FLM: Dr. Feel-good and the Medicalization of Buddhism (with bonus book review of How to Become a Buddha in 5 Weeks-ouch)

[This is another episode of this blog’s occasional column, Fear and Loathing in McBuddhaland ]

Freedom is a challenge. You decide who you are by what you do. It’s like a question, like a fork in the road. An ongoing question you have to keep answering correctly. There’s a touch of the high wire to it. I’ve  never been able to walk high wires, but I get the feeling. Hunter S. Thompson, in The Playboy Interviews. p. 38


I am a religious Buddhist. I have never been a “spiritual” or secular or philosophical or psychological Buddhist. It would be fair to say I am one of those full on 24/7/365 believers full of faith and certainty regarding the Buddhist path. I love and am devoted to the Buddhadharma as much as to anything in life, maybe even more than anything else. It is the breath of life from this perspective. Maybe that makes me a Buddhist fanatic. I hope so.

After nearly 30 years of treading the Buddhist path I’ve come to relish the occasional arduousness and the often ridiculousness of it. As well as the sublime joy of that journey. It’s a very deep and very human path. It takes stamina, energy, courage and maybe even a little bit of foolishness and fearlessness to carry on for years on end. There’s no point in hope alone. It isn’t enough.

The purpose of religion, ultimately is salvation of some sort. Perhaps salvation from incidental day to day bothers or questions or perhaps salvation in the grandest sense of complete understanding of or mergence with the universe. It is transformation on any scale and provides some relief from all that existential angst that is the human condition.

Robert Thurman has said

I have become somewhat averse to the idea of merely ‘practicing’ Buddhism and would prefer to dedicate our efforts to those who have had a lot of practice and are now striving to ‘perform’ the buddhadharma. Or, if they are not ready to perform, they practice with the intensity of one who is determined to perform as soon as possible….There is no true practice of Buddhism if there is no intensity of aspiration to attain the full goal, the whole deal, the unexcelled perfect enlightenment of buddhahood itself. quoted in the editorial of Buddhadharma magazine Summer 2009 p.7

So that is a quick summary of my belief, perspective, aspiration, world view and bias. No point in pretending to some impossible standard of objectivity.

There is no objectivity because there is not a solid settled thing to objectify.  And no fixed objectifier. As an aside from the Abhidharma, as soon as an interaction is registered in consciousness any future reference to that thing requires a re-registration in consciousness and a verification with memory. By that time both object and objectifier have been altered from the original contact.

I mention Abhidharma for a very specific reason. Abhidharma is the third part of the Tripitaka-the Buddhist canon.  Since it deals with perception, memory, concentration, consciousness, motivation and many other mental factors it is the basis of Buddhist psychological theory. This is especially true of the Theravadin and Tibetan branches of Buddhism. In Mahayana schools it is less emphasized or even ignored to a certain extent.

The forest and the trees is why Buddhism is not only a psychology, a philosophy or a set of rituals or prescribed actions. It is all of these and more. It is an entire system of living. It is a world view, and even beyond that an absolute and universally all encompassing view, and a guide for every aspect of life. It is a lot bigger than the secular specialist viewpoint would like to admit. Interdependence, karma, and other Buddhist concepts are enormous  even though they are practiced on individual human scale. The three jewels include Buddha-the first teacher and representative of the goal of Buddhist practice, the Dharma-the description of the Buddhist world view and methodology,  and the Sangha-the social circumstances in which the Dharma is practiced and the Buddha is realized. Dharma includes much more than just the psychological or philosophical elements.

“Western Buddhism” as some groups define it has generally become another term for feel-good encounter groups and self-improvement practices. And in other quarters it has become a treatment “modality” or style of office decor for the practicing psychotherapist.

Buddhism is Not Enough-Validation

The social psychology of North America has been profoundly shaped by Christian viewpoints, values, doctrine and practices. Even with attempts to separate religion and politics (church and state) there is no separation between religion and culture. American and European culture is permeated with behaviors that are shaped by authoritarian theism. Culture is a world view informed by it’s dominant elements and one of the most dominant elements of any culture is it’s ideology particularly it’s religious ideology and behaviors stemming from it. In the case of North America this means an authoritarian theistic and specifically a Christian world view.

In this world view there is a very clear demarcation between secular and sacred. The sacred is totally reliant upon authority. That is authority of books, leaders and ultimately a divine figure. The secular realm takes the same tack with laws, political figures, group leaders and the rigidity of educational systems, the emergence of science and it’s “rational” authority and social sanctions against non-conformists. Authority = Power.  It is something very few ever question. This viewpoint is self-serving, self-preserving and self-validating. Anything that is introduced to it goes through a rather arduous screening process by socially- and self-proclaimed “experts” before the authoritarian stamp of approval is given.

Here are a couple of points regarding Buddhism’s marginal acceptance in the dominant American culture and to some extent Europe and elsewhere.

