Lessons from Eastern Culture
Introduction- In Buddhist thought, the idea of a stable personality is considered an
illusion. Personality development is connected to spiritual progress. More advanced
personalities are calm and compassionate. The prime example of the developed
personality would be the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Buddhists, escaped from his
country of Tibet in the face of the Chinese takeover in 1959. He shows great kindness to
all people he meets, even the servants in the hotels where he stays. He is also humble,
admitting when he does not know how to answer someone‟s questions. Early in life he
showed great interest in mechanical things and probably would have been an engineer,
had he not been proclaimed the Dalai Lama. In Buddhist thought, maladjustment shows
up in impulsive or addictive behavior, selfishness, anxiety, and pathological emotional
states. Healthy growth requires understanding the illusory notion of a separate self;
recognizing the interrelationships of all people; accepting reality as it is. Buddhists
believe that individualism is inherently unhealthy and a cause of suffering. Happiness is
the reward for spiritual growth and right living. Healthy functioning requires undistorted
perception. We must be open to reality, new information, and free from dogmatism of our
viewpoint. The Dalai Lama has been interested in scientific testing of various phenomena
from their beliefs- particularly the effects of meditation. This belief system considers the
way people think to be a cause of misery. The fundamental error of thinking is our
attachment to things we think should be permanent and unchanging- whether people or
things. One milestone for growth in thinking is becoming aware of suffering and the
reality of death. Meditation is thought to enable awareness of one‟s perceptions and to
enable the person to bring them into line with reality. The Dalai Lama is able to bring
into himself the suffering of others and develop compassion for them. Buddhists have
actively sought to better understand the reality of life- this is being developed at the Mind
and Life Institute in Colorado (http://www.mindandlife.org) The Dalai Lama sees science
and religion as able to work together for the human good. Biologically, Buddhists believe
that the root causes of disease are ignorance, desire or hatred. Mental processes can
change biology, which has been affirmed in a variety of scientific tests. There is also a
belief in karma, in the sense that one‟s suffering in this life, may be a result of a past
karmic debt. The Dalai Lama himself lives a healthy life, although he was not able to
maintain his health on a totally vegetarian diet, so he does eat meat.
Buddhists are concerned with reducing suffering of others and promoting peace.
They see society as either helping or hindering one‟s individual development. They also
believe we can interpret many environments as learning experiences. The Dalai Lama‟s
escape from Tibet, while personally sad, has brought his teachings to the West, where
they may facilitate a different way of being in the world. He has been nominated for a
Nobel Peace Prize because he has tried to implement some peace between China and
Tibet. This viewpoint is considered in personality development theory because Buddhist
thought contributes a different view of what is the healthy personality and what causes
The Relevance of Buddhism for Personality Psychology
It is interesting that one of the founders of modern psychology, William James,
believed that the psychological ideas found in Buddhism would ultimately influence
modern psychology. He was merely 100 years ahead of the curve. Horney studied
Buddhism at the end of her life, and Carl Jung communicated with Buddhist Zen master
at his home in 1958. Buddhism does not postulate the existence of a god, but it provides
ways of knowing about reality based on personal experience. Buddhism does teach
methods of meditation as means to achieve the awareness of truth. It also takes upon
itself the task of alleviating suffering, which is akin to what therapists hope to achieve.
Buddhism also teaches self-control and self-discipline, which is aligned with
developing a healthy self.
A Brief History of Buddhism
Buddhism began about 2500 years ago, with Siddhartha Guatama, who tried to
understand the nature of suffering during a quest for enlightenment. He rejected the
multiple gods of Hinduism and the unequal caste system in favor of compassion and
individual quest for enlightenment. The name, Buddha, was given to Siddhartha after he
attained enlightenment. It means, “the Awakened One.” Others who quest and achieve
enlightenment are called “buddhas” as well. This religion describes how people can
become wise and enlightened, not due to a greater power, but due to one‟s own search.
This religion stresses human nature and emphasizes ethics along the way.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism share the idea of rebirth, however. This is the idea
that existence is continuous. Along with this is the idea that one‟s condition at birth has
something to do with intentional acts committed in a past life. In Western religion, the
idea is that there will be a soul‟s continuation into heaven or hell. Buddhism teaches that
the individual self is unreal, an illusion, so what continues after death is a component of
the greater whole- we are one wave in an ocean.
