- Buddhist psychology: A review of theory
- Padmal Silva
This paper gives an account of some of the major aspects of
psychology. The survey is confined to the texts of Early, or Theravada,
Buddhism--that is, the canonical texts and their early Pali commentaries
and related expository texts. The importance of psychological concepts in
the philosophy and practice of Buddhism is highlighted. The problems
inherent in the study of Buddhist psychology are discussed, including the
problem of translation and interpretation. The paper then describes and
analyzes several key Early Buddhist psychological notions including: basic
drives that motivate behavior, perception and cognition, consciousness,
personal development and enlightenment, meditation, and behavior change.
The relationship between theory and practice in Buddhist psychology is
commented on, with special reference to meditative techniques and other
behavior change strategies. Finally, comments are made on the possible
interaction between Buddhist and modern psychology.
This paper aims to provide a descriptive and analytical account of Buddhist
psychology. It does not attempt a comprehensive review of the subject; the
literature, and the issues that arise in the examination of this
literature, are too vast to permit a comprehensive review in a single
paper. What is presented here is essentially a selective account of the
psychological notions found in Buddhism. Only some of the major concepts
are discussed. Some practical aspects of Buddhist psychology that have a
relevance to therapeutic practice are also reviewed.
The paper is selective in another important way. It is confined to
Theravada Buddhism, also referred to as Early Buddhism, and does not deal
with later developments, including Zen. (For an account of Theravada
Buddhism, see Gombrich, 1988; for a discussion of the different schools of
Buddhism, see Kalupahana, 1976, Snelling, 1987, and Thomas, 1951).
The literature of Early Buddhism is in the Pali language. It consists of:
1. the original Buddhist canon which was put together soon after the
Buddha's death and committed to writing in the first century B.C.;
2. the early Pali commentaries on the canon that were in their present form
by the end of the fifth century A.D.; and
3. other Pall texts of the same period which are best described as
expository and interpretive works.
The canon consists of three parts:
1. Sutta Pitaka, which contains the discourses of the Buddha on various
occasions throughout his preaching life;
2. Vinaya Pitaka, which contains the rules of discipline for the monks; and
3. Abhidhama Pitaka, which contains highly systematized philosophical and
psychological analyses, which were finalized in their present form about
250 B.C. (later than the material in the other two parts).
A full account of the Pall canon is given in Webb (1975). The individual
books of the canon are listed in Table 1.
The early Pall commentaries include major texts such as Sumangalavilasini,
Manorathapurani, Papancasudani, and Dhammapadatthakatha, which are
commentaries on specific parts of the canon. The early expository and
interpretive texts include, among others, Visuddhimagga, Milindapanha and
Problems of Translation
The entire canon, and the majority of the commentaries and expository
works, have been translated into English and published by the Pali Text
Society, which was founded in London by T.W. Rhys Davids in 1881. However,
the English versions are often beset with problems of translation and
interpretation. Perhaps it is worth illustrating this problem with
examples. A major example is the term dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha), translated
by many as "suffering." This has led to Buddhism being described as,
essentially, a pessimistic religion, as "suffering" is stated as
characterizing all existence. Some authors have offered alternative
translations such as "unsatisfacto-riness," "disharmony," and
(Gunaratna, 1968; Matthews, 1983). None of these offers a precise rendering
of the original term, and Rahula (1967), among others, leaves the term
untranslated. Another example is the very challenging term papanca
(Sanskrit prapanca; derived from pra+ panc, to spread out). In his book,
The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, David Kalupahana (1987) consistently
translates this as "obsession." This is clearly misleading, although the
official Pali-English Dictionary of the Pali Text Society (Rhys Davids and
Stede, 1921-1925) does offer "obsession" as one rendering of this word.
This is a key term in Buddhist psychology, and has been variously
translated as "impediment," "conceptual proliferation,"
"diffusion," "complex" and "imagination," among others. This
returned to in a later paragraph.
It should be clear from these examples that the problem of translation is a
major obstacle to one's understanding of Early Buddhism, or indeed any
other ancient system of thought. For this reason, the material in this
paper is drawn from the original Pall texts.
The Buddha and Buddhism
Before focusing on Buddhist psychology, it is necessary to make a few
introductory comments on Buddha and Buddhism.
The Buddha (the word, derived from the root budh, "to know," "to
comprehend," literally means "the enlightened one") lived in the foot-hills
of the Himalayan range of mountains in Northern India from 563 to 483 B.C.
(For excellent accounts of the Buddha's life, see Kalupahana and
Kalupahana, 1982, and Schumann, 1989; useful accounts are also available in
Carrithers, 1983, and Saddhatissa, 1976).
The main teachings of the Buddha are contained in the Four Noble Truths.