1) Buddhism is a side-dish to one’s main religious practice. There are a growing number of voices that insist Buddhism should be “compatible” with other religions. Although this has been historically apparent for quite a long time in the philosophical practices of say the Theosophists and other spiritual adventurers at the turn of the 20th century. The idea seems to be that Buddhism should not replace one’s original religion or ideology but augment it in some way. Why?

Several reasons for this come to mind.

  • a) Buddhism is not seen as a “serious” spiritual path due to it’s “otherness” (all that “cultural baggage” and foreign language)
  • b) Buddhism is not seen as a “serious” spiritual path due to it’s inherent lack of authority.  Who’s the boss? Who tells you what is and isn’t Buddhism?
  • c) The practices of Buddhism are internally focused where authority is questionable and cannot be externally validated.
  • d) Buddhism is “weak”. That means it is not aggressively prosthelytizing and converting. Nor are there any “serious” consequences for the “Bad” Buddhist. (like Hell). (note: I am talking about the non-Asian context here.) Nor is it attempting to “triumph” over anything so ominous as a great “evil” figure. There is no epic battle to be collectively fought and no heinous “enemy” in the deepest sense of the word to be conquered. There are the factors such as Mara, illusion and the like but in comparison to a Great Satan or other figure they are quite laughable in terms of evil intent.  There is no overt “Power” in Buddhism either in doctrine or in action and this in a comparative context renders it without much in the way of authority.

2) The authority of the medical establishment

This is the main point of this column. If Buddhism is without “authority” in America what institution, body, group, individual has the power to sanction Buddhism as “approved” for the American public?

Well that would be the medical establishment. And by extension the pharmaceutical and corporate based research networks.

With the discipline of psychology being enfolded under the tent of Medicine and with the growing number of medical advances an increasing amount of personal behavior, belief and activity has come under the rubric of the medical establishment.  Disorders abound and seem to multiply almost daily. And as psychology continues to adapt Buddhist methodology (without much else Buddhist) to psychotherapeutic ends we can already see the onset of such things as spiritual disorders replacing religious seeking.  In fact spirituality and religion are already falling under this rubric.

Example: A Spiritual Disorder. A proposal to increase the definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder to include a separate category for “Spiritual Narcissist”. This is actually just the same old Narcissistic behavior in the spiritual/religious realm. Will there also be a “Political Narcissist”, a “Sexual Narcissist”, a “Corporate Narcissist”? This writer also argues that NPD is a spiritual disorder and is “misdiagnosed” as a personality disorder. So the DSM, which is a huge catalogue of named disorders put out by the American Psychiatric Association may need to be revised. At the APA website such plans are in the works for the next edition DSM-V. Spiritual disorder doesn’t seem to be on the menu yet.

So if you are having trouble with sitting on your zafu for more than 10 minutes perhaps you have meditation-deficit disorder. Or if you can’t reach the next jnana in a certain period of time you might want a dose of jnaiagra for your ascension dysfunction. Or if long retreats scare you perhaps you have Vassa-phobia and require an immediate intervention.

Buddhism is an easy target for this enfoldment into the medical realm. While there are Christian counselors the basis for much of the practice in that realm remains adherence to Bible based principles with a dash of psychology thrown in. Buddhism on the other hand is being dismantled whole-sale to serve the powerful purposes of the medical-psychiatric establishment.  Christianity in the west is too powerful for the psychiatric/psychological community to co-0pt so lesser targets are subsumed.

And we can see many of the prominent folks in the American Buddhist community jumping on board with this agenda.

I am not against Jon Kabat-Zinn, Norman Fischer, Harvey Aronson, Jack Kornfield, Noah Levine and qualified others using some elements of the Buddhist whole to effect a relief from psychological suffering. I am all for it, in fact. But it isn’t all of Buddhism. Buddhist inspired, informed or influenced psychotherapy definitely but its not the whole of Buddhism. It’s goals are somewhat different than Buddhist goals. Many people say the relief of suffering is the goal of Buddhism and is also the goal of psychotherapy. This is true. But they are different kinds of suffering. On different scales. One is relative and the other absolute.

And now we see even Brad Warner jumping on the psychology bandwagon by attempting to practice psychotherapy without a license or any training by giving counseling advice to survivors of sexual abuse and PTSD. (check the snippet from the upcoming book cited in the linked post) And he is without credentials in the counseling realm.

We have psychologists using elements of  Buddhist religion as a therapeutic modality and Buddhist specialists (or at least specialists in shikantaza if nothing else) hijacking psychotherapy and giving Buddhist prescriptions for serious issues about which they know little or nothing. The lines have definitely blurred.

