Buddhism is not just a set of techniques for self-help. There is something much bigger going on.
In the 1980s, I knew a remarkable man named Carl Rogers, one of the most eminent and influential psychologists of the last century. Carl, not unlike Shakyamuni Buddha, saw virtually limitless potential within human nature, and this inspired him in all he did. He was an explorer of human relations, a visionary, and a rigorous researcher. He was willing to ask awkward or demanding questions, consider them thoroughly, and then think about things in new ways as the situation required. Indeed, one of Carl’s favorite expressions was “the facts are friendly,” by which he meant we should not fear the truth even though it may not fit with what we already believe.
During Carl’s time, the world of psychotherapy had become polarized between various schools of psychoanalysis on the one hand, with their complex and untestable esoteric theories, and on the other, behaviorism, which in the name of a very narrow definition of science reduced human experience to simplistic terms and therapy to mechanically applied techniques. In his approach to research, Carl did not impose a theoretical structure on clinical practice; instead, he let theories arise from careful investigation of what actually happens in the clinical setting. His work was instrumental in the development of humanistic psychology, which presented itself as a “third force” in the field.
I find that the concerns Carl had about the psychology world of his time has parallels in the Buddhist world of today. With this in mind, we might do well to reflect on whether we modern practitioners of the dharma are not in danger of falling into one or the other of two extremes, one insular, heavily esoteric, and self-validating, and the other characterized by a narrow focus on the application of technique alone. I am especially concerned with the latter, because it seems to me that in adopting that perspective, we might think we are being progressive when in fact we are merely fitting Buddhism to certain unexamined but commonly held beliefs about the world.
For many Western Buddhists, a technical approach that says in effect, “You don’t need to believe anything, just do the practice” is very appealing. We are, after all, a culture very much driven by technology. Yet this technical emphasis directed toward Buddhism is something new. Traditionally, in the Asian cultures in which the dharma has flourished, Buddhism is more a matter of attitude than a set of techniques. Attitude is about the holding of an entire context, though it can take specific forms in ritual or meditation practice or other activities. But the main attitudes through which Buddhists have always expressed their connection to the dharma are devotion and faith. The form and content of these attitudes varies depending on the culture, the tradition, and even the individual, but the common characteristic is a whole (though not uncritical) and deeply felt sense relationship to the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
The idea that one can “just do the practice” is itself based on faith, yet it is easy to miss this sleight of hand. This view of practice does not avoid faith; it simply plays into a faith we already have—that is, faith in a technological approach to life. It assumes that meditation, like penicillin or Windows 7.0, works the same in any context. That is a lot to assume.
Going hand in hand with the idea of context-free meditation is the view, not uncommon in Western convert Buddhist circles, that Buddhism and meditation are virtually synonymous. But the vast majority of Asian Buddhists, now as throughout history, do not meditate, or only do so on rare occasions, and when they do, do so as part of a collective ritual rather than as a personal improvement method. The experience of Buddhism as it is actually practiced is, it seems, very different from the recent technical view of how it should be practiced.
Perhaps no single idea in Buddhism has been as co-opted by the technological model as the term mindfulness. “Mindfulness” has long served as the standard translation of the Pali term sati and the Sanskrit smriti, and it is a good translation. But over the years, its meaning has shifted from both its earlier English and its Indian intent. Mindfulness has largely become identified with only one aspect of what it entails, namely bare attention, which refers to awareness in the present moment. But the traditional meaning of the term, both in English and in its Indian equivalents, has to do as well with memory, specifically with recollection. Based on the narrow sense of what constitutes mindfulness, it is often presented as a technical skill. This technological view of mindfulness, insofar as it has a foundation in Buddhist scripture, is based on a partial reading of only two out of a vast body of scriptures. Consequently, these two texts, the Mahasatipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta, have assumed a disproportionate influence among Western meditators, and what’s more, it is only the first half of each of these texts that supports the technical approach. If one even takes each of these two texts as a whole, it is clear that the imparting of awareness techniques is only part of their message, and that in each case the culmination is a deeper understanding of the spiritual meaning of the Four Noble Truths. It is readily apparent that the exercises offered to train awareness do not constitute the whole matter. I sometimes think that when critics accuse Buddhism of being a form of mere navel-gazing, they may not be wholly wide of the mark. In the form in which it is often presented, mindfulness does indeed get restricted to reflection upon and observation of oneself.