(See Rahula, 1967, and Saddhatissa, 1971, for a fuller discussion of the
main tenets of Buddhism.) These are: (i) that life is characterized by
"suffering" and is unsatisfactory (dukkha); (ii) that the cause (samudaya)
of the suffering is craving or desire (tanha); (iii) that this suffering
can be ended (nirodha), via the cessation of craving or desire--this is the
state of Nibbana; and (iv) that there is a way (magga) to achieve this
cessation, which is called the Noble Eightfold Path (e.g., Samyutta Nikaya,
The Noble Eightfold Path is also called the Middle Path, as it avoids the
extremes of a sensuous and luxurious life on the one hand, and a life of
rigorous self-mortifi-cation on the other. The eight aspects of the Path
are: right understanding; right thought; right speech; right action; right
livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right concentration. The
person who undertakes a life based on this path, renouncing worldly
attachments, hopes eventually to attain the arahant state, which may be
described as a state of perfection; the word arahant literally means "the
worthy one." This state marks the attainment of Nibbana.
The other teachings of the Buddha include the negation of a permanent and
unchanging soul (anatta), and the notion of the impermanence or transience
of things (anicca) (e.g., Majjhima Nikaya, 1, 1888-1902). Buddhism also
excludes the notion of a God: There is no creator or a supreme being who
rules, purveys and controls the universe. Thus there is no absolutism in
Buddhism either in the form of an external God, or an unchanging universe,
or an unchanging soul.
For the laity, the vast majority of people who did not renounce worldly
life to devote themselves to the immediate quest for Nibbana, the Buddha
provided a sound and pragmatic social ethic. They were expected to lead a
life characterized by restraint and moderation, respecting the rights of
others and being dutiful to those around them. Such a restrained and
dutiful life was considered not only to be a necessary prerequisite for
one's ultimate religious aim; it was also valued as an end in itself. For
example, the Buddha advised his lay followers to abstain from alcoholic
beverages because alcohol indulgence could lead to demonstrable ill-effects
such as loss of wealth, proneness to socially embarrassing behavior,
unnecessary quarrels, disrepute, ill-health and eventual mental derangement
(Sigalovada Sutta, Digha Nikaya, III, 1889-1910). This empirical and
pragmatic approach is a prominent feature of the ethical stance of
Buddhism. (For a discussion of Buddhist ethics, see Saddhatissa, 1970, and
PSYCHOLOGY OF BUDDHISM: THEORY
The considerable interest shown by modern students in Buddhist psychology
becomes entirely understandable when it is realized that there is a great
deal of psychological content in Buddhism. Some parts of the canonical
texts, as well as later writings, are examples of explicit psychological
theorizing, while many of the others present psychological assumptions and
much material of psychological relevance. For example, the Abhidhamma
Pitaka contains a highly systematized psychological account of human
behavior and mind, and the translation of one of the Abhidhamma books, the
Dhammasangani, was given the title A Buddhist Manual of Psychological
Ethics by its translator, Caroline Rhys Davids, when it was first published
in 1900. The practice of Buddhism, as a religion and a way of life,
involves much in terms of psychological change. The ultimate religious goal
of the arahant state both reflects upon and requires major psychological
changes. The path towards the achievement of this goal, the Noble Eightfold
Path, involves steps which can only be described as psychological (e.g.,
right thought, right understanding). As the goal is attainable essentially
through one's own efforts, it is not surprising that Buddhism has much to
say about one's thinking and behavior. As noted above, there is no God one
can turn to for one's salvation. Nor did the Buddha claim to be able to
ensure any of his followers the attainment of the goal. On the contrary,
the Buddha explicitly stated that he was only a teacher who could show the
way, and that the actual task of achieving the goal was up to each
individual's efforts. As a much-quoted passage in the Dhammapada (which is
part of the Khuddaka Nikaya) says: "The task has to be accomplished by
yourselves. The Enlightened Ones only teach the way."
In the following sections, some of the main psychological aspects of
Buddhism will be discussed.
Perhaps the most logical starting point is the theory of motivation. What
drives people in their behaviors? What motivates human action? The
unenlightened person's behavior, it is said, is governed and driven by
tanha, or craving, which, as noted in a previous paragraph, is given as the
cause of "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness" in the Second Noble
Tanha is classified into three basic forms: kama tanha (craving for sensory
gratification); bhava tanha (craving for survival or continued existence);
and vibhava tanha (craving for annihilation) (e.g., Samyutta Nikaya, V,
It is interesting that these three primary drives in Buddhism have been
compared, by some authors, to the Freudian notions of libido, ego, and
thanatos respectively (de Silva, 1973). Like Freudian theory, this theory
of motivation may be seen as a primarily reductionist one: all actions have
as their source a small number of drives. While craving is seen as the
source of "suffering," the term tanha is not exclusively used in a negative
sense. There are several instances in the literature where it is
acknowledged that one can also develop a tanha for the cessation of
"suffering." Thus tanha can take the form of, or can be turned into, a
desirable force. For example, the expository text Nettippakarana says:
"Here, craving is of two kinds, wholesome and unwholesome. While the
unwholesome kind goes with the unsatisfactory worldly existence, the
wholesome kind leads to the abandonment of craving."
