Yoga and Buddhism are vast subjects, spanning many thousands of years, and they are amazing philosophies. But, are they philosophy or religion? They both certainly have significant religious overtones, and are considered to be religions by many people. Actually, however, they are styles of life that developed in order to help people be more in tune with their religion and with God. Yoga, which means unity, was a practice that developed within the Hindu religion to help Hindus achieve unity with God. So it developed as a practice in one’s daily life that led to religious fulfillment. The Buddha was a Yogi, and did not consider himself to be different than other people. His followers, however, have so fervently held to his teachings that the practice of Buddhism is often viewed as a religion, and over time it became mixed with religious stories and myths, as people tried to fit Buddhism into their traditional culture.
We will look at Yoga and Buddhism as lifestyles, which lead individuals toward a healthy psychological development. We will not be able to avoid the obvious religious and metaphysical overtones, nor should we try. It will actually be quite interesting to compare Yoga and Buddhism to the lifestyle philosophies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (which cover at least the traditional religions of most American students), since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam certainly have no shortage of guidelines for living one’s daily life in the service of God. Indeed, Alice Bailey (1927), who has offered an inspiring commentary on the earliest teachings on Yoga, suggests that in order for students to have a complete picture of the fulfillment of the soul they need to have read three books: the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, the philosophy of which will be covered briefly in this chapter, and the New Testament, covered in the next chapter.
Before beginning this chapter and the next one, however, it should be noted that there are many translations of the classic books on Yoga and Buddhism and terminology varies from translation to translation. One must simply accept this, since the only alternative is for each one of us to learn all of the languages in which these books were written. In this chapter, we will only be exploring the basic concepts of these different perspectives on human nature and intentional personality development.
Toward the end of each section we will take a look at how Yoga and Buddhism have influenced America and Western psychology. Quite a lot has been written on this topic, including works by some of the most famous personality theorists (Freud, Jung, Fromm, James, etc.). However, only recently has there been sufficient interest in the field of personality for these discussions to start becoming more common. Since religion and spirituality are an important aspect of positive psychology, which is itself a rapidly growing force in psychology, it is likely that knowledge of the overlap between Yoga, Buddhism, and other spiritual aspects of human nature and personality theory will continue to grow.
Historical Description of Yoga
Yoga dates back thousands of years. Yoga as we know it today stems primarily from the writings of Patanjali. Patanjali was one of the first to write down an ancient oral tradition, in his Yoga Sutras (the rules of Yoga), sometime between 800 B.C. and 300 A.D. (though some claim it is much older). Divided into four short books, they contain a profound philosophy that continues to have significant influence today. There are many branches of Yoga now, but the type that was brought to the West, specifically to the United States by Paramahansa Yogananda in the 1920s (Yogananda, 1946), traces its roots directly to the Yoga of Patanjali.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
An early translation of the Yoga Sutras lists 195 sutras in the four books, totaling only sixteen pages (Bailey, 1927). And yet, the philosophy contained within them is amazing, although somewhat difficult to understand without having prepared oneself for this very different Eastern philosophy. A more Americanized version of the Yoga Sutras has recently been provided by Hartranft (2003), along with a section by section interpretation of the text.
The first verse of the first book states very clearly what Yoga is about. “Aum. The following instruction concerneth the Science of Union.” (Yoga Sutras I:1; Bailey, 1927). Aum, or Om, is the sound of creation, which many Christians may relate to the Word of God in the New Testament (John 1:1; Holy Bible, 1962). The union refers to the union of the individual with the divine creator. Don’t be confused by the fact that Hindus believe in many gods. In reality, they view those lesser gods as aspects or manifestations of the one true God, much as Christians believe in one God but refer often to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the Holy Trinity) and the angels and demons (including Satan).
The second and third verses then set the stage for the purpose of practicing Yoga: restraining one’s inquisitive nature and controlling the mind, so that we might see ourselves realistically. The primary way in which we control the mind is to meditate. The remaining verses describe the nature of man, the universe, and the divine, the proper practice of Yoga through meditation, the challenges one is likely to face along the way, and the marvelous benefits of Yoga. Thousands of books, describing many different approaches to Yoga, have followed these simple and straightforward guidelines. No matter which type of Yoga one may choose to study, it would be valuable for anyone to return to this primary source of information to be reminded of the basic goal and purpose of Yoga.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of the Blessed One,” is a fascinating story, with great religious significance if one accepts it at face value (Mitchell, 2000). It consists primarily of a conversation between Krishna, a great Avatar or divine incarnation, and Arjuna, a great warrior, on the eve of a battle. The battle is a civil war, with noble warriors and relatives split between both sides. Arjuna decides that no good can come of killing so many people in this battle, and he decides not to fight. Krishna, who is driving Arjuna’s chariot, instructs Arjuna in Yoga as he discusses what is right both for Arjuna and for all people. Many of the principles of Yoga derive from what Krishna told Arjuna, thus it is believed by many that these Yoga principles come from the mouth of God. This is similar to what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe about the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran: that they are divinely inspired texts.
My favorite quote from the Bhagavad Gita refers directly to the self:
The Self is a friend for him who masters himself by the Self;
but for him who is not self-mastered, the self is the cruelest foe.
(pg. 89; Mitchell, 2000)
This quote suggests that we can be our own best friend, or our own worst enemy. Indeed, Krishna tells Arjuna that what he must do is to be himself. It is only through his own actions that Arjuna can fulfill his potential. However, Arjuna must not remain attached to the consequences of his actions; he must simply act and allow the universe to move forward as it will. Only by truly understanding the nature of the universe, and the nature of ourselves, can we properly make this choice. The practice of Yoga helps us to see this reality, and the Bhagavad Gita helps to describe the essential practices.
The altar prepared for the ceremony when the author was
initiated into Kriya Yoga. [Image by Mark Kelland]
Together, the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras contain all of the basic information on Yoga we will explore in this chapter. There is actually a fair amount of overlap between the books, but it is unclear which one may have been written first. Most scholars believe that the Bhagavad Gita was written between 500 B.C. and 100 A.D. (Mitchell, 2000), which falls right in the middle of when Patanjali is believed to have written down the Yoga Sutras. Since both philosophies seem to come from much older sources, it may well be that they owe their commonalities to some older tradition that can no longer be specifically identified.
Placing Yoga in Context: An Ancient Plan for Self Development
Yoga is much older than any other theory described in this book, with the exception of those parts of other theories that were borrowed from Yoga and Buddhism. The ancient Vedas, which provide much of the mythological and philosophical basis for Hinduism, are 4,000 to 5,000 years old (placing them amongst the oldest recorded literature in the world). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, which provide the basic teachings of traditional Yoga, were written as early as 600 B.C. (though there is little consensus on exactly when). Kriya-Yoga, the yoga believed by many to be the original Yoga of Patanjali, was lost to the world for many centuries, until it was reintroduced by Lahiri Mahasaya in 1861. Yoga continues to evolve today, with many different styles being introduced and revised, both in the East and the West.
Although this ancient philosophy may not seem relevant to modern personality theory, it has actually been part of psychology from the very beginning. Most notably, Jung and Rogers were clearly influenced by their travels to India and China, respectively. The knowledge of Yoga and Buddhism they developed as a result of those and other experiences helped to shape their personality theories. Fromm also examined how psychoanalysis and Buddhist meditation compare to each other. Today, as positive psychology examines topics such as happiness and well being, and as spiritual psychotherapists examine the important role that spirituality plays in the lives of many people, those practices that Yoga, Buddhism, and other spiritual disciplines have in common are being examined more closely by psychologists. In the next chapter we will examine similar spiritual disciplines that exist within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.
The Concept of Self from a Yogic Perspective
Spirit, Nature, and Consciousness
In the metaphysics of Yoga there is believed to be a duality between spirit and nature. Spirit is pure consciousness; nature is the opposite of spirit. Human beings are a combination of spirit and nature. The body and mind come from nature, but the transcendental self comes from spirit. A key point here is that it is the transcendental self that comes from spirit, not the self we are aware of every day. Our thoughts, feelings, sensations, indeed our mind itself, are all the result of neural activity in our brain, and our brain is part of our body. Thus, our awareness is not our consciousness.
Our true self, the transcendental self, is a temporary manifestation of Spirit in essence. The great mistake in our lives is to confuse our body and mind with who we really are, to believe that this body and this mind are our self. The practice of Yoga, however, teaches us to still our minds, to eliminate all thought and sensation, so that we might be in union with our transcendental self and the universal spirit. Once we have accomplished this task, by subjugating our natural tendency to think and restraining our mind itself, we will know who and what we really are (Yoga Sutras I:2,3 [Bailey, 1927]). This is not an easy task, but it has a great reward. As Sri Yukteswar told Yogananda:
The soul expanded into Spirit remains alone in the region of lightless light, darkless dark, thoughtless thought, intoxicated with its ecstasy of joy in God’s dream of cosmic creation. (Yogananda, 1946; pgs. 489-490)
William James, America’s foremost psychologist, is best known for his theory on the stream of consciousness. According to James, it is the continuity of consciousness that defines our self. This is in direct contradiction to Eastern philosophies, which consider the conscious mind to be derived from the natural world, and therefore only an illusion. Eastern philosophies consider the transcendental self to be real, but obscured from us by the distraction of the so-called conscious mind. Can we find some compromise between these points of view? No! However, such a contradiction would probably not bother James. James (1892) did talk about the soul, the transcendental ego, and spirit as possible sources for the conscious self, but considered that possibility to be outside the realm of psychological study.
Discussion Question: Do you believe in a transcendental self (whether you call it self, spirit, soul…whatever)? What does this make you feel about your physical body? As for all of nature can you really believe it is just an illusion?
Karma is a difficult concept to grasp. We generally think of karma as the consequences of things we have done wrong, but karma does not apply simply to our misbehavior, it applies to all of our actions. An easy to understand discussion of karma has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The law of karma can be understood on two levels. First, karma refers to cause and effect. Whenever we perform an action, we experience some consequence at a later time. The second level of karma may be more important, as it refers to our state of mind at the time when we performed the action in question. Our intentions, or the motives behind an action, determine the nature of the consequences we experience. The importance of this point is that we control the nature of our karma. This, of course, has important implications for personality development. Once we understand the karmic law, it is only natural that we should begin to plant the seeds of healthy karma. In other words, we should be inclined to act only in ways that are healthy and socially beneficial, so that the consequences we then experience will lead to greater well-being for ourselves.
