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Buddhism and Pcychology

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Psychology is a science that investigates the mental activities of human life. In the West, it originated from medical science, philosophy, natural science, religion, education and sociology, and extends into a myriad of other disciplines and practices. In today's society, psychology is applied to education, industry, business, health care, national defense, law, politics, sociology, science, arts and even sports. Its importance increases as time goes on.

Psychology examines the mental functions of mind and the modes of human behavior. Psychologists in the West use it to study the development of personality and the determinants of behavior. Because of its inherent limitations, Western Psychology has been only partially successful in personality transformation and improvement. Buddhism, on the other hand, understands very deeply the psychological nature of human beings and has developed some effective methods for treatment. As revealed in The Avatamsaka Sutra, "Our perception of the Three Realms arise from the mind, so do the twelve links of dependent origination; A birth and death emanate from the mind, they are extinguished when the mind is put to rest."

The analysis of mind in Buddhism is both multifaceted and sophisticated. As a spiritual practice, Buddhism contains numerous descriptions of the nature and function of the mind and instructions on how to search for, abide with and refine it. In this regard, Buddhist Psychology has a lot to offer along with Western Psychology.

How Buddhism Looks at the Mind

At first, "psychology" meant "a science which explains the psyche." Later it was expanded to "a behavioral science for studying human problems." This development is consistent with how life and the universe are viewed in Buddhism: "from the mind all phenomena arises." Buddhism interprets everything in the world as the manifestation of our mind. It investigates and analyzes human behavioral problems at the most fundamental level. From this perspective, Buddhism can be considered a fully developed system of psychology.


All the Buddha's teachings deal with the mind, as shown in the multitude of sutras and sastras. Among them, the psychological understanding spoken of by the Mind-only (Yogacara) School is closest to its counterpart in today's psychology. The Yogacara texts are used to explain Buddhist Psychology.

The Yogacara view that the mind consists of eight consciousnesses clearly indicates that it is not made of a single element, but an interactive complexity of factors. These factors are the functions of the six sensory organs of the human body (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mental function) plus the consciousness which constantly grasps the "self" (the Manas) and the Alaya consciousness (the supra- unconsciousness, referred to as the "master of the mind" in Buddhist texts) which collects and stores all karmic seeds of the mind in the ongoing cycle of birth and death of all sentient beings. To a Buddhist, the "self" at this moment reflects everything accumulated from the past. The "self" in the future depends on the actions of the present. That is, "what one receives in this life is what one had cultivated in previous lives; what one receives in a future life is what one creates in this life."

"The Three Realms are mere manifestation of mind; so are the myriad of dharmas." All phenomena in this life, and in the universe, are nothing but mirror images imprinted on our mind through the eight consciousnesses. Our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind discriminate and grasp sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thoughts. In accordance with each individual's capacity for discernment, these images are further processed and recognized as real or unreal, and then used to construct what one believes to be "this life and the world." In reality, all things constantly change in a cycle of formation, abiding, destruction and emptiness. Our thoughts and ideas also arise, abide, change and disappear instantaneously in the cycle of birth and death. Where can one find a life or a world which truly exists without change? Everything in the universe can only be found in perceptions and interpretations!

The Alaya consciousness is like a big storehouse full of past memories of love, hatred, goodwill and animosity which we may no longer recall in this life. It perpetually influences our actions and behaviors in this life and is referred to as ignorance in Buddhism. Because of the karmic influence of this ignorance, we go through the cycle of birth and death. When the unwholesome seeds from the past mature, we become afflicted and are tempted to commit non-virtuous acts, which in turn become unwholesome seeds for the future. When the wholesome seeds from the past mature, our hearts are pure and noble, our minds are clear and intelligent and we perform virtuous deeds which become wholesome seeds again in the Alaya consciousness. In the teachings of the Mind-only School, it is said, "Seeds give rise to actions, then actions turn into new seeds." The psychological motives of all human behaviors are explained through this model.