In a further analysis of motivation, Buddhism identifies three factors that
lead to unwholesome, or undesirable, behaviors. These are: raga (passion or
lust); dosa (hatred or malice); and moha (delusion, or false belief) (e.g.,
Anguttara Nikaya, I, II, 1922-1938). All unwholesome action is seen as
deriving from a set of fundamental roots. In fact, the texts explicitly
refer to these as "roots" (mula). They are called akusalamulas--for
example, unwholesome or unprofitable roots. It is not made explicit whether
these always operate at a conscious level. On the other hand, certain
clearly non-conscious factors also have a part to play in determining
behavior. One such group of factors mentioned is anusaya, translated as
"latent tendency," "latent bias," "predisposition" and
disposition." The Pall Text Society Dictionary adds that these meanings are
"always in bad sense" (Rhys Davids and Stede, 192125, p. 44). The term
itself (from anu + si, to lie down, lie dormant), indicates that these are
non-conscious factors. These dispositional factors are part and parcel of
one's personality, acquired through past experience, and they play their
part in influencing one's behavior and contribute to the perpetuation of
the cycle of suffering. Seven types of anusaya are often mentioned. The
list given in Samyutta Nikaya, V, 1884-1898), is as follows: tendency to
want pleasure; tendency to anger or disgust; tendency to speculation;
tendency to doubt; tendency to conceit; tendency to want continuous
existence or growth; and tendency to ignorance.
Another group of factors which are non-conscious and which influence one's
behavior are the asavas (Sanskrit asrava, from the root sru, to flow, or
ooze). This term has been variously translated as "influxes" and
These are factors that affect the mind so that it cannot rise higher. It is
said that they "intoxicate" and "bemuddle" the mind (Rhys Davids and
1921-25, p. 115). They color one' attitudes, and thwart one's insight. In
one's endeavor for self-development, one has to excise them, and this is
done through wisdom. The influxes are described as arising from different
factors: sensuality, aggression, cruelty, body, and individuality are given
in one account (Digha Nikaya, III, 1889-1910). Other lists include, among
others, gain, loss, fame, disrepute and evil intentions (Anguttara Nikaya,
Motives for good, or wholesome, action are usually expressed in negative
terms. The most consistent account is the one which gives araga
(non-passion, or absence of passion), adosa (non-hatred or absence of
hatred) and amoha (non-delusion, or absence of delusion) as the roots of
good action--the opposites of the roots of unwholesome behaviours
(Anguttara Nikaya, I). Occasionally, they are described in clearly positive
terms--as caga (renunciation), metta (loving kindness) and panna (wisdom,
understanding) (Anguttara Nikaya, III). It is stated that one must strive
to develop these in order to combat their opposites.
Perception and Cognition
Perception is based on twelve gateways or modalities (ayatana), six of
these being the five sense organs plus the mind, or "inner sense," and the
other six being the objects of each of these (Samyutta Nikaya, II,
1884-1898). The status of mind (mano) is special. It has the ability to
reflect on the objects of the other senses, so in this way it is linked to
the activity of all the senses (Kalupahana, 1987). Each combination of
sense organ and its objects leads to a particular consciousness
(vinnana)--for example, visual consciousness arises because of the eye and
material shapes. When consciousness is added to each of the pairs of
modalities, one gets eighteen factors of cognition, referred to as dhatus,
or elements. These are presented in Table 2. It is said:
The meeting of the three (i.e., eye, material shape and visual
consciousness) is contact; because of this contact arises feeling; what one
feels, one perceives. (Majjhima Nikaya, 1, 1888-1902)
This is a fairly straightforward account of how perception takes place.
However, the Buddhist exposition goes beyond this. The account continues:
What one perceives, one reasons about. What one reasons about, 'one turns
into papanca.' What one turns into papanca, because of that factor, assails
him in regard to material shapes recognizable by the eye belonging to the
past, the future and the present . . . (Majjhima Nikaya, 1, 1888-1902)
It will be recalled that the term papanca was cited in an earlier paragraph
as an example of a word posing particular difficulties for the translator.
In this passage the verbal form "papanceti" is used. Thus, the final stage
of the process of sense-cognition is papanca. An examination of the use of
the term in various contexts related to cognition shows that it refers to
the grosser conceptual aspect of the process, as it is consequent to
vitakka (reasoning). Once an object is perceived, there is initial
application of thought to it, followed by papanca--which in this context is
best taken to mean a tendency to proliferation of ideas. As a result, the
person is no longer the perceiver who is in control, but one who is
assailed by concepts generated by this prolific tendency. He is overwhelmed
by concepts and linguistic conventions. One's perception is, in this way,
open to distortion and elaboration due to the spontaneous proliferation of
thoughts. This proliferation is said to be linked to tanha (craving), mana
(conceit) and dittthi (dogma, or rigidly held views) (Maha Niddesa, I,
19161917). They are all bound up with the notions of 'I' and 'mine.' This
marks the intrusion of the ego into the field of sense perception. In
Buddhist psychology, there is no self (atta; Sanskrit atman), but the
delusion of self affects all one's behaviors (Sutta Nipata, 1913).
One of the aims of personal development is to enable oneself to see reality
as it is, without the essential distortions arising from the various
factors that characterize the unenlightened person's functioning. A major
aspect of reaching the state of arahant is indeed the freeing of one's
perceptions from these distorting influences. When one reaches a state of
perfection, one's perceptions become free of such distortions, and allow a
direct appraisal of the objects.
