On any day of the week, I encounter students of all ages arriving at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, where I work. They each come with their problems and their genuine search for happiness.
To my eye, the students entering Spirit Rock are not very different from the stream of visitors who came to the forest monastery where I trained in Thailand. Every day, Ajahn Chah would sit on a wooden bench at the edge of a clearing by his forest hut and receive them—a rice farmer whose son had just died, a devout old nun, a semicorrupt government official. As a young monk in the monastery, I found myself marveling at the range of questions and human problems addressed by Ajahn Chah. It was like watching a master psychologist at work. Ajahn Chah made no distinction between worldly and spiritual problems. To him, anxiety, trauma, financial problems, physical difficulties, meditative struggles, ethical dilemmas and community conflict were all forms of suffering amenable to the medicine of Buddhist teaching. Ajahn Chah and other Buddhist masters like him are practitioners of a living psychology: one of the oldest and most well-developed systems of healing and understanding on the face of the earth.
—Adapted from The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, by Jack Kornfield (Bantam, 2008)
Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, India and Burma. He is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center and has taught meditation internationally since 1974. His books include A Path with Heart and many others. He holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is a husband and father. Inquiring Mind editors Wes Nisker and Barbara Gates interviewed Kornfield in June 2007.
Inquiring Mind: You suggest that Buddhism is primarily a psychology rather than a religion. That’s a startling point.
Jack Kornfield: Some people refer to the Dharma as a psychology, but I’d rather say “science of mind,” as the Dalai Lama puts it. In the West we see psychology in very limited terms—primarily focused on mental illness. But there is so much more to the human mind than psychopathology. “Science of mind” encompasses an understanding of the psyche, consciousness and the vast potential and capacity of our human mind.
Remember Freud’s resigned vision of our capacity for happiness: “The goal of psychoanalysis is to claim a little more ego from the vast sea of id” and to change human misery into “normal unhappiness.” But from a Buddhist perspective, liberation, far beyond normal unhappiness, is possible—not just for the Buddha but for everybody who undertakes these practices.
The Buddha taught people ways of working with their minds and their experience, not in order to establish a religion but in order to transform themselves so they would be free. Every one of the practices of Buddhism is aimed at the transformation of mind, at the release from the sufferings of greed, hatred and delusion, and at the possibility of liberation.
I should add that when the Dalai Lama calls Buddhism a science of mind, this does not deny the fact that for many people around the world Buddhism has also come to function as a religion. For these devotees, there are the belief, devotion, faith and communal rituals that are common to most religious traditions. But that’s not what the Buddha originally spent his time teaching; he taught a science of mind, what I’m calling “the psychologies of Buddhism.”
IM: How appropriate do you think the psychologies of Buddhism are at this time in Western history in this culture, which so stresses the self?
JK: In many forms of Western psychotherapy, there’s been a great emphasis on “my self”—my story, my history, my problems, my getting better. At a certain point, therapists will notice that even their clients are getting sick of themselves: “Enough of my story. Am I to be defined only by my story, my thoughts and my neuroses?” This is actually a tremendously important turning point, whether it’s in therapy or, now, in the introduction of Buddhist practice, because it begins to turn us to other, greater possibilities, not just limited by our personal history. It’s a wider identity.
Of course, good psychotherapy has been of tremendous value to Dharma students. It offers a skilled way of bringing healing attention to the patterns and wounds that may lie dormant or are too raw to work with in meditation.
But there’s an enormous range of positive potential beyond what we would ordinarily think of as our mental health. We could take the DSM [the standard diagnostic tool used by mental health professionals] and reverse it. Instead of a list of twenty-five states of depression, there’s a list of twenty-five states of rapture in the psychologies of Buddhism. Likewise, instead of having a list of anxiety disorders, we could have a comparable list of states of extreme trust and contentment. Instead of just focusing on psychotic hallucinations, there could be a comparable description of positive visions, all the ways that visualizations could be used, and the hearing and seeing of inner sounds, sights and archetypes that illuminate the highest of human potential. All of what we see in Western psychopathology has a correlate in its opposite that’s found in the psychologies of Buddhism.