As to the authority of the scientific-medical community Bhikkhu Punnadhammo in an excellent critique of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs has stated:

Consciousness has not at all been explained “in terms of brain function” by modern science or by anyone else. It is entirely a metaphysical assumption that it ever can be, an act of faith of the most credulous sort that Mr. Batchelor should be the first to denounce. There is not a shred of a proof of this claim anywhere, only a pious belief in some quarters that such a proof will shortly be forthcoming.
Even odder is that when there is a conflict between two metaphysical assumptions, a Buddhist writer should be so ready to give the benefit of the doubt to the unbuddhist one.

This is characteristic of what one might call Buddhist Modernism. It’s that:

the influence of Protestant and Enlightenment values have largely defined some of their more conspicuous attributes.[4] David McMahan cites “western monotheism; rationalism and scientific naturalism; and Romantic expressivism” as influences.[5]

Taking up the latter “Romantic expressivism” Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes in the opening paragraph of  The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism:

Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha’s teachings but from the dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha’s words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.

His entire article is well worth reading and reflecting upon. He also discusses the influence of these ideas from the German Romantics on Western teachers including those Asians who had a “westernized” education before coming to America to teach. Additionally he states:

The question here in the West is whether we will learn from the Chinese example [the dialogue between Buddhism and Taoism] and start using Buddhist ideas to question our dharma gate, to see exactly how far the similarities between the gate and the actual dharma go. If we don’t, we run the danger of mistaking the gate for the dharma itself, and of never going through it to the other side.

That indeed is part of what I am trying to do here as well.  If  the discipline of psychology is a “dharma gate” due to the sociological authoritarian and familiarity factors then what is it’s resemblance to the actual Buddhadharma?

On a practical level we can note that quite a number of psychotherapists have become Buddhist teachers and vice versa. Of course having an office full of people to whom one could recommend one’s Sangha isn’t a bad thing in terms of Dana (or is it?) and having a Sangha full of people in need of some “spiritual psychotherapy” also isn’t a bad thing for the bank account. (or is it?) But perhaps that is just my cynicism creeping in.

There are some very major differences between Buddhism and psychotherapy. And between the Buddhist principles of psychology and the Western medical principles of psychology.

To summarize some of the principle differences.

1. Psychotherapy or psychology does not involve Bodhicitta. It does not address the mindset that involves aspiration to Buddha-hood or even Bodhisattva-hood at all. (unless they are a symptom of some psychological disorder) Those two things are beyond the reach of psychology. Bodhicitta is the central pivot point to which all Buddhist doctrine, psychology, philosophy, ritual, metaphysics and belief is fixed. To talk of Buddha- or Buddhist-anything is to talk of Bodhicitta.

2. Psychotherapy addresses only the fruits of Karma, not Karma itself. Psychotherapy deals with the results of personal choices based on personal circumstances and seeks to restore or develop an equilibrium in the ego rather than address the fiction of the fixed ego itself and it’s relationship to Karma. It deals only in specifics that are relative.

3. Psychotherapy does not deal significantly with the personal ethics of the client/patient nor does it attempt to confer a particular philosophy to a client nor does it often attempt to address ultimate personal viewpoints regarding life, death and ultimate meaning or understanding. These are beyond the scope of psychology.

Here is a lovely table from Wikipedia that summarizes things further:

Four Noble Truths and the medical model

Broadly speaking, differences between traditional Buddhism and contemporary institutionalized Western psychology[21] can be conceived in terms used in the following table.

Buddhism (Four Noble Truths) Western psychology
problem suffering (dukkha)[22] significant distress, disability, pain, loss of freedom, suicidality[23]
etiology craving (tanha), ignorance (avijja)[24] conditioning, genetics, biology, childhood development, socialization
goal Enlightenment (bodhi), Nirvana[25] normal or higher functioning, lack of initial symptoms
treatment Noble Eightfold Path[26] counseling, therapy, medication, systems advocacy

And the definitions of suffering as indicated in the problem row also differ. So the starting point is NOT the same for both. From the footnotes of the article:

  • ^ In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha defined suffering (dukkha) in the following terms:
    “Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.” (Ñanamoli, 1993.)
  • ^ For example, the DSM-IV states:
    “In DSM-IV, each of the mental disorders is conceptualized as a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.” (APA, 1994, p. xxi).

The purpose of psychotherapy is to restore an individual to functionality from a conventionally dysfunctional place and relieve psychological suffering relative to the individual, his/her circumstances and personal ego make-up. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to achieve a particular perception and/or understanding of the world in an ultimate way often called enlightenment which relieves existential suffering. The latter is considerably more intense and well beyond the scope of “normalizing” an individual into a relatively comfortable Samsaric existence.

Routine maintenance of the Skandas is what psychotherapy does. Putting these elements into some sort of livable balance while ignoring that they are significant to the causes and understanding of suffering is what psychotherapy does.

