The relationship between theory and practice in Buddhist
psychology is commented on, with special reference to meditative techniques and
other behavior change strategies. Finally, comments are made on the possible interaction
between Buddhist and modern psychology.
This paper aims to provide a descriptive and analytical
account of Buddhist psychology. It does not attempt a comprehensive review of
the subject; the literature, and the issues that arise in the examination of
this literature, are too vast to permit a comprehensive review in a single paper.
What is presented here is essentially a selective account of the psychological
notions found in Buddhism. Only some of the major concepts are discussed. Some
practical aspects of Buddhist psychology that have a relevance to therapeutic
practice are also reviewed.
The paper is selective in another important way. It is
confined to Theravada Buddhism, also referred to as Early Buddhism, and does
not deal with later developments, including Zen. (For an account of Theravada Buddhism,
see Gombrich, 1988; for a discussion of the different schools of Buddhism, see
Kalupahana, 1976, Snelling, 1987, and Thomas, 1951).
The literature of Early Buddhism is in the Pali language.
It consists of:
1. the original Buddhist canon which was put together soon
after the Buddha's death and committed to writing in the first century B.C.;
2. the early Pali commentaries on the canon that were in
their present form by the end of the fifth century A.D.; and
3. other Pall texts of the same period which are best
described as expository and interpretive works.
The canon consists of three parts:
1. Sutta Pitaka, which contains the discourses of the
Buddha on various occasions throughout his preaching life;
2. Vinaya Pitaka, which contains the rules of discipline
for the monks; and
3. Abhidhama Pitaka, which contains highly systematized
philosophical and psychological analyses, which were finalized in their present
form about 250 B.C. (later than the material in the other two parts).
A full account of the Pall canon is given in Webb (1975).
The individual books of the canon are listed in Table 1.
The early Pall commentaries include major texts such as
Sumangalavilasini, Manorathapurani, Papancasudani, and Dhammapadatthakatha,
which are commentaries on specific parts of the canon. The early expository and
interpretive texts include, among others, Visuddhimagga, Milindapanha and Nettippakarana.
The entire canon, and the majority of the commentaries and
expository works, have been translated into English and published by the Pali
Text Society, which was founded in London
by T.W. Rhys Davids in 1881. However, the English versions are often beset with
problems of translation and interpretation. Perhaps it is worth illustrating
this problem with examples. A major example is the term dukkha (Sanskrit
duhkha), translated by many as "suffering." This has led to Buddhism
being described as, essentially, a pessimistic religion, as
"suffering" is stated as characterizing all existence. Some authors
have offered alternative translations such as "unsatisfacto-riness,"
"disharmony," and "painfulness" (Gunaratna, 1968; Matthews,
1983). None of these offers a precise rendering of the original term, and
Rahula (1967), among others, leaves the term untranslated. Another example is
the very challenging term papanca (Sanskrit prapanca; derived from pra+ panc,
to spread out). In his book, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, David
Kalupahana (1987) consistently translates this as "obsession." This
is clearly misleading, although the official Pali-English Dictionary of the
Pali Text Society (Rhys Davids and Stede, 1921-1925) does offer "obsession"
as one rendering of this word. This is a key term in Buddhist psychology, and
has been variously translated as "impediment," "conceptual
proliferation," man-ifoldness," "diffusion," "complex" and
"imagination," among others. This will be returned to in a later
It should be clear from these examples that the problem of
translation is a major obstacle to one's understanding of Early Buddhism, or
indeed any other ancient system of thought. For this reason, the material in
this paper is drawn from the original Pall texts.
The Buddha and
Before focusing on Buddhist psychology, it is necessary to
make a few introductory comments on Buddha and Buddhism.
The Buddha (the word, derived from the root budh, "to
know," "to comprehend," literally means "the enlightened
one") lived in the foot-hills of the Himalayan range of mountains in
Northern India from 563 to 483 B.C. (For excellent accounts of the Buddha's
life, see Kalupahana and Kalupahana, 1982, and Schumann, 1989; useful accounts
are also available in Carrithers, 1983, and Saddhatissa, 1976).
The main teachings of the Buddha are contained in the Four
Noble Truths. (See Rahula, 1967, and Saddhatissa, 1971, for a fuller discussion
of the main tenets of Buddhism.) These are: (i) that life is characterized by "suffering"
and is unsatisfactory (dukkha); (ii) that the cause (samudaya) of the suffering
is craving or desire (tanha); (iii) that this suffering can be ended (nirodha),
via the cessation of craving or desire--this is the state of Nibbana; and (iv)
that there is a way (magga) to achieve this cessation, which is called the
Noble Eightfold Path (e.g., Samyutta Nikaya, V, 18841898).
The Noble Eightfold Path is also called the Middle Path,
as it avoids the extremes of a sensuous and luxurious life on the one hand, and
a life of rigorous self-mortifi-cation on the other. The eight aspects of the
Path are: right understanding; right thought; right speech; right action; right
livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right concentration. The person
who undertakes a life based on this path, renouncing worldly attachments, hopes
eventually to attain the arahant state, which may be described as a state of
perfection; the word arahant literally means "the worthy one." This
state marks the attainment of Nibbana.