The Arahant State
It is perhaps the appropriate place now to consider the arahant state and
its attainment. The religious goal of a Buddhist is to attain this state,
which marks the end of the cycle of "suffering." This requires a process of
personal development, involving disciplined living (sila), serious
meditative efforts marked by concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (panna)
which is attained through such efforts. But what does it mean to say that
someone is an arahant? There are numerous descriptions of an arahant in the
texts. For example:
The arahant has destroyed the cankers, lived the life, done what's needed
to be done, set down the burden, achieved well-being, shattered life's
fetters, and is freed by perfect knowledge. He has applied himself to six
things: to dispassion, to detachment, to harmlessness, to the destruction
of craving, to the destruction of rasping, and to non-delusion. (Anguttara
Nikaya, III) tions no longer emanate from the common basic motives of
passion, hatred and delusion. He is, however, capable of joy or positive
sentiment. He has loving kindness (metta) to all, and compassion (karuna).
He indulges in nothing, and is restrained in his behavior. Nine standards
of behavior are listed which an arahant cannot and does not transgress:
taking life, stealing, sexual contact, uttering falsehoods, enjoying the
comforts of wealth, and going astray through desire, through hate, through
delusion, and through fear (Anguttara Nikaya, IV). They contribute to
society by being teachers and advisers, and are no burden on their fellow
ASPECTS OF BUDDHIST PSYCHOLOGY
Personal Development and Meditation
It was noted above that the attainment of the arahant state requires
personal development based on both restrained and disciplined conduct and
meditative efforts. This explains why meditation is given a central place
in Buddhist texts. In addition to numerous canonical discussions, large
sections of Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga are devoted to a consideration of
this subject in great detail. It is significant that the Pall word for
Meditation, bhavana, etymologically means "development" or
As there is a large and still growing amount of literature on this subject
in English, only a few brief comments will be made here. (Detailed
discussions are available in Pradhan, 1986, Sole-Leris, 1986, and
Vajiranana, 1978; see also Claxton, 1987, and Kwee, 1990).
Two forms of meditation are prescribed: the first is called samatha
(tranquility), and the other, vipassana (insight). While further forms of
meditation have been developed in later forms of Buddhism, and these
include various Tibetan and Zen techniques, these two represent the
earliest Buddhist techniques, dating back 2,500 years. It is worth noting
that meditation of the samatha type is also found in some other ancient
Indian systems, while vipassana is a uniquely Buddhist development
(Nanamoli, 1975; Rahula, 1967).
The word samatha means "tranquility" or "serenity." Samatha meditation
aimed at reaching states of consciousness characterized by progressively
greater levels of tranquility and stillness. It has two aspects: (a) the
achievement of the highest possible degree of concentration; and (b) the
progressive calming of all mental processes. This is done through
increasingly concentrated focusing of attention; the mind withdraws
progressively from all external and internal stimuli. In the end, states of
pure and undistracted consciousness can be achieved. The samatha meditation
procedure starts with efforts at concentrating the mind on specific
objects, and progresses systematically through a series of states of what
are called jhanas, or mental absorption (Visuddhi-magga, 1920-1921).
Vipassana, or insight meditation, also starts with concentration exercises
using appropriate objects on which one focuses. In this procedure, however,
once a certain level of concentration is achieved so that undistracted
focusing can be maintained, one goes on to examine with steady, careful
attention and in great detail all sensory and mental processes. Through
this contemplation, one becomes a detached observer of one's own activity.
The objects of this contemplation are classified as fourfold: body,
sensations, mental states, and "mental objects"--for example, various moral
and intellectual subjects. The aim is to achieve total and immediate
awareness, or mindfulness, of all phenomena. This leads, it is claimed,
eventually to the full and clear perception of the impermanence of all
things and beings (Majjhima Nikaya, I, 1888-1902; Samyutta Nikaya, V,
It is held that samatha meditation by itself cannot lead to enlightenment
or perfection; vipassana meditation is needed to attain this goal. While
the former leads to temporarily altered states of consciousness, it is the
latter which leads to enduring and thorough-going changes in the person and
paves the way to achieving the arahant state.
Benefits of Meditation
The practical implications of the claims made in Buddhism for meditation
are quite clear. The meditative experiences of both types, when properly
carried out and developed, are claimed to lead to greater ability to
concentrate, greater freedom from distraction, greater tolerance of change
and turmoil around oneself, and sharper awareness and greater alertness
about one's own responses, both physical and mental. They would also lead,
more generally, to greater calmness or tranquility. While the ultimate goal
of perfection will require a long series of regular training periods of
systematic meditation coupled with major restraint in one's conduct, the
more mundane benefits of meditation should be available to all serious and
From an applied perspective, Buddhist meditation techniques may be seen as
an instrument for achieving certain psychological benefits. Primarily,
meditation would have a role as a stress-reduction strategy, comparable to
the more modern techniques of relaxation. There is a substantial literature
in present day clinical psychology and psychiatry which shows that
meditation can produce beneficial effects in this way (Carrington, 1984,
1987; Kwee, 1990: Shapiro, 1982; West, 1987). Studies of the physiological
changes that accompany meditation have shown several changes to occur
which, together, indicate a state of calmness or relaxation (Woolfolk,
1975). These include: reduction in oxygen consumption, lowered heart rate,
decreased breathing rate and blood pressure, reduction in serum lactic acid
levels, and increased skin resistance and changes in blood flow. These
peripheral changes are generally compatible with decreased arousal in the
sympathetic nervous system. There are also certain central changes, as
shown by brain wave patterns. The amalgam of these physiological changes
related to meditation has been called "the relaxation response" by some
authors (Benson, 1975).