Buddhism encompasses a philosophy, a psychology including methodology, as well as a world view, a set of moral values and a well defined goal that ultimately goes far beyond the relief of day to day suffering even though it does encompass that. Buddhism is a complete system that deals with wholes, with the whole,  while science and psychotherapy and other secular approaches like philosophy or psychology deal only with specific parts.

This medicalization process is an attempt to fit Buddhist religion into a familiar box.  And to give it the necessary “stamp of authority” to make it palatable to the general public. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest “branding” Buddhism and apparently selling it just as one does a pair of Calvin Klein underwear. Wrapping the “other” in the familiar little boxes whether they be psychology or consumerism do bring some comfort but that doesn’t change what is inside.

Even to those who consciously try to reject the overt Christian references and try to live in the material, the provable, psychology cannot provide the entirety in the same manner as Buddhism.  What is lacking is a depth-a metaphysics an understanding of the non-material.

In the west the only outlet to attempting to understand that depth has been psychology or occasionally  philosophy, the latter being principally in the domain of the ivory tower and not generally accessible.

The accessibility of psychology, it’s popularization, in part funded by pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the commonality of experiences people encounter in life has broadened its appeal. And under that umbrella psychology increasingly speaks for Buddhism.

They are two different categories of thought and understanding and as such, have two very different ends. Occasionally and with a little tweaking the methodology may overlap but that does not make them the same thing.

Buddhism is a complete system designed for a specific ultimate purpose. Psychology is a sub-discipline of medicine designed for a specific limited and relative purpose.

Buddhism is not a substitute for psychology nor is psychology a substitute for Buddhism.

A Prime Example of My Main Point or a Review of The Worst Book on Buddhism I’ve Encountered in a Very Long Time

The topic of Buddhism Is Not Psychology has been on my mind for some time. What has spurred this episode of this column is that recently I acquired a book that just about sent me right over the edge.

The book’s title “How to Become a Buddha in 5 Weeks:The Simple Way to Self-Realization” written by Italian psychotherapist and university professor Giulio Cesare Giacobbe  gives you some indication that I might take issue with some of the contents. You would not be wrong in this regard.


Normally I wouldn’t even bother to read such a book. It is published by Arcturus who brings us such delectable titles as “A History of Cannibalism”, reprints of Nostradamus, “Crop Circles”, “Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures”, “Evil Wives”, “Why Are There No Cats in the Bible?” and “Discover Your Psychic Powers.” Pick up a copy at your favorite supermarket today. They state that is one of their target demographics-OK that was me wallowing in a bit of intellectual arrogance I admit. To be a bit more fair this publisher does also put out low cost editions of classics such as Dracula, Canterbury Tales, The Tao te Ching and others as well as puzzle books (like Sudoku) which I have actually purchased myself.

The reason I am bothering with this title is because this desperately Freudian fellow and his book labeled “The International Bestseller”  are being peddled on his academic credentials. He keeps a personal website to sell his books, all but this one in Italian as well as a blog. He is a professor at the very prestigious University of Genoa Italy where he teaches “Principles of Oriental Psychology“whatever that is supposed to mean. This information is prominently displayed on the book. I will say that if his courses are as badly researched as the book woe to those students.

By badly researched let me give an example. His main sources of information about Buddhism include:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Old Path White Clouds” from which the brief biography of Buddha is adapted
  • Dr. Edward Conze (“…one of the greatest scholars of Buddhism…”p.16) -the only Buddhist scholar referenced
  • various sutras and other works such as Buddhacarita by Ashvaghosa but no edition, translator etc is given
  • Chogyam Trungpa “Glimpses of Abhidharma” from which he takes the term Skandha but states “Skandha [is]..the five means by which perception presents itself. For the sake of greater clarity, the terms used here differ from the traditional ones…the function of perception, which Buddhist psychology subdivides into the five Skandha” (p.69) If he actually read and understood Trungpa’s book he might not have made such statements.
  • Patanjali “The Yoga Sutras” Prof. Giacobbe has also written a book “interpreting” this text but as yet it is only available in Italian so all you yogis and yoginis have something to look forward to in the future as well.
  • Buddhadasa “Mindfulness with Breathing” The author takes the phases of Vipassana and reduces them to 5 easy steps which he states makes them a “…much more easily practicable version of the traditional Vipassana, which has sixteen phases”(p.153)
  • Hui-Neng is referenced regarding “the Zen experience” which is summed up in totality as “Presence in reality” (p.114)

Seems like a reputable list of folks with some knowledge of Buddhism and related material. But what few references are made are used to bolster a bizarre theory that 5 weeks of self-brainwashing will give one some kind of “Buddha” experience. It appears that this list of names is included to attempt to give credence to this theory. The author makes the statement ” My life has been transformed. I have seen enlightenment.”  I will return to this issue in a bit as it is important to the content of the book.

