely a difference in emphasis and perhaps depth.
I asked my Rinzai teacher about this, any although he didn't answer my question directly (he had no direct experience of mindfulness based approaches) he spoke of Buddhism and therapy not as the same thing but not just by making a value distinction between them either. Drawing on his experience as a psychotherapist, he spoke about them as equally valid and complimentary.
There is an overlap between therapy and Zen, although they are not quite the same. I see Zen as allowing peple to open up their heart and mind and that spaciousness can uncover various complexes and neuroses, although it doesn't address them directly. Psychotherapy or CBT focusses on those specific problems without giving the wider spaciousness that Zen allows. And although that Zen spaciousness doesn't address the problems directly, it can give room for the issues to untangle.- Genjo Marinello (paraphrased)
To my mind, the place that mindfulness therapy would fit here is in the middle - primarily creating spaciousness but also enhancing understanding and focussed awareness for the specific problems of chronic depression, anxiety, and stress.