The other teachings of the Buddha include the negation of
a permanent and unchanging soul (anatta), and the notion of the impermanence or
transience of things (anicca) (e.g., Majjhima Nikaya, 1, 1888-1902). Buddhism
also excludes the notion of a God: There is no creator or a supreme being who rules,
purveys and controls the universe. Thus there is no absolutism in Buddhism
either in the form of an external God, or an unchanging universe, or an
For the laity, the vast majority of people who did not
renounce worldly life to devote themselves to the immediate quest for Nibbana,
the Buddha provided a sound and pragmatic social ethic. They were expected to
lead a life characterized by restraint and moderation, respecting the rights of
others and being dutiful to those around them. Such a restrained and dutiful
life was considered not only to be a necessary prerequisite for one's ultimate
religious aim; it was also valued as an end in itself. For example, the Buddha
advised his lay followers to abstain from alcoholic beverages because alcohol
indulgence could lead to demonstrable ill-effects such as loss of wealth,
proneness to socially embarrassing behavior, unnecessary quarrels, disrepute,
ill-health and eventual mental derangement (Sigalovada Sutta, Digha Nikaya,
III, 1889-1910). This empirical and pragmatic approach is a prominent feature
of the ethical stance of Buddhism. (For a discussion of Buddhist ethics, see
Saddhatissa, 1970, and Tach-ibana, 1926).
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BUDDHISM:
The considerable interest shown by modern students in
Buddhist psychology becomes entirely understandable when it is realized that
there is a great deal of psychological content in Buddhism. Some parts of the
canonical texts, as well as later writings, are examples of explicit
psychological theorizing, while many of the others present psychological
assumptions and much material of psychological relevance. For example, the
Abhidhamma Pitaka contains a highly systematized psychological account of human
behavior and mind, and the translation of one of the Abhidhamma books, the Dhammasangani,
was given the title A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics by its
translator, Caroline Rhys Davids, when it was first published in 1900. The
practice of Buddhism, as a religion and a way of life, involves much in terms
of psychological change. The ultimate religious goal of the arahant state both
reflects upon and requires major psychological changes. The path towards the
achievement of this goal, the Noble Eightfold Path, involves steps which can
only be described as psychological (e.g., right thought, right understanding).
As the goal is attainable essentially through one's own efforts, it is not
surprising that Buddhism has much to say about one's thinking and behavior. As
noted above, there is no God one can turn to for one's salvation. Nor did the
Buddha claim to be able to ensure any of his followers the attainment of the
goal. On the contrary, the Buddha explicitly stated that he was only a teacher
who could show the way, and that the actual task of achieving the goal was up
to each individual's efforts. As a much-quoted passage in the Dhammapada (which
is part of the Khuddaka Nikaya) says: "The task has to be accomplished by yourselves.
The Enlightened Ones only teach the way."
SOME BASIC NOTIONS
In the following sections, some of the main psychological
aspects of Buddhism will be discussed.
Perhaps the most logical starting point is the theory of
motivation. What drives people in their behaviors? What motivates human action?
The unenlightened person's behavior, it is said, is governed and driven by tanha,
or craving, which, as noted in a previous paragraph, is given as the cause of
"suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness" in the Second Noble Truth.
Tanha is classified into three basic forms: kama
tanha (craving for sensory gratification); bhava tanha (craving for survival or
continued existence); and vibhava tanha (craving for annihilation) (e.g.,
Samyutta Nikaya, V, 1884-1898).
It is interesting that these three primary drives in
Buddhism have been compared, by some authors, to the Freudian notions of
libido, ego, and thanatos respectively (de Silva, 1973). Like Freudian theory,
this theory of motivation may be seen as a primarily reductionist one: all
actions have as their source a small number of drives. While craving is seen as
the source of "suffering," the term tanha is not exclusively used in
a negative sense. There are several instances in the literature where it is acknowledged
that one can also develop a tanha for the cessation of "suffering."
Thus tanha can take the form of, or can be turned into, a desirable force. For
example, the expository text Nettippakarana says: "Here, craving is of two
kinds, wholesome and unwholesome. While the unwholesome kind goes with the
unsatisfactory worldly existence, the wholesome kind leads to the abandonment
In a further analysis of motivation, Buddhism identifies
three factors that lead to unwholesome, or undesirable, behaviors. These are: raga
(passion or lust); dosa (hatred or malice); and moha (delusion, or false
belief) (e.g., Anguttara Nikaya, I, II, 1922-1938). All unwholesome action is
seen as deriving from a set of fundamental roots. In fact, the texts explicitly
refer to these as "roots" (mula). They are called akusalamulas—for example,
unwholesome or unprofitable roots. It is not made explicit whether these always
operate at a conscious level. On the other hand, certain clearly non-conscious
factors also have a part to play in determining behavior. One such group of
factors mentioned is anusaya, translated as "latent tendency,"
"latent bias," "predisposition" and "latent disposition."
