Psychotherapists Have Buddhism Wrong?

“Still Crazy after all these Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy” by Patrick Kearney

Have psychotherapists with an interest in Buddhism, portrayed Buddhism incorrectly in their popular books on Buddhism and meditation?

Meditation teacher Patrick Kearney takes a look at the ideas of several psychotherapist authors in the paper linked to above.   I found Kearney’s view of Jack Kornfield and his book “A Path With A Heart” particularly fascinating.

Kearney views Kornfield as believing that most westerners can not progress to advanced vipassana bhavanna ( insight meditation ) without the aide of psychotherapy, due to childhood traumas prevalent in the west. Kearney refutes these claims by stating that childhood traumas are not unique to the west and are not new. Such things existed at the time of the Buddha and that the suffering caused by these issues will respond to combining mediation with authentic Buddhist teachings — without the aide of psychotherapy.

Kearney goes on to look at the views of other psychotherapists who have written popular books on Buddhism. His conclusion is that their interpretations of Buddhism are seriously flawed, that these authors are not adapting Buddhism to the west as much as they are unintentionally inventing something new under an old name.

In one pointed example of this Kearney looks again at Kornfield’s writings where he claims Korfield quotes the suttas out of context to present a message as being Buddhism when it is really isn’t:

Throughout his book, Kornfield cheerfully changes Buddhist teachings in order to make them fit into his scheme. We can find a number of cases when he supposedly quotes the Buddha or explains some traditional teaching where he makes some slight change, some subtle adaptation, which in isolation may seem trivial to the casual reader, but in total create a cumulative effect in which Buddhist teachings are distorted to give a false impression of traditional support for the position Kornfield is taking. To give just one example, he quotes the Buddha as saying:

Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the Way, and this is the taste of freedom. (76)

This sounds very nice and very liberal. However, the passage should read something like: “Just as the great ocean has but one taste, the taste of salt, so this dhamma has but one taste, the taste of freedom.” What’s the difference? Kornfield skilfully changes the passage to insert his key concept of the Tao, the Great Way, and present the Buddha as liberally accepting the validity of all ways of practice which correspond to the Great Way. The strong probability that the Buddha never heard of this Great Way, and the fact that it is nowhere mentioned in the scriptures Kornfield is purporting to expound, is not allowed to get in the way of a good story.

FWIW, Kearney’s point is backed up by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in his book

Several passages [§87] emphasize that the experience of stream-entry reinforces one’s conviction that the true Dhamma is fully expressed only in the Buddha’s teachings. This point will come as a surprise to many people who are aware of Buddhism’s long history of tolerance toward other religions, and who assume that the enlightened attitude toward alternative teachings is to endorse the statement that many roads lead to the top of the mountain. This assumption, though, is based on a confusion between “tolerance” and “endorsement.” As we have already noted, from the streamwinner’s point of view the noble eightfold path is the ideal expression of the way to Awakening. To endorse any other path to the same goal would be to concede that the noble eightfold path either lacks something essential or contains something superfluous. The Buddha is quoted as saying that any other supposed path to Awakening would by definition be wrong: wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, etc. To try to get results from such a path, he says, would be like trying to squeeze sesame oil out of gravel or to churn butter out of water [MN 126]. He did not deny that other teachings, advocating virtue and concentration, can lead to states of great peace or to rebirth in the higher heavens, but if one views those attainments as equivalent to Unbinding, one is suffering from wrong view. To hold to that wrong view puts the total release to be found with Unbinding beyond reach.

The paper is 13 pages long, but I think anyone who has had part of their introduction to Buddhism come through poplar books will find this paper to be an absorbing and fast read.

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One Response to Psychotherapists Have Buddhism Wrong?

  1. Hi,
    interesting post people love to read something like logical and bright thinking post.
    thanks for shearing.

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