Psychological links with Buddhism – By Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara
Psychology is a broad field that encompasses the scientific study of the human mind, and its processes, such as thought, behaviour, development, personality, emotion, motivation, and more. Psychology is derived from many other fields such as philosophy religion, education sociology, and other sciences. Psychology seeks to unravel the mysteries of the mind and enhance the mental well-being of people.
From time immemorial, the “mind” has been a controversial subject among philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers the world over. The true nature and workings of the human mind continue to resist comprehensive understanding despite years of research and many areas of the mind and its true nature remain unexplored and unsolved to this day. The force of the human mind is the most potent of all forces. It predominates all other forces. (Piyadassi Thera). It can be harnessed for one’s benefit or destruction, no one has comprehended the intricacies of the human mind as comprehensively as the Buddha.
It is significant, more than any other religion, that the teachings of the Buddha consisted of an exhaustive analysis of the complex and intricate workings of the human mind. In Buddhism, the human mind together with thoughts and volitions plays an important role in all aspects of human life. The fundamental teachings of buddhism help us to understand our mind and its true nature and psychological ramifications.
Buddhist teaching contains an extensive discourse on the nature of the human mind. What the Buddha preached for forty-five years during his lifetime and all his cardinal teachings whether it is about the Five Precepts, the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Four Sublime States invariably involve the human mind.
For these reasons, Buddhism can be considered the most psychological of spiritual traditions. Buddha was one of the greatest psychotherapists the world has ever produced. He was a unique psychotherapist who delved deeply into the intricacies of the human mind. His therapeutic methods helped millions of people who go through immense physical and mental suffering. Buddha realized it only by comprehending the workings of the mind that a person overcomes many problems human beings face.
An eminent British psychiatrist, Dr. Graham Howe has remarked “To read a little Buddhism is to realize that Buddhists knew. 2500 years ago. far more about modern problems of psychology than they have been given credit for. They studied these problems long ago and found the answers also. We are now rediscovering the ancient wisdom of the East”.
Buddhist teachings on the mind are multifaceted and exhaustive. Many regard buddhism primarily as philosophy, religion, code of ethics, and way of life, but it is also a form of psychology that is consistent with the scientific method that emphasizes introspective observation. Philosopher Alan Watts once wrote, “If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West, we find something more nearly resembling Psychotherapy”.
Buddhism can be regarded as a completely developed system of psychology as it examines and analyses the workings of the mind and the behavior of people at a profound level. Just as Western psychology, it includes analysis and functioning of the human mind, emotion, cognition, behavior, and motivation along with therapeutic practices.
However, in contrast to the Western psychotherapeutic practice that focuses mainly on the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, Buddhist clinical psychology focuses on cultivating wholesome states of mind by identifying and treating psychological and other emotional problems. In other words, Buddhism aims at the total integration and transformation of the personality. For these reasons, the psychological aspects of Buddhism can be considered more curative than analytic.
Buddhism is fundamentally concerned with identifying the inner causes of human suffering, the possibility of freedom from suffering, and the means to achieve it.
According to Buddhism, life is always fraught with suffering people suffer untold agony and hardship in their lives. There is so much misery all around us. We constantly hear incidents of suicides, mental sicknesses, and other diseases plucking the lives of many young and vibrant people. Old age, sickness, decay, and death constantly snuff the life out of many people in their prime lives.
People experience suffering in various forms. Just as one can suffer from physical disease, one could also suffer from an unhealthy mindset as the mind and the body are interdependent. The health of the mind influences the health of the body and vice versa.
According to Buddhism, hankering after things that are impermanent, devoid of reality, and subject to decay not recognising the all-pervading nature of impermanence brings about unhappiness and suffering. The reality of continuous change which is one of the characteristics of human existence should be always uppermost in the minds of the people. It is known as annitta (impermanence) in buddhism. Impermanence refers to the uncertain and temporary nature of what people regard as reality.
Many people often act on the basis that many aspects of their lives such as relationships, jobs, income, and other material possessions remain the same. Expecting these temporary circumstances to remain permanent intensifies their suffering, pain, grief, and disappointment when they do occur. An enlightened mind perceives both the impermanence of the phenomenal world and the reality of continuous change. Buddhists are expected to examine themselves with a cultivated mind so that they see the true nature of existence.