The second level of karma, that it is our intentions and motivation that affect the outcome of our lives, seems quite similar to cognitive theories in psychology. Cognitive psychology focuses on the nature of our thought, and problems often arise when we are trapped in a series of automatic thoughts that create problems for us. In other words, when we view the world negatively, we react in negative and maladaptive ways. Similarly, our past karma influences the karma we create for the future. If we think and act in negative ways, we create negative karma, but it is also true that if we think and act in positive ways we create positive karma. Cognitive therapy resembles much of what is written in the East about recognizing the cause-and-effect pattern that our karma traps us within. Successful cognitive therapy is something like enlightenment: when we realize the truth of what we are doing we have a chance to break that pattern and move in a healthy direction.
Discussion Question: Karma refers to the cosmic law of cause and effect, the idea that our past actions will someday affect our current and future lives. Do you believe this, and can you provide any examples of this happening to you?
The Three Principles of Creation
Would it be possible for us to avoid or circumvent the law of karma by remaining inactive? Sometimes many of us do just want to get away from everything and everyone. However, social withdrawal is often an early sign of psychological distress or mental illness, suggesting that this is generally not a healthy action. According to Yoga, all nature is composed of three aspects called the gunas: rajas, tamas, and sattva. According to Krishna, as recorded in the Bhagavad Gita, the three gunas “bind to the mortal body the deathless embodied Self” (pg. 158; Mitchell, 2000). Rajas (born of craving) binds us to action, tamas (born of ignorance) binds us to dullness, and sattva (untainted and luminous) binds us to knowledge and joy. Only through faithful Yoga practice can an individual transcend the gunas and achieve unity with God. Only then will the individual be free from any attachment to action and free from the law of karma.
Another important and practical question that arises from an understanding of the three gunas is: what should we eat? In America we generally associate being vegetarian with practicing Yoga or being a Buddhist. But is there a good reason for this? Everything is made from the three gunas, but in different proportions. So we might say that a hot, spicy dish like Gang Garee from Thailand (a personal favorite) is predominantly rajas. Heavy food, with a thick sauce or gravy is predominantly tamas. Fruits and vegetables, however, are lighter and more refreshing; they are predominantly sattva. So a vegetarian diet should increase the relative amount of sattva in our body, thus making us a better person. This is just like the old saying: “You are what you eat!” This goes beyond diet, however, since diet only directly affects the body. What about the mind? Everything we take in is comprised of the three gunas: words and ideas that we hear, music, the emotions expressed by people we spend time with, and so on (Vivekananda, 1955a). It is important not only that we eat well, but also that we spend time in relaxing and healthy environments, associate with good people, and generally try to cultivate a life that moves more toward sattva than the other gunas.
The Guru or Teacher
Spirit vs. nature, consciousness, karma, the three gunas, it can all seem very strange to those of us who did not grow up with these concepts. Another common source of confusion is the distinction between the terms yogi and guru. A yogi is anyone who practices Yoga. A guru is a teacher, someone advanced in Yoga and capable of leading others on the path. A true guru is typically revered in the East, and in English they are often referred to as prophets, or saints.
Many believe that a guru is essential to the practice of Yoga. The practice of Yoga can be difficult, and the principles can be confusing. Some argue that only through initiation by a guru can an individual truly and correctly use mantras such as Om. Otherwise, the would-be student of Yoga will not know the correct frequency or nature of the mantra. Perhaps most important, though, is the spiritual consciousness provided by the guru. As described by Yogananda:
…If I entered the hermitage in a worried or indifferent frame of mind, my attitude imperceptibly changed. A healing calm descended at the mere sight of my guru. Each day with him was a new experience in joy, peace, and wisdom. Never did I find him deluded or emotionally intoxicated with greed, anger, or human attachment. (pg. 137; Yogananda, 1946)
Another aspect involved in the importance of a guru is his or her lineage. In Western culture we are very individualistic, so it is common for each new teacher or leader to try establishing a new beginning. In the collectivist cultures of the East, however, they pay more attention to the earlier teachers of current teachers. Establishing this lineage is very important, not to suggest that one line of Yoga is better than another, but to connect the past to the present and, presumably, the present to the future. Recent research in the field of positive psychology has suggested that such a balanced time perspective, emphasizing the past, present, and future, is an important facet of psychological well-being (Boniwell, 2005; Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2003).
Discussion Question: In Eastern cultures they talk about gurus, in Western cultures we often hear about mentors. Do the words “guru” and “mentor” mean the same thing to you? Have you ever been inspired by someone you thought of as a guru or mentor?
Pathways to Personal Growth: Schools of Yoga
There are many schools of Yoga, and the styles depend somewhat on which translations and which authors you happen to read. In her discourse accompanying the translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Bailey refers to four types of Yoga that developed as humanity developed (1927). In chronological order they are Hatha-Yoga, Laya-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga (also known as Kriya-Yoga, see Yogananda ). Feuerstein (2003) adds three more to what he describes as the seven major branches of the tree of Hindu Yoga: Jnana-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Mantra-Yoga.
The purpose of each of these schools of Yoga, in their own way, is to guide the individual toward the fulfillment of their life. This fulfillment is not necessarily enlightenment, or what we in the West may think of as heaven, but may instead be preparation for steadily improving lives over subsequent reincarnations. In accordance with the concept of karma, if we do our best to live this life as a good and faithful person, then in our future lives we will benefit from the seeds of good karma we have planted in this life. As humans we can achieve enlightenment in this life, but we are not doomed to eternal damnation if we don’t quite make it. So, Yoga offers us a hopeful guide toward being a good person, and teaches ways in which to continue our personal growth.
Hatha-Yoga is the Yoga of power, referring primarily to the Kundalini energy and prana (vital energy) within the body. The practices of Hatha-Yoga are intended to strengthen and prepare the body for controlling the life forces within. An important aspect is the practice of asanas, the postures that are often misidentified as being Hatha-Yoga itself. However, traditional Hatha-Yoga also involves celibacy, a vegetarian diet, breathing and concentration exercises (meditation), and cleansing the nasal passages and the alimentary canal.
Laya-Yoga focuses on meditative absorption of the psyche or mind to the point of ecstatic realization, or samadhi. As an advancement from Hatha-Yoga, Laya-Yoga leaves behind the physical focus of Hatha-Yoga for a highly developed state of meditation in which one’s sense of self dissolves into transcendental self-realization (i.e., realization of the true self, the transcendental spirit).
Bhakti-Yoga is the Yoga of devotion or love, in which the force of human emotion is channeled toward the Divine. This devotion develops along nine stages, the first being to listen to the names of God. The second is to chant praises in honor of the Lord, which is why chanting is so common in the practice of Yoga and Buddhism. The remaining stages involve a variety of practices or rituals. As simple as the first two stages may seem, together they have given rise to a special form of musical prayer: Kirtan, the practice of singing the many names of God (see the section on spiritual music below).
Bakti-Yoga is more than just a simple devotion to atman (the Supreme Soul that is God). It is a deep, genuine searching for the Lord that begins, continues, and ends in love (Vivekananda, 1955a). The secret of Bhakti-Yoga is that the great sages of ancient India realized that passionate human emotions are not wrong in themselves, they are not to be avoided and repressed, but rather they should be carefully harnessed and turned toward a higher spiritual direction. This is the direction of God, and the true nature of Bhakti-Yoga. However, there can also be dark side to Bhakti-Yoga, among those who have not turned toward a higher direction. Individuals who become trapped in the lowest level of Bhakti-Yoga can become religious fanatics. The only way they see to truly love one ideal is to hate all others (Vivekananda, 1955a). Religious fanaticism has caused great torment throughout the history of the human race, but it should never be confused with the true ideals of religion or spirituality.
Raja-Yoga or Kriya-Yoga
Raja-Yoga, or Royal Yoga, combines the principles, though not necessarily the practices, of other forms of Yoga and thus supersedes them all (Bailey, 1927). Raja-Yoga is that which was originally taught by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It is also known by the name Kriya-Yoga, and it is this term that Yogananda used when bringing Yoga to the United States in 1920. According to Yogananda, this form of Yoga is more than just a practice developed by a great man. Patanjali is believed to be one of the ancient avatars of India, making this form of Yoga a direct divine inspiration (Yogananda, 1946). Furthermore, this form of Yoga was lost to humanity for centuries, until another avatar named Babaji revealed it again to the Indian guru named Lahiri Mahasaya in 1861 (Yogananda, 1946). Of particular interest to Americans may be the fact that Babaji inspired Yogananda to come to America, through Babaji’s disciples Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar. Thus, Yoga came to the United States, as well as the rest of the Western world, at the behest of Babaji, a divine incarnation believed by many to be as significant as Gotama Buddha or Jesus Christ!
Jnana-Yoga is the Yoga of wisdom or knowledge. It is a rigorous discipline in which one uses the intellect to discern reality from maya. Maya is often misunderstood, and described as the cosmic delusion that our Self is this body in this life. However, Swami Vivekananda has offered an excellent explanation of what maya really is: simply a matter of fact statement about the nature of the world and of man (Vivekananda, 1955b). The philosophy from which our understanding of maya comes is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but it does challenge our basic understanding of everything we believe is real. There is no good without evil, no happiness without misery, no beauty without ugliness. Consequently, there will never be a perfect world, a world in which there is no suffering or death. Even the basic existence of the world must be considered in the context of no-existence. This strange and challenging philosophy is described by Vivekananda in the following passage:
What, then, does the statement that the world exists mean? It really means that the world has no existence. What, again, does the statement that the world has no existence mean? It means that it has no absolute existence: it exists only in relation to my mind, to your mind, and to the mind of everyone else. We see this world with the five senses, but if we had another sense, we would see in it something more. If we had yet another sense, it would appear as something still different. It has, therefore, no real existence; it has no unchangeable, immovable, infinite existence. Nor can it be said to have non-existence, since it exists and we have to work in and through it. It is a mixture of existence and non-existence. (pg. 27-28)
As you can see from this passage, Jnana-Yoga requires not only a keen intellect, but an open-minded willingness to embrace a different perspective. This perspective had a strong influence on the development of Chinese religion and philosophy, and similar concepts can be found in the famous Tao Te Ching of Lao Tsu, which provides the basis for Taoism (Lao Tsu, c. 600 B.C.).