Interestingly, the Buddha himself advocated meditation for what we would
today call clinical problems. For example, he advocated that meditation be
used to achieve trouble free sleep and as a way of controlling pain (Vinaya
Pitaka, 1, 1879-1889; Samyutta Nikaya, V, 1884-1898).
It is perhaps worth dwelling briefly on the use of mindfulness meditation
for pain control. A study published in 1985 by Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, and
Burney, reported that ninety chronic pain patients who were trained in
mindfulness meditation in a ten-week, stress-reduction program showed
significant improvement, as measured by various indices, in pain and
related symptoms. A control group of patients who did not receive
meditation training did not show such improvement. The rationale for
selecting this strategy for the treatment of pain is explained as follows:
In the case of pain perception, the cultivation of detached observations of
the pain experience may be achieved by paying careful attention and
distinguishing as separate events the actual primary sensations as they
occur from moment-to-moment and any accompanying thoughts about pain.
(Kabat-Zinn et al., 1985, p. 165)
In another paper, Kabat-Zinn (1982) has given an even more detailed account
of the rationale for using mindfulness meditation for pain control. He
shows how mindfulness meditation can enable one to focus on sensations as
they arise, rather than attempt to escape from them. It helps one to
recognize the bare physical sensation, unembellished by psychological
elaboration. One learns to observe these psychological aspects as separate
events. This "uncoupling" has the effect of changing one's overall
experience of pain. To quote: "The nociceptive signals (sensory) may be
undiminished, but the emotional and cognitive components of the pain
experience, the hurt, the suffering, are reduced" (Kabat-Zinn, 1982, p.
It is this detached observation of sensations that mindfulness meditation,
as described in the Buddhist texts, helps one to develop. This makes such
meditation a particularly well-suited strategy for pain control. In fact,
the references in the texts to pain control by mindfulness meditation
appear to make this very point. For example, it is stated that the
venerable Ananda, the Buddha's personal assistant, once visited a
householder named Sirivaddha who was ill. On hearing from the patient that
he was in much pain, and that his pains were getting worse, Ananda advised
him to engage in the meditation of mindfulness. A similar episode is
recorded with reference to another householder, Manadinna; Ananda once
again offered the same advice. Similarly, it is recorded that the Buddha
himself visited two ailing monks, Mogallana and Kassapa, who were in pain,
and advised each of them to engage in mindfulness meditation. Perhaps the
most impressive and most explicit, in terms of the rationale for this use
of meditation, is the account given of the venerable Anuruddha. He was
sick, and was grievously afflicted. Many monks who visited him, finding him
calm and relaxed, asked him how his "painful sensations evidently made no
impact on his mind." He replied: "It is because I have my mind
well-grounded in mindfulness. This is why the painful sensations that come
upon me make no impression on my mind." The implication here is that
meditation can reduce, or "block out" the mental aspect of, the pain--for
example, while the physical sensations may remain intact, one's
vulnerability to subjectively felt pain is reduced. The above accounts are
all from the Samyutta Nikaya (1884-1898), which states this position quite
explicitly in a different passage:
The untrained layman, when touched by painful bodily feelings, grieves and
laments... and is distraught... But the well-trained disciple, when touched
by painful bodily feelings, will not weep, nor grieve, nor lament . . . nor
will he be distraught . . . The layman, when touched by painful bodily
feelings, weeps... He experiences two kinds of feelings: a bodily one and a
mental one. It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, and then by a second
arrow; he feels the pain of two arrows. So it is with the untrained layman;
when touched by a painful bodily feeling, he experiences two kinds of
feeling, a bodily one and mental one. But the well-trained disciple, when
touched by a painful bodily feeling, weeps not . . . He feels only one kind
of feeling: a bodily one, not a mental one. It is as if a man is hit by one
arrow, but not by a second arrow; he feels the pain of one arrow only. So
it is with the well-trained disciple; when touched by a painful bodily
feeling, he feels but one feeling, bodily pain only. (Samyutta Nikaya, IV,
The view of pain contained in this expository account is quite clear:
physical pain sensations are usually accompanied by psychological
correlates, which are like a second pain. The disciple who is trained (in
mindfulness meditation), however, sees the physical sensation as it is, and
does not allow himself to be affected by the psychological elaboration of
pain. Thus his experience is limited to the perception of the physical
sensation only. It is this account of pain that provides the rationale for
the instances cited above, where those in pain are advised to engage in
Behavior Modification Strategies
The literature of early Buddhism also contains a wide range of behavior
change strategies other than meditation, used and recommended by the Buddha
and his disciples, which can only be described as "behavioral." This aspect
of Buddhism had been neglected by modern researchers until very recently.
