The Buddha and Psychotherapy

BodhAfter Siddhartha Gautama was enlightened he became the Buddha. Before that time he had been first a great prince and then, after his renunciation, a wandering monk. His aim was to uncover the secret of suffering and find enlightenment. He tried several teachers, starved himself close to death, practised self-torture and meditation, but none of these worked. In despair he decided to sit under a Bo tree, not leaving until he had found either enlightenment or death. Four weeks later it came to him in the night. He ‘saw’ into the ultimate nature of reality: that it was without names, time or permanence. He realised that he was it and it he.

A few weeks after that he gave his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath to five disciples. He told them that he had discovered that everything that arises is subject to cessation, including suffering. The path to enlightenment lay in the Four Noble Truths:

1.   Know that there is dukkha

2.   Understand the origin of dukkha in attachment

3.   Let go of attachment and dukkha

4.   Follow the Eight-fold path

Dukkha‘ is a Pali word that can be translated as ‘desire’, ‘torment’, ‘suffering’ or ‘dissatisfaction’. It refers to the continuous craving that goes on at every moment in every human being: the craving to be right, to be in control, to be loved, to be respected, to understand, to avoid death, pain and fear. In the first three steps the disciple acknowledges the craving is there and notices it in action; next she understand what it is the craving wants to cling on to; finally she allows the craving to die away again.

In Buddha’s original teaching there is no mention of God, or prayers, or ritual, or faith. All that is needed are the Four Noble Truths, including the Eight-fold path:

Right Seeing – seeing into the ‘OK-ness’ of all things

Right Intention – to stay awake and be mindful

Right Speaking – without gossip, complaints, abstractions, and labels

Right Acting – with mindfulness and compassion

Right Working – without greed, cravings, worry or stress

Right Effort – conscious, purposeful and without attachment to the result

Right Mindfulness – living in the moment, seeing that things are as they are

Right Concentration – on each moment in the ‘now’

Buddhism in its pure form is a psychotherapy. Peace, happiness and knowledge come from the application of the Four Noble Truths. All that is required is to apply these truths to our experiences of dissatisfaction. For example, suppose I am ‘depressed‘ and wish to get release from it. First I need to recognise that ‘depression‘ does not exist. Instead I pay attention to my feelings, thoughts and sensations. I do not judge them or try to escape from them. If I do that my depression will certainly increase and so will my anguish about it. I realise that as it has come, so it can go. Then I do not identify with it. Using the second noble truth I realise its origin in craving or desire. I understand that it is there to hold on to some false need with which I have identified. Next I let go of it. I understand that it is not ‘me’, that it is not permanent, that it passes away. I let go, also, of the intention that keeps it in being. Then I go back to the Eight-fold path. I continue to see that things come and go in my mind; I stay on the path of non-identification; I speak, act and work in a way that supports my awareness; I make efforts to stay awake; remain mindful of the fact that everything that arises, passes away again; and, in meditation, focus on nirvana (a Pali word meaning ‘blown-out’) – the state of non-attachment.

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