The question of whether or not we recognize the reality of our world is central to cognitive psychology. In cognitive therapy, it is taken for granted that an individual does not view their environment realistically, that automatic thoughts of a maladaptive nature turn each situation into another instance of the person’s typical problem. With the help of an objective therapist, the individual may come to realize the nature of their maladaptive thought processes, and learn to control and re-evaluate their thoughts and feelings, so that they can react appropriately to other people and to new situations. In a similar way, the principles of Yoga, under the guidance of a guru, can help us to understand our world and the role we play in determining our future (creating good or bad karma).
Because we are inseparably compelled by the gunas (the three aspects of existence), existence involves action. Karma-Yoga teaches us to act without attachment to the consequences of our actions and without any expectations. But it is not enough to control our actions, we must understand why we are controlling our mind. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita:
He who controls his actions, but lets his mind dwell on sense-objects, is deluding himself and spoiling his search for the deepest truth. The superior man is he whose mind can control his senses; with no attachment to results, he engages in the yoga of action (pgs. 62-63).
The practical values of Karma-Yoga are many. According to Vivekananda (1955a), the true character of a person can be seen by watching their actions. Those who work for work’s sake, just because good will come of it, and who have given up any sense of self or attachment to their works, has achieved the ideal of Karma-Yoga. As difficult as it may be to take control of one’s life, in other words to direct one’s own karma, it can be done. If we learn to look at our past and present bad circumstances simply as facts that have happened, it is really our own opinion that allows those circumstances to affect our self-image (Schied, 1986). If we can look past those negative circumstances, indeed even look for the positive aspects in all situations, we can begin to act in positive ways that will create good karma for our future.
“In the end, these things matter most: How well did you love?
How fully did you live? How deeply did you learn
To let go?” – Kornfield, 1994
Mantra-Yoga is the Yoga of sound or vibration. The universe is believed to be in constant vibration. Om, the most sacred mantra, is believed to be the word representing the fundamental vibration of the universe. As such, meditating while chanting Om is believed to have almost magical transformative powers over the body and mind (Feuerstein, 2003). It is also common to chant short prayer phrases, such as Om Namah Shivaya (I bow to Shiva), the Hare Krishna mantra (the mahamantra, or great mantra), and Om Mani Padme Hum (a Tibetan Buddhist chant that has no direct translation). The CD Pilgrim Heart, by Krishna Das (2002), offers both insightful description and a modern musical presentation of some of these chants.
Connections Across Cultures: Franchised Yoga Centers in America
If you take a look at the magazine section of a major bookstore, you will find several magazines devoted to the practice of Yoga. In those magazines, you can find dozens of Yoga training centers and retreats. Many colleges and universities in America offer courses in Yoga. Yoga is very much a part of life for many Americans. But has it made its way into the mainstream? There is some interesting evidence to suggest that if it hasn’t yet, it will very soon. The days when Yoga centers were only individual operations, run by a small group of devoted yogis, appear to be over.
In 2003, internet entrepreneurs George Lichter and Rob Wrubel (formerly with the search engine Ask Jeeves International) were looking to move into a new business venture. When the two men realized that both were practicing Yoga (primarily the physical aspects of Hatha-Yoga), they decided to create a chain of Yoga centers across America. Beginning with the purchase of an established yoga center in Los Angeles, they have plans to expand to a variety of major cities, and ultimately to smaller locations around the country. Although a business model may fit well with American capitalism, can such an approach fit with Yoga? They hope that by having the company focus on the business aspects of running a Yoga studio, the instructors can be freed to focus on teaching Yoga to their students.
Many Americans still view Yoga as an odd curiosity and, primarily, as a form of exercise. Before I first began going to a Yoga retreat center I wondered if it would be too strange for me (even though I knew someone who had been going there for years). I had a wonderful time, and have returned there many times. But, like so many others, it is a retreat center all by itself. As Yoga centers based on the model of chain stores, with some consistency in terms of the services and environment they offer, spread across America, I think more people will take a chance on beginning to examine this curious path toward relaxation and peace of mind.
Obstacles to Personal Growth: Patanjali’s Five Hindrances
Patanjali’s five hindrances refer to conditions that block our personal development. The hindrances are identified as: avidya (ignorance), sense of personality, desire, hate, and sense of attachment. It may seem confusing to us that a sense of personality is a hindrance to personal development. Isn’t the goal in life to become aware of and comfortable with our true selves? Unfortunately, from the perspective of Yoga, that belief is the result of the single most challenging hindrance, the one that is the source of all other difficulties: ignorance. The problem, according to Patanjali, is that our sense of personality is a mistaken identification of our mental awareness, a product of our brain (nature), with our true and transcendental self (spirit). Specifically, the fifth Sutra of Book II states that “avidya is the condition of confusing the permanent, pure, blissful and the Self with that which is impermanent, impure, painful and the not-Self” (Bailey, 1927; pg. 115). The latter point refers specifically to the duality between our true self, that temporary manifestation of spirit in nature, with the body/mind of this world that will cease to exist when we die (though death does not really exist in the same sense in the perspective of Yoga).
It is also something of a problem to use the term attachment in a negative way. In Western psychology attachment is typically used to refer to the bonding between parent and child. Thus, we consider attachment to be a necessary condition of healthy development. In Yoga, however, any form of attachment is a delusion in which we consider elements of the natural world to be of importance. Only the universal spirit is perspective, even the love of a parent for a child is a delusion that keeps us attached to this world, and would therefore be a hindrance to our union with God. Actually, things are not as bleak as that might make them seem at first. Since there is only one universal spirit, we and our children, indeed everyone everywhere, is one and the same universal spirit, both past and present (hence the meaninglessness of death). So it is not wrong to love, it is only a mistake to think that love for a person or love for a thing is the most important thing in life. What is important is to practice Yoga in order to overcome these hindrances, to escape the laws of karma, to quiet the mind and transcend the natural world. Then one will know their union with God and all creation.
Discussion Question: According to Patanjali, the single greatest obstacle to personal growth is avidya (ignorance). How has your education helped you to grow as a person? Have you taken any courses specifically designed to help you with personal development? What plans, if any, do you have for continuing your education after you finish school?
Classic Indian Stages of Life
According to the Vedic teaching of ancient India, each Hindu male should progress through four stages of life: student, householder, hermit or forest-dweller, and finally renunciant. At a young age the child would be sent to live with a guru, so that he might devote himself to spiritual development, studying the Vedas (ancient Indian texts that provide much of the philosophy, practices, rituals and other guides for Hindu life), and mastering Yoga. Then the young man returns home, takes a wife (usually an arranged marriage), runs the family business, and basically takes care of the business of maintaining the Indian society. As the man grows older, and his children become ready to take over as the householders, he becomes a hermit, once again devoting himself to Yoga. Finally, the old man leaves society completely behind and focuses himself entirely on unity with God. For Hindu females all that can be said is that, unfortunately, this philosophy comes from an old and patriarchal society. There are no classic stages of life for women in the Vedic teachings.
These four stages are an ideal of the traditional Hindu life. As in our own culture, both personal and family values change over time. Many Hindus do not follow these ancient ways. Though this style of life is certainly not necessary for the practice of Yoga, one can see the advantage of beginning and ending one’s life with the sole purpose of practicing and mastering Yoga. Another interesting issue raised by these stages of life is the importance of middle age. In America we often hear about the so-called midlife crisis. There is some debate as to whether the midlife crisis exists, and whether it exists for both men and women, but in traditional Indian culture there is a profound difference: middle age is not the beginning of a decline toward old age and death, but rather a time to focus on the future and one’s enlightenment. Therefore, middle age should be a particularly hopeful and peaceful time.
Yoga in America: The Self-Realization Fellowship and Transcendental Meditation
Although many different gurus have come to America, teaching many different types of Yoga, perhaps the two most influential have been Paramahansa Yogananda and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Yogananda established the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in 1920 (Yogananda, 1946). Yogananda was one of the first gurus to come to America, and the SRF may be the oldest continuing school of Yoga in the West. Headquartered in California, SRF is dedicated to combining the Yoga of old with the predominant religion of the new world: Christianity. One of Yogananda’s most important works is The Second Coming of Christ, a two volume discussion of the Christian Gospels viewed from a Yogic perspective (Yogananda, 2004a,b). The basic premise of this work is that God is within us as the Christ consciousness, it is His presence that gives us life, and when we realize that He is within our selves (thus, the name Self-Realization) we cannot help but lead a better life. As strange as this may seem to many Christians, blending religious and philosophical beliefs is commonly accepted in Eastern cultures. They seek the best points of view in a variety of perspectives, and try to live according to those beliefs that are common and which benefit everyone in their community. More information on the SRF can be found on their website (listed at the end of the chapter).
In 1958, a guru named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began formally teaching Transcendental Meditation (TM; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1963). TM became a very popular meditation technique in America, and as many as 6 million people around the world have learned the TM technique (this website is also listed at the end of the chapter). Yogi’s first book on TM was originally entitled The Science of Being and the Art of Living, and he stated very clearly the purpose of life: “Expansion of happiness is the purpose of life…” (pg. 64) and “When one does not live a normal life or a life using his full potential, he feels miserable and tense and suffers in many ways” (pg. 69). This reference to the necessity of using one’s full potential sounds very similar to Roger’s and Maslow’s concept of self-actualization (or perhaps self-realization as described in the preceding paragraph). As is true of the SRF, the TM program does not advocate or reject any organized religion. Instead, TM is presented as a means to fulfill one’s life, regardless of the situation in which one is living.
Connections with Western Religious Practice
Consider the following quote: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will…” This sounds like the words of a guru, especially the part about giving up your own will. Doesn’t that sound like the Yoga philosophy of transcending the mind in order to be in union with the spirit? Actually, this was written by St. Benedict, a Catholic monk who lived from 480-547 (Fry, 1982). In fact, this is the very beginning of the Rule of St. Benedict, and it is interesting to note that the very first word is “Listen…” Remember the first stage of devotion in Bhakti-Yoga? It is not easy to listen, and listening intently with our whole being is something that takes a lifetime to master (deWaal, 1984). Naturally, it is easier to listen when we are focused, and either the practice of Yoga or contemplative prayer can help to still our mind, to tune out the distractions of our daily lives, so that we can listen to and/or be in union with God.
During the twentieth century, a Benedictine monk named John Main (1926-1982) tried to help the Christian world rediscover meditation and contemplative prayer. In addition to his own efforts, he inspired the creation of the World Community for Christian Meditation, an international community that practices and teaches meditation in the Christian tradition (see the website list at the end of the chapter). As is true of many practitioners of meditation, Fr. Main recommended meditating twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. A marvelous collection of Fr. Main’s writings has been compiled by Paul Harris (2003). The readings are quite short, and there is one for each day of the year. They can be used as a starting point for contemplation and prayer on the day assigned for each reading (if one chooses to follow that pattern). We will cover Christian mysticism, meditation, and contemplative prayer in more detail in the next chapter.
