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Was Buddha the first psychologist?

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Psychology is the science of the mind. The psychologists say that human mind is the source of all thought and behavior. When we think about psychology, the first person recalled is usually Sigmund Freud or some other prominent Western psychologist who explained human behavior using a theory they believed. True enough, being the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud’s work, or being the father of modern psychology Wilhelm Wundt’s work were largely responsible for the development of modern day psychology.  Yet, were they really the first people to talk psychology?

In psychology, the psyche is the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious (Wikipedia). Freud discussed this model in the 1920 essay ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ and this can be considered as the earliest examples where the concept of mind was spoken in a western context.  Although we cannot observe the mind directly, everything we do, think, feel and say is determined by the functioning of the mind. It was not the modern day psychologists who first identified ‘the mind’. Almost two millennia before Freud spoke about psyche, the Buddha spoke of the human mind, identifying that all human behavior is under the responsibility of the mind.

Manopubbangama dhamma
manosettha manomaya
manasa ce padutthena
bhasati va karoti va
tato nam dukkhamanveti
cakkamva vahato padam.

All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, dukkha follows him just as the wheel follows the hoof print of the ox that draws the cart (Dhammapada )
Buddha explained that the mind is the most dominant, and it is the cause of the other three mental phenomena, namely, Feeling (vedana), Perception (sanna) and Mental Formations or Mental Concomitants (sankhara).

Buddhism more closely resembles Western psychotherapy than any Western concept of religion. Jon M Cefus writing to the Joseph Campbell Foundation blog in 2009, spots how Buddhism provides tools helping to alleviate psychological suffering.  “These are called the Four Noble Truths.  The truths taught by Siddhartha Gautama offer a view of reality that is based on natural law,” he explains. 

Buddha was commonly referred to as ‘the great physician’ and like any therapist, made it his aim to identify, explain and end human suffering. All therapists do have similar aims. Four Noble Truths (Chathurarya Sathya) are the method to adopt a diagnostic format to explain suffering and its cure.  The Four Noble Truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. In a therapeutic setting; the first Noble Truth identifies the disease, the second provides etiology, the third gives a prognosis and the forth suggests a remedy.

How Buddha helped Kisagothami is one of the many examples where Buddha can be seen as a modern day psychologist. Kisagothami was desperate after losing her children and family that she went from house to house clasping her dead child to her breast, asking for medicine to revive the dead son. Buddha welcomed her with Unconditional Positive Regard (a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does), identified her irrational beliefs and helped her dispute them on her own, asking her to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a house where no one has died.

This is just one example found in Buddhist Jataka Stories which show similarities to Albert Ellis’s ABC model in Cognitive Therapy. The ABC Model refers to three components of experience in which a person can ascertain if his or her belief system is distorted. The well-known stories of Aalawaka, Angulimala as well the episode of queen Khema who had irrational beliefs about her beauty are few other examples of how Buddha helped people to eliminate their irrational beliefs.

A main view of Behavioral psychologists is that Behaviorists view humans as being born neither good nor bad by nature, but rather as being neutral by nature. But wasn’t Buddha the first one to point this out too?

Najaja wasalo hothi
Najajja hothi Brahmano
Kamano wasalo  hothi
kammano hothi brahmano

You do not become a Brahman (Nobel) with your birth nor does birth make you a low cast. It’s your own deeds that decide which. (Dhammapada)

Existential psychology is another major branch in psychology which speaks of ontological anxiety (dread, angst). Its therapy operates on the belief that inner conflict within a person is due to that individual’s confrontation with the givens of existence.  “Buddha said that life is suffering. Buddha said that suffering is due to attachment. Existential psychology also has some similar concepts. We cling to things in the hope that they will provide us with a certain benefit. Buddha said that suffering can be extinguished. The Buddhist concept of nirvana is quite similar to the existentialists’ freedom. Freedom has, in fact, been used in Buddhism in the context of freedom from rebirth or freedom from the effects of karma. For the existentialist, freedom is a fact of our being, one which we often ignore. Finally, Buddha says that there is a way to extinguish suffering. For the existential psychologist, the therapist must take an assertive role in helping the client become aware of the reality of his or her suffering and its roots. Likewise, the client must take an assertive role in working towards improvement–even though it means facing the fears they’ve been working so hard to avoid, and especially facing the fear that they will ‘lose’ themselves in the processes. (Boeree CG. Towards a Buddhist Psychotherapy, 1997 )

Our very own psychiatrist D VJ Harishchandra in his book titled, ‘Buddhism and Psychiatry’ identified common psychological theories in Western psychology explained in Buddhism. In his book he discusses Viyo Duka (bereavement), Balaporottu Kadaweema hevath Ichchabangathwaya (Frustration), Buddunwahanse Mano Chikithsakawarayaku Lesa (Lord Buddha as a psychiatrist of eminence), Maranaya Saha Viyoduka (death and grief counselling) Bheethika (Phobias), Danathmaka Mano Vidyawa (Positive psychology), Pasuthevilla (Regret) Grantha Chikithsawa (Bibiliotheraphy), Sihina Vigrahaya (Analysis of dreams) and Mano Ranga Chikithsawa (group psychotherapy).

In psychology, American Psychologists Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct lay out standards for psychologists and identify behaviors that deserve punishment. Interestingly, long before ‘psychologists’ existed and psychology was named ‘psychology’, Buddha helped people who came seeking his help in an ethical manner. British Indologist CF Rhys Davids translated Abhidhamma Pitaka from Pali and Sanskrit texts in 1900. She published the book entitled, ‘Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics’. In 1914, she wrote another book ‘Buddhist psychology: An inquiry into the analysis and theory of mind’ (Journal article Buddha philosophy and western psychology by Tapas Kumar Aich).  Rhys Davids in her book ‘Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics’ wrote, “Buddhist philosophy is ethical first and last. Buddhism set itself to analyze and classify mental processes with remarkable insight and sagacity”.

What can be mentioned in this article is limited. Yet connections between modern day psychology and Buddhism are unlimited. These Buddhist traditions have been built and refined for almost 2,500 years, and are older than any of the modern day theories in psychological practice and still valid in contemporary practice.

 In summary, as any of the psychological theories, Buddha’s teachings attempt to define why we suffer and offer ways in which to ease this suffering.  Stress, depression, anxiety are few among the common psychological problems. Compared with a few decades ago, the numbers of complaints are on the rise today, even in the Buddhist society.  Are these issues on the rise because we are losing the grip on the essence of Buddhism;  because we go behind worshiping statues more, rather than trying to understand the depth of dharma? However, isn’t it heartbreaking how people suffer from psychological issues so much, when we were being told the correct path to take to ease our pain, millennia ago? 

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