Buddhist and Western Psychology
I would like to make a few remarks about some of the differences between western and Buddhist psychologies. Please keep in mind that everything I say here will be both true and untrue; it will be an exaggeration or an oversimplification. I will be trying to stimulate some thinking by pointing to some rather general differences.
We are not doing this to take sides or to decide where to place our allegiance. It is a natural tendency to try to integrate things that are different, and by pointing out some of these differences, the issue of bringing them together in our consciousness becomes more deliberate. I want that to be the backdrop-how to find a balance between these two disciplines.
To begin with, we should recognize that a great deal of the Buddha's teaching emanates from experience in the meditative realm. Most teaching takes place in the hermeneutic realm, but that is not where the original understanding arises. In Buddhist psychology our knowledge is derived primarily through meditation practice. It doesn't stop there, but meditation is where it all starts. So much of the teaching that has come down to us over the millennia has come from people who have spent years in retreat.
Much of western psychology, experimental psychology for example, derives from the empirical realm, although some of it-the analytic traditions in particular-stem from the hermeneutic realm. Our knowledge of the mind comes from scientific and empirical investigation, from experimentation or analogues to experimentation, and trial and error; and some of those same techniques are em- ployed in the meaning-making, hermeneutic realm. So western and Buddhist psychologies come from different ends of the spectrum, and they overlap in the hermeneutic arena, the arena where we talk with each other and try to make sense of our experience.
These arenas of experience of course do not have chain link fences around them-the boundaries are very permeable. In fact all are present at any moment. We live in a time and a culture which is forcing us to think, if we are so inclined, that the only matters worthy of our attention dwell in the empirical realm. And yet we all know in our hearts that this is not enough. A satisfactory marriage cannot be negotiated in the empirical realm alone. The meaning of Hamlet can not be discerned in the empirical realm.
In Buddhist psychology the data base is primarily internal. Our laboratory is the meditation hall and the crucible is our mind. The data base in Western psychology, even to a great extent in the analytic traditions, is somewhat external, phenomenal. Western psychology studies the object, behavior that is exhibited. Buddhist psychology studies the instrument, the mind itself. Another way of saying this is that Buddhist psychology places emphasis on process; Western psychology and culture places emphasis on result.
From the Buddhist point of view the result is seen to be empty. The teaching of emptiness is of course not nihilistic; emptiness is just the emptiness of the power of your conceptual mind to embrace reality fully. The teaching of the Buddha is to find the middle way between what he called eternalism, the belief in the immutable existence of everything and, nihilism, the belief that nothing actually exists. It is just the failure of the conceptual mind to embrace reality fully. Another way of understanding emptiness is through the doctrine of codependent origination, the notion that everything is in some fashion related to everything else around it.
I think it is fair to say that western psychology takes the world "out there" a bit more seriously than Buddhism does. From the Buddhist perspective, the world is understood to be largely a projection. This is not to say that there is no stuff out there, but what we understand in our minds to be out there is our projection onto that. And when those projections are undone through meditation practice, we begin to see that our experiences are comprised of aggregates. Things that seem quite solid at the beginning of the week begin to fall apart by the end of the retreat. Western psychology views the world much more solidly, the empirical view of matter.
There are no actual boundaries between the empirical, the intellectual, and the meditative, and ultimately they are just heuristics for breaking down a reality which is seamless and has no natural distinctions or categories. The light comes into your eye and it registers, but it doesn't register "tree." Tree is the label that you place onto it. It doesn't even register image; image is also a concept. The arising and falling of these things and their understanding, cannot be separated from experience of the tangible world, but they are not totally circumscribed by that world either.