Another interesting comparison between Eastern and Western spiritualism is the use of music and song. The importance of chanting was mentioned above, but now we will take a closer look at the importance of music. The Yoga of Patanjali focuses on withdrawing from all sensory experience. The goal of meditation is to focus and then clear the mind, so that one is no longer distracted by the events of this world. However, in Bhakti-Yoga, the Yoga of devotion, some yogis embrace the fullness of refined human emotion (Mandala Publishing Group, 2000). Music is one of the best ways to fully express our emotional connection with all that is around us. A special type of musical prayer called Kirtan grew out of the first two stages of Bhakti-Yoga. Kirtan refers to the practice of singing the many names of God (including Goddess names). In the practice of Kirtan, the words that are sung are typically short mantras, and a wide variety of emotional states can be accommodated. Regardless of how one feels when beginning Kirtan, the practice of Kirtan can lead to a transformational, meditative state that “creates a safe, calm haven for the flower of the heart to unfold” (Jai Uttal, 2003). A wonderful CD of Kirtan, including an explanation of this practice in English, has been recorded by Jai Uttal (2003). If you would like to learn more about Kirtan, especially if you are interested in reducing stress in your life, this CD is highly recommended.
Although most Christian church services include some music, few are thought of as profoundly inspirational and emotionally moving as the gospel choirs associated with Black churches, especially those in the Southern United States. Much of this music is rooted in the spirituals sung by American slaves. Much like Kirtan as a practice within Yoga, the spirituals helped to hold onto an identity shared by Africans brought to America as slaves. The music was not strictly religious, but religious themes were common. More importantly, the spirituals helped to connect the slaves to their African ancestry, and to provide a context within which they could share the lives they had come to know in a new country (Cone, 1972; Lovell, Jr., 1972). As slavery came to an end in the United States, prejudice and discrimination certainly did not. On one hand the spirituals gave rise to the blues, but on the other hand they gave rise to distinctly religious gospel music (Boyer and Yearwood, 1995; Broughton, 1985). Gospel music can be so passionate that it has been described as “hinting at a vocal imperative which was said to induce religious convulsions in their audiences…” (Broughton, 1985). Perhaps it should not be surprising that Black gospel music is so deeply emotional, since it arose from a group of people who had been slaves, and were still suffering from rampant discrimination in a country that claimed to hold freedom above all else. Although such raw emotion is not common to Kirtan, it is still deeply passionate for those who feel its intimate connection to the universal spirit.
Discussion Question: Using music during prayer or religious services has a long and rich history. Many of our social gatherings are centered on music. How has music influence your life? Do you listen to inspirational music when you feel a need to clear your mind and relax, or do you listen to lively and entertaining music to enhance the enjoyment of being with family and/or friends?
Historical Description of Buddhism
Siddhattha Gotama is recognized as the Buddha, but this is technically incorrect. Anyone can be a Buddha, there were many before Gotama Buddha, many after, and more to come. Indeed, Siddhattha Gotama had lived many lives before he was born into that earthly identity (if, of course, you believe in such things), and this had an important impact on his life. According to legend, Dipankara Buddha foretold that Siddhattha Gotama would be born as a prince in the kingdom of the Shakyas (so he is also referred to as Prince Shakyamuni and as Shakyamuni Buddha), and that in that lifetime he would become a Buddha. Sometime around the fifth or sixth century B.C., Prince Shakyamuni was born. Not wanting his son to leave the kingdom, the king indulged his son with every sensual pleasure known to man. The king also protected his son from knowing the unpleasant realities of life (disease, death, etc.). However, the prince’s destiny was set. Prince Shakyamuni decided he wanted to see the kingdom. In order to prevent the prince from seeing the reality of life, the king ordered that everything in the city should be cleaned and decorated and everyone should be on their best behavior. However, four heavenly beings appeared to Prince Shakyamuni: the first as someone suffering the ravages of old age, the second as someone stricken with disease, the third as a corpse, and the fourth as a wandering monk. These visitors made a profound impression on the young prince, who left his wife, child, and home to seek enlightenment.
Siddhattha Gotama, aka the Buddha, lived in India
some 2,500 years ago. [Image by Mark Kelland]
Living in India, the path to spiritual enlightenment that he followed was to become a yogi. He studied meditation, he became an accomplished ascetic (it is said he lived for a time on one grain of rice a day), but he failed to achieve anything satisfying. So finally he had a nice lunch and sat down under a Bodhi tree, vowing to remain seated until he achieved enlightenment. Finally, he was “awakened,” which is the meaning of the word Buddha. In his first sermon, Gotama Buddha revealed the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way, the latter also being known as the Eightfold Path. Those who have followed his teachings have come to be known as Buddhists. For more on the life of the Buddha, an excellent chapter has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The sayings of the Buddha have also been collected, and are readily available (e.g., see Byrom, 1993). In his own words, we can see the relationship between Buddhism and psychology, and how these teachings were meant to guide people toward a healthy and happy life. In the teaching entitled “Choices,” the Buddha says:
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable. (pgs. 1-2)
Bodhidharma (c. 440-528) is recognized as the monk responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism from India into China. He was also present during the construction of the Shaolin Temple, and was one of the first monks there. During his time at Shaolin Temple he is most famous for spending nine years in meditation, staring at the wall of a cave. He is also credited with developing kung-fu, the well-known martial arts technique, so that the temple monks could protect themselves from bandits. Although Bodhidharma may have spent a great deal of time in meditation, his Zen teaching was based more on a sword of wisdom (Red Pine, 1987). Some of the strange practices in Zen that we will examine in this chapter can be described as almost surprising people into enlightenment. Of course, many years of practice and discipline are necessary in order to be ready for this enlightenment. Some of Bodhidharma’s writings are still available to us today (e.g., Red Pine, 1987), and in his own words (translated, of course) we can get a glimpse of just how strange a Zen understanding of the truth can be:
If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both. Those who don’t understand, don’t understand understanding. And those who understand, understand not understanding. People capable of true vision know that the mind is empty. They transcend both understanding and not understanding. The absence of both understanding and not understanding is true understanding. (pg. 55)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Unlike the historical figures Gotama Buddha and Bodhidharma, the Dalai Lama is alive today. Although his home is Tibet, where he was born in 1935, he lives in exile in India. He is believed to be the 14th Dalai Lama, a reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lamas, the first of whom is believed to have been the reincarnation of a boy who lived during the time of Gotama Buddha. That boy was an incarnation of Chenrezig (also known as Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a Bodhisattva is like a Buddha – see below), and the Dalai Lamas have served for over 650 years as the religious leader of the Tibetan people. Due to political circumstances in Tibet today, it is unclear what may happen to Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama himself does not know whether he will be the last of the Dalai Lamas, but he hopes that choice will someday be made by a free and democratic Tibetan society (Dalai Lama, 2002).
Placing Buddhism in Context: The First Psychology?
Both Buddhism and Yoga share roots in ancient traditions among the Vedic people. Siddhattha Gotama was a yogi seeking enlightenment, and it was his followers who established Buddhism as the practice of his new path: the Middle Way. Since most people think of Buddhism and Yoga as separate, it makes things easier to treat them separately.
Buddhism is as old as the Yoga of Patanjali, perhaps even older, and like Yoga had a profound influence on some well-known personality theorists (such as Rogers and Fromm). Since Yoga is usually thought of as a form of exercise in America, because of the popularity of Hatha Yoga, when people think of meditation they often think first of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation, and Zen has been the most popular and best-known form of Buddhism in America, largely due to the arrival of D. T. Suzuki in 1897.
There are two major schools of Buddhism in the world today. The Theravada tradition is most popular in southeast Asia. It emphasizes self-discipline and seeking nirvana. The Mahayana tradition is most popular in China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. The Mahayana tradition emphasizes compassion, and is the school within which Zen developed. Tibetan Buddhism, which also developed within the Mahayana tradition, enjoys something of a celebrity status due to the renown of the Dalai Lama, who is recognized as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.
In many ways one can find connections between Buddhism and psychology today. As an interesting example, the well-known author and spiritual leader Jack Kornfield became a Thai Buddhist monk before returning to the United States and becoming a clinical psychologist. Many of the books comparing Eastern philosophy to Western psychology have focused on Zen Buddhism. Zen emphasizes meditation, which in one form or another has become a common element of many types of psychotherapy, particularly in humanistic and cognitive approaches. Since Buddhism shares the same tradition as Yoga, it would make no sense to say that Buddhism has influenced psychology more than Yoga. They are fundamentally the same, and their influence continues to grow.
The Four Noble Truths of Human Life
Following his enlightenment, the Buddha began to teach what he had realized. In his first lesson, he described the Four Noble Truths: 1) suffering is an unavoidable reality in human life; 2) the source of suffering is craving or desire, and the bad karma it creates; 3) the craving that leads to suffering can be destroyed; 4) the Middle Way is the path to eliminate craving and suffering (Suzuki, 1960; World’s Great Religions, 1957; Wilkins, 1967). People often ask why there is so much suffering in the world. When this question is asked, there is usually an unspoken desire to remove this suffering from the world. The Buddha, however, taught us that we cannot escape from reality. Who has never been sick? Who never dies? Who can live without desiring something? The problem is that when our cravings are satisfied, we typically find that we want something else, or something more, we never seem to be really satisfied. And so this cycle of craving, temporary satisfaction, craving again, and so on, continues throughout our life, unless we consciously do something to break the pattern. The Buddha taught us how to do that: by following the Middle Way.
The Middle Way is also known as the Eightfold Path, because there are eight aspects to it: 1) right knowledge, 2) right intention, 3) right speech, 4) right conduct, 5) right livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration. Some believe that each step depends on what goes before it, so that in order to reach higher levels of this discipline one must accomplish the lower levels (Wilkins, 1967). A hierarchical series of steps like this is reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In Buddhism, we must begin with an understanding of how things really are, an understanding of the four noble truths, impermanence, and interbeing (right knowledge). We must then develop the right intentions, to want to be compassionate, selflessly detached, loving, and non-violent. Once we have developed a conducive state of mind, we can choose to refrain from lying, gossiping, swearing, and other misuse of language (right speech). We can avoid doing things that are immoral, irresponsible, cruel, or illegal (right conduct), and we would not choose a career which required us to do any such things (right livelihood). Then we would be able to focus our will on avoiding any unhealthy states of mind, and on eliminating them quickly should they arise (right effort). Finally we could become more aware of our sensations, feelings, minds, and bodies (right mindfulness), so that we might focus on the discipline necessary to continue our practice of the Middle Way (right concentration).