The Pall Text Society Dictionary adds that these meanings are "always in
bad sense" (Rhys Davids and Stede, 192125, p. 44). The term itself (from
anu + si, to lie down, lie dormant), indicates that these are non-conscious
factors. These dispositional factors are part and parcel of one's personality,
acquired through past experience, and they play their part in influencing one's
behavior and contribute to the perpetuation of the cycle of suffering. Seven
types of anusaya are often mentioned. The list given in Samyutta Nikaya, V,
1884-1898), is as follows: tendency to want pleasure; tendency to anger or disgust;
tendency to speculation; tendency to doubt; tendency to conceit; tendency to
want continuous existence or growth; and tendency to ignorance.
Another group of factors which are non-conscious and which
influence one's behavior are the asavas (Sanskrit asrava, from the root sru, to
flow, or ooze). This term has been variously translated as "influxes"
and "cankers." These are factors that affect the mind so that it
cannot rise higher. It is said that they "intoxicate" and
"bemuddle" the mind (Rhys Davids and Stede, 1921-25, p. 115). They
color one' attitudes, and thwart one's insight. In one's endeavor for
self-development, one has to excise them, and this is done through wisdom. The
influxes are described as arising from different factors: sensuality, aggression,
cruelty, body, and individuality are given in one account (Digha Nikaya, III,
1889-1910). Other lists include, among others, gain, loss, fame, disrepute and
evil intentions (Anguttara Nikaya, IV).
Motives for good, or wholesome, action are usually
expressed in negative terms. The most consistent account is the one which gives
araga (non-passion, or absence of passion), adosa (non-hatred or absence of hatred)
and amoha (non-delusion, or absence of delusion) as the roots of good
action--the opposites of the roots of unwholesome behaviours (Anguttara Nikaya,
I). Occasionally, they are described in clearly positive terms--as caga
(renunciation), metta (loving kindness) and panna (wisdom, understanding)
(Anguttara Nikaya, III). It is stated that one must strive to develop these in
order to combat their opposites.
Perception is based on twelve gateways or modalities
(ayatana), six of these being the five sense organs plus the mind, or
"inner sense," and the other six being the objects of each of these
(Samyutta Nikaya, II, 1884-1898). The status of mind (mano) is special. It has
the ability to reflect on the objects of the other senses, so in this way it is
linked to the activity of all the senses (Kalupahana, 1987). Each combination
of sense organ and its objects leads to a particular consciousness (vinnana)--for
example, visual consciousness arises because of the eye and material shapes.
When consciousness is added to each of the pairs of modalities, one gets
eighteen factors of cognition, referred to as dhatus, or elements. These are
presented in Table 2. It is said:
The meeting of the three (i.e., eye, material shape and
visual consciousness) is contact; because of this contact arises feeling; what
one feels, one perceives. (Majjhima Nikaya, 1, 1888-1902)
This is a fairly straightforward account of how perception
However, the Buddhist exposition goes beyond this. The
What one perceives, one reasons about. What one reasons
about, 'one turns into papanca.' What one turns into papanca, because of that
factor, assails him in regard to material shapes recognizable by the eye
belonging to the past, the future and the present... (Majjhima Nikaya, 1,
It will be recalled that the term papanca was cited in an
earlier paragraph as an example of a word posing particular difficulties for
the translator. In this passage the verbal form "papanceti" is used.
Thus, the final stage of the process of sense-cognition is papanca. An
examination of the use of the term in various contexts related to cognition
shows that it refers to the grosser conceptual aspect of the process, as it is
consequent to vitakka (reasoning). Once an object is perceived, there is
initial application of thought to it, followed by papanca--which in this
context is best taken to mean a tendency to proliferation of ideas. As a
result, the person is no longer the perceiver who is in control, but one who is
assailed by concepts generated by this prolific tendency. He is overwhelmed by
concepts and linguistic conventions. One's perception is, in this way, open to
distortion and elaboration due to the spontaneous proliferation of thoughts.
This proliferation is said to be linked to tanha (craving), mana (conceit) and
dittthi (dogma, or rigidly held views) (Maha Niddesa, I, 19161917). They are
all bound up with the notions of 'I' and 'mine.' This marks the intrusion of
the ego into the field of sense perception. In Buddhist psychology, there is no
self (atta; Sanskrit atman), but the delusion of self affects all one's
behaviors (Sutta Nipata, 1913).
One of the aims of personal development is to enable
oneself to see reality as it is, without the essential distortions arising from
the various factors that characterize the unenlightened person's functioning. A
major aspect of reaching the state of arahant is indeed the freeing of one's perceptions
from these distorting influences. When one reaches a state of perfection, one's
perceptions become free of such distortions, and allow a direct appraisal of
The Arahant State
It is perhaps the appropriate place now to consider the
arahant state and its attainment. The religious goal of a Buddhist is to attain
this state, which marks the end of the cycle of "suffering." This
requires a process of personal development, involving disciplined living
(sila), serious meditative efforts marked by concentration (samadhi), and
wisdom (panna) which is attained through such efforts. But what does it mean to
say that someone is an arahant? There are numerous descriptions of an arahant
in the texts. For example:
The arahant has destroyed the cankers, lived the life,
done what's needed to be done, set down the burden, achieved well-being,
shattered life's fetters, and is freed by perfect knowledge. He has applied
himself to six things: to dispassion, to detachment, to harmlessness, to the
destruction of craving, to the destruction of rasping, and to non-delusion.