Due to the influence of our ignorance from the past, we are prone to make judgments which result in negative feelings. Reinforced by greed and anger, our minds become confused and form incorrect views about things in the world. However, just as plants require sunshine and rain to blossom and bear fruit, similar conditions are required for the development of human behavior. Although deep in the unconscious level of the human mind lie feelings of love, hatred and positive or negative intentions, at the time when these feelings are provoked by people or things from outside surroundings, one can rely on our true mind and wisdom to avoid negative deeds from occurring and create virtuous conduct instead.

The development of our true mind and its wisdom relies on the diligent practice of upholding the precepts, developing concentration and increasing awareness and insight. This process which transforms a deluded mind into our true mind is described in Buddhism as "converting consciousness into wisdom". Consciousness carries the psychological baggage of past experiences. The wisdom emitted from our true mind is the therapy or treatment for human beings in their attempt to resolve any internal conflicts within their minds, to transcend suffering in this lifetime and to escape from the cycle of birth and death in coming lives.

The Mind-only School further classifies the psychological responses of human beings into fifty-one categories and refers to them as "the attributes of the mind." These include:

  1. Five basic psychological functions: mental and physical contact, attention, feeling, identification and analysis.
  2. Five deliberately created mental conditions: aspiration, comprehension, memory, concentration and wisdom.
  3. Eleven wholesome psychological states: trust, diligence, humility, remorse, no greed, no hatred, no ignorance, tranquility, attentiveness, equanimity, and no harm.
  4. Six root afflictions: greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance, doubt and incorrect view.
  5. Twenty unwholesome psychological states: anger, hostility, irritation, conceit, deceit, flattery, arrogance, malice, jealousy, stinginess, no remorse, no regret, no trust, laziness, insensitivity, apathy, agitation, forgetfulness, incorrect perception and heedlessness.
  6. Four neutral states of mind: remorse, sleepiness, applied thought and sustained thought.

The above categorization of human psychological responses in Buddhism is rather comprehensive and sophisticated. Today's psychology researchers will gain a lot if they can study Buddhism in addition to psychology.

The Allegories of the Mind

In Buddhism, the root cause of human suffering, and other problems, is identified as the mind. It thus proposes to tap into this invaluable resource by transforming any unwholesomeness into wholesomeness. Buddhism instructs sentient beings on how to recognize the mind, calm the mind and handle the mind. The Buddha taught, in his life time, for forty-nine years. Whether his teachings were about the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, the Six Paramitas, or the Four Encompassing Principles, they invariably involved mind. The mind dictates a person's behavior. If a person's mind is pure, all his/her thoughts, speech and actions, will necessarily be pure. If a person's mind is impure, what he/she hears and sees becomes impure. Therefore, it is said in one sutra, "When the mind is impure, the being is impure; when the mind is pure, the being is pure."

All the pain and suffering in this world are created by the mind. Our minds have wandered among the Six Realms in numberless lives. It seems that we are never in control. The mind always attaches to colorful external surroundings, seeking tirelessly for fame, fortune, power and love, constantly calculating and discriminating. The truth is, our mind was originally capable of embracing everything just like that of the Buddha's. It was like the sun and moon, capable of breaking through darkness. It was like fertile soil, capable of enriching the roots of virtue and growing trees of merit. It was like a bright mirror, capable of reflecting everything clearly and truthfully. It was like an ocean, full of immeasurable resources and treasures. In the Buddhist canons, the Buddha often used simple stories to describe the mind. A summary of ten of them is listed below:

