On first encountering Buddhist teachings many
Westerners wonder whether they are actually dealing with a philosophy or a type of applied
psychology, rather than a religion.
Certainly Buddhism has strong elements of both
philosophy and psychology.
Buddhist teachings do not require a suspension
of the intellect by demanding a belief in scientifically
implausible creation myths.
There are no 'revealed truths' (ie doctrines
which come from out of the sky and must be believed on the basis of faith rather than
reason). Buddha encouraged his students to test his teachings against their own reason and
experience. Only by thoroughly challenging the teachings can one gain confidence in their
One of Buddhism's main philosophical
components is its ontology - the study of how things exist. A common misunderstanding is that Buddhists believe
that 'things don't really exist' or that 'nothing exists'. In fact Buddhists believe
that nothing exists by its own nature. All produced phenomena
exist in dependence upon other phenomena - every cause is itself an effect of another
cause. A table does not exist by virtue of it's innate 'tableness'. It exists due to the
timber and the joiner, and its possessing a flat surface, a certain number of legs etc.
It also exists by identification with the 'tableness' that is present in the minds
of the observers (but not in the table itself!).
Tracing things further back, the timber exists
in dependence upon acorns, soil, sun, rain etc, and the joiner exists in dependence upon
his mother, father and the midwife.
In Buddhism, relationships such as cause and
effect, structure and components, observer and observed are regarded as more fundamental
aspects of existence than actual 'things'. Even the mind is not a thing or a substance.
The technical Buddhist term for the mind is the 'Mental Continuum'. In western
terminology we would regard Buddhism as a Process
Buddhist psychology is intended to be used for
improving our state of mind, especially reducing teh effects of the Three Poisons. It is an
applied science and is not usually presented as an abstract or academic discipline,
because in order to understand it Buddhists are supposed to 'walk their talk'.
Practices include meditation, visualisation and mindfulness throughout the day.
When nineteenth century Europeans first
studied Buddhism they were impressed by the rational aspects but were perplexed by
some of the powerfully emotive and sometimes disturbing symbolism and visualisations.
They ascribed these 'tantric' aspects to the corruption of a rationalistic
philosophy by later mixing with primitive folklore and Shamanism.
Then along came Freud and Jung.
Buddha had recognised the importance of the
subconscious activities of the mind, both individual and collective, 2400 years before the
founders of Western psychology. He knew that purely rational arguments were
insufficient to motivate a deep and lasting transformation of the mind. The practitioner
also needs to harness and redirect the powerful emotional currents which well up from the
depths. Jungian psychologists discovered that the vivid symbolism of tantric art and
visualisation involved the use of 'archetypes' - ancient patterns and symbols in the
human subconscious which can be invoked to produce powerful emotional responses.
So why is Buddhism regarded as a
The reason Buddhism is regarded as a religion
rather than a form of humanism is that it is primarily concerned with the long term future
of the mental continuum rather than with just this single limited lifetime. Buddhists do
not believe that the mental continuum is dependent upon physical 'things' such as the body
or brain for its existence. In fact many Buddhists would turn this view on its head and
claim that the way that physical things exist is dependent upon the mental continuum of