Differences Between Buddhism and Western Psychotherapy

Dear All,

Although many similarities exist between Western Psychotherapy and Buddhism, they are often only superficial if one investigates further.

I would like to think that the fundamental difference between the two is that while the former tries to help one cope with existing conditions so that an equilibrium of the self/ego can be achieved, Buddhism teaches that it is the very self/ego that has to be transcended in order to escape all of life's unsatisfactoriness.

It is this difference in aim that characterises the Buddhist practice as being more holistic and thorough, and sets it uniquely part from all forms of Western Psychotherapy.

I would be glad to hear your ideas on other major differences.

Kindest regards,

endless repackaging of the same immemorial concepts

The boons of commitment are endless. Vajrayana Buddhist nun and speaker Robina Courtin suggests to take one or more Buddhist pledges. Even if that sounds hard, and even if we end up breaking the vow often, nonetheless we make merit for all the rest of the time we are not actively breaking it: the vow somewhat acts as barrier to deter our behavior. Professor of psychology DeWall shuns religious fairy tales and refers to the exact same thing as the scientific “implementation intention”.

Professor of psychology DeWall advises that -in order to recharge one's mind and to replenish one's reserves of self-control energy, one ought to engage in daily psychological and metabolic practices such as pondering one's own core beliefs and values, and having a good breakfast. Brown (professor of management and organizations) suggests “responsibility transfer” as a coping mechanism to diffuse anxiety -and increase confidence, thus net results- by placing oneself “in the hands of” an image of choice, whether it be a divine or an earthly figure. That's precisely what major religions have done since time immemorial as they prescribed prayer before meals, or surrender to god: hardly something statistical analysis or the FMRI might claim to have discovered.

It is possible to argue that Freud lifted the thread to weave his theories from ancient literature and myths (mother-son-father triangles such as that of Kronos, Rhea and Zeus; parent-child dynamics such as the story of Hera, Zeus and Hephaestus; the seminal role of dreams such as in the Iliad, etc).

Buddhism had reached the same conclusion even earlier (society as Hobbesian social contract). Freud then added then popular obsessions with altered states of conscience, mesmerism, sexuality and mental illness early psychiatry (phrenologists, aliénistes etc) grappled with during the late Victorian and Belle Epoque era.

As an aside, if you wonder whether aliénisme and Marx's alienation have anything in common, well that's precisely the same concept (alienation) Marx transposed in the jargon of economics coming from what was all the rage in early psychiatry.

Modern personality coaches and psychologists mostly lift concepts from spiritual lore the world over, sanitize them in order to make them palatable for both a vanilla atheist or a new-age crowd, then re-brand them to mean something of a completely different order. But are they?
People shall take this as they see fit.

Denis Wallez's picture

not so different

The similarities are not as superficial as it seems… Of course, as buddhists, we'd like to believe our path is better, and is so great that we have nothing to learn from western psychology but that's clinging to views (a fetter in itself!). A bias is evident when you list differences and then ask for other people to mention "other major differences". Basically, you want to separate the two. But you could look at what brings the two together, this would be just as legitimate an approach!

I would suggest reading the excellent "Buddhist and Freudian Psychology" by Padmasiri de Silva.

This book makes it very clear that the 3 basic instincts of interest to Freud have early-Buddhism equivalents.

It also makes clear that Narcissism is pretty close to some aspects of the identity-view fetter.

Finally it clearly exposes that, although Freud struggled to make psychology lead to perfect mental health (cf. the debate on "Analysis Terminable and Interminable"), he actually aimed for mental health (for all humans, not just the worst ones…) just like the Buddha did. It is also clear that he agreed with the Buddha that all ordinary minds are deranged to some extent.
It is of course possible to caricature Buddhism as providing a solution that Freud failed to provide, but this would be a categorical error, because Freud fails only because he focuses his measure of success on one life… But, at the scale of one life, the eightfold path does not warranty nirvana either! Nirvana is unconditioned, not even conditioned by the eightfold path.
If one discusses the intricacies of "Analysis Terminable and Interminable", then the bodhisattva path with innumerable gates, and innumerable beings to save, and endless cultivation, is not so far from 'interminable'…

Discrimination vs Discernment - Very Different


You might have misunderstood me or I might have given you the wrong impression.

I certainly am not being or even trying to be biased when I ask for the differences between Buddhism and psychotherapy. Yes, there are similarities but there are differences as well. While one looks at the two from the angle of what they have in common, another might choose to look at the two from the angle of how they are different. But that does not mean the latter is saying that Buddhism is the better of the two and that we do not have anything to learn from Western Psychotherapy.

