In my last post I considered things from an existential perspective and drew heavily on my reading of existentialism, particularly Heidegger and Sartre, in my understanding of how we encounter the world as individuals. What I called a moment of truth, Heidegger termed the call of conscience, but both refer to the solitary self reckoning that must be involved in any individual's quest for personal truth. I also followed the thinking of virtually every existential thinker--beginning with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche-- in characterising the search for personal truth and meaning as an inherently anxious undertaking. For there appears no possibility of ever finding solid factual ground on which such a search for meaning can be based. "The moment of truth is also a moment of doubt," I wrote. Yet, in closing I wondered if my position could be reconciled with Buddhism which not only confidently asserts the possibility of shedding all doubts and arriving at a final gnosis, but also prescribes a way of making such a realisation. This may seem far removed from the concerns of psychotherapy which of necessity must have more modest aims. But in fact, the nature of the Buddha's realisation either does or does not tell us about the psychic possibilities of being human. So what was the nature of the Buddha's realisation and how is it relevant to psychotherapy?
Let me begin with the second question by speaking personally as a Buddhist psychotherapist. Although I don't flaunt my spiritual colours, I don't conceal them, either, More importantly, I would never try to convert anyone to Buddhism. As I have written before, I believe it would be unethical to use psychotherapy as an opportunity to proselytise, for therapy should try to work within the client's spiritual orientation, whatever it happens to be. Perhaps for this reason most therapists prefer to remain silent about their spiritual convictions, especially as this helps to keep the focus on the client's experience. But many Buddhist therapists are like me and tend to be more open about their spiritual beliefs. This may be justified on the grounds that Buddhist psychology offers a comprehensive theoretical model of human experience which features a penetrating analysis of the dynamics of attachment. But even more important for me is the idea that we all possess a Buddha nature, that is we are already enlightened, yet fail to realise it. This amounts to a kind of faith and makes Buddhism more important for me in my role as therapist than for the client. There is, however, one glaring difficulty with this. I am not enlightened and have had no direct experience of Buddha nature.
Of course, there are all sorts of facile ways of justifying my position. I might, for example, claim that Buddha nature is the inmost ground of being and as such is the most fundamental endowment of human consciousness. This, however, would be more of a theological position and would be scarcely different than the Christian belief in the soul. Besides, in my understanding Buddha nature has an active, if mostly hidden function in the psyche and might be described as awareness prior to self awareness or knowing before any accumulation of knowledge. But any attempt to find an abstract expression for something that I have not directly experienced leaves me open to the charge that I am only speaking speculatively, without the authority of actual insight. Indeed, I am not entirely convinced of these claims, myself. Yet, I still find my orientation as a psychotherapist (to say nothing of my personal, spiritual convictions) through my belief in Buddha nature. Although this belief may be entirely justifiable for my spiritual practice, it may seem somewhat questionable for psychotherapy. After all, shouldn't therapy rely on something more than faith healing?
I would say not and would argue that every therapeutic approach, even the most sceptical, demands at least a modicum of faith in the possibility that psychotherapy can help the client. To be sure, those who hold faith in therapy may see it as determinedly rational and might indignantly deny any association with anything that smacks of spirituality. But every form of therapy must begin with a sense of the latent, unrealised potential that the client has not been able to find by himself. Even Freud, who dismissed spirituality as infantile, believed that psychoanalysis could help patients drop their neurotic defences and become capable of love and work. Moreover, in almost all forms of psychotherapy success is conceived as a kind of emancipation from the self defeating habit patterns that govern the lives of clients. Practically speaking then, faith in therapy may amount to little more than the belief in the possibility of finding such a freedom.
But let me go back to my own faith and what I said before about the dynamic function of Buddha nature. Buddha nature for me as a therapist isn't so much a latent potential as it is the primary, fundamental property of consciousness. Indeed, it is the radiant fact of consciousness itself whose very light makes possible the divagations away from it. I can offer no proof for this belief nor can I bring much in the way of evidence to support any argument I might make for it. I also know it can be easily dismissed as a fantasy or soft headed fabrication. But my belief in Buddha nature is not about demonstrable facts. It is about meaningful wonder based both in the happenstance of the everyday world and in the inherent mystery of being existent at all. In this connection, I always think of the Buddha's own moment of seminal wonder as a boy sitting under a rose apple tree, watching his father's fields being ploughed on a beautiful spring day. What of all the worms and insects that were dislodged and eaten by birds as their habitats were being destroyed? Was this their inevitable fate? he wondered. There could be no factual answer to his question. Facts would only allow the flat observation that this is how the world is. Yet, at this precise moment when he might have turned away from an unfathomable mystery, he fell spontaneously into meditative rapture and kept alive the spark of wonder that might have been extinguished by strict objective reasoning. Later, the memory of this episode inspired him to meditate in his own way which gave rise to the deep insights that made him a Buddha.
I am no Buddha, but as a therapist I do try to be like the boy under the rose apple tree. In a world I cannot imagine being more beautiful, I am amazed by the infinite variety of suffering that I witness in it. In being with a client and attuning myself to his or her experience of suffering, it would be easy to succumb to hopelessness. Yet my faith in therapy which is founded on my faith in Buddha nature, gives me hope when my powers of reasoning fail me.