Major schools of Buddhism include:
Theravada- Way of the Elders- emphasizes simple living
Mahayana- The Great Raft or The Greater Vehicle- emphasizes
universality and freedom from suffering and compassion. Tibetan Buddhism added the
idea of a guru or teacher
Zen- emphasizes meditation and use of koans (riddles used to overcome
limited perceptions and rigidity of thought)
Siddhartha Gautama was a child of wealth, whose father had heard a prophecy
over his son that he would either become a political leader or a religious ascetic. His
father wanted to see him become powerful in the world, so he protected him from real
life by keeping him in the family‟s wealthy compound. At a certain point, however,
Siddhartha wanted to see the rest of the world, so he left home and was stunned by the
depth of suffering he witnessed outside. He wandered, hoping to understand the nature of
the world- engaging in strict discipline as a monk, and even in indulgence in pleasures of
a life of luxury. Neither extreme satisfied him. While meditating under the Bodhi-tree, he
achieved enlightenment and understood how to get rid of suffering- by giving up illusions
and desire. The rest of his life he taught others the means of dealing with pain, basically
through following the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths convey the wisdom that reality, if accepted, produces
positive emotional and spiritual change. People are taught to test truths for themselves.
We are ignorant of the true nature of things, the dharma. We live in delusion, ignorance
of the true nature of reality. This truth can be discovered through Buddhist teachings and
meditation. Under this discipline, one can find beauty and truth everywhere. Nothing is
rejected, as there is worth in all things. So we no longer try to only accepted “good” and
reject evil. We come to accept reality in all its permutations.
The First Noble Truth: There is Suffering
Suffering comes in many forms: duhkha- unsatisfactoriness, frustration, disharmony,
painfulness, wanting what we cannot have. WE also operate under the illusion that things
are better than they are (we inherently know this through the ultimate disappointment of
getting something we have really longed for and finding it to come up short.) Therapists
try to help patients accept the reality of their lives. Horney compared duhkha to “basic
anxiety” that she described. What is different with Buddhism is allowing the
consciousness of suffering in. Most of us try to put suffering out of our minds, repressing
painful experiences as much as possible. We also try to avoid doing things that produce
suffering. This belief that suffering should be permitted is challenging for Westerners, as
we tend to want to satisfy the desire, avoid the suffering. And if we can‟t avoid pain, we
can at least feel sorry for ourselves. But that is not the Buddhist way. Curiously, our
experimental findings in the West have found optimism to be associated with lower
levels of depression. Buddhists would probably say this is an illusory peace.
The Second Noble Truth: The Origin of Suffering
The source of suffering is craving or attachment to desire. We are deluded about what
would truly make us happy, so we crave the wrong things. Addiction is a prime example:
the person believes if s/he got the drug or person that he is fixated on, he will be happy,
free of suffering. Buddhists call this illusion, samsara, the wheel of suffering- in which
the consequences of ignorant craving and consequent bad behavior cause continued
suffering. Buddhists describe 3 kinds of desire:
For sensory pleasure
To become or continue to exist, including ambitions
For annihilation or to get rid of something- troubling people or emotions
These three resemble Freud‟s libido, ego, and thanatos. But the difficulty of this is
ridding oneself of one‟s desires and attachments. Eliminating the cause will eliminate the
effect of misery. So the cause of suffering is within, not found in external circumstances.
It is craving and attachment to craving that produces suffering.
The Third Noble Truth: The End of Suffering
Detachment from craving is the key. This includes material goods, possessiveness of
other people, although we can certainly love them. WE also may need to give up
attachments to fixed ideas and attitudes. This requires giving up the ego or self, since it is
really an illusion. Meditation allows attachments to be recognized and then released.
They can only be released after being made known. Once one has gotten to the end of
suffering, s/he has value to society as a teacher or adviser. Along with this role comes
certain ethics: not stealing, taking life, lying, etc. These behaviors naturally stem from
enlightenment, it is not a matter of repressing these desires. Ethics follow spiritual
development. Problems people suffer come from ignorance, not sin. Buddhism suggests
people are basically good.
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path
There is an Eightfold Path which can help us achieve an end of suffering. This path is
called “the Middle Way” because it avoids the extremes of either self-indulgence or
self-mortification. The eight-fold path includes: right view, right intention, right speech,
right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
While teachers can point the way, the responsibility for growth rests with each person.
Buddhism and Personality Concepts
Ego or Self- Western psychology accepts the idea of a stable self, one discovered
gradually through development. Western religions also teach of a soul that endures past
death. Buddhism teaches that the self is impermanent- there is no enduring separate self.
