On Trusting The Process: An Introduction to Secular Buddhist Psychology (Part 1)

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Reading Heidegger was one of the biggest intellectual challenges of my life. So many people give up in frustration, and many deal with the inability to “get it” by dismissing it as nonsense. Noam Chomsky is notorious for this point of view. Today, of course, so many  people do “get it” that critiques like those of Chomsky’s reveal more about the critic than they do about Heidegger. When I went to my dissertation advisor, complaining that I just read words and had no grasp on what Heidegger was saying, he just replied, “keep reading!”. So I did, keep reading, and one day it all clicked. I learned from this process that “getting” something often involves letting go, surrendering; planting seeds that later grow and break into consciousness. It requires a certain “faith in a seed”.

Buddhist psychology has been a similar process. The ways of thinking that are involved in Buddhist thought are a challenge to comprehend. Often it is a matter of trusting the process to, over time, reveal the way of thinking, rather than immediate understanding. This kind of thinking is not like solving a math problem, it is more like familiarization in undoing the familiar. It takes time, patience, and faith that there actually is something to “get”. After nearly three thousand years, there certainly is something to Buddhist teachings.

In Buddhism there are traditionally three sources of information: Siddhartha Gautama’s life as an example, the writings, and the community of those who practice Buddhism. As an American, secular Buddhist practitioner, I usually ask students to read Herman Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha, to become familiar with the life of Siddhartha, the first Buddha. Siddhartha was a man who never claimed to be anything more than a man who “woke up” from false consciousness. Buddha is the Sanskrit word for awakened one. Every one of us has the ability to wake up. Once we do wake up, we are said to have become a Buddha.

Sometimes Westerners read about Buddhism and think it is a religion. To some it is a religion, but not in the sense of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. When Christians hear a Buddhist speak of Lord Buddha, they might interpret Lord as some kind of term for God. In fact, Lord simply means one who has some authority in something. It is not Lord as in the Christian Lord’s Prayer. Much of the confusion about Buddhism has to do with trying to understand an Eastern tradition through a Western lens. This is part of the process, one must let go and become aware of a different way of thinking. In this way, some do practice Buddhism as a religion, much in the same way as a jazz musician might consider music to be their religion. I find Erich Fromm’s definition of religion to be a useful one in understanding “religion” in a more universal way; “any system of thought and action shared by a group, which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion”. Fromm himself was greatly influenced by Buddhism in the final period of his thinking.

I studied Buddhism as a psychologist. I did not learn in a temple, as do most Buddhist in Eastern countries, but rather from a private teacher. In the United States it is more common to go to a meditation center or a university to study Buddhist teachings, than it is to go to a temple. Mediation centers, private teachers, and universities offer teachings that are not held in a temple, but rather in a classroom, or a mediation hall, or on a beach or mountain path. This can be called secular Buddhism, but from my experience all Buddhism is secular in that it does not involve any God or deities. It is common for Westerners to confuse Buddhism with its parent religion Hinduism, which does involve deities.

Just as some Christians and Jews practice Buddhism in the West, there are those in the East who practice Jainism, Shintoism, Shamanism, and other religions along with Buddhism. This can be confusing for those with a Western sensibility towards religion. The thing to keep in mind is that the Western and Eastern conception of religion can be very different.

There are many different schools of Buddhism. In Zen Buddhism, as practiced in China, Japan, and the West, what Buddhism is largely depends on the individual who practices it. The main way of learning in Zen is through sitting meditation. Zen means meditation, and Zazen means sitting meditation. One sits and meditates and in the process arrives at various insights into the self, life, existence, and reality. Although the Buddha’s life, the teachings, and the community all give us ideas of what will be realized through meditation, ultimately, in Zen, the realization comes through direct experience in meditation. Each tradition in Buddhism offers different methods of meditation practice, but they all lead to “waking up”.

In Buddhist psychology we consider meditation to be a research method. Whereas much of Western psychology looks to research externally, in Buddhist psychology we research internally; we look within ourselves. This is called introspection in Western psychological research lingo. In this spirit, we begin learning the insights of Buddhist psychology through direct experience in meditation. This research is aided by the example set by the Buddha, and through the teachings from the various schools of Buddhism. When teaching Buddhist psychology in the classroom or to an individual, I have them first read William James’s chapter on The Consciousness of Self in his Principles of PsychologyJames studied Hindu and Buddhist texts, and was famous for remarking in 1902 that “in twenty-five years [Buddhism] will be what psychology studies”. Much of the insights that James presents in his Principles of Psychology are compatible with Buddhist psychology. James has done the chewing on the Buddhist texts and presents many of the ideas in terms that are easy for the Western thinker to understand. However, direct experience through mediation is the main way of studying.

In Part 2 of this introduction to Buddhist Psychology we will explore the most basic method of meditation.