A key principle is original goodness. As the Buddha said, this mind is luminous by nature and is inherently pure, but it is colored by the conditioning that limits it. The whole purpose of Buddhism is to return us to our original nature. A related principle is that we have the capacity to shift identity from a vision of oneself as an injured or traumatized individual—from a small sense of self, what’s called the “body of fear”—to find our potential for freedom and greatness. We have the capacity to live this life as buddhas and bodhisattvas.
IM: It’s fascinating to consider the fundamental contrast between the two paradigms. In the Western paradigm, the essence of human nature is aggressive. But, as you point out, in the paradigm of the Buddhist psychologies, practice accesses an innate state of purity, brilliance and goodness.
JK: In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud says, “Culture has to call up every possible reinforcement in order to erect barriers against the aggressive instincts of men. . . . Its ideal command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is really justified by the fact that nothing is so completely at variance with original human nature as this.” From a Buddhist perspective, nothing is so at variance with our original nature as the “aggressive instincts” Freud describes. In fact, aggression, hatred and greed are seen as based in delusion and covering over our innate goodness.
If you see yourself as a limited self and you’re attached to this small sense of self, this body of fear, then you will act in frightened ways—through deficiency, aggression, hatred and greed. When you reawaken to your original nature these fall away. This is the liberation that the Buddha discovered.
Another principle, very important in the psychologies of Buddhism, is that there are systematic ways to train the mind and heart and body. Mostly, in Western clinical practice you do your work in the presence of another person, with a therapist, or in some form of therapy. In the psychologies of Buddhism, you learn from teachers—you get initiation and instructions—but then you actually can take those instructions and work with them in your own program of training. This is a whole different modality. It has enormous implications because it empowers us to do self-transformation.
Here’s an example. A young man from the tough East St. Louis streets who had left his gang was introduced to Buddhist practice at one of the men’s retreats I co-lead. When both a close buddy and then his ex-girlfriend were shot and killed, his old friends pressured him to take revenge. He had to get a gun. These dangerous thoughts would have led him to kill, and then be killed, on the streets or in prison. He knew that he had to stop thinking this way.
At the retreat I gave him a skull necklace from Tibet, used by monks to remind themselves to live wisely in the light of death. We talked about the fierce initiation of one who faces death and chooses life. At first he wasn’t sure he could go on. In the gangs most young people cannot picture living past the age of twenty. He had to change. So, using the Buddha’s instruction on the removal of unhealthy thoughts, I offered him training to change his thoughts. “I will live” became one of his new intentions. “I will save the lives of young kids” was another. Through this practice and the practices of mindfulness and compassion, he learned to transform himself step by step. With the support of a strong community, five years later, he has become a father and a leader for youth. The transformation of thought, a skillful means that a person can take on as a key practice, can reorient an entire life as it did for this ex–gang member. Or it can be an initial step in the process of healing.
One psychiatrist I know recommended the use of Buddhist lovingkindness meditation as a form of thought substitution for an obsessed patient. Through doing repeated lovingkindness practice this patient was able to transform himself. There is a multitude of skillful means that can be practiced for self-transformation.
Another principle is the contemplative dimension of the psychologies of Buddhism. One of the most important maps of awakening is the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Half of this map describes the activating factors: mindfulness, energy, investigation and interest, or rapture. Those qualities are quite common to Western clinical forms of therapy. The other half describes the contemplative qualities: calm, concentration and equanimity. These qualities are mostly unknown in Western psychology. Yet if someone really wants to understand their mind and develop their potential, without this contemplative dimension they won’t be able to do it.