Buddhism also teaches that we do not know ourselves. WE may think we are our body,
our feelings, our perceptions, our intention or will or our consciousness. But the Buddhist
concept of anatta is no-self- there is only a sequence of changes, not a stable permanent
self. If we are attached to some illusory ideas of self it will prevent progress toward
nirvana. Zen Buddhism describes the concept of self as unnecessary, “like adding legs to
a snake.” Nirvana represents the annihilation of selfhood, with all its attachments and
suffering. This is very different from Western traditions which emphasize developing a
strong, autonomous self. This overemphasis on individualism is one cause of depression,
Transience and Mortality- Buddhists teach that life is transitory, things are
constantly changing. Our thoughts are transient, flowing from one image into another.
Meditation allows the person to deconstruct the stability of things to see the world as a
process, always in flux. Buddhism teaches that the universe has been created and
destroyed many times, and this will continue to occur. One source of suffering is clinging
to various states of existence- fearing loss, fearing death. Buddhists see patterns as
repeating- there is rebirth. There is progression from one lifetime to the next (as well as
regression, if necessary.) Most religions deal with fear of death and mortality by
describing an immortal soul that does not die. Buddhism does not.
Behavior: Its Causes and Consequences – behavior is caused by thought and
intention. The mind is causal. Behavior can be changed by stopping the underlying
thoughts. This also fits cognitive behaviorism. But Buddhists take it farther than merely
substituting more adaptive thoughts- Buddhists believe it‟s essential to cease egoistic
self-observation coming from the undisciplined mind.
Consequences of Behavior: Karma Buddhists believe people
have free will and can make choices about their lives, and these choices have
consequences. This requires mental training to purify intention. Karma is intention.
Willful action also has consequences- vipaka. Intentions have results- even beyond this
lifetime. Rebirth will happen in this world, but the circumstances of rebirth have to do
with one‟s behavior today. Good acts elevate circumstances in the following life. Bad
behavior has the opposite effect. There are many states one can be reborn to, but it is
possible to attain enlightenment in this life, in which case, rebirth ends. So karma
becomes incentive for good behavior, but it can also serve to allow us to accept suffering
when we see it- somehow they created this state and must learn from it.
Dependent Origination- karma is not the only intentional act, not
the only cause and effect relationship. Dependent origination comes from Hinduism, the
„Net of Indra‟ which is described as a jeweled net, where everything is interconnected
and nothing is separate. So many interconnected factors determine any condition. We do
not live in isolation. Attitude is one factor; exercise of free will another, as well as
biological predispositions, social factors, etc.
Mind and Body- Buddhists believe the mind and physical world are
interconnected, so processes in the brain relate to our conscious experience; and
psychological factors can affect the body, may predispose us to illness, or protect us. At
any rate, there is no separation between the two, and even between our mind and body
and those of others. (This is somewhat similar to the Aborigine hunters praying to the
spirits of the animals that they hunt that they would accept their role as prey and bless the
Consciousness-the undisciplined mind is a chaos of ideas- the
Buddhists call it the “drunken monkey.” This condition can be improved by meditation,
which encourages altered consciousness, even lucid dreaming. Meditation can lead the
person into awakening. (Budhi, the root of Buddhism, means to wake up.) It may be
called enlightenment, as well. Awakening involves recognizing the true nature of things
and the path to Buddhahood (finding one‟s true nature). Enlightenment comes later, as
the person has overcome imperfections and delusions through following the eight-fold
path. One model describes seven states of consciousness aligned with levels of
enlightenment: Deep sleep, dreaming sleep, and waking state. Then the state attained
during Transcendental Meditation, then the higher states are cosmic consciousness, God
consciousness, and unity consciousness. At the 3 higher states, the self is no longer
separate from the rest of the universe.
Emotions – Buddhists believe emotions can be made healthier through
learning. The natural outcome of spiritual development will be happiness.
Happiness- according to Buddhist thought is not momentary
pleasure but lasting happiness- sukha. Things that bring happiness in the short run often
have unintended opposite consequences: junk food, drugs, passion. Likewise, if we knew
the true nature of reality, we would make wiser choices and be happier. The Buddhist
path teaches us the nature of things, unobscured by illusion.
