Confusion: The Merging of Things that are Not Separate, The Separating of Things that are Not Merged.
I have been thinking lately about how the relatively new approach of Buddhist Psychotherapy is taking shape in the West and what it means. This new formulation is the merging of two approaches. One is the Theravadin (emphasis on the personal approach or liberating the self) that wound up mostly in Southeast Asia. Second is the Mahayana / Vajrayana (compassion, social engagement and embodiment as liberation) coming by way of Tibet as well as Japan and China (not exclusively). When I equate the Theravadin with the personal approach above, I need to point out that they also have a thread of deep compassion and loving kindness running through their tradition. As I continue to study how these forms are merging with Western Psychology and Psychotherapy, I must delve deeply and sincerely into the Pāli Canon (some of the oldest written teachings of Buddhism). I’ve always had a toe or two dipped into Theravadin waters as this is where I began to approach Buddhism from back in my twenties. In the tradition of Western Buddhist Psychotherapy, I must peel off my somewhat reluctantly worn Nyingma (Tibetan) robes and don the saffron robes of another tradition. Mindfulness practice and all of its benefits that we see in Western psychotherapeutic practice owe a great deal to the Theravada. Goldstein, Kabat-Zinn, and Kornfield all wore the robes of that tradition and from it gathered the seeds of mindfulness to plant them in the West. These teachers, former monks, and therapists are an important part of this newly formed psychotherapeutic interaction with Buddhism.
It is especially poignant to think of this as I study along with Sharon Salzberg at the Nalanda Institute. She has a background in both the Theravada and Mahayana / Vajrayana traditions. Her teaching somehow conveys the simplicity as well as the immense depth of these approaches. I often run into teachers and well-meaning Sangha members who when told that I was learning a little bit from both traditions said that I would get confused and should stick to one. I wonder if they meant sticking to one practice for an amount of time? In a sense they were right, I did get confused, but I was eventually able to make some sense of it all and ended up following the path of one tradition more seriously. Honestly, Buddhism, in general, was quite confusing to this Westerner upon first glance, and I am unsure as to how it matters what group of dharma siblings I choose to sit next to in the deep silence. The foundations and heart of the approaches appear to inform each other in indispensable ways.
These foundational practices as well as the personal vehicle are within Tibetan Buddhism but are more prevalent in the training of monastics in scholastic lineages. A Tibetan teacher that I have studied with stated when dealing with foundational Buddhist teachings it is appropriate and beneficial to take the Rimé (nonsectarian) view. I believe as a Westerner and a psychotherapist that the nonsectarian extends to the Theravada. It gets confusing at times, but as they say in the Tibetan tradition, “may confusion dawn as wisdom.” I say, “may confusion dawn as the opening of the heart-mind and may all things I gather under this impermanent makeshift roof be for the benefit of all beings everywhere.”
If I have waxed too nerdily and made mistakes above, I own these faults completely. I will return to this blog in a week or two with more on breath visualization practices.
Resources of interest:
What Buddhist Psychotherapy Really Is – by Miles Neale