As well he includes references from such diverse sources as:

  • P.D.Ouspenski who was a long time follower of George Gurdjieff. Having read the works of both these men I can’t see what they have to do with Buddhism but there it is. He calls Ouspenski a psychologist (he was a philosopher)  and lumps him in with Maslow and others.
  • Osho Rajneesh aka Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh (and the book “Tantra, Spirituality and Sex”) had a rather interesting take on spirituality. He is labeled a Zen master by his followers, hence the adoption of the word Osho, but he had never studied Zen.
  • Satya Sai Baba is a controversial Hindu guru in India who has met with numerous unsavory accusations.
  • Christian Bible and “Catholic theology”(p. 105) and diverse Christian speculation such as:

Jesus, having shown himself to be not only the son of God but also a shrewd psychologist…It is exciting for psychologists, like me, that out of all possible professions Jesus chose ours. To think that we number the son of God among our members! That our profession now also turns out to include the Buddha is a real stroke of luck! I wouldn’t be surprised if Gandhi and Golda Meir were in there somewhere too.”(p.16)

  • The authority of the psychological establishment subsuming Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism in one fell swoop!
  • K. Dychtwald’s book Bodymind of 1977 is also referenced
  • And his sources for some of the psychology talk are named but not referenced with the exception of Psychosynthesis: A Manual of Principles and Techniques by R. Assagioli published in 1965. Names dropped include Freud at every turn, as well as R.M. Bucke, W. Hall, A. H. Maslow,  for no apparent reason as their works are never referenced. Freud’s theory of religion  “focusing on neurosis as a psychological origin of religious beliefs” (source) is adopted wholesale and is clearly in evidence in this book. There are no current references and no references to any of the neo-Freudians such as Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Karen Horney or Erich Fromm or  Freudian influence people such as  psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan or those who after Freud actually encountered Buddhism such as Carl Jung.

    While this does not claim to be a scholarly book it rides on those coat-tails and to ignore developments in psychology over the past 60 or more years as well as to ignore actual Buddhist scholarship in favor of Osho Rajneesh demonstrates a serious case of intellectual laziness.

    The Author’s Disclaimer or Explanation of Sorts

    At the outset the author states:

    This manual is not about the Buddhist religion.

    It’s aim is to present the psychological method taught originally by the Buddha.

    The sole purpose and objective of this teaching is liberation from suffering. (p.11)

    The author then immediately quotes from the Upakkilesa Sutta numerous times at length.  The above “…” leaves out some of the author’s opinion of Buddhist religion as he seems to understand or misunderstand it.

    The “…” excluded:

    Which means you won’t have to shave your head and beg for charity. Best of all, you won’t have to dress in orange all the time;quite an advantage if you prefer other colours. (p.11)

    He continues with his opinion of Buddhist religion in other sections of the book as well:

    This business of being a parasite on others is one of the characteristic of the Buddha (who never worked a day in his life) that I urge you not to imitate. Not because there is anything bad about begging. But there is something a bit too Eastern about this way, which tends towards passivity. I propose a Western way to Buddhism, an active way that allows you to create, construct and compete as you would in normal life. But without stress. Which also means more efficiently. [emphasis the author’s] (p. 34)

    You don’t have to shave your head and dress in orange or retire to a monastery twelve thousand feet up in the Himalayas (p.22)

    He then goes on to allegedly quote the Dalai Lama as having said “…the Buddha is inside you whatever you do and wherever you go.” and then adds in a footnote:

    I don’t know where and when he said it but, given the Buddha’s pot belly, he must have said it somewhere! (p. 26)

    OK Let’s just make up stuff and attribute it to anyone we can think of off-hand. And is he talking about the Buddha or the Dalai Lama as having said that. It doesn’t make sense for the Buddha to have said such a thing in such a way.

    It’s not only the Asians and the religious Buddhists who get a bash. From Amazonian headhunters to modern soldiers the swath is cut. I’m just going to do the whole quote here:

    In Buddhism there is no moral imperative of the Kantian type, which states that moral good is a value in itself (a typically Western notion).

    Instead, an instrumental value is ascribed to morality. This does not mean that it is any less categorical. In fact, it is essential for mental well-being and therefore survival.

    In other words, it is necessary to do good, or rather not to do bad (that is, not to cause suffering to living creatures), not because this is an absolute good in itself, but because causing suffering to living creatures creates in us a sense of guilt that becomes a cause of suffering to ourselves.

    Unlike the Western tradition, this approach to morality, which is strictly speaking psychological, takes the historical and cultural dimension of morality into account.

    For an Amazon headhunter, for example, decapitating and enemy, shrinking his head and sticking it on his belt is an act of great social merit and does not produce any sense of guilt. [a footnote is referenced here which states: In fact in the discos of Amazonia, the more shrunken heads you have on your belt, the more women you pull. With the rest of us, it would be dollars.]

    The same thing has happened, and still happens, to soldiers in every period and in every country when they kill other human beings in the name of the most diverse ideals and social interests.

