Friday, August 04, 2006

Zen and therapy

Godo Guy Mercier talked of zazen at times in terms similar to a self-help therapy with destructive emotional and mental habits resolved through careful observation over a long period of time. Not radically dissimilar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I suppose.

In a recent podcast I was listening to, Cho Bo Ji was similarly describing Zen, free from mythology and in terms of acceptance of reality and avoiding getting 'mentally stuck'.

Stephen Batchelor describes Buddhism in secular terms, stripped of religious beliefs, leaving just a path to a positive way of being.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me. Yet there was quite a strong backlash against Batchelor from the Buddhist community, who apparently rejected his agnosticism about rebirth and karma, apparently seeing Batchelor's version of Buddhism as a pale, secular shadow of their noble religion, with it's talk of other worlds, heavenly realms and cycles of birth and death.

So, were they right or can Buddhism be described in terms of psychotherapy?

While it's natural for people to hold onto religious beliefs and be attached to myths about creation, life after death and so on, however I never really saw such beliefs as the essence of Buddhism. Buddha tended to refuse to answer metaphysical questions either on the basis that they are irrelevant to finding an escape from suffering or that the questions themselves were misconceived. Certainly I don't see Buddhism as intended as a belief system. It's for these reasons that I practice Zen rather than one of the schools of Buddhism, which are heavier on metaphysical or supernatural belief.

There are a number of therapists who have made similar claims (references needed), regarding Buddhism as an example of self-realisation which goes beyond ordinary therapy. There are countless therapists who incorporate Buddhist techniques and countless Buddhist books sold as theraputic self-help books.

One difference is that therapy is seen as a cure for the abnormal psychology of the section of society which is regarded as pathological, in other words, 'sick'. Buddhism on the other hand is seen as a universally appropriate practice. It is for this reason, that practicing Buddhism may been seen as having less of a social stigma than receiving therapy. To be precise, this is not because Buddhism does not pathologise one section of society, but because Buddhism regards virtually every sentient being as 'sick' in a sense. Only arahants and/or buddhas are free from this 'disease' that is existence. I think the key difference here is that our attitude towards mental health tends to be normative, that is, the goal of therapy is to make the abnormal normal. Buddhism on the other hand points out that normal people are in a state of suffering too and proposes that it is possible to be better than just 'normal'.

Far from being shameful, to practice Buddhism is regarded in Buddhist societies as a noble pursuit. Wouldn't this attitude of respect for one who has taken responsibility for his or her own welfare be more conducive to mental health and to people's preparedness to deal with these problems, than the current dominant one of castigating those who take such steps as 'the sick' and 'abnormal'? Perhaps it relates to a western attitude of scorn towards those who seek to find happiness in favour of those who are stoically productive?

So perhaps both Buddhism and therapy can be seen as not fundamentally different, just with different cultural meaning and with goals set at different points. But, if this is the case, what about Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist insights? Well, in Buddhism, thoughts are inseparable from the thinker - philosophy is just the mental acts of a particular being at a particular time - there are no Platonic thought-forms existing in some transcendent abstract plane.

One of the most brilliant and influential philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, saw metaphysical philosophy as a sort of sickness - an overextension of linguistic terms beyond their valid scope, attempting to speak about that which is ineffable. There is a lot of overlap between this an Zen. In Buddhist terminology this might be described as a confusion between conventional and ultimate truths. Wittgenstein's cure was Linguistic Philosophy - language is based on convention and needs to be reigned in when it is applied as if universally applicable.

Our grandest philosophies and most penetrating insights are still just thoughts. Our insights are just the dropping away of our delusions and in that sense are dependent upon them. This is one reason not to get attached to any insights we have. Even if we become 'fully enlightened', we are still entirely human.