The First Conference on Buddhism and Psychotherapy
held under the guidance and organized by
Venerable Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche & H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche
at the World Trade Center in New York City, 1987
His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul
This is the first conference on “Buddhism and Psychotherapy,” a special occasion for many people from different backgrounds and from around the world to meet and share their knowledge and experiences with each other. By sharing with each other, it is possible to appreciate the various contributions everyone makes in bringing about well being to others. This event was organized by the staff of the Karma Kagyu Institute of America, situated at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock, New York, and is supported by the active participation of all speakers and guests. I wish to extend my deep gratitude to everyone who has made it possible for this conference to take place and want to kindly greet everyone who has come.
The interactive dialogue between Buddhism and western psychotherapy is already founded, and through this conference we hope to intensify our relationship with leading representatives from different religions and with renowned psychotherapists. The participants heard lectures during this meeting about western psychotherapy, and I hope to contribute to a better understanding of Buddhism with my short speech.
All teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni principally deal with the mind, the main points being never to knowingly harm others and being attentive to only do good. All one’s activities depend upon one’s intentions and therefore it is necessary to train and tame one’s own mind. The methods and means to do this are presented in Lord Buddha’s instructions.
Due to geographical distances and borders, it wasn’t possible for the people living in the East or West to enter a dialogue in the past, the notion “distance” only being a mental construct of no relevance anymore. The idea that eastern and western cultures cannot meet because they vary too strongly is a mental fabrication that causes one to split East and West and does not contribute to a mutual understanding. Only because history books divide does not mean we do not have mutual concerns. Therefore, I think we need to overcome erroneous notions that separate and divide and, instead, learn to appreciate the knowledge and wisdom that everyone has. I think learning to understand and appreciate each other will contribute to a better world.
Many people think that Buddhism is restricted to specific customs and presupposes a lifestyle that is different than one’s own, which is far from what Buddhism really teaches. Buddhism stresses empirical knowledge and addresses experiences that all living beings have in common. As it is, every living being experiences suffering and happiness, and usually one thinks that external conditions are the cause. Lord Buddha taught that external things are not the source of contentment and frustration, rather that the mind creates all situations one goes through, not only on a short-term basis. It is one’s mind that accumulates and stores impressions as long-standing habitual patterns, which move one to relate with oneself and the world in a specific way. Buddhism does not deal with outer circumstances and conditions that one is told to merely accept or reject in order to bring about well being, but teaches its followers to look at the source of experiences, which is one’s own mind. One’s mind determines one’s verbal and physical activities, one’s mind being the storehouse of one’s habitual patterns that are accumulated in daily life and are not something outside oneself. The Buddhadharma teaches disciples to look at and recognize their own mind and its activities. Practitioners are then able to see that their mind is conditioned and is the determining factor for the way they experience and lead their life.
The Buddha taught that the mind’s main habitual pattern is ignorance. It is due to ignorance that attachment for people and things that seem pleasant and aversion against people and things that seem unpleasant arise. Ignorance, attachment, and aversion are the three basic mental patterns of everyone’s mind. They are referred to as “mind poisons” in Buddhism, because they condition one to act and consequently experience life the way one does. It is due to these three mind poisons that one experiences suffering.
The Buddha presented effective means to recognize one’s own mind and its activities and taught meditation practices so that followers learn to work with their own mind. Outer circumstances and material objects will never render freedom from suffering, freedom from conditioned mental structures that bring about unsatisfactory experiences and discontent. Mental patterns are not material objects one can simply discard when they are in the way or detrimental to happiness. The only way to become free of unsatisfactory, conditioned experiences is by recognizing the nature of one’s own mind and understanding its functions. Buddhist practice begins the moment one asks, “What can I do? What is the nature of my mind? How can I overcome the mental habits that have kept me entangled in an unsatisfactory experience of myself and the world for so long?” Buddhism speaks of fifty-one mental factors that drive one to act and experience life in reliance upon one’s habits. I think a careful investigation of the mental factors is a good working basis for a dialogue and for a deeper appreciation of oneself as well as of others.
I see that this conference offers a very special occasion to enter a fascinating dialogue with adherents from other belief systems and traditions and to discuss what they think the self is as well as the various approaches each tradition suggests. This is an exceptional opportunity to win a better understanding and appreciation of oneself and others. I see a great benefit from having heard the lectures presented by representatives from various religions, from the panel discussions, from the group work, and from those participating in silence, too. We must ask ourselves about the advantages of appreciating different ways of thinking, the shortcomings, the similarities, the differences, questions that do lead one to have sincere and deep respect for each other.
Regardless of whether we come to an agreement on what the self is, we need to ask if it exists or not. If the self exists, then how? If it doesn’t exist, why? Must the self be eliminated in order to experience freedom from suffering? Does the self need to be destroyed in order to experience lasting happiness? I feel that the only differences as to the true nature of the self and of the mind that arose in our discussions were due to imputations.