  1. The mind is like a monkey, difficult to control: As is said in an old proverb, "the mind resembles a monkey and the thoughts resemble horses." The mind is compared to a monkey that is hyperactive, jumping and swinging between tree limbs without any moment of rest.
  2. The mind is as quick as lighting and thunder: The mind is compared to lighting, thunder, or a spark created by striking a stone. It functions so rapidly that at the moment of thought, it has traveled throughout the universe without any obstruction. For instance, when one thinks about taking a trip to Europe or America, immediately the scenery of Europe and America will surface in his/her mind, as if he/she were already present in those places.
  3. The mind is like a wild deer, chasing after sensory pleasure all the time: The wild deer runs in the wilderness and becomes thirsty. To search for water, it scrambles in four directions, looking for a stream. Our mind is like this wild deer, it can hardly resist the temptation of the five sensual desires and the six sensory objects. It chases after sight, sound and other sensory pleasures all the time.
  4. The mind is like a robber stealing our virtues and merits: Our body is like a village, with the five sensory organs as the five entrances, and the mind is the thief in the village who steals beneficial deeds and merits that we have laboriously accumulated, leaving us with a negative impression in other's minds and a poor life style. Confucian scholar Wang Yangming once said, "It's much easier to catch bandits hidden in the wilderness than to eradicate the thief in our mind." If we can tame the thief in our mind, making it obedient and compliant, we will become the master of our mind and capable of fostering superior virtues and merits.
  5. The mind is like an enemy inflicting suffering upon us: the mind acts like our foes and enemies, aiming at creating trouble for us, causing us all kinds of pain and suffering. In one sutra, it says, "Unwholesomeness in itself is empty because it is a creation of the mind; if the mind is purified, unwholesomeness will be gone in no time." Our mind has Buddha Nature as its original quality which is pure, free and contented. But numerous delusions have caused afflictions to our body and spirit. If we can eliminate our delusions and false views, we will be able to make friends with this enemy.
  6. The mind is like a servant to various irritations: The mind acts as if it is the servant of external objects, catering to and driven constantly by these objects, resulting in numerous afflictions. In another sutra, it says that our mind has three poisons, five hindrances, ten defilements, eighty- eight impediments, and eighty-four- thousand aggravations! These hindrances, obstacles, defilements and impediments are all capable of impeding our wisdom, restraining our mind and spirit and making us restless. To turn our mind from a servant into a master depends largely on how we train it.
  7. The mind is like a master having the highest authority: The mind is the boss of the body. It possesses the highest authority. It leads, governs and commands everything including our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mental activities to produce sensory feelings and cognitive functions.
  8. The mind is like an ever-flowing spring: Our mind is similar to running water gushing incessantly. It holds unlimited potential and contains immeasurable treasures. If we can effectively utilize our spring of wisdom, we will be free from the fear of being scarcity.
  9. The mind is like an artist who paints: The Avatamsaka Sutra says, "The mind is like a master painter experienced at painting all sorts of things." Our mind is very much like a skillful painter who can draw various pictures. When one's mind is inspired by wise ones and sages, one's appearance will seem wise and enlightened. When one's mind is occupied by malice and hostility, one's appearance will look fierce and repulsive like that of a devil or ghost. In other words, "As one's mind changes, so does one's appearance."
  10. The mind is like space without limit: The nature of mind is as expansive as the limitless space. It is capable of encompassing everything in the universe. In another sutra, it says, "If one wants to comprehend the enlightened state of a Buddha, one has to purify his/her mind so it becomes empty like space." Space is vast and enormous without borders or edges. Space supports everything but grasps nothing. If we want to understand the enlightened states of the Buddhas, we have to expand our mind so that it becomes limitless and boundless like the sky, friction-free and carefree like space. Then our mind will be able to embrace all things in the universe and benefit all sentient beings.

Ways to Purify the Mind

Modern medicine is very advanced. All kinds of pharmaceuticals are available. The variety of drugs corresponds to the numerous ailments modern people now have which were non-existent before. There are cancers in our physical bodies, but aren't there cancers in our minds also? Greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance and doubt are illnesses that we cannot ignore. When we have physical disorders, we treat them with medicines, intravenous injections and nu- tritional supplements. There is an old Chinese saying, " Medicine can only cure symptoms of ailments. It will not heal the real illnesses." The real illness is the illness of the mind. As a matter of fact, many physical diseases are caused by psychological factors. The most obvious examples are illnesses of the stomach and digestive system. Eighty percent of these disorders are related to emotional distress. If we can maintain a balanced and peaceful mind, many diseases will disappear.


