What are the principle differences between Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy? Three answers come immediately to mind.
Firstly, Buddhist psychology is primarily concerned with the ethical status of our mental states rather than with identifying their causes in earlier life experiences.
Secondly, while Western psychotherapy aims to heal our inevitably damaged psyche of its mental and emotional turbulence, Buddhist psychology sees the mind as the original source of its own conflict and pain and therefore aims at a deep and radical transformation of our mind i.e. it is not just ameliorative but fundamentally transformative in its aims.
Thirdly, Buddhism sees that what we have to transform arises not just from conditioning in this life but from many lives. Whether or not you believe in rebirth, experienced meditators can often sense that the forces they are working with are not merely the product of social, educational or cultural conditioning but of something much deeper and more abiding.
All these differences are touched upon by Geshe Tsering in this stimulating and readable book. Tsering himself received the traditional Tibetan monastic training in the Gelug school and now teaches primarily at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London.
The book itself is one of a series called “The Foundation of Buddhist Thought” in which he aims to make the basic teachings of the Gelug school available to Western students. In it, he outlines the model of the mind as taught in what are known as the Abhidharma texts of the Buddhist tradition.
He deals both with the way the mind works and with the ethical nature of our mental states. The nature of the mind is explored in terms of mind – our general mental experience; minds – the six senses through which we experience things (with mind as one of the six senses); and the mental factors, which arise from the former.
It is these last — known as the 51 mental events — which explore the ethical status of the mind in considerable detail. If all you know about Buddhist ethics is the list of five precepts, then an exploration of these mental events — both the wholesome and the defiled ones — can help shine a much more detailed light into the recesses of our mind. However, this is one area where Tsering fails to do justice to his material.
His treatment of these mental events is too brief to do it full justice and on occasion, simply inaccurate. For instance, he translates hri as “self-respect,” glossing it as the emotion that refrains us from harming ourselves. But a more accurate rendition would be “shame” at the pain we have caused either our self or others. In this respect, it is often paired with apatrapya or “respect for the wise” which is an external source of moral awareness distinct from hri, which arises from within. By suggesting that hri is to do solely with the harm we do to our self, rather than that it is our natural sense of shame at the harm we cause our self and others, Tsering seriously misinterprets it.
Generally though, his treatment of what can be very technical material is light, accessible and illuminating. For instance, he points out that attachment exaggerates the positive qualities of the things we desire but as soon as we have the object, those desirable qualities seem to diminish rapidly. This is a self-evident truth but one we manage to ignore most of the time.
He also gives the most accessible treatment of Buddhist epistemology (the theory of knowledge) that I have come across, clarifying the differences between perceptions – which are accurate – and conceptions – which are inevitably false as they are a mental fabrication of a perception. There are many practical implications here for the way we misinterpret situations and consequently act in inappropriate or unskilful ways.
For relative newcomers to Buddhism who want to explore the Buddhist map of the mind, I would recommend this book as a very good introduction to its material. Personally, I have enjoyed studying it and am tempted to read more of Tsering’s books on “The Foundation of Buddhist Thought.” If you are already familiar with this material or you want a deeper and more accurate treatment of the 51 mental events, I would strongly recommend Know Your Mind by Sangharakshita (Windhorse Publications) which, whilst it doesn’t cover the material on Buddhist epistemology, will provide a more accurate basis for self-knowledge in the long run.
Saccanama has been teaching at the Bristol Buddhist Centre in the UK since 1989. A graduate of the UK’s Open University—one of the pioneers of distance learning—he has also studied with the Temenos Academy in London.