Buddha Founded Psychology and Psychotherapy

Charles Day

My spiritual journey has combined with my professional interests to lead me to assert that if science had been more developed 2600 years ago, Buddha would be considered the founder of psychology and psychotherapy. Here's how I came to that conclusion. I first learned to meditate in the late 1960s when meditation was being introduced into the United States and other Western countries by spiritual gurus and teachers who came from throughout Asia, as well as by returning Westerners who had spent time in Asian ashrams and monasteries.

As a young practicing psychotherapist, I had been teaching patients different relaxation methods taught in my clinical psychology education and training programs. When I learned how to meditate - sitting comfortably with eyes closed while mentally repeating a phrase or observing the breath - I thought it was the simplest, easiest to learn, and most effective of all the relaxation methods I knew. And I began practicing it regularly myself and teaching it to my psychotherapy patients, psychology students, and friends who wanted to learn how to relax.

Back then I usually called it a relaxation technique because the various meditations coming out of Asia were often dismissed as rituals associated with Eastern religions, despite being taught as secular and universal relaxation methods, or as too fringy, esoteric, or scientifically unproven. Today, a half-century of scientific experimental and field research has validated the multiple physiological, neurological, psychological, occupational, and behavioral benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices. And meditation and mindfulness have become popular buzzwords in health, education, and business.

Fast forward to late 1980s when I worked in India and Thailand teaching clinical psychology and psychotherapy skills to mental health professionals and students. While there I took the opportunity to do several ten-day meditation retreats at International Retreat Centers with revered Buddhist Masters, in India with S.N. Goenka and in Thailand with Bhikkhu Buddhadasa. Previous to these retreats, impressed with the contributions to psychology made by Eastern religions, I had sporadically and eclectically studied them, but this was the first time I was systematically exposed to the specific teachings of Buddhism. And I was astonished by the parallels between what Buddha taught and what I had been taught were the 19th and 20th century discoveries of Pavlov, Skinner, Watson, Freud, Jung, Rogers, and Maslow, to name just a few of those we think of as the pioneers in the history of psychology. The Abhidharma, one of the main treatises attributed to the Buddha, is sometimes translated as the psychology of the mind.

Buddha explained in exquisite detail how the mind develops in such a way that suffering, stress, and discontent are experienced as inherent parts of life, and perhaps most importantly how to retrain or redevelop the mind in order to minimize, transcend, and ultimately eliminate suffering and live in harmony with all beings and all of creation. His basic teachings were further elaborated upon as Buddhism entered other Asian cultures, particularly China, Japan, and Tibet, leaving us with a legacy of a vast variety of cognitive exercises, meditation techniques, and mindfulness practices that are continuing to evolve as Buddhism encounters the West's emphasis on individualism, self-actualization, democracy, and a free-market economy.

In recognition of the enormous contributions that Buddha made, I decided then to commit myself to studying, teaching, and applying in my daily life Buddhist philosophy and psychology and the meditation and mindfulness practices he taught. In recent years, I've also enjoyed studying the nondualistic, mystical, and enlightenment teachings and experiences that are shared in all spiritual traditions with an eye toward personally living, modeling, and transmitting these teachings to others in ways that facilitate psychological and spiritual growth.

In brief this is why I believe that Buddha, who repeatedly emphasized that his only purpose was to teach the causes of suffering and how to end it, can be considered the founder of psychology and psychotherapy. As scientific disciplines, however, these would not be developed for another 2600 years. Until then it fell to the various religions to deal with ethics, morality, harmonious behavior and relationships, and metaphysical issues regarding the meaning of life, suffering, and life after death. Certainly, many of Buddha's teachings existed before him, but he systematized them and added a few of his own in such a way that they are now recognized as a detailed and coherent psychology or philosophy of life, a prescription for living peacefully and harmoniously.

Buddhism is still practiced as a religion in Asian countries and in the West by immigrants and their descendants, as well as by some Western converts. But many Westerners are practicing Buddhist teachings while maintaining their root religions, as recommended by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I teach and practice Buddhism as a philosophy, psychology, and way of life.

It should also be noted that studying Buddha's teachings or practicing meditation is not a substitute for psychotherapy or counseling, if needed. Meditation is done alone with the aim of increasing clarity and concentration by letting go of distracting cognitions, including negative thoughts, images, emotions, and physical sensations, but it is not likely to work with deeply entrenched problems. Counseling is done with a therapist who is trained to help resolve conflicts through utilizing verbal, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal processes. As a psychotherapist, I found that patients willing to meditate regularly progressed much faster than those who either did not want to learn or discontinued practicing after learning.

For those interested in pursuing study in Buddhist Psychology, there are various academic and professional psychology degree programs that acknowledge Buddha's teachings and practices in their curriculum. Two of the oldest are the Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO, and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA. Googling "Transpersonal Psychology Programs" and "Buddhist Psychology Programs" will bring up other options. Most traditional academic psychology programs, as well as most clinical psychologists and other practicing therapists, however, still fail to realize that Buddha articulated many of the psychological and psychotherapeutic theories and techniques attributed to 19th and 20th century scientists. So be it, whether as a professional or lay person, studying the interfacing of psychology, psychotherapy, and Buddhism is an inspiring enterprise.