I was talking recently with Jeff Harrison, my friend and fellow psychotherapist, about some of the difficulties and challenges involved in translating Buddhist ideas about human experience for psychotherapy. Although Jeff is not actually a Buddhist, he is very knowledgeable about Buddhism as he wrote his doctoral thesis at the University of Kent comparing Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy with contemporary post-structuralism and now serves on the teaching staff of the Tariki Buddhist Psychotherapy training programme where I train. So he brings a great deal of practical experience, as well as theoretical understanding to Buddhist psychology. Perhaps Jeff might be described a critical fellow traveller of Buddhism, in that he respects and employs many Buddhist ideas for psychotherapy, but remains sceptical about Buddhism' s metaphysical claims. Our recent discussion revolved around that perennial issue for psychotherapy, the nature of the unconscious.
Our discussion was prompted by a book I recently read about Yogacara Buddhism, called Living Yogacara by Tagawa Shun'ei, which provides a good, accessible introduction to a highly complex subject. Yogacara was a development within Mahayana Buddhism and spread throughout northern and eastern Asia where it continues to influence Buddhist thought and practice, especially in Tibetan Buddhism. Although I can't claim an extensive understanding of Yogacara , as a Buddhist therapist I am deeply intrigued by its model of human consciousness which seems to anticipate some of the ideas found in psychoanalysis about complexes. As always, a great deal of caution has to be observed in making any such comparisons. It is necessary to note, for instance, the differences in historical context, as well observe that psychoanalysis has a much a different understanding of the human condition than any form of Buddhism has. But even so, the similarities between Yogacara and psychoanalysis are striking, especially for me, a Buddhist therapist with a strong interest in psychodynamic thinking.
In order to appreciate the similarities, we might first briefly consider the concept of complexes which emerged as a key idea of depth psychology at the turn of the last century. The idea has its roots in experimental psychology from more than a century ago when people such as William James, Hermann Rorschach and even Jung observed that clusters of associated ideas could be found in subjects who were not entirely aware of them. A Rorschach test, for example, presents a variety of inkblots which depict no real objects to subjects who were asked to say what these various shapes reminded them of. The test would then reveal something about the character of the person being tested. Of course, such projective tests can be meaningful only according to the the interpretive scheme being used. But the early psychoanalysts were quick to cite projective tests as objective evidence for their ideas of psychological complexes. Psychoanalysis argued that the proven reality of complexes revealed a dynamic unconscious which ruled the thoughts and emotions of all people, not just psychoanalytic patients. But complexes are hardly solid entities with easily discerned objective properties. They are better thought of as heuristic devices used by psychoanalysis to understand the unconscious processes of patients. Moreover, the great differences of opinion which emerged between Freud and Jung about the nature of complexes may have undermined the claim that the evidence for them was entirely empirical. But this is taking me away from the topic at hand.
Let's now go back more than 1600 years in India when Buddhism was still flourishing and Mahayana was developing rapidly. I confess I lack sufficient understanding of this period of Buddhist history to present any informed picture of it, but it was clearly a time of extraordinary spiritual exploration. It was here at this time that Yogacara was developed by two Buddhist monks, Vasubandhu and Asanga, who presented a model of consciousness that added two new faculties that were not included in Buddhism's previous model of consciousness. According to the model that had been taught since the Buddha's time several centuries before Yogacara, consciousness was comprised of the five sense modalities of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste, as well as an additional faculty, the mano vijnana, or the mind as a sense faculty aware of its own contents. Yogacara claimed that two additional faculties of consciousness were needed to give a complete picture of consciousness. First, there was the alaya or storehouse consciousness which contained the karmic seeds of past actions that would be germinated whenever the conditions were favourable for them to do so. Then there was the manas which identified with the contents of the alaya in a perpetual quest to secure a lasting self. Clearly, these two added faculties of consciousness present a picture of the mind that has much in common with psychoanalytic ideas of the unconscious. But, as I said before, the differences between these two ways of looking at consciousness should not be overlooked. It is worth noting in this regard that the discovery of the alaya and the manas did not come about through any clinical investigations of human psychopathology similar in any way to psychoanalysis's discovery of complexes. According to legend, Asanga was transported to Tushita heaven where he was given tutorials on the mind by the Maitreya Bodhisattva and then returned to the material plane where he shared this unique teaching. But perhaps Jung had something similar happen to him when he came up with his idea of the collective unconscious.
As I say, Yogacara continues to influence Buddhist thought and practice, but I am not sure quite how it does so. Presumably it informs the practice of meditation, perhaps by teaching practitioners how to deal with the personal contents of the unconscious that inevitably arise in meditation. If that is the case, then its affinity with psychotherapy would seem even stronger. But is the similarity of Yogacara to psychotherapy a mere curiosity or does psychotherapy have something to learn by becoming acquainted with Yogacara? As a Buddhist therapist, I am inclined to think so, but at the same time I would be suspicious of drawing any superficial conclusions. And when Yogacara talks about bijas or karmic seeds originating from countless lifetimes in the past lying dormant in the alaya, I can't help but be baffled by the claim. It is not that I doubt the possibility of rebirth. But nothing in my experience permits me to see it as anything other than fantastical. If, for example, a client came in and claimed a vivid memory of a trauma that occurred to her in a previous life in some place like ancient Egypt, I would listen respectfully, but would suspect that her complaint disguised a more immediate difficulty.
Jeff, no doubt, would have even stronger reservations about accepting any claims about rebirth, but that didn't really figure into our conversation. But he did ask me what relevance I thought any Buddhist ideas concerning the unconscious could have for psychotherapy "All samskaras [compunded things] are inherently empty," I replied. That is to say that the unconscious, which often secretes its darkest contents into consciousness by the devious means of complexes, can be seen through if they are brought to the light of awareness. But this has always been the aim of psychotherapy, which is what Freud must have had in mind when he wrote: "Where id was, there ego shall be." But the further claim of Buddhism, which goes beyond Freud's therapeutic ambition of enabling patients to be capable of love and work, is that by seeing the inherent emptiness of all phenomena a more complete and final realisation can be attained. Having said that, even Buddhist therapists should be satisfied with hitting the Freudian marker for success.
Speaking of rebirth, I want to briefly recount a story I once heard about the late Jungian psychotherapist Roger Woolger who specialised in past life regression. I never met Woolger myself, but a mutual friend once asked him if he believed that his clients were actually retrieving memories from previous lifetimes. "Three days out of the week I do; three days out of the week I don't and on the seventh I just don't know.," he replied. I approve of this answer as it balances belief and scepticism and then takes a day off.