Anger – Buddhism is a peaceful religion, in contrast to angry
religions, such as Islam and Christianity. Holy wars have been fought in these religious
traditions, but Buddhism has a history of pacifism. Buddhism describes people in the grip
of their anger as being in a “hell realm.” This is marked by aggression against enemies
and retaliation. This is an unending cycle of pain. Anger can diminish when a person can
expand his sense of self to include compassionate identification with others. When one is
not ruled by desires or fears of another, the person is not provoked to anger. Specific
techniques to deal with anger include:
Embracing our anger
Looking deeply into the nature of our perceptions
Looking deeply into the other person to realize s/he suffers a lot and needs help
None of these techniques rejects anger. It must not be rejected as a bad part of the self, to
be overcome by the good self. it must be brought into awareness and treated with
compassion- like an immature brother. Acceptance or understanding of the anger
transforms it. People are then better able to regulate their emotions. It is possible that
training experiences could be developed to teach people to control their emotions better.
One case described a mildly mentally retarded man who learned to control his aggressive
impulses by focusing attention on the soles of his feet, instead of the trigger for his anger.
In Los Angeles, some programs with inner city kids have had them learn to make the
sand mandalas with the monks in order to control and transform their anger.
Love- even positive emotions can be problematic if they interfere with
accurate perceptions of reality. If we focus too much on another, we sink into the belief
that happiness is located outside the self. Sexual passion and even severe attachments to
family and friends can disturb the calm and unattached mind. Emotion must be guided by
the Middle Way. Three poisons are listed as dangerous: aggression or anger, ignorance,
and passion. Passion tries to possess what we desire. Aggression rejects the object or
person. Ignorance causes us to avoid or become indifferent to something. This is similar
to Horney‟s interpersonal orientations: Moving toward, Moving against, and Moving
Interpersonal Relationships and Society- as we achieve enlightenment, our
relationships are transformed as well.
Compassion is a central concept in Buddhism. It is similar to the Western
concept of love. It also includes empathy or social interest. Compassion occurs as a
consequence of realizing we are not separate from others. So we can abolish our selfish
desires and feel for those around us who suffer. This can expand into concern for the
environment as well as other people. Spiritually enlightened people who remain in the
world as teachers for others (bodhisattva) embody compassion for others. Prejudice and
violence stems from attachment to difference- to social identity. This is an area in which
Buddhists disagree with Hindus. The Buddhists believe the caste system which separates
people, rather than exhibiting compassion for them.
Peace – as a person develops and expands his inner peace, he can create a
more peaceful world. There have been cases of meditators focusing on a violence torn
region of the world and reducing aggressive acts in that place as a result of their focused
meditation. Buddhist leaders have been actively involved in the search for peace in the
world, not just on a national level but in leading workshops for anger management.
Community- sangha refers to “the community that lives in harmony and
awareness.” No one lives in isolation and is not affected by others. Siddhartha himself
practiced asceticism before finding the Middle Way- learning to accept help from others.
We must learn to receive as well as give to others. If we cling to a self-image of
independence or only helping others, this is an attachment that must be released.
Other issues- environmental issues stem from human selfishness, from
attachment to individual desires that lead to exploitation of others or the environment.
Buddhism also recognizes that all creatures have a nature that should be respected.
Spiritual Practices- meditation is the key spiritual practice of Buddhist life but
there are also various forms of yoga which are other spiritual practices. These include:
Bhakti yoga- contemplating a saint or God to develop love
Hatha yoga- disciplines the body through postures/ exercises
Karma yoga- serves others without egocentric motivation
Jnana yoga- relinquishes false self-concepts and explores reality
A guru is a spiritual teacher who may offer specific spiritual practices to develop
awareness. Zen uses koans- riddles that challenge our flaccid logic. This is used to break
through barriers of thought.
Meditation- this practice is undertaken to achieve insight and well-being. Consciousness
may be focused on an object, one‟s breathing, or merely attending to thoughts and
allowing them to fade away. This practice can control the “drunken monkey” of
consciousness. As the mind tames consciousness, deeper layers of consciousness can
arise and be experienced. Meditation has a calming effect on most people. It produces
calmness and enhanced awareness. One result is improved cognitive functioning. Worry
is controlled; the focus is on productive thought.
Concentrative meditation- focuses attention on an object, often the breath, in
order to reduce distractions.
Mindfulness meditation- allows thoughts to appear but observes them without
judgment. Zen meditation (zazen) are mindfulness meditations.
The Process of Meditation- when the breathing is used as focus for meditation, it
becomes a conditioned stimulus for the meditative mindset. The position, usually a lotus
position allows one to maintain awareness. Using meditation, it calms the waters of our
emotional life. When the water is calm, we can see what is below- it allows the deeper
contents of the mind to arise- the subtle consciousness that is usually obscured by life
chaos. Meditation turns one‟s focus inward, and then pleasure is released from within-
inner joy. It can be described as a blissful state. Yet the person is alert and aware, simply
not disturbed by the world around. There may be intrusions of past memories or thoughts,
even sensing a spiritual visitor around.