These principles provide the basis for a practical code of conduct, which all Buddhists must follow, known as the Five Precepts. They are: 1) to abstain from killing, 2) to abstain from stealing, 3) to abstain from sexual misconduct, 4) to abstain from lying, and 5) to abstain from mind-altering intoxicants (World’s Great Religions, 1957). The first four seem to follow naturally from the Eightfold Path, but the last one is somewhat more interesting. The problem with intoxicating drugs, such as alcohol, is that they cloud the mind. They make it difficult for us to make responsible choices, which is what the Middle Way is all about. Also, if you think back to our discussion of karma, the intentions behind your actions are as important, if not more important, than the actions themselves. When you have made a choice to use intoxicating drugs, and then violate any of the other precepts, it is the consequence of your earlier choice. And who needs bad karma on top of bad karma?
“Calm and compassion are so precious. Make sure not to
lose them through intoxication.” – Kornfield, 1994
Characteristics of Existence
The Buddha said that “everything arises and passes away…existence is illusion” (in Byrom, 1993). The idea that nothing is permanent is a central belief in Buddhism. People are born, grow up, grow old, and die. Buildings wear down, cars break down, and enormous trees wither away. Even mountains are eventually worn down by erosion. However, children are born, new cars and buildings are built, new plants grow, and life goes on. The implications for Buddhism are quite interesting. If everything, and everyone, changes, then even someone who is enlightened will change! One cannot be a Buddha, for they will change. We must always continue to grow. Likewise, Buddhism itself will change, so most of their doctrines are not seen as static. They anticipate change over time.
For psychology, this has both good and not so good implications. For people who are depressed or anxious, they might take heart in impermanence, since things should eventually get better. Indeed, studies on the effects of psychotherapy often show that some people get better over time without treatment. However, if things seem to be going great, if you are happy and having lots of fun, those things will change too. But knowing this, we can prepare ourselves for it. An important aspect of coping with life’s challenges is a sense of being in control. Although there are a wide variety of variables that contribute to individual resilience, maintaining a positive state of mind can help, and knowledge can help to maintain that positive state of mind (Bonnano, 2004, 2005; Folkman and Moskowitz, 2000; Ray, 2004).
If we practice mindfulness and meditation, we can begin to see the impermanence of our lives. As we let go of our attachments to our self-image, our life will flow by like the pictures of a movie, each one a separate image, which only appears to flow smoothly when viewed at high speed. As we observe these fleeting images, we see how our sensations, thoughts, feelings, every aspect of our lives, change so quickly. We might then embrace the change that is truly our life. This process of letting go can be very difficult, but also very liberating (Goldstein and Kornfield, 2001).
“Do not seek perfection in a changing world.
Instead, perfect your love.” – Kornfield, 1994
As we learned with the first of the Four Noble Truths, suffering is an integral part of the human experience. It is easy for us to think of suffering in terms of big pictures: war, famine, natural disasters, and the like. But how often do we think of suffering as an inherent part of our daily lives? Life is difficult, it is a struggle, especially the way most of us live it. A struggle can only lead to suffering. The ultimate outcome of life’s struggle, should we lose the battle, is death. If we could defeat death we would end up alone, and that loneliness might be even worse than the original suffering itself (Suzuki, 1962). Still, we do not even need to look at suffering in terms of a lifetime battle against aging and death, we can see suffering in every moment of the day. Goldstein and Kornfield offer a marvelous description of the daily challenge to be satisfied (2001). It goes something like this. Suppose we woke up on a day when we had no obligations at all. It might be tempting to stay in bed all day, but eventually we become uncomfortable because we have to go to the bathroom. Finally we go, and then crawl back into bed to get warm. But then we get hungry, so finally we get up to get something to eat. Then we get bored, so maybe we watch TV. Then we get uncomfortable, and have to change positions. Even each pleasurable moment is brief, and fails to bring lasting satisfaction. So on, and so forth. We just keep suffering!
The source of this suffering is attachment. We are attached to pleasurable things because we crave them. We are also attached to things that are not pleasant, because they occupy our mind and we cannot be free. The Buddha says, “Free yourself from pleasure and pain. For in craving pleasure or in nursing pain, there is only sorrow” (in Byrom, 1993). It may seem strange that we would be attached to our pain, but the word is used differently here than in most of Western psychology. Traditionally, psychologists think of attachment in a positive way, such as the attachment a child feels toward his or her parents. And yet, some cognitive psychologists do talk about individuals whose automatic thoughts lead them into consistently negative states of mind by disqualifying positive events, catastrophizing events, taking everything too personally, etc. (Pretzer and Beck, 2005). In Buddhism, attachment is neither positive nor negative, it is simply anything that reflects our illusion that the natural world is real. Only when we let go of our attachments to this world can we be one with the universal spirit, and only then can we end our suffering. There is also something hopeful in suffering. Bodhidharma taught that every suffering is a Buddha-seed, because suffering leads us to seek wisdom (in Red Pine, 1987). In this analogy, he describes the body and mind as a field. Suffering is the seed, wisdom the sprout, and Buddhahood the grain.
Discussion Question: Gotama Buddha taught that suffering is the result of craving or desire. Many of us have heard the saying that money is the root of all evil. Is our society excessively focused on buying more and bigger things? Do you ever find yourself obsessed with some material purchase? What problems, if any, have you experienced because people were more concerned with getting things than caring about the people around them?
In keeping with its origins in Yoga, Buddhism teaches that there is no immortal, unchanging soul. All that we are is a temporary collection of attributes, made up of the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the reactions, and the consciousness of the mind (which, coming from the brain, is really part of the body). It is because we confuse our true self (the transcendental self) with this temporary collection of illusory things that we crave satisfaction, and ultimately suffer as a result. Now it may seem illogical to reject everything we are familiar with, including our own physical body, as an illusion, but Buddhists would suggest that there is a danger in choosing intellectual logic over faith. According to D.T. Suzuki (1962), “Faith lives and the intellect kills.” Try the following exercise. Consider your body. Is it real? How much food have you eaten in your life, and where is it now? How many times have you gone to the bathroom, and where did all of that come from? It certainly isn’t the same as when you ate it! Your body has been replaced many, many times. It is being replaced right now. It isn’t real, it is only temporary, ever changing. The same is true with your mind. Even when William James discussed the stream of consciousness, he described a constantly changing awareness, one in which you cannot have the same thought twice. It just isn’t possible. James (1892) realized that we cannot establish a substantial identity continuing from day to day, but concluded that our sense of continuity must reveal a functional identity. Arriving at a very different conclusion, Buddhists consider this to be maya, our inability to see things as they truly are (Suzuki, 1960).
These three characteristics of existence (impermanence, suffering, and selflessness) can be somewhat unsettling. It is not very appealing to believe that we don’t really exist, that we will suffer as long as we believe we do exist, and all of it will just eventually pass away anyway. So, how does one continue in this practice? It is important to keep as our goal a true understanding of the way things are, and the practice of meditation and other aspects of Yoga and Buddhism will help to deepen our realization of these basic truths (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001). The practice remains challenging, however, because as we deepen our understanding the characteristic most often occupying the center of our greatest realization is that of suffering (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Suzuki, 1962). We must then put aside our intellectualizing, we must slay it and throw it to the dogs, experiencing what Buddhists call the “Great Death” (Suzuki, 1962). Only then will we know the greatest wisdom and compassion. This is the beginning of our transcendence. It is not a separation from others, but a realization that we are all one. In other words, we are all in this together.
Interbeing – A Connection Between All People and All Things
Many people are familiar with the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you! This Christian saying also has great implications when considered from a Buddhist perspective. Based on the same philosophical/cosmological perspective as Yoga, Buddhists believe that there is one universal spirit. Therefore, we are really all the same, indeed the entire universe of living creatures and even inanimate objects in the physical world come from and return to the same, single source of creation. Thus, we could alter the golden rule to something like: as you do unto others you are doing unto yourself! This concept is not simply about being nice to other people for your own good, however. Much more importantly, it is about appreciating the relationships between all things. For example, when you drink a refreshing glass of milk, maybe after eating a few chocolate chip cookies, can you taste the grass and feel the falling rain? After all, the cow could not have grown up to give milk if it hadn’t eaten grass, and the grass would not have grown if there hadn’t been any rain. When you enjoy that milk do you remember to thank the farmer who milked the cow, or the grocer who sold the milk to you? And what about the worms that helped to create and aerate the soil in which the grass grew? Appreciating the concept of interbeing helps us to understand the importance of everyone and everything.
The value of this concept of interbeing is that it can be much more than simply a curious academic topic. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes very eloquently about interbeing and its potential for promoting healthy relationships, both between people and between societies (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995):
“Looking deeply” means observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. The result is insight into the true nature of the object. When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. It “inter-is” with everything else in the universe. … When we see the nature of interbeing, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born. (pg. 10)
Having understood this concept, how might it apply to personality? One of the best known cross-cultural topics in psychology today is the distinction between collectivistic vs. individualistic cultures (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). It is generally accepted that Western cultures focus on the individual, whereas Eastern cultures focus on society as a collective group. One can easily imagine how people whose religious and cultural philosophy focus on a single, universal spirit (the basis of interbeing) would focus more on their family and societal groups than on the individual. Both individualistic and collectivistic cultures seem to have advantages. People living in individualistic cultures report higher levels of subjective well-being and self-esteem, whereas people in collectivistic cultures have tend to have lower levels of stress and correspondingly lower levels of cardiovascular disease (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). In collectivistic cultures people tend to view the environment as relatively fixed, and themselves as more flexible, more ready to fit in (Triandis & Suh, 2002). The collectivistic perspective supports the value of social cooperation and social interest (something Alfred Adler would likely appreciate). Still, even within cultures there are individual differences. There are idiocentric persons (those who favor individuality) living in collectivistic cultures, and allocentric persons (those who favor ingroups) living in individualistic cultures. The best relationship between personality and culture may be the “culture fit” model, which suggests that it is best to live in the culture that matches your personal inclinations.
