July 29, 2011

Buddha Buzz: Dharma & Psychology, Buddhists on Twitter, and Simpler Friendships

Sweeping Zen recently posted a great interview with David Loy, a Buddhist philosopher and frequent Tricycle contributor, and among the topics discussed was the relationship between Buddhism and Psychology. We've found that this topic is surprisingly controversial, as reflected by the lengthy ongoing debate at "Human Nature, Buddha Nature," an interview with psychologist John Welwood from our Spring 2011 issue. What does Loy have to say about the relationship, similarities, and potential benefits of a cross-fertilization of Buddhism and psychology? He explains:

Zazen, and Buddhist practice in general, helps us to become aware of the emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomena, including mental phenomena. We open up to the empty ground from which thoughts, memories, intentions and feelings arise. It is important, indeed necessary, to realize that thoughts, etc., are not the product of an ego-self but just the opposite: one’s sense of self is constructed by the ways that the thoughts themselves interact. The ego-self does not create thoughts, it’s a product of thought. The “mind stream” has a deeper origin. With meditation practice we become aware of this groundless ground. Awakening, kensho, is like the bottom falling out of a bucket. It’s realizing that thoughts, etc., arise from a much deeper place.

A common assumption, maybe the traditional assumption, is that just going back to that empty ground — becoming more aware “of” that shunya source from which all phenomena arise — is sufficient. Yet none of us live “there” only. Yes, all form is empty, but emptiness is always taking form. The sense of ego self needs to be reconstructed as well as deconstructed. The point is not to get rid of the self, because there never has been a self. Nor is it to get rid of all sense of self because that would result in mental disability — you could not function at all. Rather, the challenge is to realize the emptiness of that sense of self and reconstruct the self as a better vehicle for this deeper functioning.

That’s where psychotherapy can play an important role. Psychotherapy can help us understand important things about our habitual patterns and self-defeating mental tendencies, the mostly unconscious ways and places we are stuck.

Read the whole interview here.

In lighter news, on Wednesday Huffpost Religion posted the piece, 12 Buddhists On Twitter You Should Be Following and we were happy to see Tricycle sandwiched between our friends Jack Kornfield and Joan Halifax. But as for whose "featured tweet" was the best, we'll give that honor to Brad Warner:

Earlier this week, Pema Choephel of the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association forwarded us the following teaching by Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. In it, she teaches about interpersonal dynamics and gives very sound advice regarding working within organizations and how to skillfully lead. We were particularly struck by her discussion of socializing, where she notes that in the West so many social gatherings are dominated by alcohol and food. She explains that it can be of great benefit for groups to spend time with each other "where there is just simplicity, the simplicity of knowing one another and becoming grounded in being human with one another."

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wtompepper's picture

In the interview mentioned above, David Loy says:

“It may not be enough just to sit, or to just realize the empty ground from which these habitual patterns arise. Sometimes insight is needed into the knots — the mental tendencies where we are stuck. Psychotherapy can be very helpful for gaining insight into what those knots are and how they work, so that we are more open to, better able to see, alternative ways of thinking and acting.”

This could be the goal of psychotherapy, but usually is not, because psychotherapy usually means cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which, as Loy says, “usually involves replacing one conditioned way of thinking with another.” He makes a distinction between psychotherapy and CBT, but it isn’t clear what he means by psychotherapy.

And a bigger question is, why doesn’t Buddhism practice already deal with those “knots” or unconscious mental tendencies? Isn’t this supposed to be the function of vipassana? Of course, it isn’t, as long as vipassana is understood as another kind of mindfulness. But for many Buddhists, getting rid of these constructed mental tendencies, or getting control of them, is more desirable than accepting them, mindfully observing them, or mistaking them for a mystical and deep truth.

I would love to see Tricycle invite David Loy to write an article expanding on the comments he made in this brief interview. There is so much written abou the "dialogue" between psychology and Buddhism, but not many of the people writing about it seem to have Loy's insight into the real potential of the relationship. What do you think?

108Adams's picture

Just for your reference, try Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid

wtompepper's picture

Thanks for the tip--I didn't know he'd written another book. Unfortunately, Magid is one of those people I'm talking about. He thinks the self-psychologists are all there is to psychoanalysis, and Zen is all there is to Buddhism. He seems to mean well, but if Zen is really what he describes it as, I'm glad I'm not a Zen Buddhist!

buddhabrats's picture

As one purifies the mind stream through ones various practices the conditioning that binds one gradually falls away. As this occurs the karmic tendencies also start to play out and auto resolve. As one exhausts karma the mind stream becomes a suitable ground for visions and even terma to appear. "When vision is an obstacle you need a friend, when vision is a friend light a fire" Wonders of the natural mind

Check out my article at http://www.buddhabrats.com/what-about-visions/


Kindess Is Everything's picture

Thanks for the update and the links. It is always good to see our friend Jack Kornfield mentioned (Spirit Rock is just a few miles down the road from us).

Since I am from Thailand, which is overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist, I wonder if you could point me in the direction of learning a bit more about "shunyata." I don't think it is a concept we use so much in Thai Buddhism. Many words (and writing) are borrowed from Pali and Sanskrit. We use the word Sunya for the number 0, or to mean center, and it is borrowed from the Indian languages (in Thai we pronounce it Soon even though it is written Sunya). But Thai monks use the Thai words waang (free) plao (empty) together like this (waang-plao), so I wonder if that has a similar meaning? I will have to ask Jack when I see him.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi Kindness. It may be more helpful to think in terms of non-substantiality rather than emptiness or a void. You and I gain meaning (substance) due to our relationship with those around us. No person is an island, empty unto him or herself.