    The expression ‘to do evil’ and therefore to suffer from a sense of guilt, ultimately assumes a meaning only in relation to the accepted morality of the society in which we have been brought up.

    [Oddly he adds] The moral rules handed down by the Buddhist tradition are the moral rules common to almost all human cultures, which is why the Buddha was able to adopt them as absolute. …

    This makes Buddhism the bringer of a morality that had never been seen in the history of humanity up until that point, and which would then find a fuller expression in Christianity.

    That is why it not only assumed spontaneously the form of a religion, but is in fact compatible with any other religion.(p. 59-61)

    Where to begin with this? I almost can’t. In the first part of this piece I addressed some of this nonsense. I only hope that no soldiers with PTSD come to see this guy for any kind of psychotherapy because it would be a disaster. And if this author had any inkling of his own ethnocentrism and misogyny (got another quote about that coming up too!) it certainly is not in evidence here.

    Let’s insult some Swedes too!

    The distinction between words, thought and reality in Naples, where there are many buddhas, is quite clear… The further north you go , the more this distinction fades. In Sweden if you call someone an idiot, he commits suicide.(p.115)

    I suppose that’s some kind of European in-joke.

    How about the Americans? In the chapter called “Presence in reality”, after a brief story about imagining while one is in New York that they are in some sleazy area in Paris and behaving boorishly. [my words of his description]

    And you would probably end up spending the night in a police station; and if you behaved in the clubs in Times Square as you might behave in the clubs of the Place Pigalle (for example, touching the backsides of the girls) you would end up in a police station;Americans are very sensitive when it comes to the backsides of their girls. (p. 117)

    Does this mean that women are the property of the State or of the Men? I do hope no women visit this guy for any kind of psychotherapy.

    Let’s have a jab at Zen too

    Have you ever wondered how people who practise Zen earn a living (since Zen consists of doing absolutely nothing)? Writing books! I am a Zen master! (p.117)

    Yeah just like Osho Rajneesh.

    So apparently the disclaimer that the book is not about Buddhist religion is enough to cover any sort of insulting ill-informed blather. No wonder he wants to cut Right Speech out of his methodology for becoming a Buddha in 5 weeks. (coming up shortly)

    On Buddhist Topics

    There are many examples I could take issue with here but I will reign it in and only focus on a couple.

    About Karma the author writes:

    The law of karma was discovered by Eastern culture in very ancient times (even before the Buddha);after the advent of writing it was described in the Bhagavad Gita, a work that forms part of the Indian epic poem The Mahabharata, dating from the 5th century BC., and in the classic treatise on Yoga, the Yoga Sutra, fro the 3rd century BC. In Western culture the law of karma was only discovered in the 20th century by Sigmund Freud, who identified the conditioning of the memory of the past (the unconscious) over the present as the cause of neurosis. (p.26)

    There is no distinction made between the Hindu concept of Karma and the Buddhist one which is significant particularly with regard to volitional action and vipaka (fruit of Karma). And some kind of Karmic mechanism being encapsulated in “the unconscious” of the individual is another distinction entirely. [It should also be noted that The Mahabharata had much earlier origins.  It is alleged to be the account of the Kurukshetra War which took place approximately in the 10th century BCE. and this account was transmitted orally with additions for a lot longer than this author indicates. That is one of the reasons it is in poetic form, to ease memorization. The advent of writing did not bring about the creation of The Mahabharata nor descriptions of Karma. These were both well known long before that.]

    Here’s a few more that you can take issue with yourself:

    [A Buddha] is always calm and serene…is always relaxed…no longer feels stress or tension…lives on joy, laughter, harmony and love…inspires joy, harmony, love, laughter and good humour in those around him……is someone who has attained serenity and maintains it in every situation (p.18)

    Sort of like Santa Claus on Prozac.

    Here’s a goody:

    This ability to announce one’s own death in advance is characteristic of the enlightened or initiated. Which doesn’t rule out the possibility that some of them kill themselves in order to prove they were right. (p. 32)

    As usual no source given for this idea. To care about being right or wrong with some prediction would be a fairly egotistical situation. If the person were “enlightened” why would they care about that?

    Apparently we only need a 5-fold path:

    As we can see, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are moral precepts rather than strictly psychological procedures. …Therefore we can leave them out of our method for achieving buddha-hood.[and further on Right Livelihood]…Not because these [killer etc] professions are immoral. Buddhism does not deal with questions of morality. [?] But because of the sense of guilt, however unconscious, that may derive from the exercise of these professions is a cause of mental suffering that cannot be eliminated  even with the practice of Buddhism….It is obvious that a sense of guilt depends on the morality with which we have been brought up.(p.58)

    And what if we have been brought up Buddhist? “Buddhism does not deal with questions of morality”  I can’t take much more of this! This is in direct contradiction to the above quoted :