Discussion Question: The concept of interbeing suggests that all things are ultimately connected. Have you ever taken the time to think about all the things that had to happen, and all the people who were involved, in producing anything you hold in your hand? What about all the things that had to happen, and all the people who were involved, in your creation? And if we are all connected in some way, if we are all interbeing, what have you done to value those relationships?
Connections Across Cultures: The Non-Violent Struggles of Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 14th Dalai Lama
The four men listed above are famous in a variety of ways, but they are probably best known for their commitment to nonviolence as a way to achieve political and social justice. Most importantly, they vowed non-violence while those around them were committed to terrible violence in order to deny justice to others. The two who are not alive today were both assassinated, and the other two were forced to live in exile. Gandhi was a Hindu who practiced Yoga, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama are Buddhists, and M. L. King, Jr. was a Christian, and it was their spiritual beliefs that so profoundly determined those aspects of their personalities that demanded peace.
Gandhi (1869-1948) is considered the father of modern India. He was born when the British ruled India, and spent much of his life fighting for the independence of his homeland. Twice he was imprisoned by the government, even though he insisted that all protests should be nonviolent. Indeed, he had established a movement of nonviolence known as Satyagraha. Ultimately this movement was successful, and India achieved its independence. Gandhi, however, was assassinated less than a year later. As he died, he spoke the name of God: Rama (Easwaran, 1972; Wilkinson, 2005).
Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-present) was born in Vietnam, and saw his country dominated first by the French and then by communists. During those difficult times he helped to develop what he and his friends called “engaged Buddhism.” Rather than sitting in the temple meditating, they went out into the villages and tried to help the poor people of Vietnam. When confronted by soldiers they did their best to remain mindful, and to feel compassion for the soldiers who threatened them. After all, it was clear to Thich Nhat Hanh that many of those young soldiers were frightened themselves, and so their behavior was very hard to predict. Thus, the calm and peace that accompany mindfulness was often essential for protecting everyone in those terrifying encounters. After being exiled from Vietnam in 1966, he established a community called Plum Village in France, where he still resides today (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1966, 2003).
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was a major figure in America’s civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The King children learned at an early age about the realities of racism in America. Coming from an educated and socially active family, both his father and grandfather were ministers, he vowed at an early age to work against racial injustice. According to his sister, he said he would turn the world upside down (Farris, 2003). However, he always insisted on doing so in a nonviolent fashion. For this commitment to nonviolence, in 1964 he became the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the peace prize and the passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, discrimination continued in America. So did the nonviolent protests led by Dr. King. Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (Burns, 2004; Hansen, 2003; Patrick, 1990).
The Dalai Lama (1935-present) lives in exile in India, though he also spends a great deal of time in America. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, he appealed to the United Nations, other countries, and even tried to reach an agreement with the Chinese leadership. Eventually, however, he was forced to leave Tibet in 1959. Today, nearly 50 years later, he continues to seek a peaceful resolution resulting in freedom for Tibet. He also works to deliberately cultivate feelings of compassion for the Chinese, believing that someday those who have harmed the people of Tibet will have to face the consequences of their actions (Dalai Lama, 2002). The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
These men have more in common than simply their shared belief in nonviolence. In addition to M. L. King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, as Nobel Laureates are entitled to do, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the same award. Dr. King had received a letter from Thich Nhat Hanh asking for help in protesting the Vietnam war, which by the 1960s involved the United States. Dr. King was impressed by the Buddhist monk, and once appeared with him at a press conference in Chicago (Burns, 2004). Dr. King was also familiar with and impressed by the teachings of Gandhi. In 1959 he traveled to India to learn firsthand about Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the basis for Gandhi’s nonviolent independence movement (King, 2000). In 1966, Dr. King delivered the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at Howard University (Hansen, 2003). Since both the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are alive today, they have met one another and the Dalai Lama has written several forewords for books by Thich Nhat Hanh. If these men from different countries and different cultures can share so much through the simple (though not easy) practice of nonviolence, perhaps there is something special here for everyone to learn more about.
Meditation is the means by which we control our mind and guide it in a more virtuous direction (Dalai Lama, 2001). Modern brain imaging techniques have even begun to identify the brain regions involved in these processes (Barinaga, 2003). There are many different meditation techniques in Yoga and Buddhism, and no one technique is necessarily better than another. What is most important is to pick one type of meditation and stick with it. Meditation takes practice. Most of us find it very difficult to relax and clear our mind. Even when we do, it is difficult to stay relaxed and keep our mind clear. We are distracted by constant thoughts, getting uncomfortable, we have itches and sneezes and whatever… But over time we can get better at relaxing. It helps to have a well-described procedure, and it can be very helpful to meditate in a group (especially if they offer classes or lessons on how to meditate). If you try meditation, don’t get discouraged the first few times. Keep it up. As with all paths toward self-improvement, it takes time to progress in your ability to meditate.
Some of the writings of Master Dogen (1200-1253), the monk who founded Japanese Soto Zen, have survived during the 800 years since he lived (in Cook, 2002). Master Dogen recommends a very traditional form of seated meditation. Basically, sit straight up on a comfortable cushion with your legs crossed. Place your right hand in your lap, palm up, and your left hand on your right hand in the same manner, so that your thumbs touch slightly. Keep the eyes slightly open, the mouth closed, and breathe softly. Next comes the hard part: “Think about the unthinkable. How do you think about the unthinkable? Non-thinking.”
Meditation can be performed in a variety of
different ways. [Image by Kosal Ley]
Non-thinking may sound strange, but it is a fascinating experience for those who achieve it. It can actually make a 3- or 6-hour mediation seem to go by more quickly than a shorter meditation in which you never quite clear your mind. If it sounds a little too strange, don’t worry, it isn’t the goal of every form of meditation. Some forms of meditation focus on a mantra, or in Christian mediation a short prayer. Trying to focus on God through the celestial eye (in the middle of the forehead) is also a common technique. The Dalai Lama describes several different approaches in one of his books (Dalai Lama, 2001), and Thich Nhat Hanh discusses being reasonable in one’s approach to longer meditations (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991). Once again, there is not a right or wrong method of meditation. Whatever technique you try, whether from a book, a guru, a teacher, or a group, it is whatever works for you on your path to personal development.
Soto Zen and Zazen
Soto Zen is one of the two forms of Zen popular in Japan. Soto Zen emphasizes zazen, which translates loosely as “sitting meditation.” It is believed that this form of meditation, common to the way most Americans envision meditation, is a tribute to the legend of Zen founder Bodhidharma spending nine years meditating while staring at a wall (Suzuki, 1962). However, there is a problem in the literature on zazen. For those who believe that zazen can help to achieve Buddhahood, the masters have taught that it cannot work. Still, it remains the essential core practice. How can this be? According to Alan Watts (1957), it may be better to consider an alternative translation of zazen, in which it translates as “sitting just to sit.” In this view, zazen results in a clear mind, the condition necessary for enlightenment. A wonderful resource for practicing basic meditation of this type has been provided by Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist who trained as a Buddhist monk. Meditation for Beginners (Kornfield, 2004) not only briefly describes the history, purpose, and benefits of meditation, but it also includes a CD with guided meditations led by the author.
Rinzai Zen and the Koan
The other form of Zen popular in Japan is Rinzai Zen, founded by the monk Eisai (1141-1215). Buddhists in the Rinzai school practice zazen, but they also emphasize the curious practice of meditating on a koan, a riddle that has no answer. The Soto school of Zen frowns upon the use of the koan, considering it to be superficial and possibly misguided, something of a gimmick. But within the Rinzai school the Zen masters became concerned about what they saw as problems within the communities practicing Zen. One of the chief concerns of the Rinzai masters was the reliance on absolute quietude, pure meditation purely for the sake of meditation. They believed that Zen comes from life, and therefore must grow out of life (Suzuki, 1962). They were also concerned about the intellectualization of Zen, the belief that discerning logic could lead to enlightenment (again, concerned that the pursuit of logical ideas became its own pursuit). And so they developed the koan. The purpose of these unsolvable riddles is to put an end to logical thinking, to stop the wandering minds of students and to create a profound sense of doubt in the student’s mind (Reps and Senzaki, 1994; Suzuki, 1960, 1962; Watts, 1957). The presentation of the student’s views on a koan to the Zen master is an important time, and advanced students may even challenge whether the master appreciates how deeply the student understands Zen. These periodic visits to the Zen master to present an answer to a koan are known as sanzen (Suzuki, 1962; Watts, 1957).
Although koan are considered unsolvable, they do have answers. Certainly the most famous koan is the one in which the monk Joshu is asked: Does a dog have Buddha-nature? Joshu replied, “Mu!” Mu is the Chinese symbol for “no thing” or “not.” The understanding of this koan is not found in the odd answer, or in Joshu’s apparent refusal to provide a straight answer, “Mu” is Buddha-nature! If you find this particularly difficult to understand, I suggest you back up to the quote I gave you from the writings of Bodhidharma. I doubt it will make it any more clear, but perhaps it will help to illuminate the philosophy of non-attachment: don’t worry too hard about understanding, just understand.
A student of the Rinzai school of Zen will actually study many koan, and the process is kept quite secret. Obviously if the answers to these koan were known, then students could offer the apparent answers. I say apparent answers because a Zen master would clearly recognize the mindless answer of one who really does not understand the koan. Since the process is kept secret, not many koan are publicly known, but there are some available. Not all koan are quite as odd as Joshu’s “Mu;” some are seemingly easier to understand, but challenge our concepts of defining aspects of the natural world. For example, the monk Daie used to carry a short bamboo stick, and he would say, “If you call this a stick, you affirm; if you call it not a stick, you negate. Beyond affirmation and negation, what would you call it?” (Suzuki, 1962) This is clearly a challenge to move beyond logic, beyond the normal way of thinking about things. Enlightenment, of course, does not come from normal ways. Through the use of meditation to clear our minds, and the use of koan to challenge our perspectives, Rinzai Zen seeks to offer a path toward enlightenment that will be successful.
Discussion Question: Have you ever practiced meditation, or perhaps contemplative prayer? If you have, how does it make you feel? If you haven’t, does it sound attractive? Were you surprised to learn that the practice of meditation is so old, and that it has counterparts in all of the major religions?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that occurs throughout every moment of the day. Indeed, it is very important to live fully in every moment, and to look deeply into each experience (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995). By being mindful, we can enter into awareness of our body and our emotions. Thich Nhat Hanh relates a story in which the Buddha was asked when he and his monks practiced. The Buddha replied that they practiced when they sat, when they walked, and when they ate. When the person questioning the Buddha replied that everyone sits, walks, and eats, the Buddha replied that he and his monks knew they were sitting, knew they were walking, and knew they were eating (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). Mindfulness can also be applied to acts as simple as breathing. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, conscious breathing is the most basic Buddhist technique for touching peace (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995). He suggests silently reciting the following lines while breathing mindfully:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!