If we have psychological disorders, what medicines will benefit our spirit? The Buddha is said to have created eighty-four-thousand instructions to remedy our eighty-four-thousand tenacious maladies. For example, if we do not eradicate our greed by upholding the precepts, our mind will follow our greed by running wild. If we do not overcome our anger by practicing meditation, our spirit will live forever in a "flame of fire" which makes perfect tranquility difficult to reach. Finally, the affliction of ignorance can only be cured by wisdom, because wisdom is capable of penetrating the darkness of ignorance, uncovering the magnificent and tranquil state of our original mind.

In addition to the major illnesses caused by the three poisons, and ignorance, there are all kinds of psychological sicknesses that need to be healed, transformed, or overcome. The following are treatments as prescribed in the Buddha's teachings:

  1. A calm mind is an antidote to a busy mind: The tempo of modern life is rather fast and compacted. Most people suffer from distress caused by anxiety and insecurity. Therefore, in our daily lives, it's beneficial if we have a few minutes to practice the art of self-healing through mind calming and purification. When the "impurities" in our mind are cleansed, insight and wisdom will emerge from calmness.
  2. A benevolent mind is an antidote to a malevolent mind: Our mind sometimes is like that of a "sage," but at other times like that of a "troubled one," rambling up and down, in between the positive and the negative. When the benevolent mind arises, everything goes well; when the malevolent mind arises, millions of defilements result. Therefore, we have to eradicate the unwholesome mind, and guard and keep our correct thoughts, in order to cultivate a mind of loving kindness and compassion.
  3. A trusting mind is an antidote to a doubtful mind: Many mistakes and tragedies in the world are due to doubt and suspicion, for instance, suspecting the betrayal of a friend, infidelity of a spouse, or ill will of a relative. When doubt arises, it's like a restraining rope on the body, making movement almost impossible. Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom (Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra) says, "The Buddha's teachings are as large as an ocean. Trust provides the only means to reach it." Building trust not only allows us to realize the truth in the Buddha's teachings, it also enables us to be more tolerant toward others, to accept the world as it is and to strengthen our belief in the Dharma.
  4. A true mind is an antidote to a deluded mind: Because of an attachment to the notion of self, personal preference and judgments, ordinary people's minds are constantly discriminating and deliberating, creating countless illusions and unwarranted responses. To lead a life of truth, beauty and virtue, we have to use our mind without discrimination and duality, perceiving things as they are and treating all sentient beings as inherently equal.
  5. An open mind is an antidote to a narrow mind: We need to make our mind become like an ocean capable of receiving all the water from hundreds of rivers and tributaries without changing their characteristics. Only an all-embracing mind of gratitude and forbearance can relieve us from a jealous and intolerant mind.
  6. A balanced mind is an antidote to a fragmented mind: If material wealth is the only thing valued in life, we will become extremely anguished when we lose our fortune. If ordinary love is the focal point of life, we will suffer tremendously if that love relationship can no longer be maintained. Whenever there is grasping and clinging, there is differentiation and bondage. How can one be free? It's better that one react to the transient, worldly possessions and the attached illusions with an even and equitable mind. By doing that, one will become free and unperturbed at all times and in all occasions without any attachment or restriction.
  7. An enduring mind is an antidote to an impermanent mind: Although Buddhism maintains that all things and phenomena, including thoughts and feelings, are impermanent and constantly changing, it also holds that when we vow to serve others and not just ourselves, the power of the vow and devotion is so immeasurable that it reaches beyond the universe. The Avatamsaka Sutra says, "As soon as one invokes the bodhicitta (the vow to attain Buddhahood), one is immediately enlightened." A Bodhisattva who has just pledged his/her vow has a mind as pure as that of the Buddha's. However, he/she has to maintain that momentum, without falling back, in order to attain perfect enlightenment.
  8. A non-attached mind is an antidote to an impulsive mind: Modern men and women fancy novelty and fads. They are curious about any new gimmick, and thus become easy targets of bizarre and eccentric scams and frauds perpetrated by con artists. Chan Buddhism states that, "A non-attached mind is the path to enlightenment." Maintaining a non-attached mind in our daily life will enable us to appreciate that, "Every day is a delightful day, every moment is an enjoyable moment."