    The moral rules handed down by the Buddhist tradition are the moral rules common to almost all human cultures, which is why the Buddha was able to adopt them as absolute. …

    This makes Buddhism the bringer of a morality that had never been seen in the history of humanity up until that point, and which would then find a fuller expression in Christianity. (p.61)

    On reality and suffering:

    Reality is the environment that surrounds us. (p. 107)

    The world of reality is real, the world of the mind isn’t real. (p. 109)

    But suffering is not an object that can be found in reality. It is a mental state. (p. 113)

    In reality there is never suffering. (p.113)

    A huge limitation on the interpretation of Dukkha and reality. Does that mean that people are not real then? Or that anyone’s existence did not occur even on a material level? If neither the world of the mind nor suffering are real why are there psychologists?  If only that which surrounds this body writing this blog is real how did this post get here? It may all be relative but that leaves a lot of gaping holes in this fabric of reality. Who the hell wrote this book I’m taking apart then? Or is it an imaginary book? Have I fabricated the whole thing? Is it just a dream like on that episode of Dallas when Bobby died?

    Freud Swallows Buddha

    Ego. That’s the biggest problem with this book in ever so many ways. I will just compile some of the statements and you can figure it out for yourself.

    We can already, as of now, construct our personalities as buddhas. (p.20)

    Indeed, according to Buddhist psychology, the structure of the Ego-in other words, the normal structure of the human personality-is a neurotic structure [there is a footnote pointing to a misinterpretation of Trungpa here]…

    Theoretically, it refers to the mental structure of a personality attracted to, and absorbed in, the symbolic expansion of the Ego and the abnormal development of thought.

    Since man began his mental evolution, which has made thought his main perceptual activity, his Ego-that is, the image the human being has of himself-has gone past the natural limits of his body.

    [a long speech about identification with consumer goods etc.](p.42)…

    It is a neurotic process, in so far as it is a process of estrangement from reality-in other words, from the natural correspondence between the Ego and the body.  (p. 43)

    What makes us neurotic is not so much the excitable life we lead as the mental attitude we adopt towards it;as if our happiness really depended on success. This produces stress, which is the exact opposite of serenity. Happiness is essentially serenity, and therefore serenity, not success, is the true gauge of our happiness. The state of buddha-ness allows us to achieve genuine serenity, without giving up on the idea of success. (p.44)

    [on Right Understanding, interdependence and conditioned phenomenon]

    Consider also the beautiful idea that this universe could not exist without you. [footnote from page 51 “That is what I always say to patients suffering depression. It gives them momentary relief, but then they fall back into the one thought that obsesses them:that the universe has been created with the sole aim of cheating them.] ..You are necessary to the existence of this universe, just as this universe is necessary to your existence. (p. 48)

    Enlightenment includes a psychological growth from a child personality to an adult personality. (p. 123)

    The teachings of Buddha involves the whole of our psychological evolution. In the natural evolution from child to adult to parent, the development of these three natural personalities is necessary to the development of the fourth personality, that of the buddha. (p. 127)

    My Psycho-analysis of This Book.

    This author has dedicated the book to his son who died at the age of 27. Apparently this incident has sparked a certain emotional response which the author describes as follows in the Introduction:

    I acknowledge my gratitude to Siddhartha Gautama Sakyamuni who opened the Way and to my son Yuri who, in following it throughout his all too brief life, also led me to it.

    Yuri died at the age of 27: the exact age at which the Buddha attained enlightenment.Yuri was a buddha, one of those incarnations of the buddha (Bodhisattva) who, according to Buddhism, appear every so often on Earth. From the moment he was born he displayed an incomparable degree of serenity and love….

    He died of nothing more unusual than influenza. But in dying he performed a miracle. He turned his father, this old sinner, into a buddha. He passed his buddhaness on to me, so that I acquired it through no merit of my own. My life has been transformed. I have seen enlightenment. I have seen and absorbed into my own body, totally and permanently, the absolute precariousness of existence, the one reality of the here and now, and the absolute, exclusive importance of love, laughter and joy. I have seen that it is possible to become a buddha.

    My Buddhism is no longer theoretical, it has become real. This is how this book came about. …

    Throughout the book the author makes statements regarding loss and grieving and attributes them to some kind of attachment which he advocates denying. The tone is one of bravado often and not unlike someone who is trying to sell themselves something while selling it to others.

    Urging people with such statements as

    …Right Thought consists of the elimination of negative thoughts and the construction of positive thoughts. (In accordance with Eastern tradition, we can define as negative all those thoughts that lead to separation [mistrust, suspicion, antipathy, resentment, hate, etc.] and as positive all those thoughts that lead to union [trust, acceptance, sympathy, benevolence, love etc.].)

    In addition, we have also seen that negative thoughts are involuntary.

    It is obvious that the positive thoughts that we must introduce into our minds, on the other hand, are in fact voluntary.