The concept of mindfulness, viewed in its traditional way, is also being used today in psychotherapy. Two recent books address the use of mindfulness either in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to treat depression (McQuaid and Carmona, 2004) or as its own approach to the treatment of anxiety (Brantley, 2003). McQuaid and Carmona (2004) discuss how combining cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness together can provide a much stronger approach to treatment than either technique alone. Since the approaches have much in common, they amplify the effectiveness of each, and given their differences, they offer a complete path to moving beyond simple recovery toward more positive self development. Dr. Brantley (2003) moves more completely into the practice of mindfulness, emphasizing that it must become a way of life. It is not simply a clever therapeutic technique or gimmick.
Discussion Question: Mindfulness refers to maintaining a meditative state throughout the day. A similar approach is essential to cognitive/behavioral therapy. Are you aware of what you do during the day, or are you overwhelmed with being too busy? Could you see the practice of mindfulness as a helpful way to deal with your hectic life, and perhaps reduce stress at the same time?
Enlightenment and the Ideal Person
Concepts of Enlightenment
There are a wide variety of different concepts of enlightenment. One concept that is somewhat familiar in America is nirvana. Nirvana refers to the extinction of all ideas and concepts, thus resulting in the end of suffering due to the craving that results from being attached to anything in the natural world. In the Theravada tradition this should be the goal of all Buddhists, and a person who achieves nirvana is referred to as an Arhat. Other Buddhists, however, seek to avoid nirvana, because it leaves all others behind.
In the Mahayana tradition, an ideal person would be a Bodhisattva, one who vows to forego complete enlightenment until all other beings have been enlightened. According to Thich Nhat Hanh (1995), such individuals touch mindfulness, and as a result of living mindfully they can touch the Buddha and shine their light of awareness on everything they do. The desire to help others achieve enlightenment comes from the deep compassion developed by Bodhisattvas. Mindfulness leads to this compassion, as it leads one to develop Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta, which means “mind of enlightenment” or “mind of love,” is an inner drive to fully realize oneself and to work for the well-being of all (in other words, it is the driving force of being a Bodhisattva; Dalai Lama, 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995, 1999).
Curiously, some Buddhists distinguish between “bodhi” as a temporary flash of enlightenment, which can even occur following arduous meditation or by accident, and “nirvana” or true liberation, which can only result from proper knowledge and dedicated practice (Mathew, 2001). This concept is similar to what Maslow described as the difference between a peak experience and a plateau experience. A peak experience is a brief period of fulfillment, usually associated with a particular event. A plateau experience, on the other hand, is a lasting feeling of oneness with the world around us. What is of particular importance for the study of personality is the recognition that individuals with certain personality characteristics, such as being kind-hearted and open-minded, can more easily accomplish long-term fulfillment, whether we call it nirvana or self-actualization.
Compassion and Loving-Kindness
“Just as compassion is the wish that all sentient beings be free of suffering, loving-kindness is the wish that all may enjoy happiness” (Dalai Lama, 2001). With these simple words about Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has captured the history of psychology briefly presented in the introductory chapter: that psychology focused for many years on helping to identify and treat mental illness (hopefully freeing people from suffering), whereas now there is a strong movement toward positive psychology (hoping to improve well-being for all). This recognition of compassion as the strong feeling or wish that others be freed from suffering comes from mindfulness. As one becomes truly aware of the suffering involved in human life, and if one is able to feel genuine empathy for others, then compassion naturally arises (Chappell, 2003; Dalai Lama, 2001; Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). Compassion has described as the ideal emotional state (Bankart et al., 2003; Cook, 2002; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003), and Carl Rogers considered genuine empathy to be essential for client-centered therapy to be successful. Aside from Rogers, however, have other psychologists begun to examine the value of compassion and loving-kindness? The answer is an unequivocal “Yes” (Bankart et al., 2003; Batson et al., 2005; Cassell, 2005; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Keyes & Lopez, 2005; Khong, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003; Schulman, 2005; Young-Eisendrath, 2003)!
“Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”
– Kornfield, 1994
Obstacles to Personal Growth: The Three Poisons of Buddhism
Buddhists believe in three poisons, the great obstacles to personal development. They are greed, anger, and delusion. These poisons, or realms as they are often called, have no nature of their own, they are created by us and they depend on us. Greed flows from attachment, anger flows from our emotions, and delusion flows from maya. By following the practices of Buddhism, we can free ourselves from these poisons as did the Buddha. According to Bodhidharma, the Buddha made three vows. He vowed to put an end to all evil, by practicing moral prohibitions to counter the poison of greed. He vowed to cultivate virtue by practicing meditation to counter the poison of anger. And he vowed to liberate all beings by practicing wisdom to counter the poison of delusion (in Red Pine, 1987). Likewise, we can devote ourselves to the three pure practices of morality, meditation, and wisdom.
It is interesting to note how well this philosophy fits with the growing field of positive psychology (e.g., see Compton, 2005; Peterson, 2006). Indeed, whole books have been written on the study of virtue in psychology (Fowers, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Note, however, that these books are quite recent. Although the seeds of positive psychology, studies on virtue and similar topics have been around since the earliest days of psychology in the Western world, we seem to be just starting to “discover” concepts that have been well established in Eastern philosophy/psychology for thousands of years. As we recognize more similarities between traditional Eastern perspectives and current Western perspectives, it may help to guide these developing areas of psychological research in the Western world.
Zen Buddhism in America
Zen Buddhism is probably the best-known school of Buddhism in America due to the influence of D. T. Suzuki, who first visited America in the year 1897. Suzuki was a renowned Buddhist scholar, who wrote extensively on Zen Buddhism and its relationships to such diverse topics as Christian mysticism (Suzuki, 1957) and psychoanalysis, the latter book being co-authored by Erich Fromm (Suzuki et al., 1960). Zen Buddhism has also made its way into popular literature in the United States. The famous “Beat generation” author Jack Kerouac, who had many discussions with D. T. Suzuki (Suzuki taught for a few years at Columbia University, which happened to be Kerouac’s alma mater), wrote a most entertaining book about his own pursuits on the path of Zen called The Dharma Bums (Kerouac, 1958). And there was the immensely popular classic entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, first published in 1974 (Pirsig, 1999), which opened the eyes of a whole new generation of Americans to the philosophy of the Far East.
Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular, is also beginning to have more and more influence on psychotherapy in America today. Although a discussion of therapy techniques is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is becoming easy to find such material. There are books on Zen and psychotherapy (Brazier, 1995; Mruk and Hartzell, 2003), Buddhism and well-being (Brach, 2003), comparisons of psychoanalysis and Buddhism (Epstein, 1995; Suzuki et al., 1960), and a variety of chapters in spiritually oriented handbooks on psychotherapy (e.g., Cooper, 2005; Corbett & Stein, 2005; Crawford, 2005; Finn & Rubin, 2000; Lukoff & Lu, 2005; Roland, 2005; Sharma, 2000; Tan & Johnson, 2005). Not only does this blending of Eastern and Western philosophy promise to expand the horizons and potential effectiveness of psychotherapy, learning more about the different cultural perspectives that led to these different lifestyles will help to prepare psychologists to recognize more quickly and easily the culturally-related issues that are affecting their patients or clients.
Sangha: A Community Practicing Together
The concepts of togetherness, friendship, social support, etc. are certainly well known in the West, despite the fact that Western cultures are generally considered to be individualistic. Adler identified developing friendships as one of three main tasks in life, and the value of social support during times of stress and grief has been well documented. In Yoga and Buddhism these concepts have been central for thousands of years. Buddhists refer to the Three Jewels (also known as the Three Gems or the Three Refuges): the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. A Buddha is one who is fully enlightened (not just Gotama Buddha), and the Dharma is the way of understanding and love taught by Gotama Buddha. A Sangha is a community of Buddhists who practice the Dharma and seek enlightenment together (Suzuki, 1960; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). The Sangha is not, however, just a get-together of companions with similar interests. The Sangha can renew our inspiration and energy, and it can help us to keep practicing when our own motivation wanes (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987). The energy and motivation we gain from being part of a Sangha can help us to develop Bodhicitta, the altruistic desire to help all people achieve enlightenment. The ceremony to actively generate Bodhicitta within us begins with a series of visualizations in which we imagine Gotama Buddha being with us, surrounded by other Buddhas, great sages, and all sentient beings (Dalai Lama, 2001). Being filled with Bodhicitta makes us a Bodhisattva right away (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1999). This is not simply a belief or devotion, however. Taking refuge in the Sangha is a practice, one that can only take place in the company of others and with their support (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995).
The Sangha is by no means unique to Buddhism. In Yoga they refer to Satsanga, associating with the truth or with someone virtuous such as a guru (Feuerstein, 2003; Yogananda, 1946). I remember when a monk, and a monk in training, from the Self Realization Fellowship visited the Yoga retreat center I visit. During the evening they offered Satsanga, a brief lesson followed by a question and answer discussion. In this semi-formal setting we were all able to expand our understanding of Yoga and share our interests and experiences. Indeed, some people practicing traditional Yoga or Buddhism consider the guru (or lama, in Tibetan) to be a fourth jewel in which to seek refuge (Feuerstein, 2003).
Discussion Question: Buddhists strongly support a Sangha, a community of believers. Can you imagine practicing Buddhism alone? What about your own personal groups, whether church groups, clubs, friends, family, etc.? Are they supportive? How important are those groups to the way you live your life, and could you imagine your life without them?