This self-focused, technological model of Buddhist practice is not without its virtues. It has made Buddhism widely approachable in a new cultural setting. It has highlighted the richness of its meditative traditions. But a decontextualized dharma can put the spotlight on the private subject in a manner that is quite in line with the alienated, isolated, choice-making individual that is the primary model of the person in our capitalistic society. Is this really what we want? It also makes Buddhism into a set of commodities that can be purchased, and reduces practitioners to economic units. This is dharma that reinforces, rather than challenges, many tendencies in Western societies that are anything but emancipatory. It is not, to use the words of the Buddha in the Pali suttas, going “against the stream” of our conditioning at all; it is actually quite consistent with some of the deep currents that shape our modern alienated consciousness.
Lack of a coherent and meaningful community life and way of relating to others is, arguably, the cause of much of the suffering that people seek to resolve in Buddhism. If what they get is a do-it-yourself, on-yourself, by-yourself, for-yourself, at-a-price technique, this is not going to do the trick, even if it does provide some secondary gains or palliative satisfactions. In Asia, Buddhism has flourished by being a focus for community life. Communities are held together by shared values, attitudes, and forms that affirm their deepest sense of reality. Most traditional Buddhists have little if any concern for their own attainment of enlightenment, except in the very long term. Their spiritual and religious concerns are more immediate: the well-being of their community, the relationships they have with fellow sangha members, and, above all, their relationship to the Buddha, the Tathagata. Buddhism flourishes through an othercentered, rather than a self-centered, orientation toward life. Otherness here refers both to ordinary others—one’s neighbors, for example—and spiritual others—the Tathagata and other spiritual presences. Practice in an other-centered context means expressing one’s devotion, whether practically or ceremonially, toward the other.
One finds in Buddhist tradition a wide variety of ways that the Buddha is viewed and understood. In an interview in Tricycle (“Beyond Religion," Fall 2009), my friend Alfred Bloom, a noted teacher and scholar of Shin Buddhism, described the view of the Japanese sage Shinran in a way that is relevant to what I am saying here.
Shinran identified Amida Buddha as the eternal Buddha, similar to how Shakyamuni is portrayed in the Lotus Sutra. That means that Amida has no beginning and no end. There’s never been a time when there was not Amida Buddha. So he symbolizes reality.
When I discuss Amida Buddha with Christians, they often ask, “Is Amida a god?” and I say, “No, he’s not a god, he’s reality.” Amida is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, and this sense of things draws one’s mind out beyond boundaries to contemplate the infinite....Amida, though, is not just a being, not just a concept; it’s a mythic symbol, a window through which to contemplate reality and to see ourselves better in relationship to the whole. It’s a way of focusing our understanding about reality and how it embraces us. We live within the infinite, the infinite lives within us.
This attitude is not limited to just one school of Buddhism. In Japan, this kind of attitude is common to most Buddhists. Living Buddhism happens within a spiritual frame. It obviously has elements that are rational, practical, and even scientific, but to put technique first is to put the cart before the horse. Many Westerners believe that Buddhism’s spiritual dimensions are not scientific and so should be avoided. But that means putting one’s faith in the view that reduces knowledge of the world to the narrow range of those things that can be quantified. We cannot escape the fact that whatever we do, we place our faith in something.
At the core of Buddhism lies the devotional act of taking refuge in the Three Treasures as the most useful thing to rely upon. This is true for Buddhists of all schools in every culture. Taking refuge, by definition, involves relating to others. The contemporary view that one is just taking refuge in one’s own higher or deeper nature is at best partial and more likely simple sophism. Buddhism asks us to go beyond the self, not to perfect the self. Living Buddhism is not a project of self-perfection, in which behavioral control—ethical and technical—is the name of the game. One takes refuge not out of a sense of spiritual heroism or as an affirmation of one’s superior capabilities; taking refuge is an acknowledgment that one is lost, in danger, unable to triumph through any act of personal will. It is this devotional move that is most necessary and that many of us find most difficult; yet without it, all the spiritual technology in the world will avail little.
The idea of dependency is fundamental to living Buddhism. We are deeply mired in greed and delusion. We depend through the whole of life on the support of others—upon the natural world, upon other people, and, spiritually, upon the tradition of wisdom that has come down to us through human history. In the traditional Buddhist way, our dependency is not a cause for despair but rather leads to a sense of wonderment and gratitude, which is the moving force of true spirituality. This other-centered attitude naturally becomes the motivation to support and be supported by others and, most important of all, to take refuge— to ground spiritual life in something beyond the self.