    The operation we have to do ultimately is to replace involuntary negative thoughts with voluntary positive thoughts. (p.89)

    is not helpful in either a Buddhist nor psychological context. It is similar to brainwashing. It is simply denial of reality.

    The term Reaction Formation comes to mind. By definition this means

    In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defensive process (defense mechanism) in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy) of the directly opposing tendency

    So while this book may have been either a catharsis for the author or a bit of sales material to shore up his denial of his grief over the loss of his son it gives little helpful information. As a memoir to a son, a man’s reflection on his own sense of salvation or as a father’s reaction to  loss it is interesting but even as a self-help book I sincerely hope that people will not take it seriously either in a Buddhist sense or in a psychological sense as this will only prolong their suffering.

    Addendum: I highly recommend Chogyam Trungpa’s book The Sanity We are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology particularly the chapter “Is Meditation Therapy?” Short answer: No. (That’s the Amazon link so you can read a bit of the book if you want)

    8 comments on “FLM: Dr. Feel-good and the Medicalization of Buddhism (with bonus book review of How to Become a Buddha in 5 Weeks-ouch)

    1. Brilliant Nella. I can tell this topic has been simmering within you for a while, and good thing it has, because you articulate your point so very well. Unfortunately we Americans are suckers for the type of chicanery you describe. Too many of us don’t want to think and would rather let someone else do it for us and tell us how to think.

      Brilliant. Just brilliant.

    2. I don’t know what you think about cursing but “holy poop” that was a long post. I think I agree but at the same time I am not against the integration of Buddhist thought and religion into western psychology or secularism.

      What I do have difficulty with is when it supplants it and then calls itself “Buddhism”

      As you stated “Buddhism is not a substitute for psychology nor is psychology a substitute for Buddhism.” We need to keep that in mind as Buddhism continues to grow in the West.

      We also live in the “Cult of the Expert”. If someone brands themselves like they know what they are talking about then people flock to ’em.



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    4. Hi

      just briefly, I find your comments about ‘How to become a Buddha in 5 weeks’ completely miss the tone and value of a book which, contrary to those turgid dusty pernickety precise tomes only fanatics read (me included) might actually spark the interest of some new, young, people about a way of life that can alleviate distress like no other- and I can think of worse stuff to buy in a supermarket. I think he does an amazing job of really getting to the nutshell of what it is all about in a novel and engaging and way, and he brings in varied sources (if Trungpa died of cirrhosis due to alcoholism and is still admissible to you despite your commitment to the five precepts) then the ethics of this book’s humour ( it was initially destined for an Italian public) should not be for you to judge and neither should those of the sources you poo-poo.
      You come across as harsh and judgemental- methinks the lady doth protest too much, in her irritation and superiority complex. There is no point in measuring a pound of grapes with gram scales, or comparing an academic and populist approach, and, considering the author’s clearly noble motivaiton for the book and your professed devotion to Buddhism, where is the compassion in you?

    5. A very important posting. I’ve been arguing for years that Buddhism is not Psychology/Psychiatry. Wrote a Dissertation called “Zen Psychology and Power” which argues that what Psychologists/Psychiatrists are after is an “empistemological anchor” where they can say they belong. For so long they have been using the medical metaphor. Now that’s beginning to erode so they need a place to “hang their hat.” Since Buddhism seems to speak a similar language why not borrow the power of the buddhist teacher (zen master, lama). The language of the two epistemologies has been confused and confusing since the Dharma came west. I don’t see any deep averice in what is being done, but I do see ignorance, in the sense that they are ignoring the subtle but important differences. You’ve done a beautiful job here. I thank you very much for your writing. Wish I had a print copy to carry around with me and study. Hope you’ll continue.

    6. This book helped me break a six month hiatus from Buddhist practice. With some grounding in Buddhist theory, I found his very simplifications to be intensly valuable – indeed the very issues at which you take umbrage I found liberating. The book might be technically poor, and play fast and loose with Buddhist teachings, but I nevertheless found value within these pages.

      If the means to break conditioning and “become” a budda can be spontaneously transmitted, why not write a book on doing it in five weeks? In the end a book is just a book, and what resonates within the reader makes it memorable, or forgettable; good or bad. And isn’t that the sort of conditioning the Buddha taught awareness of?

    7. I find this a very great book. Why? Because it was for me the starting point to investigate Buddhism! After reading ‘How To Become A Buddha In 5 Weeks’ I wanted to know more about Buddhism and started to investigate it to a deeper level. And I highly recommend the reader of this book to do so as well. I just finished ‘What the Buddha Taught’ by Walpola Rahula, and I have a big fat copy of ‘Buddhism for Dummies’, all excellent reads, but none of these books would have drawn my attention if not discovering this little book in the first place. It is an excellent way to introduce people to Buddhism, to a greater understanding why we suffer (dukkha) and how to stop it. Therefore I highly recommend this book.

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