Why can Buddhism be considered “psychological”?

Buddhism is a major religion in current times, but its origins goes back thousands of centuries. Having originated in North Eastern India, it had spread far and wide in the Eastern hemisphere, making it a dominant religion in the Asian continent. Buddhism has been in existence even before the rise of Judeo-Christians, making it stand second only to Hinduism in the chronological order for major surviving religions. But, Buddhism differs from most other major religions of today in that it offers practical and feasible solutions for universal human concerns. Buddhism is typically an Eastern religion for it focuses on human suffering and offers practical solutions to counter it. Rather than dealing with the paranormal and the supernatural, it is a practical philosophy toward life. In other words, Buddhism can be seen as offering psychological insights into the workings of the human mind, an understanding of which will benefit the individual subject. Both Buddhism and psychology can be seen as systems of philosophy.

The idea of ‘detachment’ is a central Buddhist doctrine, which has strong resonance in modern psychoanalysis. Since much of human suffering arises from the loss of an attached object (which could be material, personal or emotional), Buddhism advices the practice of detaching oneself from such objects as a way of preventing hurt and loss. This idea is also expressed as the achievement of a state of ‘lack of desire’. But therein lies an important contradiction. If an individual sets a goal of attaining a state of ‘lack of desire’, then he/she is getting attached to the goal. This paradox also has parallels in psychology, where it is referred to as ‘neurosis’. Just as desire is what brings about most human suffering, so does neurosis the cause of most psychological disturbances such as anxiety, panic, depression, obsessive behavior, etc. In this way there are strong similarities between Buddhism and psychology.

Buddhism can be considered psychological in that it recognizes the importance of the psyche in perceiving and ascertaining the material world. It says that by controlling one’s mind and shaping one’s thoughts a great deal of personal tranquility can be achieved. Therapeutic techniques in psychology also attempt to do the same. The only difference is that while Buddhism uses the revelatory knowledge of Gautam Buddha in teaching these techniques, modern psychology employs quasi-scientific theories about cognition and mental conditioning as part of the treatment. To the extent that prevailing theories can be challenged by new theories in the future, the science of psychology is not perfect. But Buddhism has a history of more than 2500 years, throughout which it has provided solace for humankind. Hence, it would be too hasty to call Buddhism and Psychology as two approaches to the same problem, for the former offers far greater scope for personal improvement, whereas the latter is only a fledgling field of study. Indeed, Buddhism has offered answers in areas of human life which Psychology is yet to master.

References

“Buddhism”. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 26, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition.
Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought: Approach to Zen, Penguin Books, New York, 1993