It is only in the last few years that these behavioral strategies have been
highlighted and discussed (de Silva, 1984). These strategies are remarkably
similar to several of the established techniques of modern behavior
therapy. Thus, if Buddhist psychology is akin to modern humanistic,
transpersonal and existential psychologies in view of its emphasis on the
individual, his problems and anxieties, his predicament, and his
development through personal effort, it also has a clear affinity to
present-day behavioral psychology in view of these behavioral techniques.
The ways in which the overall approach of behavior modification and that of
Buddhism may be seen as broadly similar have been discussed by William
Mikulas (1981). Some areas of similarity high-lighted by Mikulas are: the
rejection of the notion of an unchanging self or soul; focus on observable
phenomena; emphasis on testability; stress on techniques for awareness of
certain bodily responses; emphasizing the "here and now"; and dissemination
of teachings and techniques widely and publicly. Given this broad
similarity, and the general empiricist/experientialist attitude of Buddhism
as exemplified by the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, I) in which the
Buddha advises a group of inquirers not to accept anything on hearsay,
authority or pure argument, but to accept only what is empirically and
experientially verifiable, it is not surprising that specific behavior
change techniques were used and recommended in Early Buddhism. It is also
entirely consistent with the social ethic of Buddhism, which recognized the
importance of behaviors conducive to one's own and others' well-being as a
goal in its own right. When and where specific behavior changes were
required, both in oneself and others, these were to be affected through the
use of specific techniques.
The range of behavioral strategies found in the literature of Early
Buddhism is wide. When these are described using modern terminology and
listed together, they look like the contents page of a modern behavioral
therapy manual! These include: fear reduction by graded exposure and
reciprocal inhibition; using rewards for promoting desirable behavior;
modelling for inducing behavioral change; the use of stimulus control to
eliminate undesirable behavior; the use of aversion to eliminate
undesirable behavior; training in social skills; self-monitoring; control
of intrusive thoughts by distraction, switching/stopping, incompatible
thoughts, and by prolonged exposure to them; intense, covert, focusing on
the unpleasant aspects of a stimulus or the unpleasant consequences of a
response, to reduce attachment to the former and eliminate the latter;
graded approach to the development of positive feelings towards others: use
of external cues in behavior control; use of response cost to aid
elimination of undesirable behavior; use of family members for carrying out
behavior change programs; and cognitive-behavioral methods--for example,
for grief. Details of these have been discussed in previous publications,
which also give references to the original texts (de Silva, 1984, 1986). A
full discussion here, therefore, will be superfluous. It will be useful,
however, to cite an example of this behavioral approach in Buddhism and
indicate its similarity to modern parallels.
For the control of unwanted, intrusive cognitions, which particularly
hinder one's meditative efforts and can therefore be a major problem for a
Buddhist, several strategies are recommended. These are presented in a
hierarchical fashion, each to be tried if the preceding one fails.
1. Switch to an opposite or incompatible thought. The first is to reflect
on an object which is associated with thoughts which are the opposite of
the unwanted thought. This means that if the unwanted cognition is
associated with passion or lust, one should think of something promoting
lustlessness; if it is associated with malice, one should think of
something promoting loving kindness; and if it is something associated with
delusion or confusion, one should think of something promoting clarity.
This exercise of switching to a thought that is incompatible with the
unwanted one, "like a carpenter getting rid of a coarse peg with a fine
one," is claimed to help eliminate the unwanted intrusion.
2. Ponder on harmful consequences. If, however, the unwanted thought still
keeps arising, one is advised to ponder on the perils and disadvantages of
the thought; that is, to consider its harmful consequences. This would help
one to rid oneself of the thought in question, "like in the case of a young
man or woman, who is eager to look nice and clean, who would be revolted
and disgusted if he/she finds the carcass of a snake round his/her neck and
would immediately get rid of it."
3. Ignore and distract. If that, too, fails, the technique of ignoring an
unwanted thought is recommended. One is to strive not to pay attention,
"like a man who closed his eyes or looks in another direction in order not
to see a visual object that he does not wish to see." It is suggested that
various distracting activities may be used in order not to pay attention to
the unwanted cognition. These include: recalling of a doctrinal passage one
has learned, concentrating on actual concrete objects, and engaging in some
unrelated physical activity.
4. Reflect on removal of causes. If the problem still persists, then a
further strategy is recommended, this is to reflect on the removal or
stopping of the causes of the target thought. This is explained with the
analogy of a man walking briskly who asks himself "Why am I walking
briskly?," then reflects on his walking and stops and stands; then reflects
on his standing and sits down, and so on.
5. Control with forceful effort. If this strategy, too, fails, then a fifth
method is advocated, which is forcefully to restrain and dominate the mind.