A Final Note
This chapter and the one that follows have very religious overtones. So I would like to say a little more about the importance of covering these topics in a personality textbook. Alfred Adler said that if you want to understand someone, look at their style of life. As stated at the outset of this chapter, I have tried to present this material as guides for one’s lifestyle that have developed within different cultures. There are three basic moral codes that influence our lives: community, autonomy, and divinity (see Triandis & Suh, 2002). In collectivistic cultures there is an emphasis on community moral codes, whereas autonomy codes are more influential in individualistic cultures. Both cultures emphasize moral codes related to divinity (as religion or spirituality). If we tried to separate religious culture absolutely from our study of personality, we might very well end up with an academic discipline that misses the richness and wonder of human life. More importantly, what happens to people who ignore spirituality in their own development? Abraham Maslow lamented the defense mechanism of desacralization, the failure of people to consider anything to be truly important and meaningful. Yehudi Menuhin, in his introduction to Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar (1966), offers a striking impression of those who do not seek harmony with the universe:
What is the alternative? Thwarted, warped people condemning the order of things, cripples criticizing the upright, autocrats slumped in expectant coronary attitudes, the tragic spectacle of people working out their own imbalance and frustration on others. (pg. 12)
I don’t know whether Maslow considered desacralization to be this frightening a possibility, but it certainly gives one reason to consider the value of spiritual aspects of human development, especially since spirituality is one of the cultural universals (Ferraro, 2006a; Murdock, 1945). And given that spirituality is universal, these matters are certainly not unique to Eastern culture. In the next chapter we will consider spiritually guided lifestyle recommendations as they apply to cultures influenced by the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Personality Theory in Real Life: Are You Really You?
We ended the first chapter in this book by asking an interesting question: Who are you? In this chapter, we have addressed the possibility that everything you know about yourself is an illusion, and that even knowing is an illusion. How can this be? The answer may be found, or perhaps not found, in the mystery that is God. The Christian Bible teaches that God’s ways are not Man’s ways. Paramahansa Yogananda provides a marvelous image of the mystery of the Godhead being so far beyond our comprehension that it defies description (Yogananda, 1946); and Dante’s awesome description of the appearance of the divine essence in Paradiso is difficult to envision, even as one reads Dante’s words (in Milano, 1947). Perhaps some things are beyond our comprehension.
How then, should we proceed to live our life? Based on the concept of Karma, our past actions will influence our future experiences. Consider things you have done in your life. Have you regretted some of them? Did they seem out of character for you? Try to determine if unfortunate events followed those actions you regret. On the positive side, are there things you have done that make you proud or happy? Have those things involved other people, or were they done for other people? Try to determine whether those good things you have done resulted in favorable consequences for you and for others.
Now, here comes the tricky part. When you have done good things, do they feel more like you than the bad things did? If the answer is yes, it may be that you have begun to touch something special within yourself. You are responsible for both the good things and the bad things you have done in this life. But perhaps the good things feel better, feel more like you, because they begin to connect you with your transcendental self, that spark of the divine within you, which may be called spirit or soul. Thinking this way is a deep and powerful challenge, which requires you to have some faith in yourself. Meditate on this, and see what happens!
Review of Key Points
- Although Yoga and Buddhism have significant religious overtones, they are actually lifestyle guidelines that promote psychological well-being.
- The principles of Yoga are outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and in the Bhagavad Gita, both of which are approximately 2,500 years old.
- In Yoga there is a dichotomy between spirit and nature, with spirit being pure consciousness. Our belief that we are actually our physical selves (our natural self) is an illusion.
- Karma refers to the cosmic law of cause and effect. Our past actions, both good and bad, affect our future.
- Everything in the natural world is composed of three gunas: rajas (craving and action), tamas (ignorance and dullness), and sattva (light and joy).
- A guru is a teacher, someone who is advanced in their practice of Yoga. The guru is essential for a student to properly follow the complex teachings and practices of Yoga.
- There are a wide variety of schools within Yoga, including Hatha-Yoga (which is popular in America), Bhakti-Yoga (devotional Yoga), Kriya-Yoga (believed to be the original Yoga of Patanjali), and Mantra-Yoga (which emphasizes the chanting of mantras, such as the sacred Om).
- Patanjali described five hindrances to personal development: avidya (ignorance), sense of personality, desire, hate, and sense of attachment.
- The ancient Vedic teachings propose four stages in the ideal life: student, householder, hermit or forest-dweller, renunciant.
- Yoga is well established in America, having been taught formally for over 85 years. This mixing of cultures has been possible, in part, because of similarities between Yoga and Christian practices. Two such common practices are contemplative prayer (which is similar to meditation) and singing to God.
- Buddhism is based on the 2,500 year-old teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, who is also known as Gotama Buddha. Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China some 1,500 years ago, and the Dalai Lama is a very famous Tibetan Buddhist leader alive today.
- The Buddha taught that there are four noble truths: suffering is a reality in human life, suffering comes from craving, the craving that leads to suffering can be destroyed, the path to destroy craving is the Middle Way (aka, the Eightfold Path).
- Buddhists believe in three basic characteristics of existence: nothing is permanent, suffering is an integral part of human life, and we have no immortal, unchanging soul.
- The Buddhist concept of interbeing emphasizes the connection between all living things, and even inanimate objects, because there is only one single source of all creation.
- Meditation, the common element in all forms of Yoga and Buddhism, is a means for controlling our mind and moving it in a more virtuous direction. Soto Zen emphasizes sitting meditation alone, whereas Rinzai Zen adds to seated meditation the practice of meditating on a koan, an unsolvable riddle.
- Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a meditative state throughout our daily routine.
- In a very general sense, enlightenment refers to transcending this life, thus eliminating craving and suffering and escaping from the cause and effect of karma. In the Mahayana tradition, some Buddhists forego complete enlightenment so that they might remain in the world to help others achieve enlightenment.
- The ideal emotional state for Buddhists is compassion. Both compassion and loving-kindness flow naturally from mindfulness, since mindful individuals recognize the reality of our existence.
- Buddhists believe in three poisons, or obstacles to personal growth: greed, anger, and delusion.
- Zen Buddhism has been taught in the United States for over 100 years. It has found its way into popular literature and has had a clear influence on psychology.
- Buddhists refer to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (a community of Buddhists). The importance of community is by no means unique to Eastern thought, but certainly takes on great significance in a culture that is generally recognized as collectivistic.
Review of Key Terms
Arhat; atman; Avatar; avidya; asanas; Bhagavad Gita; Bhakti-Yoga; Bodhicitta; Bodhisattva; Buddha; Dharma; Eightfold Path; enlightenment; Five Precepts; Four Noble Truths; gunas; guru; Hatha-Yoga; Jnana-Yoga; Karma-Yoga; koan; Krishna; Kriya-Yoga; Kundalini energy; Laya-Yoga; interbeing; karma; Kirtan; mantra; Mantra-Yoga; maya; meditation; Middle Way; mindfulness; nirvana; Om; prana; rajas; Raja-Yoga; Samadhi; Sangha; sanzen; sattva; Satyagraha; spirituals; tamas; Three Jewels; three poisons; Transcendental Meditation; Vedas; Yoga Sutras; yogi; zazen; Zen
Bailey, A. A. (1927). The light of the soul: The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. New York, NY: Lucis Publishing.
Hartranft, C. (2003). The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali. Boston, MA: Shambala.
Mitchell, S. (2000). Bhagavad Gita: A new translation. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
These three books contain translations with commentary of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, the two books that outline the discipline of Yoga. Each translation of the Yoga Sutras has its own advantages, depending on the interests of the reader. Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita contains a wonderful introduction.
Byrom, T. (1993). Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Shambala.
Reps, P. & Senzaki, N. (1994). Zen flesh, Zen bones. Boston, MA: Shambala.
These two pocket books are very short, but contain marvelous collections of the Buddha’s own teaching and famous stories from or about Zen masters.
Dalai Lama, His Holiness the (2001). An open heart: Practicing compassion in everyday life. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company.
Dalai Lama, His Holiness the (2002). The spirit of peace. London, England: Thorsons.
These two marvelous books were written by perhaps the most influential Buddhist teacher alive today. The first book presents the essence of the Dalai Lama’s teaching, and the second book includes a brief autobiographical story of his early life.
Epstein, M. (1995). Thoughts without a thinker. New York, NY: Basic Books.
This book is a marvelous comparison of Buddhist meditation to Western psychotherapy. Surprisingly, one of the effects of this book for me was a renewed appreciation for psychoanalysis. This is a must-read for those who are interested in blending Eastern philosophy and Western psychology.
Feuerstein, G. (2003). The deeper dimension of Yoga. Boston, MA: Shambala.
This is by far the best general reference book on Yoga I have seen. It is quite thorough, but still readable, since each topic is broken down into short sections. I have recommended this book to students who have come back and agreed that it was very helpful for them.
Goldstein, J. & Kornfield, J. (2001). Seeking the heart of wisdom: The path of insight meditation. Boston, MA: Shambala.
This book provides an excellent overview of Buddhism, meditation, and how meditation can lead one in a positive direction. Kornfield’s experiences as both a Buddhism monk and a clinical psychologist probably make him unique. Like Kornfield, Goldstein was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in the 1960s. Their deep understanding of Buddhism, coupled with an American education, help them to write in a very understandable fashion on topics that are often difficult for some of us to understand. This book is definitely a must-read.
Kerouac, J. (1959). The Dharma bums. London, England: Penguin Books.
Pirsig, R. M. (1999). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values [CD]. New York, NY: Audio Renaissance.
These books provide wonderful entertainment in which Yoga/Buddhist philosophy is worked into American stories. Kerouac, who is recognized as one of the best authors of the “Beat generation,” was very interested in Buddhism and worked it into this novel. Pirsig was also well versed in Eastern philosophy, having studied in India, and his book is based on an actual motorcycle trip taken with his son and friends in 1968. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance remains a classic.
Suzuki, D. T. (1962). The essentials of Zen Buddhism. New York, NY: Dutton & Co.
D. T. Suzuki is the Zen master best known for bringing this discipline to America. His writing can be difficult to follow, but this book presents the essentials of Zen in a fairly readable way. One of the most intriguing sections is his thorough presentation of the process of meditating on a koan. On this topic his insight is invaluable.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1995). Living Buddha, living Christ. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
These two books are among the best writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, probably the second most influential Buddhist teacher alive today (after the Dalai Lama). The first book includes brief passages on the role that mindfulness can serve in living a good life. The second book, perhaps his best known, discusses how easily Buddhism and Christianity can blend together.
Watts, A. (1957) The way of Zen. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
This book is an excellent overview of Zen Buddhism, by one of the most renowned scholars of Eastern philosophy to have lived in the Western world. It includes a fair amount of historical information, and is presented in a very readable style.
Yogananda, Paramahansa (1946). Autobiography of a yogi. Los Angeles, CA: Self-Realization Fellowship.
As the title indicates, this is the autobiography of the yogi who brought formal Yoga training to America. It has many marvelous stories from Yogananda’s own life, as well as a wide variety of general information on Yoga.