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The autonomy of Buddhist Psychology

Submitted by José Luis Poveda on Thu, 02/05/2013 - 16:27

The autonomy of Buddhist Psychology


Last week I attended a workshop on Gestalt Therapy. There I met old dharma friends and we had very interesting discussions; especially one among them showed a blatant divergence between the tenets of our positions. The basic tenet that my friend grasped vigorously (following the tradition of her zen sangha) is that it is a big mistake (and even dangerous) to go for spirituality without having been before in a therapeutic process of a western therapy [I will call it the “Therapy first hypothesis” (TF)]. I will try to explain why I think this approach is not proper at all.

TF assumes that the Buddha’s teachings are just another kind of transcendental path. So you have to go for western therapy first, and then begin to practice the Buddha’s path. This position doesn’t regard the fact that Buddhism is not just a way to transcend reality and become connected to the Unconditioned, but also a way to understand our conditioned reality. This understanding is drawn from the vision of a Fully-Enlightened Being, who had a perspective of the mind much broader then the materialistic western psychologies. From that vision, many clues to deal with reality are given; I find relevant for the subject discussed here the following: i. a determinate model of mind; ii. a determinate model of the healthy mind; and iii. a determinate model of morality/method to overcome the disease [I will refer to that triad as (MHM)].

Considering the former lines, we have to consider these questions:

  1. Cannot Buddhism be a guide to understand and relieve non-extreme pathological mental affections of the ‘average citizen’?
  2. Is the Buddhist paradigm completely in tune with other paradigms (e.g. the gestaltic)? Do the different therapies work under a particular model of MHM?
  3. Are those models important for the success of the therapy?


i. I really think that Buddhism is sufficient to the understanding and relief of some non-extreme pathological mental affections because, as other types of psychologies (gestaltism, behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, systemic therapies, etc), it has an autonomous model of MHM. And I also think that is more complete than those types because it covers and explains aspects of the mind that other views of the mind cannot explain.

ii. The problem can come when we mix those different paradigms. In that instance, different models of MHM are melted and this, maybe (although I do not have empirical evidence to say so), can guide the client more toward chaos than to the harmony and final positive resolution of the therapeutic process. We can see the former better in the following example (based in the workshop that I undertook). The exercise that was proposed was to choose someone of the group and then hug each other for a while. The exercise was aimed to explain the ‘gestaltic circle’ of Joseph Zinker. Since the beginning up to the end, many interesting things happened to my mind. For example, I was chosen by a lady towards whom I had some aversion (mainly due to her odor). I could have refused her invitation because the negative to accept someone was accepted and even encouraged if we felt so, but it was very interesting for me to study those aversions and I tried to achieve a positive state of being even in such situation. And of course, I didn’t want her to feel bad. The result was, from the gestaltic circle’s point view, that I couldn’t satisfy my needs. From that could be deduced some unwholesome interruptions (for example that related to do something because we don’t want to hurt somebody) in the wholesome tendency to satisfy my needs.

But I really question that paradigm. We can question whether to satisfy our needs should always be a moral must. This paradigm blatantly partakes of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Something naturally conditioned MUST always continue like this; otherwise you will generate unwholesome mental attitudes. I don’t agree at all with that paradigm. Human beings have something called ‘culture’, and Buddhism a ‘mind culture’. This offers us infinite possibilities to go beyond the realm of the ‘naturally-conditioned’ organism that just seek immediate satisfaction. I am not saying that we have to overlook those needs, but their immediate satisfaction cannot be either the model of freedom or the model of a wholesome mind; in fact they can be an important obstacle to it.

Following my example, I could have refused her invitation to go for another more appealing person that could have made the experience more ‘enjoyable’; but this would have prevented me from developing some sides of the mind which are really encompassing and capable of embracing even the most unpleasant situations. This example can be interpreted from a perspective as a lack of freedom due to an action made by other’s will; from another, as an act of freedom because it’s been possible to create a new state-of-affairs based on wholesome states of mind rather than following the naturally-conditioned model of immediate look for sensorial/emotional pleasure and avoidance of the disagreeable.