The main theme in Buddhism is wisdom of the selfless, a term that points to a self. Selflessness is not realized by destroying the self – such erroneous notions do not embrace wisdom. In Buddhism, the self is seen to be the result of the active process of clinging to an identity that merely consists of mental patterns. Lack of freedom is described as experiences that are based upon conditioned habits. As it is, one experiences life under the control and fleeting dictates of one’s habits or emotions and clings to the apprehending mind as though it were a unique, self-sufficient entity. Arguing whether the self exists or not will not make it easier to understand one’s own mind. One needs to see the manner in which one clings to the belief in a self that one creates and constantly renews. How does one realize the manner in which one clings to the erroneous belief in a self?
Meditation practice enables one to investigate one’s thoughts and find for oneself if the ideas one has are true or not. In Buddhism, one meditates in order to find the fundamental nature of the self, to find who is clinging, to find what the self really is. I think a basic understanding of the process that takes place in one’s mind when one identifies objects of knowledge is necessary before investigating whether the self exists or not.
Buddhism does not deal with specific rules to treat psychological problems and needs; rather Buddhism offers meditation practices that involve one’s mind. Individual meditation, group sittings, discussion panels, or silent participation depend upon an individual’s circumstances and propensities. Any provisions that are met to help others recognize their true nature are beneficial and should be available. In calm abiding meditation, for example, two hindrances arise and need to be taken into consideration. A practitioner can fall into a state of mental dullness, in which case it is evident that he or she has fought hard to pacify arising thoughts, but mental dullness deprives a practitioner from developing clear awareness that is needed in order to realize insight. Such a practitioner should walk and allow thoughts to occur; walking meditation is very refreshing then. Or, a practitioner can fall into a state of mental agitation and then silent sitting sessions are very beneficial in order to pacify excitement and calm the mind. This shows how Buddhism takes many aspects of practice into consideration when offering followers methods to realize the nature of their own mind.
During this conference there have been extensive discussions about relationships seen from the perspective of everyday life, from the perspective of meditation experiences, and according to theoretical understanding. The participants of this conference have asked many questions as to the role of men and women in society and about their relationships with one another. I wish to deal with this subject from the Buddhist point of view and want to stress that everything stands in a relationship with other people and things. It is important to clarify what relationships are and to understand how one actually considers a relationship. But, it is necessary to become free of subjective notions that are determined by personal preferences and to try to be as objective and fair as possible.
The word “relationship” as it has been used here points to a separation, and I feel that the Buddhist approach to relationships is quite different than that of non-Buddhists. Relationships do not begin with “having” a relationship. Furthermore, the statement, “I am a man, she is a woman” is drawing a demarcation line. Thinking, “Now we have a relationship” also points to the thought that there was a time when the relationship did not exist.
Buddhism teaches disciples to look at everything from an ultimate point of view, and students learn that relationships are not restricted to personal experiences or immediate situations. How are relationships between men and women seen according to the ultimate truth taught in Buddhism? Free of separating, free of dualistic ideas that divide between a self and others. Relationships are not created or attained. In the absence of the ultimate view, one needs to look at relationships as practically as possible and understand that all experiences in life need to be faced with a sense of openness and appreciation. Regardless of whether beneficial or detrimental, one’s relationship to oneself and others depends upon openness and empathy. Openness in Mahayana Buddhism means being concerned about and caring for others; it also means not making any demands as to how others should be. In Mahayana, one learns not to be picky and choosey but to accept oneself and others as they are and not to have any expectations.
We have met for The First Conference on Buddhism and Psychotherapy in order to share our knowledge of a vast topic and I feel that this has been an inspiring beginning. Psychology is a vast topic and is quite complex. I see that friendships have evolved here and a good basis has been prepared for future work. I anticipated conferences of this kind in order to enhance peace and goodness in the world and am very happy to have been able to contribute to this event. Especially, I hope all participants have won a deeper understanding of the mutual ground between East and West and the role psychotherapy can play in intensifying our concern to bring about well being to others, the reason we are working together. I also hope that we continue working together for the welfare of our fellow human beings.
There has been much discussion on the difference between Buddhism and western psychotherapy during this conference. Differences are only contrived and impede mutual recognition and appreciation for each other. Buddhism is not a belief or custom that is conditioned by a specific culture or setting. Buddhism is a vehicle that enables followers to learn to realize who one is and what the world one experiences denotes. It cannot be the case that there are many different truths as to what and who one really is. One does no justice to oneself and others by defining Buddhism as an eastern culture and thus restricting it to boundaries as a result. Of course, there are distinctions between the East and West, distinctions created through concepts that are also brought about due to language barriers. I feel that it is important to work one’s way through such barriers in order to come to a fair and open appreciation of each other, which then enables us to effectively work together. Smaller conferences in other regions would be very good. The regional groups can then meet for larger conferences regularly; that would be very beneficial.
In conclusion, I wish to remind you to dedicate all good intentions, all virtue that has arisen through this conference for the development of an enlightened world. Please sit in silence for a short while and generate a benevolent mind while Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and I chant the traditional dedication prayer for the welfare of others.
May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.
May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).
Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception
swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.
Photo of Venerable Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and the daisies courtesy of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra. Transcribed and edited by Gaby Hollmann, apologizing for any mistakes. Arranged for visitors of the Karma Lekshey Ling Institute website with sincere gratitude to Khenpo Karma Namgyal and for the archives of Pullahari Monastery, both in Nepal, in 2007.