(Anguttara Nikaya, III) tions no longer emanate from the common basic motives
of passion, hatred and delusion. He is, however, capable of joy or positive sentiment.
He has loving kindness (metta) to all, and compassion (karuna). He indulges in
nothing, and is restrained in his behavior. Nine standards of behavior are
listed which an arahant cannot and does not transgress: taking life, stealing,
sexual contact, uttering falsehoods, enjoying the comforts of wealth, and going
astray through desire, through hate, through delusion, and through fear
(Anguttara Nikaya, IV). They contribute to society by being teachers and
advisers, and are no burden on their fellow beings.
PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF
It was noted above that the attainment of the arahant
state requires personal development based on both restrained and disciplined
conduct and meditative efforts. This explains why meditation is given a central
place in Buddhist texts. In addition to numerous canonical discussions, large sections
of Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga are devoted to a consideration of this subject
in great detail. It is significant that the Pall word for Meditation, bhavana,
etymologically means "development" or "cultivation."
As there is a large and still growing amount of literature
on this subject in English, only a few brief comments will be made here.
(Detailed discussions are available in Pradhan, 1986, Sole-Leris, 1986, and Vajiranana,
1978; see also Claxton, 1987, and Kwee, 1990).
Two forms of meditation are prescribed: the first is
called samatha (tranquility), and the other, vipassana (insight). While further
forms of meditation have been developed in later forms of Buddhism, and these include
various Tibetan and Zen techniques, these two represent the earliest Buddhist
techniques, dating back 2,500 years. It is worth noting that meditation of the
samatha type is also found in some other ancient Indian systems, while
vipassana is a uniquely Buddhist development (Nanamoli, 1975; Rahula, 1967).
The word samatha means "tranquility" or
"serenity." Samatha meditation is aimed at reaching states of
consciousness characterized by progressively greater levels of tranquility and
stillness. It has two aspects: (a) the achievement of the highest possible
degree of concentration; and (b) the progressive calming of all mental
processes. This is done through increasingly concentrated focusing of
attention; the mind withdraws progressively from all external and internal
stimuli. In the end, states of pure and undistracted consciousness can be
achieved. The samatha meditation procedure starts with efforts at concentrating
the mind on specific objects, and progresses systematically through a series of
states of what are called jhanas, or mental absorption (Visuddhi-magga,
Vipassana, or insight meditation, also starts with
concentration exercises using appropriate objects on which one focuses. In this
procedure, however, once a certain level of concentration is achieved so that
undistracted focusing can be maintained, one goes on to examine with steady,
careful attention and in great detail all sensory and mental processes. Through
this contemplation, one becomes a detached observer of one's own activity. The
objects of this contemplation are classified as fourfold: body, sensations,
mental states, and "mental objects"--for example, various moral and
intellectual subjects. The aim is to achieve total and immediate awareness, or
mindfulness, of all phenomena. This leads, it is claimed, eventually to the
full and clear perception of the impermanence of all things and beings
(Majjhima Nikaya, I, 1888-1902; Samyutta Nikaya, V, 1884-1898).
It is held that samatha meditation by itself cannot lead
to enlightenment or perfection; vipassana meditation is needed to attain this
goal. While the former leads to temporarily altered states of consciousness, it
is the latter which leads to enduring and thorough-going changes in the person
and paves the way to achieving the arahant state.
The practical implications of the claims made in Buddhism
for meditation are quite clear. The meditative experiences of both types, when
properly carried out and developed, are claimed to lead to greater ability to concentrate,
greater freedom from distraction, greater tolerance of change and turmoil
around oneself, and sharper awareness and greater alertness about one's own
responses, both physical and mental. They would also lead, more generally, to
greater calmness or tranquility. While the ultimate goal of perfection will
require a long series of regular training periods of systematic meditation
coupled with major restraint in one's conduct, the more mundane benefits of
meditation should be available to all serious and persisting practitioners.
From an applied perspective, Buddhist meditation
techniques may be seen as an instrument for achieving certain psychological
benefits. Primarily, meditation would have a role as a stress-reduction
strategy, comparable to the more modern techniques of relaxation. There is a
substantial literature in present day clinical psychology and psychiatry which
shows that meditation can produce beneficial effects in this way (Carrington,
1984, 1987; Kwee, 1990: Shapiro, 1982; West, 1987). Studies of the
physiological changes that accompany meditation have shown several changes to
occur which, together, indicate a state of calmness or relaxation (Woolfolk, 1975).