You can see the power of this contemplative dimension in the smallest ways. For instance, when somebody comes to see me for spiritual counseling and I have her sit for fifteen minutes before I speak with her, her mind gets quiet and she gets in touch with her body, her feelings and her intentions. Instead of being caught up with the things that just happened on the highway or at the office, she can listen in a more mindful, much deeper and more insightful way. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what it means to include the contemplative dimension. It goes from there all the way to the depths of jhana practice, deep samadhi.
Concentration can help release us from our limited sense of self and bring illumination and freedom. But these experiences alone are not the end of the story. My teacher Ajahn Chah taught that any state of consciousness, no matter how glorious, is not the end point of practice. What matters is how that revelation manifests—here and now in our daily rounds, when we are conversing or cooking dinner. The fruit of transcending our small self is the awakening of reverence, a newfound spirit of compassion and holy interdependence. When my friend John Hobbe was dying of AIDS, he said it was his experience of luminosity and boundlessness in meditation that let him die unafraid.
IM: What are some of the other contrasts between Western psychology and the psychologies of Buddhism?
JK: While in Western psychology we do address the power of conditioning, in the psychologies of Buddhism the understanding is much more sophisticated, involving motivation and intention. On the microscopic level, as described in the Abhidharma, we can be mindful of the micromoments of receiving experience and then our response, which creates future karma. On the macro level, skillful conditioning and motivation are employed in the practices of undertaking the precepts or the bodhisattva vow to work for the benefit of all beings. We use a vision of our highest potential to set the compass of the heart, to direct our life with long-term motivation and a deep understanding of how karma unfolds.
Buddhist psychologies have a wonderful understanding of what it means to be comfortable with the paradoxes of our human life. We learn to live in the reality of the present and understand that the past and future are contained in the present and unfold as thoughts and images out of the present. We embody the paradox of the universal and the personal. We have a personal and unique incarnation, and at the same time, we’re all part of the dream appearing out of consciousness. Both of these are true. We have to know our Buddhanature and also know our Social Security number.
There’s also the paradox of selflessness and self. This paradox is understood in multiple dimensions in the Buddhist psychologies more fully than in the West. Modern neuroscience and modern research into the creation of self is finally coming to understand that self is not a fixed thing but is actually a process. A 2002 Time magazine article explained, “After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for a self to be located in the physical brain, and that it simply does not exist.”
Most importantly, perhaps, the psychologies of Buddhism are the psychologies of the heart as well as the mind. Fundamental healing of the heart can come through Buddhist practices. In my own case, this healing has been profound. I think of my visit to see my father in the ICU after he’d had a severe heart attack. I knew that this could have been my last visit with him. He was hooked up to oxygen and a variety of beeping machines. I sat by his bedside and talked about him and our family. Then, after a few minutes of silence, I took a long look at my father—weak, vulnerable, maybe dying. I said, “I love you.” His eyes got bigger. Struggling, he raised one arm, patched with tape and needles and tubes, up to his face. He pinched his nose as if to ward off a bad smell, frowned with disdain, and rolled his head from side to side, muttering “Ugh!” Not in our family. You don’t acknowledge your feelings. It is too sentimental, too weak. For me it has taken years of training—as a monk, in meditation, in Western psychotherapy, and through the give-and-take of relationships—to reclaim my capacity to feel.
Practicing the Brahma-viharas—lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity—and with these the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, students of the Dharma open their hearts. In these beloved practices, Buddhist trainings show how the “divine abodes” can be recovered when we’ve lost them or when they’ve been covered over, and how equanimity can create a perfect balance for compassion and lovingkindness. At the highest levels, these sophisticated understandings of human well-being and healing go far beyond what we ordinarily understand in the psychologies of the West.
IM: When you compare conventional Western therapy with the Buddhist path of transformation, you emphasize the way an individual can actually transform himself or herself through doing certain Buddhist practices. But hearing your stories, I notice that the teacher seems to play a key role. I’m wondering what you can say about that.