In addition to these eight observations, we ought to cultivate a mind of patience, humility, thoughtfulness, filial piety, sincerity, honesty, innocence, purity, loving-kindness, forgiveness, joyfulness, charity, reverence, equanimity, forbearance, contrition, repentance, thankfulness, wisdom (prajna), compassion (a trait of a Bodhisattva) and enlightenment (a trait of a Buddha) to fully develop its boundless potential.

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Buddhism's Contribution to Modern Psychology

Western Psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) developed the practice of psychoanalysis. He was also the first researcher who explored the role of the human unconscious in the history of Western physics. His contribution to psychology is analogous to Newton or Copernicus's contribution to science. Nevertheless, the human unconscious has been the subject of detailed and sophisticated analysis and discussion by Buddhists in the East since for over fourteen-hundred years, as evidenced by the book "Verses on the Formulation of the Eight Consciousnesses (by Venerable Master Xuanzang)".

Freud's work on the unconscious was further advanced by his well known student Karl Jung (1875-1961). Jung was very knowledgeable about Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices, such as Buddhism, Chan and Yoga. Inspired by these teachings, Jung divided the human psyche into three levels: conscious, individual unconscious and collective unconscious. The individual unconscious functions like a storage of memory, amassing a person's repressed psychological experiences and feelings. The collective unconscious, on the other hand, is the accumulation of the deep-seated archetypes inherited by human beings over many generations. This idea is very similar to the formulation of the "Alaya Consciousness" in Buddhism and is an example of the influences of Buddhism on Western Psychology.

After World War II, Humanistic Psychology developed. Advanced by Abraham Maslow (1908- 1970), it postulates that human needs can be divided into five stages. The highest stage is "self- actualization." He borrowed concepts such as "correct feeling" and "enlightenment" from Buddhism to interpret the ideal state of self- actualization. He identified this state as a living experience of spirituality and bliss, transcending time and space, object and subject. Maslow often used the Buddhist term "Nirvana" to describe this special experience. He also stated that the notions of "Selflessness" and "True Self (Buddha Nature)" can assist people in attaining self-actualization and contributing to others in society.


Another psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (1900- 1980), had a keen interest in and deep understanding of Chan Buddhism. He spoke highly of Buddhism and its spiritual aspect characterized by "loving-kindness and compassion" and "an extreme altruism of elevating all sentient beings to bliss." He thought that altruism, in the form of sacrificing one's self for others, is the correct "medicine" for healing sickness in Western society.

As a branch of Humanistic Psychology, Transpersonal Psychology developed in the 1960s and has broadened the boundary of traditional psychology by integrating Buddhist philosophy, and other spiritual practices, with Western Psychology. It is often thought to be "the psychology of modern wisdom and creativity." This school of psychology investigates transpersonal psychic states, values and ideals, meaning of life, cares for the dying, the relationship of an individual with the whole of humankind and the relationship between an individual and nature. Meditation is included as a way of expanding one's consciousness in order to establish an integration of mind, body and spirit. Modern Western methodologies are used to explain many of today's concrete psychological problems where traditional Buddhist Psychology has often been more generalized. The scope and object of Transpersonal Psychology is very close to the concept of "oneness and coexistence" in Buddhism.

Dr. Victor Frankl (1905-1997), another advocate of Humanistic Psychology, devoted his investigation to the meaning of life and what happens at the time of one's death. He believed that human beings can create meaningful and enjoyable lives through their own efforts by probing deeply into and understanding life's essence. He further mentioned that when humans are confronted with death or suffering, if they can adjust their state of mind from the negative to the positive in reacting to these circumstances, they will experience a deeper meaning of life which brings about clarity and dignity. He developed these ideas into a system called Logotherapy.