These include: reduction in oxygen consumption, lowered heart rate, decreased
breathing rate and blood pressure, reduction in serum lactic acid levels, and
increased skin resistance and changes in blood flow. These peripheral changes
are generally compatible with decreased arousal in the sympathetic nervous
system. There are also certain central changes, as shown by brain wave
patterns. The amalgam of these physiological changes related to meditation has
been called "the relaxation response" by some authors (Benson, 1975).
Interestingly, the Buddha himself advocated meditation for
what we would today call clinical problems. For example, he advocated that
meditation be used to achieve trouble free sleep and as a way of controlling
pain (Vinaya Pitaka, 1, 1879-1889; Samyutta Nikaya, V, 1884-1898).
It is perhaps worth dwelling briefly on the use of
mindfulness meditation for pain control. A study published in 1985 by
Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, and Burney, reported that ninety chronic pain patients
who were trained in mindfulness meditation in a ten-week, stress-reduction
program showed significant improvement, as measured by various indices, in pain
and related symptoms. A control group of patients who did not receive meditation
training did not show such improvement. The rationale for selecting this
strategy for the treatment of pain is explained as follows:
In the case of pain perception, the cultivation of
detached observations of the pain experience may be achieved by paying careful
attention and distinguishing as separate events the actual primary sensations
as they occur from moment-to-moment and any accompanying thoughts about pain. (Kabat-Zinn
et al., 1985, p. 165)
In another paper, Kabat-Zinn (1982) has given an even more
detailed account of the rationale for using mindfulness meditation for pain
control. He shows how mindfulness meditation can enable one to focus on
sensations as they arise, rather than attempt to escape from them. It helps one
to recognize the bare physical sensation, unembellished by psychological elaboration.
One learns to observe these psychological aspects as separate events. This
"uncoupling" has the effect of changing one's overall experience of
pain. To quote: "The nociceptive signals (sensory) may be undiminished,
but the emotional and cognitive components of the pain experience, the hurt,
the suffering, are reduced" (Kabat-Zinn, 1982, p.15).
It is this detached observation of sensations that
mindfulness meditation, as described in the Buddhist texts, helps one to
develop. This makes such meditation a particularly well-suited strategy for
pain control. In fact, the references in the texts to pain control by
mindfulness meditation appear to make this very point. For example, it is
stated that the venerable Ananda, the Buddha's personal assistant, once visited
a householder named Sirivaddha who was ill. On hearing from the patient that he
was in much pain, and that his pains were getting worse, Ananda advised him to
engage in the meditation of mindfulness. A similar episode is recorded with
reference to another householder, Manadinna; Ananda once again offered the same
advice. Similarly, it is recorded that the Buddha himself visited two ailing
monks, Mogallana and Kassapa, who were in pain, and advised each of them to
engage in mindfulness meditation. Perhaps the most impressive and most
explicit, in terms of the rationale for this use of meditation, is the account
given of the venerable Anuruddha. He was sick, and was grievously afflicted.
Many monks who visited him, finding him calm and relaxed, asked him how his
"painful sensations evidently made no impact on his mind." He
replied: "It is because I have my mind well-grounded in mindfulness. This
is why the painful sensations that come upon me make no impression on my
mind." The implication here is that meditation can reduce, or "block
out" the mental aspect of, the pain—for example, while the physical
sensations may remain intact, one's vulnerability to subjectively felt pain is
reduced. The above accounts are all from the Samyutta Nikaya (1884-1898), which
states this position quite explicitly in a different passage:
The untrained layman, when touched by painful bodily
feelings, grieves and laments... and is distraught... But the well-trained
disciple, when touched by painful bodily feelings, will not weep, nor grieve,
nor lament... nor will he be distraught... The layman, when touched by painful
bodily feelings, weeps... He experiences two kinds of feelings: a bodily one
and a mental one. It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, and then by a second arrow;
he feels the pain of two arrows. So it is with the untrained layman; when
touched by a painful bodily feeling, he experiences two kinds of feeling, a
bodily one and mental one. But the well-trained disciple, when touched by a
painful bodily feeling, weeps not... He feels only one kind of feeling: a
bodily one, not a mental one. It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, but not by
a second arrow; he feels the pain of one arrow only. So it is with the
well-trained disciple; when touched by a painful bodily feeling, he feels but
one feeling, bodily pain only. (Samyutta Nikaya, IV, 1884-1898).
