Who We Really Are: Buddhist Approaches to Psychotherapy*

by Kenneth Porter**

In the last 30 years Buddhism has increasingly influenced a new generation of American psychotherapists. The basic Buddhist concepts of Buddha nature, the dharma, attachment and meditation have opened up new ways of thinking about the self, psychopathology, therapeutic process, the goal of therapy, the affective focus of therapy, the super-ego and therapeutic technique. Using a Buddhist approach to group therapy we can maintain adherence to the traditional principles of group therapeutic leadership technique, while exploring the possibilities for changing group structure through meditation, increasing insight and empathy in both leader and group members, and deepening access to repressed material. This approach does not create “a new form of therapy or group therapy,” but rather might enable us to do better what it is that we already
know how to do.

It is interesting that the history of Buddhism in America, and the history of psychoanalysis, begin at almost the same moment. Although Thoreau in the 1840’s, and the spiritual movement of the Theosophists and certain Boston scholars after the 1870’s, had all been interested in Buddhism, its entrance into the United States is often dated from the arrival of the Zen teacher Soyen Shaku in 1905 – only four years before Freud’s famous Clark University lectures of 1909. Since then both movements have permeated American society.

But it was in the 1950’s that Buddhism began to enter the American mainstream.
The writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg embraced Zen Buddhism with a fervor. With his easy and brilliant writing style, the transplanted Englishman Alan Watts began to make Buddhism accessible to a wider audience. And at Columbia University the esteemed (and aged – he was then in his late 80’s) Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki began to teach the famous seminar that introduced Buddhism to psychoanalysis. Attended by Erich Fromm and Karen Horney (as well as the musician John Cage and others), this class led to the seminal 1957 Cuernavaca conference on Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis and to the book of the same name. This was the first attempt to bring these two powerful movements together in a scholarly fashion (Suzuki, Fromm and De Martino, 1960).

In the 60’s and 70’s Buddhism grew in popularity. Starting in 1959 another Zen master named Suzuki (Shunryu Suzuki Roshi) began to teach in San Francisco, and his collected dharma talks, later published under the title Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, (Suzuki, 1972) became a classic. In the 70’s two Tibetan Buddhism teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Tarthang Tulku, also began to teach in the United States, and three young Americans, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg brought back from Asia the form of Buddhism called Insight Meditation and founded the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. Starting in the 1980’s came pioneering work in the integration of Buddhism and psychotherapy – especially the books of Diane Shainberg (Shainberg, 1983, 1993, 2000), John Welwood (1983, 2000), and Mark Epstein (Epstein, 1995, 1998, 2001), among many others....(continued)

Click here to read this complete article and to download and print it. My thanks to Ken Porter, New York, NY, for sending me his essay.