Logotherapy can be said to be an extension of the Buddhist idea that "every perception and concept is created by the mind." The Virmalakirtinirdesa Sutra says, "If one's mind is pure, the world is experienced as pure." Buddhism stresses daily practice and training in order to transcend life and death. The scholars in Humanistic Psychology also turned their attention to the relationship between the understanding of life and death and personal spiritual liberation. In the future, it is predicted that more integration will occur between Western psychotherapy and Eastern Buddhist practices leading to liberation from suffering.

Although we live in a time of abundant resources brought about by rapid economic growth and technological advances, we are extremely lacking in spirituality. When the body and mind are squeezed and harmed by various pressures from the external environment, and we are unable to adjust or adapt to them, mental disorders usually result such as anxiety and depression.

Buddhist Psychology identifies the source of all suffering. It shows us the meaning of life and guides all sentient beings in searching the deeper powers of mind through the elimination of greed, anger and ignorance from within. Its practice, if pursued freely and diligently, prevents any occurrence or reoccurrence of psychological illness. It aids people in creating both physical and mental health so they can lead both joyful and fulfilling lives.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, much of Western Psychology has absorbed considerable wisdom from Eastern cultures, especially Buddhist philosophy and practices. Based on this, it can be stated that Buddhist Psychology represents an important and comprehensive science of mental health. By adapting to the needs of people, Buddhist Psychology, along with other modalities, will meet the demands of our time by providing solutions to human problems and an improvement in social well-being.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun

Venerable Master Hsing Yun was born in Chiangsu Province, China in 1927 and entered a monastery near Nanjing at age twelve. He was fully ordained in 1941, and is the 48th patriarch of the Linji (Rinzai) Chan School. In 1949, amid the turbulence of civil war, he went to Taiwan.

In Taiwan, he began fulfilling his long-held vow of promoting Humanistic Buddhism – a Buddhism that takes to heart spiritual practice as daily life. With an emphasis on not needing to "go some place else" to find enlightenment, we can realize our true nature in the here and now, within this precious human birth and this world. When we actualize altruism, joyfulness, and universality, we are practicing the fundamental concepts of Humanistic Buddhism. When we give faith, hope, joy, and ser- vice, we are helping all beings, as well as ourselves. For nearly a half century, Venerable Master Hsing Yun has devoted his efforts to transforming this world through the practice of Humanistic Buddhism.

He is the founder of the Fo Guang Shan International Buddhist Order, which is headquartered in Taiwan and supports temples worldwide. The Order emphasizes education and service and maintains public universities, Buddhist colleges, libraries, publishing houses, Buddhist art galleries and tea rooms, free mobile medical clinics, a children's home, a retirement home, a high school, and a television station. The Order's lay service organization, Buddha's Light International Association, also has active chapters worldwide.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun is an outspoken pro- ponent of equality among all people and religious traditions. The Order has the largest number of fe- male monastics of any Buddhist order today. By providing and supporting educational and leadership opportunities, he has worked to improve the status of women in Taiwan. He has held full ordination ceremonies for women of the Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana traditions. In addition, he annually organizes conferences to bring together the various Buddhist schools and to promote dialogue between Buddhists and other major religious groups.

He is a prolific writer and has authored over one hundred books in Chinese. His writings have been translated into English and many other languages. His Life of Sakyamuni Buddha and the sixteen- volume Fo Guang Buddhist Dictionary have both won Taiwan's highest humanitarian award. His biography Handing Down the Light, Hsing Yun's Ch'an Talks, The Lion's Roar, The Hundred Sayings Series, The Humanistic Buddhism Series, and Being Good: A Guide to Buddhist Ethics are now available in English. His numerous lectures also continue to be translated into English.

Based in Taiwan, Venerable Master Hsing Yun travels widely. His insightful, engaging, and witty lectures unfailingly endear him to audiences. He reminds us that to transform our world, we must be actively engaged in it. "Community transcends the individual," he says, "and in doing so, fulfills the individual in the most complete way possible." Wherever he goes, he encourages people to unite both the local and global community into a world of complete equality, joyfulness, and perfect peace.