You might like to think that every Buddhist thinks that Buddhism is better but to downplay the importance of psychotherapy was the furthest thing from my mind when I first posted. It is unfair to assume that all Buddhists would like to think that their path is better; no true Buddhist would, and certainly not the many Buddhists I have met.

In fact, item 6 of the list of suggested assignment topics for this course is: Explain how Buddhism differs from the western perspective on mental illnesses. I do not think our instructors were in anyway suggesting that the Buddhist perspective is the better one or that it is in any way evidence of their clinging to a bias. This is just nothing more than one of the ways we can learn about them, just like noting the similarities they share. Why do we need to read too much into that?

Anyway, most of us are clinging to views in one way or another, are we not? As long as we are these five aggregates? Is not your perception that I am biased when I ask for the differences a view you are clinging to as well?

We need the conventional truth to explain the ultimate truth. We need to use words, ideas and concepts to explain the things around us. We need to use them to explain the Buddha's teachings. And whenever we employ words, ideas and concepts, we are guilty of clinging to views in the broadest meaning of the word. So yes, I agree I cling to views in that sense although being biased against psychotherapy is not one of them.

Could we surmise that someone prefers cars to planes or the other way round when he asks for the differences between the two? Are we not being too overly reductive when we do that?

Which is better depends on what you want. If you want to travel from Bangkok to Beijing, perhaps you would find the plane more suitable. Or a car would be better if you are the adventurous sort and have a few months at your disposal.

Likewise, if you feel that positive psychology works for you in making your life better, by all means... Or if my aim is to transcend samsara or get a better rebirth, then Buddhism is better suited to my needs. And that is exactly the viewpoint from which I said Buddhism is "more thorough and holistic".

Perhaps you have arrived at your view (a fetter in it self?) that I am biased from my use of the word "superficial". I was referring to the noted similarities between the two, not that the methods of psychotherapy are superficial. After all, I thoroughly enjoy the works of Kornfield, Olendzki and Epstien. I do not think I would as much and their works that insightful if they have not brought their knowledge and experience training as psycho-therapists into their Buddhist practice.

Whatever it is, 'Buddhism' is only a name for the Buddha's teachings which come in 84000 dharma gates leading to different levels of spiritual achievement. We could call Buddhism by any other name but the fact remains that there are so many methods one can employ. This reminds me of the Venerable Jing Kong of Chinese Pureland who has actively incorporated Confucian elements into his teachings (especially 弟子規 or 'Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child') which has produced some very encouraging results in the form of raised social moral standards in an experimental small town in China in the space of a few months. I would like to think that this is a dharma gate, just as psychotherapy is another dharma gate. And no one dharma gate is better than another in the absolute sense. We do not need to be a great master like Jing Kong to realise that.

I have not started on de Silva yet although it is already on my must-read list. Thank you for your recommendation. I am looking forward to reading it.

Kindest regards,

Denis Wallez's picture

de Silva

Dear K S,

I'm not entirely sure why you react so strongly: my "we'd like to believe" was quite aligned with your "most of us are clinging to views in one way or another", there's no conflict here!
« my use of the word "superficial". I was referring to the noted similarities between the two » is how I understood it.

It's easy to reduce psychology to some of its favourite objects (e.g. around sexuality), it's easy to reduce it to its favourite clients (e.g. mentally-ill patients)…
I'm not saying you do such reductions, but they're common… and they end up making the 'similarities' look 'superficial', or they end up making the 'differences' look bigger than they are. I already agreed with you that both focuses (on similarities or on differences) were valid, but I'm concerned that focusing too much on differences might bias the perception, making the differences look 'bigger' than they are.
The book "Buddhist and Freudian psychology" by de Silva argues that the 'superficiality' has more to do with a superficial presentation of psychology, than it has to do with the actual goals of Freud. When the universal goal of Freud is acknowledged, or when the similarities between the basic impulses in psychology and the noxious trio in buddhism are acknowledged, the similarities are seriously strengthened! If we focus on listing differences, it means the differences are seriously reduced.
I hope my previous reply will get clearer once you've read the mentioned book. I apologise if I caused irritation by my previous reply.

Kind regards

Buddhism And Western Psychotherapy

Dear Denis,

No worries and there is no need for apologies. There wasn't any irritation caused but more of being initially puzzled at why an honest question to ask for differences between two things would be assumed to be biased. Hence, my longer than usual reply which you took as a strong reaction.

Best of luck for the exams!

Kindest regards,