This use of effort is likened to "a strong man holding and restraining a
weaker man," One is to use the "effort of one part of the mind to control
This account is based on the Vitakkasanthana Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya
(18881902), and its commentary, Papancasudani. The similarities between
some of these Early Buddhist strategies and the techniques used for this
and related problems in modern behavior therapy are only too obvious.
Thought-stopping, thought-switching, distraction (Wolpe, 1958; Marks, 1981;
Rachman & Hodgson, 1980), and covert sensitization (Cautela, 1967), are all
It will have been noticed that the increasingly popular technique of
habituation training--that is, instructing the client to expose himself to
the thought repeatedly and/or for prolonged periods (Rachman, 1978)--is
absent from this account. However, a parallel of this in Early Buddhism is
found in the Satipattthana Sutta, also part of the Majjhima Nikaya
(1888-1902), and the Mahasatipattthana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya
(1889-1910). These discourses outline the important meditational technique
of mindfulness, which was referred to in an earlier section. Mindfulness
training is not simply a formal method of meditation but is a general
self-improvement skill, with the person training himself to be aware of his
body and bodily actions, of feelings and sensations, and of thoughts and
ideas, as they happen. In developing mindfulness or awareness--one might
say continuous monitoring--of one's thoughts, one is advised to be alert to
all thoughts that arise, including unwanted ones. If an unwanted thought
arises, one is advised to face it directly and continuously, to look
straight into that thought and dwell on it. It is said that then,
gradually, that thought will lose its intensity, and will disappear
(Gunaratna, 1981). The similarity between this and the habituation training
paradigm of present-day therapists needs no comment.
Similar comparisons can be made between most of the other behavioral
strategies found in the Buddhist texts and those established in present day
behavior therapy for similar purposes (de Silva, 1984, 1986; Mikulas,
The significance of the presence of these techniques in the Buddhist texts
is manifold. Firstly, it reflects the fact that Buddhism is not only
concerned with one's endeavors to achieve the ultimate religious goal by a
process of self-development: As noted earlier, it also has something to
offer in the area of day-to-day management of behavioral problems, often as
a goal in its own right, for reasons of one's own and one's fellow beings'
benefit and happiness. Thus, these techniques are applicable irrespective
of whether one has committed oneself to a life devoted to the aim of
personal development and, ultimately, the state of arahant-hood. Secondly,
being clearly behavioral, these are well-defined, easy to use, and--above
all--empirically testable. Indeed, the Buddhist approach is one of trying
out various strategies until one that is effective is found. As seen above,
the Vitakkasanthana Sutta offers the disciple five different techniques for
dealing with unwanted, intrusive cognitions, each to be tried if the
preceding one fails to produce the desired results. The Buddha's advice to
the Kalamas on the importance of not accepting any view as hearsay,
authority, and so forth, but only on empirical grounds, reflects and
embodies this approach. Indeed, the Buddha's own quest for enlightenment
followed this path: Having tried out various methods and teachings
available at the time, he rejected each of them as they failed to lead to
his goal and eventually developed his own path. Thirdly, the techniques are
for use on oneself as well as for influencing the behavior of others;
numerous examples are found for both types of uses.
Relevance of Buddhist Behavioral Change Strategies
From an applied perspective, the relevance of this aspect of Buddhism is
abundantly clear. A range of clearly defined techniques is available for
use with common behavioral problems. The fact that they are similar to
modern behavioral therapeutic techniques in remarkable ways has the
implication that their validity and utility are already established, as
many of the latter have been subjected to rigorous clinical and
experimental investigation. There is a strong case, too, for those Buddhist
strategies that, so far, have no counterpart in modern behavioral
modification, to be empirically tested using clinical and experimental
research methods. If grounds are then found for considering them clinically
useful, they can then be fruitfully incorporated into the repertoire of
techniques available to the present day therapist.
It can also be argued that these techniques will have particular relevance
to the practice of therapy with Buddhist client groups. One of the problems
that arises in using methods derived from Western science with client
populations of a different cultural background is that the techniques
offered may seem alien to the indigenous population. Thus they may not be
readily accepted or, if accepted, the compliance with therapeutic
instructions may be poor. These cultural difficulties in therapy and
counseling have been fully recognized in recent years (d'Ardenne and
Mahtani, 1989; Draguns, 1981; Ward, 1983), On the other hand, if the
techniques that are used and offered, although they may be an integral part
of a Western psychological system, are shown to be similar to ideas and
practices that were accepted historically by the indigenous culture, then
they would have a greater chance of gaining compliance and success. How a
behavioral therapy program was successfully devised for a Hindu patient,
which included the Hindu religious concept of karma yoga, has been
described by Singh and Oberhummer (1980). Similarly, therapeutic packages
that include traditional Zen practices have been used successfully with
neurotic patients in Japan (Kishimoto, 1985). It is likely that modern
behavioral therapeutic strategies will be more readily acceptable to
Buddhist client groups if their similarities with those found in the early
Buddhist literature, and the use of the same or similar techniques by the
Buddha and his early disciples, are highlighted. The use of meditation
techniques as a stress-reduction strategy with Buddhist groups in several
places provides an example of this phenomenon. A case in point in the use
of Buddhist meditation in a psychiatric setting in Kandy, Sri Lanka (de
Silva & Samarasinghe, 1985). Mikulas (1983) has commented on the favorable
reception accorded to the ideas and techniques of behavior modification in
another Buddhist country, Thailand.