The view of pain contained in this expository account is
quite clear: physical pain sensations are usually accompanied by
psychological correlates, which are like a second pain. The disciple who is
trained (in mindfulness meditation), however, sees the physical sensation as it
is, and does not allow himself to be affected by the psychological elaboration
of pain. Thus his experience is limited to the perception of the physical sensation
only. It is this account of pain that provides the rationale for the instances
cited above, where those in pain are advised to engage in mindfulness
The literature of early Buddhism also contains a wide
range of behavior change strategies other than meditation, used and
recommended by the Buddha and his disciples, which can only be described as
"behavioral." This aspect of Buddhism had been neglected by modern researchers until
It is only in the last few years that these behavioral
strategies have been highlighted and discussed (de Silva, 1984). These
strategies are remarkably similar to several of the established techniques of modern
behavior therapy. Thus, if Buddhist psychology is akin to modern
humanistic, transpersonal and existential psychologies in view of its
emphasis on the individual, his problems and anxieties, his predicament,
and his development through personal effort, it also has a clear
affinity to present-day behavioral psychology in view of these
The ways in which the overall approach of behavior
modification and that of Buddhism may be seen as broadly similar have been
discussed by William Mikulas (1981). Some areas of similarity high-lighted by
Mikulas are: the rejection of the notion of an unchanging self or soul; focus
on observable phenomena; emphasis on testability; stress on techniques for
awareness of certain bodily responses; emphasizing the "here and
now"; and dissemination of teachings and techniques widely and publicly.
Given this broad similarity, and the general empiricist/experientialist
attitude of Buddhism as exemplified by the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, I)
in which the Buddha advises a group of inquirers not to accept anything on
hearsay, authority or pure argument, but to accept only what is empirically and
experientially verifiable, it is not surprising that specific behavior change
techniques were used and recommended in Early Buddhism. It is also entirely
consistent with the social ethic of Buddhism, which recognized the importance
of behaviors conducive to one's own and others' well-being as a goal in its own
right. When and where specific behavior changes were required, both in oneself
and others, these were to be affected through the use of specific techniques.
The range of behavioral strategies found in the literature
of Early Buddhism is wide. When these are described using modern terminology
and listed together, they look like the contents page of a modern behavioral therapy
manual! These include: fear reduction by graded exposure and reciprocal
inhibition; using rewards for promoting desirable behavior; modelling for
inducing behavioral change; the use of stimulus control to eliminate
undesirable behavior; the use of aversion to eliminate undesirable behavior;
training in social skills; self-monitoring; control of intrusive thoughts by
distraction, switching/stopping, incompatible thoughts, and by prolonged
exposure to them; intense, covert, focusing on the unpleasant aspects of a
stimulus or the unpleasant consequences of a response, to reduce attachment to
the former and eliminate the latter; graded approach to the development of
positive feelings towards others: use of external cues in behavior control; use
of response cost to aid elimination of undesirable behavior; use of family
members for carrying out behavior change programs; and cognitive-behavioral
methods--for example, for grief. Details of these have been discussed in previous
publications, which also give references to the original texts (de Silva, 1984,
1986). A full discussion here, therefore, will be superfluous. It will be
useful, however, to cite an example of this behavioral approach in Buddhism and
indicate its similarity to modern parallels.
For the control of unwanted, intrusive cognitions, which
particularly hinder one's meditative efforts and can therefore be a major
problem for a Buddhist, several strategies are recommended. These are presented
in a hierarchical fashion, each to be tried if the preceding one fails.
1. Switch to an opposite or incompatible thought. The
first is to reflect on an object which is associated with thoughts which are
the opposite of the unwanted thought. This means that if the unwanted cognition
is associated with passion or lust, one should think of something promoting lustlessness;
if it is associated with malice, one should think of something promoting loving
kindness; and if it is something associated with delusion or confusion, one
should think of something promoting clarity. This exercise of switching to a
thought that is incompatible with the unwanted one, "like a carpenter
getting rid of a coarse peg with a fine one," is claimed to help eliminate
the unwanted intrusion.
2. Ponder on harmful consequences. If, however, the
unwanted thought still keeps arising, one is advised to ponder on the perils
and disadvantages of the thought; that is, to consider its harmful
consequences. This would help one to rid oneself of the thought in question,
"like in the case of a young man or woman, who is eager to look nice and
clean, who would be revolted and disgusted if he/she finds the carcass of a
snake round his/her neck and would immediately get rid of it."
3. Ignore and distract. If that, too, fails, the technique
of ignoring an unwanted thought is recommended. One is to strive not to pay
attention, "like a man who closed his eyes or looks in another direction
in order not to see a visual object that he does not wish to see." It is
suggested that various distracting activities may be used in order not to pay
attention to the unwanted cognition. These include: recalling of a doctrinal
passage one has learned, concentrating on actual concrete objects, and engaging
in some unrelated physical activity.
4. Reflect on removal of causes. If the problem still
persists, then a further strategy is recommended, this is to reflect on the
removal or stopping of the causes of the target thought. This is explained with
the analogy of a man walking briskly who asks himself "Why am I walking briskly?,"
then reflects on his walking and stops and stands; then reflects on his
standing and sits down, and so on.
5. Control with forceful effort. If this strategy, too,
fails, then a fifth method is advocated, which is forcefully to restrain and
dominate the mind. This use of effort is likened to "a strong man holding
and restraining a weaker man," One is to use the "effort of one part
of the mind to control the other."
