Buddhist Psychology: A Review Of Theory And Practice
Padmal, Silva
22/11/2011 15:38 (GMT+7)
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This paper gives an account of some of the major aspects of Buddhist psychology. The survey is confined to the texts of Early, or Theravada, Buddhism--that is, the canonical texts and their early Pali commentaries and related expository texts. The importance of psychological concepts in the philosophy and practice of Buddhism is highlighted. The problems inherent in the study of Buddhist psychology are discussed, including the problem of translation and interpretation. The paper then describes and analyzes several key Early Buddhist psychological notions including: basic drives that motivate behavior, perception and cognition, consciousness, personal development and enlightenment, meditation, and behavior change.

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

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.

Problems of Translation

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 paragraph.

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 Buddhism

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 unchanging soul.

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 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."


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 of craving."

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 and Cognition

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 takes place.

However, the Buddhist exposition goes beyond this. The account continues:

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, 1888-1902)

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 objects.

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.


Personal Development and Meditation

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, 1920-1921).

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.

Benefits of Meditation

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 meditation.

Behavior Modification Strategies

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 very recently.

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 behavioral techniques.

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 here.

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; Mikulas, 1981).

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.


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 psychological therapy.


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 this paper.

Date of acceptance for publication: September 6, 1990. Address for correspondence: Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, England.


Individual Books of the Buddhist Canon

Sutta Pitaka

Digha Nikaya

Majjhima Nikaya

Samyutta Nikaya

Anguttara Nikaya

Khuddaka Nikaya

Vinaya Pitaka




Abhidhamma Pitaka









The Eighteen Factors of Cognition

Sense Organ Object Consciousness

eye material shapes visual consciousness

ear sounds auditory "

nose smells olfactory "

tongue tastes gustatory "

body tangibles tactile "

mind mental objects mental "


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Current Psychology, Vol. 9 No. 3 Fall. 1990,Pp. 236-254
Copyright by Current Psychology

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