A further possible application of Buddhist psychology for therapeutic
purposes lies in the area of prophylaxis. Theoretically, there is much
scope for this, both with Buddhist client groups and with others. Several
Buddhist techniques appear to have a potential role to play in the
prevention of certain kinds of psychological disorders. For example,
training in meditation, leading to greater ability to achieve calmness and
tranquility, may help enhance one's tolerance of the numerous inevitable
stresses in modern life. One may, in other words, achieve a degree of
immunity against the psychological effects of stress and frustration
(stress inoculation training of Meichen-baum, 1985). The facility and skill
in self-monitoring one can acquire with the aid of mindfulness meditation
could provide a valuable means of self-control. The role of self-monitoring
in the self-regulation of behavior is well-documented (Kazdin, 1974). The
overall self-development that Buddhism encourages and recommends also has
something to offer for prophylactic purposes. For example, if one trains
oneself not to develop intense attachments to material things and to those
around one, one is less likely to be vulnerable to psychological distress
and disorders arising from their loss, including abnormal and debilitating
grief reactions. This is not to suggest that the total renunciation of all
worldly comforts and attachments should be the goal of every person.
Indeed, very few persons in today's world will want to renounce all
material things and devote themselves to the attainment of personal
perfection. The Buddha himself recognized that the majority of the people
would remain lay persons, with normal household duties and day-to-day
activities and pursuits, and that only a relatively small number would
renounce lay life completely, hence, the prominence given in Buddhism to
lay ethics (Gombrich, 1988; Saddhatissa, 1970). On the other hand, some of
the meditation exercises and other personal development endeavors found in
Buddhism can potentially enable a person to develop an outlook on life and
patterns of response, which, in turn, will help cope with the problem of
living; by enabling greater calmness and assurance, and with reduced
vulnerability to common psychological disorders. This kind of primary
prevention is certainly worth exploring.
AND MODERN WESTERN PSYCHOLOGY
Finally, a few comments may be made on the relationship between modern
Western psychology on the one hand, and Buddhist psychology on the other.
The relationship between the scientific psychology of the West and
indigenous systems of psychology can take many forms, ranging from totally
independent existence to complete integration (Katz, 1983). Buddhist
psychology, like other indigenous psychologies, is prescientific, but it is
so only in the narrow sense, in that it developed prior to, and outside the
context of, modern Western science. It offers clearly testable hypotheses
and therefore can be brought within the realm of scientific inquiry.
Further, as noted above, the overall stance of Buddhism is an eminently
empiricist one and the process of evaluating the notions and practices of
its psychology is something that will be consistent with this stance. Such
testing will not be alien to the spirit of Buddhism, which encourages
enquiry and discourages dogmatic acceptance of theories and claims
(Jayatilleke, 1963). Thus, Buddhist psychology can potentially make a
contribution to modern scientific psychology without compromising its basic
stance or that of the latter. What are the chances of the successful
integration of the two? In the author's view, total integration between two
independently developed systems of psychology, each quite sophisticated,
does not seem to be either feasible or desirable. Modern scientific
psychology will continue to evolve and grow, and in the process, it will
take in ideas, concepts and techniques from all sources, for evaluation
and--where the evaluation has led to positive results--incorporation.
Buddhist psychology will continue to be one of the indigenous psychologies
that will provide many such testable concepts and techniques, and thus make
a contribution towards the further expansion and development of modern
psychology. Beyond such interaction and influence, it is not plausible to
assume that the two systems in their entirety will be, or can be,
integrated. On the other hand, it is possible to envisage that a limited
integration between certain aspects of Buddhist psychology and certain
parallel areas of modern psychology may fruitfully be affected. Mikulas
(1981), for example, has argued for an integrated new system of behavior
and behavior change, of which both Buddhism and behavior modification are
subsets. Within the broad limits of psychology, it is indeed possible that
such schools or areas of modern psychology which are able to derive much
from, or have much in common with, Buddhist psychology may develop and
fiuorish with such close interaction. There is, already, the transpersonal
school of psychology that incorporates a good deal of Buddhism and other
ideas of personal development and enduring personal change. On this limited
scale, close overlap and synthesis seem possible. In the broader context,
Buddhist psychology is likely to keep interacting with modern psychology,
rather than achieving integration with it. In this interaction, it will
continue to make a contribution to both theory and practice in different
areas, and in varying degrees of significance. This contribution is likely
to be particularly significant in the area of psychological therapy.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Conference of
the British Psychological Society, St. Andrews, April, 1989.
The author wishes to express his thanks to the Leverhulme Trust for a
research grant supporting his studies of Buddhist psychology, and to Ian
Jakes and Melanie Marks, who made valuable comments on earlier drafts of
Date of acceptance for publication: September 6, 1990. Address for
correspondence: Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, De
Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, England.
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