Meditation and the Control of Attention and Perception- there are reports of
enhanced attention after meditation. There have also been seen enhanced creativity,
practical intelligence, and field independence. Meditation teaches people to observe
things, but change their responses, gaining control over their inner experience. We think
perceptions are a natural response to sensations, but there is a moment of judgment which
sets up our perceptions. Also our perceptions are often partial, not allowing us to see the
entire picture before we exert judgment. (The story of the blind men feeling the elephant
is an example of this. So we should not remain attached to our perceptions of reality. This
is similar to Carl Rogers‟ unconditional positive regard.) There is a gate of incoming
sensory information to the brain which contributes to the sense of self. Experienced
meditators can close the gate to these sensory inputs. (Interestingly, morphine has some
similar effects in the brain- fearlessness, pain reduction, and euphoria.) So the meditator
can experience peace, joy, timelessness, and connection to a world that is experienced
without the distortions of attachment to self. This could allow the person to set aside a
history of trauma or pain, fear, misperceptions.
The 17 Moments of Perception- mental processes create the illusion of
something that is solid and permanent. Buddhist texts describe 17 successive moments of
perception which we can know through introspection. If we can make ourselves aware of
these transitions we can experience a state called pure awareness- this is before
perception and sense of self enters the mix. This can even facilitate subliminal
perceptions which are not usually evident to our sensations. There is an association with
hypnosis, in which part of the perceptual process stops while a related process continues.
So a hypnotized person can be aware of pain but not perceive it as pain.
Brain Measurement during Meditation- meditation has been compared
to hibernation in other animals. It produces slower EEG activity, increased alpha wave
activity, feelings of calmness, and ultimately it changes the way the brain responds to
Psychological and Health Effects of Meditation- Meditation has had
positive effects on a variety of medical problems, as well as improving memory,
intelligence, and academic performance. Other benefits include enhancing moral
development and ego development, although there is reported a loss of sense of self in
Buddhism and Psychotherapy
Applications to Psychotherapy- the goals of therapy and Buddhism are similar,
in trying to decrease personal suffering and increase one‟s compassion for others.
Therapy focuses more on symptoms and so is more useful when one is in a pathological
state. Buddhism is more helpful when people are functioning at a high level of
integration. Cognitive behaviorists have incorporated meditation into treatment for a
variety of disorders, even for addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Borderline
patients can find some peace using Buddhist principles of acceptance and mindfulness.
Meditation is useful for therapists to cope with the stress of dealing with so many sick
patients as well as to deal with countertransference issues. One significant difference in
Buddhism and therapy is that therapists try to strengthen the self and Buddhists challenge
the health of the individual separate self.
Motivation and Desire: Understanding and Treating Addiction= Buddhism
asserts that desire produces suffering and addiction is craving carried to an unhealthy
level. Addiction keeps people stuck in a cycle of needing, finding fulfillment, and then
craving more. There is no ego development according to Maslow‟s need hierarchy.
Satiation only leads to further cravings. Buddhism describes such empty cravings as
hungry ghosts- an existence characterized by persistent, unsatisfied cravings. The
imagery of this realm is vivid: the hungry ghosts have gigantic, empty bellies, but can‟t
eat enough to be satisfied, because their mouths are tiny. Buddhist philosophy does not
postulate a Higher Power, so it may be more amenable to some addicts than the 12-step
programs. Some of the Buddhist interventions for addiction include: mindfulness and
developing compassion through meditation. Meditation can motivate people to commit to
self-improvement and spiritual growth. Meditation can be an alternative behavior to
substitute when a craving arises. One Buddhist teaching that is relevant is the idea of
impermanence- nothing lasts, not even the craving or high.
The Importance of the Dialogue
Buddhism is one religion which is particularly receptive to science, as it is
invested in staying in touch with reality as it is. It is not a dogmatic religion and
encourages members to think through their own issues to try to judge reality. Even
Albert Einstein found Buddhism appealing, and he suggested this religion would become
important to people in the future since it is based on the true experience of all things, as
well as developing an appreciation of the natural world and the unity of the world
(something particularly of interest to Einstein who was working on a grand unifying
theory of the physical world.) Another concept appealing to Einstein is the idea in
Buddhism of time being cyclical- not linear, persistently moving forward. Buddhism is a
theory whose time seems to be coming, but nonetheless, posits an integrated view of the
human condition and the possibilities for growth and development for all people.