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Buddhism and Psychoanalysis

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by Sangharakshita

117: Buddhism and Psychoanalysis

Those of us who are students of language in any way, whether our own language or a foreign language, whether we study it scientifically or from a literary point of view, we know from our own experience that very often it is the simplest words which are, I wont say the most difficult to understand, but certainly the most ambiguous. Take, for instance, the title of our talk this morning: Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. Now, what is meant by Buddhism? At least in a very general way, should have become clear in the course of the last few days, even for those who have had no previous connection or association with Buddhism. And as for this word psychoanalysis, we encounter it very often, we read about it, we hear it referred to in conversations and when we listen to the radio. It is almost a household word. So, we have got some general, even if rather imprecise idea, about what is meant by psychoanalysis. So here are two words out of our three words in our title disposed of. We have got some idea of what Buddhism means, some idea of what psychoanalysis means. But the title of the talk is Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. So what is the significance of this very little, but highly ambiguous, word and. Obviously some kind of comparison, some kind of contrast, between Buddhism and psychoanalysis is intended. But why should one want to compare these things, these two fields of knowledge? Why should one feel impelled to contrast them? We may say that we make the attempt, we make the effort to compare things in this way, only when their existence constitutes for us a sort of problem. And it is the desire for the solution of this problem that constitutes the motive for the comparison. Now let me explain what I mean a little bit more in detail. Many of you know that from 1944 to 1964 I was in the East, mainly in India, and especially for the last twelve or thirteen years of my sojourn there, in the Indo-tibetan borderlands, more specifically in Kalimpong and in Darjeeling. And during the course of my stay in the East I was occupied with the study of Eastern religions and philosophies, especially of course Buddhism, both on the theoretical and the practical sides. And, as my studies progressed, as I became also a little more experienced, I took up a certain amount of preaching and teaching activity. While I was in Kalimpong, for instance, frequently going down into the plains at least once a year and engaging, I may say, in rather marathon sort of preaching tours all over the length and breath of that vast subcontinent. One of the things I found, not only when I was staying in Kalimpong, not only when I was out on tour, but all of the time, I found in India that people used to come to me with their problems of various kinds. Now these problems were usually quite ordinary, one may say quite mundane. Many people used to come to me with domestic problems, either their son wouldnt study and had, according to their idea, to be made to study. So an irate father would come and say well, the boy has stopped going to school. Im sending him to you tomorrow morning. Please make him realise he must study. And this was the attitude in the East, still parents are a little bit stern, a little bit strict, and the idea of discussing the question with the son or the daughter just doesnt arise. They are just really told what they have to do. And very often the parent wanted to get my co-operation and his idea was that I should put the full force of my authority behind this demand that the son should go back to school and study because that is the high road to a government job, which is the sort of Nirvana of modern Indian life nowadays. And sometimes of course, they would come with their matrimonial problems of various kinds. Either husband would come and complain about the wife, or wife would come and complain about the husband. And one would have to sort out various things. Or you find someone who has got mixed up with two or three wives, and quite a lot of sorting out was required, and xx###xx their various claims and all that sort of thing. And sometimes, though not so often, I must say, psychological problems. These came up very rarely, and sometimes people would come with spiritual problems, though these were rarest of all. Most of the people who came, came with just ordinary human problems, domestic problems and things of that sort. So it was my practice, it was my habit, my custom, in India, to help out as best I could and give advice, and this way, I think I may say, developed quite an insight into different aspects of worldly life with which I had no direct personal connection. But I must say that during this whole period that I was in the East, studying Buddhism and other Eastern religions and philosophies, practising meditation, I had very little contact with psychology, that is to say, with modern psychology. I knew about it, of course, in a general way. I had some rather vague, general idea about it, but I never gave psychology, and of course I mean Western psychology, and modern psychology, any serious thought. In the East one gets along without psychology, I would say, quite well.

Buddhism, as you probably know, has its own system of what we call psychology, and in the Buddhist countries, they usually manage quite well with this, without any help from any of the various systems of modern psychology. But after I returned to this country, or rather I paid my first visit to this country, beginning of August 1964, the situation, so far as I was personally concerned, rather changed. And this change came about in a quite natural sort of manner. Almost from the day of my arrival in this country, here too people started coming to me with their problems. For instance, people often rang me up and they would say Could I come and see you, please, theres a problem I want to discuss with you or Theres a difficulty I want to talk to you about.

So just as in India, so in this country, people came with problems of various kinds. But I started noticing a difference. Hardly anyone came with any domestic problem or anything of that sort.

Nearly everybody came with psychological problems. I would say 9 out of 10 of the people who came to consult me, came not to ask so much about Buddhism, not because they were concerned about a particular problem of Buddhist philosophy or Buddhist thought, they came to ask for advice and help about their own psychological problems. Usually, they started off by telling the story of their lives. Sometimes, it was a long and interesting story, sometimes it was a long and not so interesting story. Some would go into very great detail, others would just mention a few salient facts. But most people who came in this way, with these psychological problems, would tell the story of their lives. So I naturally used to listen patiently, take it all in, make a few mental notes, and gradually I could see two facts emerging. Not only emerging, one might say, even sort of jumping up and calling, even clamouring, for attention. The first thing that struck me, the first fact that impressed me, was the very large number of people who were mentally and emotionally disturbed in this country. This is the first fact that emerged. I think I would say, quite definitely, that the percentage of mentally and emotionally disturbed people is much higher in this country, probably in the West as a whole, than it is in the East. In the East people seem on the whole, though there are exceptions, much more relaxed, much more emotionally and mentally balanced, than they very often are here, especially in the big cities. So this is the first fact that emerged, which dawned, or perhaps even flashed upon me, in the months that followed my return to this country. Namely, the very large number of people in modern society, in the West, who are mentally and emotionally disturbed, sometimes very seriously, in one way or another.

The second fact which emerged was how many of these people coming to me had, at one time or another, been psychoanalysed. Some following a Freudian analysis (and I very quickly picked up these term). Someone had a Freudian analysis, someone had a Jungian analysis, someone had existentialist analysis, and so on. But an extraordinary large number seemed to have had analysis at some time or another, or were even still having it. Some had had it for months, some had had it for two or three years, and one woman whom I remember, who came to me, she claims the record: shed been having analysis, and still having it, for 17 years, two or three times a week. And she doesnt seem noticeably better, as far as I could see. Thats not, Im sure, the fault of psychoanalysis, but that is how it did seem to be. Now in India, and perhaps India is in advance of many Eastern countries, in India psychoanalysis is available only in two or three of the big cities: probably Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi. Very likely not available, or not very easily available, elsewhere. So one can see from this that psychoanalysis plays quite an insignificant part in the live of people in India, in fact in the East generally. But in the West, certainly in this country, it became obvious to me, after my return, psychoanalysis plays a very important part indeed. To xxxparryxxx the words of a well-known advertisement - 'psychoanalysis is in our life a part of it'. And I think we have to accept that situation, and I think that nobody in this country who is concerned in any way with the teaching of whether Buddhism or any other religious system can possibly ignore the presence and the influence here of what we call psychoanalysis. So thus it happened that within some months of my return to this country in 64 I started thinking about, started turning over in my head, the connection, the relation, between these two: on the one hand Buddhism, and on the other hand psychoanalysis. So this morning I am doing no more than sharing ...

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