This account is based on the Vitakkasanthana Sutta of the
Majjhima Nikaya (18881902), and its commentary, Papancasudani. The similarities
between some of these Early Buddhist strategies and the techniques used for
this and related problems in modern behavior therapy are only too obvious. Thought-stopping,
thought-switching, distraction (Wolpe, 1958; Marks, 1981; Rachman &
Hodgson, 1980), and covert sensitization (Cautela, 1967), are all foreshadowed
It will have been noticed that the increasingly popular
technique of habituation training--that is, instructing the client to expose
himself to the thought repeatedly and/or for prolonged periods (Rachman, 1978)—is
absent from this account. However, a parallel of this in Early Buddhism is found
in the Satipattthana Sutta, also part of the Majjhima Nikaya (1888-1902), and
the Mahasatipattthana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya (1889-1910). These discourses
outline the important meditational technique of mindfulness, which was referred
to in an earlier section. Mindfulness training is not simply a formal method of
meditation but is a general self-improvement skill, with the person training
himself to be aware of his body and bodily actions, of feelings and sensations,
and of thoughts and ideas, as they happen. In developing mindfulness or
awareness--one might say continuous monitoring--of one's thoughts, one is
advised to be alert to all thoughts that arise, including unwanted ones. If an
unwanted thought arises, one is advised to face it directly and continuously,
to look straight into that thought and dwell on it. It is said that then, gradually,
that thought will lose its intensity, and will disappear (Gunaratna, 1981). The
similarity between this and the habituation training paradigm of present-day
therapists needs no comment.
Similar comparisons can be made between most of the other
behavioral strategies found in the Buddhist texts and those established in
present day behavior therapy for similar purposes (de Silva, 1984, 1986;
The significance of the presence of these techniques in
the Buddhist texts is manifold. Firstly, it reflects the fact that Buddhism is
not only concerned with one's endeavors to achieve the ultimate religious goal
by a process of self-development: As noted earlier, it also has something to offer
in the area of day-to-day management of behavioral problems, often as a goal in
its own right, for reasons of one's own and one's fellow beings' benefit and
happiness. Thus, these techniques are applicable irrespective of whether one
has committed oneself to a life devoted to the aim of personal development and,
ultimately, the state of arahant-hood. Secondly, being clearly behavioral,
these are well-defined, easy to use, and—above all--empirically testable.
Indeed, the Buddhist approach is one of trying out various strategies until one
that is effective is found. As seen above, the Vitakkasanthana Sutta offers the
disciple five different techniques for dealing with unwanted, intrusive
cognitions, each to be tried if the preceding one fails to produce the desired
results. The Buddha's advice to the Kalamas on the importance of not accepting
any view as hearsay, authority, and so forth, but only on empirical grounds,
reflects and embodies this approach. Indeed, the Buddha's own quest for
enlightenment followed this path: Having tried out various methods and
teachings available at the time, he rejected each of them as they failed to
lead to his goal and eventually developed his own path. Thirdly, the techniques
are for use on oneself as well as for influencing the behavior of others; numerous
examples are found for both types of uses.
Relevance of Buddhist
Behavioral Change Strategies
From an applied perspective, the relevance of this aspect
of Buddhism is abundantly clear. A range of clearly defined techniques is
available for use with common behavioral problems. The fact that they are
similar to modern behavioral therapeutic techniques in remarkable ways has the implication
that their validity and utility are already established, as many of the latter
have been subjected to rigorous clinical and experimental investigation. There
is a strong case, too, for those Buddhist strategies that, so far, have no
counterpart in modern behavioral modification, to be empirically tested using
clinical and experimental research methods. If grounds are then found for
considering them clinically useful, they can then be fruitfully incorporated
into the repertoire of techniques available to the present day therapist.
It can also be argued that these techniques will have
particular relevance to the practice of therapy with Buddhist client groups.
One of the problems that arises in using methods derived from Western science
with client populations of a different cultural background is that the
techniques offered may seem alien to the indigenous population. Thus they may
not be readily accepted or, if accepted, the compliance with therapeutic instructions
may be poor. These cultural difficulties in therapy and counseling have been
fully recognized in recent years (d'Ardenne and Mahtani, 1989; Draguns, 1981;
Ward, 1983), On the other hand, if the techniques that are used and offered,
although they may be an integral part of a Western psychological system, are
shown to be similar to ideas and practices that were accepted historically by
the indigenous culture, then they would have a greater chance of gaining
compliance and success. How a behavioral therapy program was successfully
devised for a Hindu patient, which included the Hindu religious concept of
karma yoga, has been described by Singh and Oberhummer (1980). Similarly,
therapeutic packages that include traditional Zen practices have been used
successfully with neurotic patients in Japan (Kishimoto, 1985). It is
likely that modern behavioral therapeutic strategies will be more readily
acceptable to Buddhist client groups if their similarities with those found in
the early Buddhist literature, and the use of the same or similar techniques by
the Buddha and his early disciples, are highlighted. The use of meditation techniques
as a stress-reduction strategy with Buddhist groups in several places provides
an example of this phenomenon. A case in point in the use of Buddhist
meditation in a psychiatric setting in Kandy,
Sri Lanka (de Silva
& Samarasinghe, 1985). Mikulas (1983) has commented on the favorable reception
accorded to the ideas and techniques of behavior modification in another
Buddhist country, Thailand.
