By Venerable Jaguang Sunim
Many people in the West (and East for that matter) who seek guidance in Buddhist centers need some kind of psychotherapy and simple introductory practices like breathing meditation. In many ways, the work that many American Dharma centers are doing -- offering their members compassion and kindness, lending a sympathetic ear and discussing their problems, and encouraging them to have new perspectives on their own ego and how they can step outside of ego and the problems they are wrestling with -- is excellent. However, the limitations of such psychotherapy-like methods, and the contradictions between them and the Buddha's teachings, need to be recognized so that they are used only as very short-term exercises.
Western Dharma teachers are seeing many people who grow up feeling deprived of, almost starved for, love and support. My own personal theory on why people in the West seem so starved for love is the tendency of our culture to be so individualistic and autonomous. People want independence from their families, sometimes even from their spouses, and the freedom to make their own choices about what they will do; they resist other people telling them what to do. Some people live alone in order to have this freedom, and it alienates them from others; but many others also feel this, even if they don't live alone.
Alienation leads to loneliness and a strong sense of separation. Even children in our culture are expected to "grow up" quickly, compared to those of other cultures, and to have emotional maturity beyond their years, without the emotional support that they really need from their parents. We hardly realize this about our culture until we experience other cultures that are very group- and family-oriented, where people really look after each other. Extended families live together, and neighbors all know each other and help each other out. In our culture there is also a strong sense of competition; it's more like a "survival of the fittest" mentality where the weak are left to fall behind.
Of the many people that I have met in our three Zen centers over twenty-some years, there have been some who were greatly in need of psychotherapy and whose emotional problems were so severe that they couldn't possibly begin any kind of meditation practice. Many people like that would seek out meditation centers, as they had the impression from what they had heard or read that Zen could cure their problems. But in fact, true Buddhist practice was never intended for the masses, as most people are not ready for such a Path. One has to be very mentally and emotionally healthy and mature to embark upon a Path of awakening.
In South Korea, they address the spiritual and emotional needs of the masses by encouraging chanting and bowing practices, which help to empty the mind and cultivate faith. This kind of practice is not contradictory to the teachings of the Buddha because it still steers them toward letting go of thoughts and having more faith in their Buddha nature.
Psychotherapy has been very popular in the West for many years and was downright fashionable in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It appeals to Westerners because they have been educated to be intellectually oriented, and it introduces new perspectives on how to perceive themselves and their situations. But what concerns me about using this as an entrance into Buddhist practice is that, although they may appear similar on the surface, Buddhism and psychotherapy are in many respects quite opposite.
Psychology engages the intellect to examine and attempt to work through the individual's emotions, thoughts, and suffering. Buddhism disengages the intellect to experience what lies beyond the emotions, thoughts, and suffering, thus allowing us to let go of the suffering and rely on the greater power of our true nature.
The latter is not that difficult to do if taught correctly, illustrated, for example, by the dramatic experiences that people have in 10-day Goenka retreats. In the movie The Dhamma Brothers, I was struck by how profound were the realizations that some of those men in prison had, and these are men who obviously have many emotional problems or they would not have ended up in high security prisons. Many of them had horrific childhoods with abuse and abandonment. So there is no reason why the average Buddhist student could not have similarly deep spiritual experiences as these men, given the opportunity and correct guidance in Buddhist practice. Once they have had that experience, this leads to great faith in their Buddha mind, thus that there is no need to go back to psychotherapy-type methods, which re-engage the thought processes to attempt to resolve emotional problems.