So, the conflicts are obvious.

iii. Finally, we have to ponder whether working with different (and sometimes incompatible) models of MHM can be effective for the client’s process of development. I don’t think so. I would not say that that mixing actually leads to mental mess (I don’t have such evidence), but it’s a common sense to think that therapy will not bear the wished results. For example, I cannot imagine a behaviorist physician advising his client to stay for a while under a psychoanalyst’s guidance; or a patient being treated at a time by Watson’s techniques and Freud’s.

Of course, I don’t mean with the former approach that we cannot use techniques and principles of other therapies, but rather that we have to use them under the Buddhist model of MHM. Returning to my example, we can use the exercise of the hugs and analyze it from another perspective/frame (e.g. the Buddhist MHM); for instance: what was your first thought when you were asked to choose someone? Who was that person? Were they appealing to you? Did you go to ask her/him whether she/he would want to do the exercise or did you change and ask another person? If he/she refused your proposal, what was your attitude? If someone asked you to hug and you felt some aversion, what did you do/how did you manage the situation?



  1. It is a mistake to think that we have to do therapy first for a long while before starting the Buddhist practice because Buddhism itself is an autonomous model of MHM.
  2. It is very interesting that we use techniques and principles of other therapies in our process always that we keep in mind their compatibility with the Buddhist MHM.


Dear Jose, as gestalttherapist ànd growing towards Zentherapy your article interested me a lot, also because I'm sometimes struggling with this issues in meeting people and myself. I hope that, with my little amount of english words, I can explain my thoughts through some questions.

I can understand the situation with the hug and your thoughts around it, but I see a lot of other possibilities too in the same context. In my experienxe, saying 'yes' is not always more loving than saying 'no'. What with a person who's need it is to please always? Maybe for that person it would be good to say 'no' to the person who invites him, not because it satisfies his immediate needs but because it helps him to become more open and wholesome, what deepens real encounter. You could use the circle of Zinker for that!

Another thing: as Buddhist, of course I believe in the deep value and beauty of being other-centred but this also has his dark sides: you can hide by that, becoming invisible, making no choices and letting it to the other. I think that it is important to see clear in onces own needs. It can be as much selfish to be focused on the the needs of others and meeting their needs as it is selfish to  follow once own needs in a specific situation. Being altruïstic can start from selfish needs and being selfish can start from altruïstic needs.  Different needs can lay on a continuüm between immediate personal satisfaction ànd being loving, other-centred, learning to embrace unpleasant situations....We must be honest and clear in what is our need, longing, motivation. We can also use the circle of Zinker in that sense!

What I see as a problematic issue in the different visions is whether we must be Somebody or Nobody...In some sense we have to be somebody to be able to become nobody, without that this is an escape or a hide. We need some Ego to be able to trust Life and let go the ego...Or am I too much indoctrinated by western psychology? 

I realise that I'm not able to express clear what I feel, but....I send what is here.

And while working in the garden I realised that, again around the experiment with the hug that José told, one could notice the habit to always please, then accept that and still say 'yes' to the invitation, in being open to embrace a not pleasant situation and not for the reason of wanting to be the good or perfect person. Then one changes more than one conditioning at once., by understanding through buddhist psychology.

Dear Katrien,

Thank you very much for your kind and matured reply. I also apologize myself for my problems with the English language :). And I also confess that I express my views humbly and respectful regarding therapists with much experience in tested therapies.  I’m too young to have a matured criterion in such subtle issues! :) I just try to raise some issues that might be interesting and helpful.

Reading your reply, many things come to my mind, but most of them can be replied with the very same article that we are actually discussing. But in your second reply you say something that is crucial (from my point of view) to discriminate between a wholesome or an unwholesome altruism, to wit, the capability to realize my neurotic reactions. Whether it is a tendency to (i) glad others, (ii) to try to act always as a perfect being or (iii) to satisfy my hedonistic needs (in fact the first was not my reaction but my response after noticing a tendency to the third). Maybe only after that realization I can give a wholesome response. As you say, “We must be honest and clear in what is our need, longing, motivation”.

I leave unanswered the question of the suitability of the Ego and the selfish needs because I think that it is too much complicated.

Finally, I would like to stress again the challenge to review and integrate all those western views and practices into an open approach coherent with the Buddhist Psychology.

Lots of hugs,