Buddha placed great emphasis on the mind and attributed all our problems to the deluded mind. It is the deluded mind of attachment, aversion, and ignorance that leads to mental and physical suffering. Buddhism provides an ideal state of mental well-being that results from disabusing the mind of those afflictive unwholesome tendencies.
As a nontheistic religion, buddhism does not believe in a supernatural God and denies any efficacy of prayers for relief but admonishes its adherents to look for nothing but their efforts for salvation. Buddha’s primary concern was to enlighten people on the most important question of sorrow, its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation.
The answers to these questions constitute the four noble truths. They are (a) Life is full of suffering (Dukkha), (b) There is a cause for this suffering (Dukkha samaya),(c) It is possible to stop suffering(Dukkha nirodha), (d) There is a way to extinguish suffering. (Dukkha nirodha marga).
Buddhism explains everything in nature as the manifestation of the human mind. For Buddhism, the mind is everything. What you think you become. All that we are is the result of what we thought. It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If one speaks or acts with pure thought, happiness follows one, like a shadow that never leaves”. (Dhamma pada) Buddha identified the mind as the main root cause of human suffering and other problems, as the power of our mind can influence our physical and emotional state.
In Buddhism, the importance of the human mind is summed up in the following stanza. “Sabbapassa akaranam, kusalassa upasampada, sacittapariyodapanam, etam Buddhana sasanam” which means avoidance of evil, cultivation of wholesome deeds, and controlling of one’s mind.
If a person’s mind is pure then his thoughts and actions will be pure. When the mind is impure the person is impure. It is the mind that creates human suffering. The mind is continually seeking fame, fortune, power, and sensual pleasure. It is constantly calculating and discriminating. The mind governs everything.
Day and night, in our sleeping and our wakefulness, our mind runs wild in a turmoil of thoughts, emotions, desires, worries, and hatred. Mind is constantly attached to external surroundings tirelessly seeking fame, fortune, power, and pleasure, and constantly calculating and discriminating (John Walters). The mind is like a wild deer chasing after sensory pleasure all the time. Mind is as expansive as limitless space. In buddhism, the root cause of suffering and other problems have been attributed to the mind. It is the mind that dictates a person’s behavior. Many human problems are related to the deluded mind. Buddhists are expected to maintain a balanced and peaceful mind.
Today, there is a lack of awareness of the nature of the phenomenal world that is caused by ignorance. Ignorance in turn causes the attachment, craving, and clinging that lead to suffering. Nirvana is a state of mind free from suffering.
When people have somatic illnesses, ample pharmaceuticals are available to treat them, medicine can cure symptoms of illnesses but not the real ailment, as many illnesses originate from the mind.
Buddhism has made a great contribution to modern psychology. Since the mid-20th century, Buddhist teachings have attracted the attention of modern psychologists and scientists who have absorbed considerable wisdom from Eastern cultures, especially Buddhist philosophy and practices. Its teachings on the mind and practices have been of great interest to neuroscientists and psychologists, who look for solutions to people’s suffering.
Buddhist psychology assumes great significance day by day as people experience high levels of psychological and physical problems in their lives. People turn to Buddhist psychology when they experience trouble and tribulations in life.
Buddhist psychotherapy has been widely used to help people deal with a variety of health conditions including mood and personality disorders. Buddhist teachings have been assimilated into Western mental health treatments as they help apply practices that help to overcome unhealthy unwholesome thinking. The transformative power of mindfulness and meditation techniques has been of immense help to people to train their minds to handle life’s challenges and feel more at peace.
Dr, Herbert Benson a Harvard-trained cardiologist determined that the power of mind over the human body is so great that the monks in meditative states had remarkable control over their body temperature and oxygen intake, and they could use their body heat to dry wet towels wrapped around them, in conditions where most people shiver uncontrollably.
It is believed that people who meditate regularly enjoy lower stress levels, increased well-being, and even were able to reduce their blood pressure and resting heart rate. Meditation has also helped millions of people ease chronic pain, anxiety, and stress, boost mood and immunity, and resolve many other problems.