JK: If you look in Buddhist history, there are many stories about people going to see the Buddha and other great teachers. In a dialogue between the student and the teacher, the teacher recognizes the particular form of suffering that the student is caught in and then helps that student, in the moment, to understand or release the suffering.
But that is not all. The teacher also gives the student tools that he can use himself to transform his life. The same thing happens in the work that I do. People come on retreat or to classes and are transformed by the practices. When they become quiet and mindful, in many cases they encounter their deepest sufferings. As teachers today, we play the role Buddhist teachers have played over the millennia: listening and trying to help people understand in a contemplative way what is at the root of those sufferings. At best we embody the qualities of joy, freedom and compassion, and in the presence of such qualities, students are transformed. In modern neurobiology, in the last decade or two, scientists have discovered mirror neurons which demonstrate how fully our nervous systems are interconnected, so that we continually learn from and mirror those around us, including our teachers.
IM: How often do you recommend that in conjunction with Buddhist practices students go into therapy?
JK: There are many occasions where I will recommend therapy to people. I see the best of Western therapy as a paired mindfulness out loud. Therapy uses some of the same principles of investigation and compassion as Buddhist practice, and often those who come to meditation encounter areas where therapy can really help. For instance, in meditation you might uncover a place of deep abandonment and betrayal in your early life. It’s hard to be mindful of this if you are alone, because it can re-create the old sense of abandonment. But if you go to that painful and frightening place in the presence of another person and can reexperience it with acceptance, love and lack of abandonment, then it releases that unhealthy identity and helps to transform it. Teachers offer this healing presence all the time in interviews with students on retreat. But retreats are short. Sometimes it becomes clear that a student needs to work with somebody regularly, and I’ll send him or her to a therapist. I tend to recommend therapists who have a Buddhist or a big spiritual perspective so that people don’t get lost in personal history as the end of the story.
IM: What about antidepressants and other psychiatric medications? Do you recommend those?
JK: At certain times such drugs can be genuinely helpful to people. On retreats these days there are many people who are taking antidepressants, antianxiety medication or, in some cases, stronger medications for bipolar disorder and so forth. On the other hand, we live in a pill-oriented culture. Half the people—I’ll just say half for a round number—who are taking these pills don’t need to be, or could wean themselves, or would be better off letting go of them and learning to use inner practices to transform their suffering. This is because most medications have negative side effects, and after a certain time, they also have a suppressant effect. This means that people taking these drugs don’t feel their emotions as fully and are not quite as in touch with the energies of their body and mind, which are helpful in the deepest work of change.
So I have a lot more caution about such drugs than the clinics, which almost automatically dispense them when you come in with a difficulty. But if you are drowning in your experience of depression, anxiety or fear and can’t get out, medication can help regulate you to the point where you can begin to work with some degree of mindfulness and compassion.
IM: I’d like to come full circle, to appreciate this pregnant moment in Western history. We have streams of wisdom and the practices of the psychologies of Buddhism reaching a much broader population than ever before in the West, and then we have our Western science starting to understand how this whole system works.
JK: It’s a beautiful point in time. We have the Mind and Life Institute conferences with the Dalai Lama and a whole array of neurobiological studies coming out of the contemplative understandings, which are changing the understandings of neuroscience and of the brain in the broader society. Absolutely, it’s a pregnant moment.
IM: Maybe just in time to save us from . . .
IM: And to free us from our out-of-balance sense of individuality.
JK: Yes, the Buddhist psychologies are psychologies of interdependence rather than independence. This is a really important distinction. Western culture has celebrated the individual, both to great advantage and to the great detriment of those other tribes and races that are different from ourselves, not to speak of the other creatures of the globe.
It’s extremely important in our current world to include the truth of interdependence in the way we see ourselves. We can’t just know it intellectually; we’ve got to make use of these inner technologies to deeply shift our consciousness. Ultimately, all of the practices of the psychologies of Buddhism are aimed at helping us shift from a limited identity to the sense of being nothing and being everything, at awakening to freedom and our true interconnectedness.