I think it is here, on this issue of developing an other-centered attitude, that Carl Rogers might have much of singular value to teach us Western Buddhists. Carl demonstrated that what is crucial and primary in promoting personal change in psychotherapy are the generic spiritual factors abiding in the relationship between the client and therapist. Techniques are at best secondary and can in fact constitute a danger, for they might distract practitioners from attending to the human qualities of the relationship and lead them to treat the client in an aloof manner. For Carl, nothing in psychotherapy mattered more than an attitude of respect for the other.
Carl famously identified the authentic communication of two things as being the necessary and sufficient conditions for successful therapeutic change: accurate empathy and unconditional positive regard. The first refers to the ability to see things as the other sees them. Empathic understanding doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. Rather, it means that one can put one’s own ideas and desires aside for a time and see and feel things as the other does. Unconditional positive regard includes various emotions—love, compassion, kindness—that entail affection. When the therapist establishes and conveys his or her understanding and good feeling for the client, as Carl demonstrated, positive change will occur.
Carl realized that what occurred in the encounter with what is loved and trusted—whether physically present or not—released powers that have the capacity to turn a life around. In his client-centered therapy, it was the other—proximately the client, and ultimately the actualizing tendency in the universe—that was the focus. He realized that when empathy and positive regard are genuinely present, a safe space, a refuge, comes into being, and all parties therein grow naturally.
I think it is the same for us here in the emerging world of Western Buddhism. By exploring ways to be other-centered in our practice, we will, I believe, collectively get a lot further than we will if we focus on personal advance. This is a matter not of technique but of attitude, and for that other-centered attitude to be profound, it needs to start with our relationship to the spiritual reality symbolized by the Tathagata.
Many contemporary Buddhists are in flight from the religions of their upbringing, and to hear that Buddhism is mainly about loving one’s neighbor and devotion to what one regards as holy may sound disturbingly familiar. But spiritual emancipation is not the exclusive property of one religion, and if there are parallels between what millions of Asian Buddhists have experienced throughout history and what Western religions affirm, this is, in my view, confirmation of their universality. The differences are significant, but the commonalities do also affirm something real.
The rise of psychotherapy is an understandable development given the sense of meaninglessness that is so common in modern society. But therapy based on technique, while it may well be helpful in reducing symptoms, cannot help but reproduce alienation. The same applies to Buddhism. Buddhist practice that provides mere spiritual technology unhooked from meaning will not offer any remedy for our pervasive sense of anomie. Carl tried to bring into the world of psychology a perspective big enough to rescue us and restore us to more enduring values. The alliance between Buddhism and psychology is a valuable development that has facilitated the entry of some Buddhist values through the broken walls of our materialistic citadel. Whether we can extract the real meaning, however, remains to be seen.
Carl showed that what mattered in psychotherapy was the creation of a safe space, a sense of community, loving attitudes, and entrustment to a positive transcendent principle. His approach rested on his faith in an actualizing tendency in the universe. He believed, and he demonstrated, that constructive growth and change take place, not through heightened consciousness and control, but precisely through the giving up of personal control in favor of the establishment of wholesome conditions. In Buddhist terminology this is the establishment of a sense of refuge and entrustment to love, compassion, joy, and peace. Whether one is talking about Buddhism or psychotherapy, techniques have a very subordinate role in facilitating positive change. That is a matter of attitude and relationship.
Carl’s diagnosis of the state of psychology in his day—and it has not changed much since then—has, I believe, great relevance to us followers of the way of Buddha, whose own enlightenment entailed the abandonment of ascetic practice and an understanding that it is the conditions upon which we depend that effect change for good or ill. Many Western Buddhists miss this message because they do not readily connect with the symbolism of Asian culture, and so it will be necessary for us to find our own language to express these things. I hope that we can do so, that we can avoid subverting the dharma to a Western self-centered, technology-worshipping agenda and establish dharma in the West on the other-centered principles of nonself, refuge, and community. We can find wisdom and inspiration in the long history of living Buddhism. We can find them as well in the work of creative thinkers like Carl Rogers. And the wisdom and inspiration of the Tathagata is always present. We need only depend on it.
Dharmavidya David Brazier is a Buddhist teacher, doctor of Buddhist psychology, and author of numerous books. He is head of the Amida Order, an international Pure Land community based in Europe.