A further possible application of Buddhist psychology for
therapeutic purposes lies in the area of prophylaxis. Theoretically, there is
much scope for this, both with Buddhist client groups and with others. Several Buddhist
techniques appear to have a potential role to play in the prevention of certain
kinds of psychological disorders. For example, training in meditation, leading
to greater ability to achieve calmness and tranquility, may help enhance one's
tolerance of the numerous inevitable stresses in modern life. One may, in other
words, achieve a degree of immunity against the psychological effects of stress
and frustration (stress inoculation training of Meichen-baum, 1985). The
facility and skill in self-monitoring one can acquire with the aid of
mindfulness meditation could provide a valuable means of self-control. The role
of self-monitoring in the self-regulation of behavior is well-documented
(Kazdin, 1974). The overall self-development that Buddhism encourages and
recommends also has something to offer for prophylactic purposes. For example,
if one trains oneself not to develop intense attachments to material things and
to those around one, one is less likely to be vulnerable to psychological
distress and disorders arising from their loss, including abnormal and
debilitating grief reactions. This is not to suggest that the total
renunciation of all worldly comforts and attachments should be the goal of every
person. Indeed, very few persons in today's world will want to renounce all material
things and devote themselves to the attainment of personal perfection. The
Buddha himself recognized that the majority of the people would remain lay
persons, with normal household duties and day-to-day activities and pursuits,
and that only a relatively small number would renounce lay life completely,
hence, the prominence given in Buddhism to lay ethics (Gombrich, 1988;
Saddhatissa, 1970). On the other hand, some of the meditation exercises and
other personal development endeavors found in Buddhism can potentially enable a
person to develop an outlook on life and patterns of response, which, in turn,
will help cope with the problem of living; by enabling greater calmness and
assurance, and with reduced vulnerability to common psychological disorders.
This kind of primary prevention is certainly worth exploring.
BUDDHISM AND MODERN WESTERN PSYCHOLOGY
Finally, a few comments may be made on the relationship
between modern Western psychology on the one hand, and Buddhist psychology on
the other. The relationship between the scientific psychology of the West and indigenous
systems of psychology can take many forms, ranging from totally independent
existence to complete integration (Katz, 1983). Buddhist psychology, like other
indigenous psychologies, is prescientific, but it is so only in the narrow
sense, in that it developed prior to, and outside the context of, modern
Western science. It offers clearly testable hypotheses and therefore can be
brought within the realm of scientific inquiry. Further, as noted above, the
overall stance of Buddhism is an eminently empiricist one and the process of
evaluating the notions and practices of its psychology is something that will
be consistent with this stance. Such testing will not be alien to the spirit of
Buddhism, which encourages enquiry and discourages dogmatic acceptance of
theories and claims (Jayatilleke, 1963). Thus, Buddhist psychology can
potentially make a contribution to modern scientific psychology without
compromising its basic stance or that of the latter. What are the chances of
the successful integration of the two? In the author's view, total integration
between two independently developed systems of psychology, each quite
sophisticated, does not seem to be either feasible or desirable. Modern
scientific psychology will continue to evolve and grow, and in the process, it
will take in ideas, concepts and techniques from all sources, for evaluation and--where
the evaluation has led to positive results--incorporation.
Buddhist psychology will continue to be one of the
indigenous psychologies that will provide many such testable concepts and
techniques, and thus make a contribution towards the further expansion and
development of modern psychology. Beyond such interaction and influence, it is
not plausible to assume that the two systems in their entirety will be, or can
be, integrated. On the other hand, it is possible to envisage that a limited integration
between certain aspects of Buddhist psychology and certain parallel areas of
modern psychology may fruitfully be affected. Mikulas (1981), for example, has
argued for an integrated new system of behavior and behavior change, of which
both Buddhism and behavior modification are subsets. Within the broad limits of
psychology, it is indeed possible that such schools or areas of modern
psychology which are able to derive much from, or have much in common with,
Buddhist psychology may develop and fiuorish with such close interaction. There
is, already, the transpersonal school of psychology that incorporates a good
deal of Buddhism and other ideas of personal development and enduring personal
change. On this limited scale, close overlap and synthesis seem possible. In
the broader context, Buddhist psychology is likely to keep interacting with
modern psychology, rather than achieving integration with it. In this
interaction, it will continue to make a contribution to both theory and
practice in different areas, and in varying degrees of significance. This
contribution is likely to be particularly significant in the area of
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the
Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society, St.
Andrews, April, 1989.
The author wishes to express his thanks to the Leverhulme
Trust for a research grant supporting his studies of Buddhist psychology, and
to Ian Jakes and Melanie Marks, who made valuable comments on earlier drafts of
Date of acceptance for publication: September 6, 1990.
Address for correspondence: Department of Psychology, Institute
of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5
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Vol. 9 No. 3 Fall. 1990,Pp. 236-254
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