Buddhist Psychology Research Papers

Welcome to the Centre for Buddhism & Psychology at the University of Toronto!

The Centre for Buddhism and Psychology is intended to serve as a resource for those interested in the burgeoning academic interest in this area of inquiry.  In recent years, there has been a sustained interest on the part of academics, scholars, clinicians and students in the merits of investigating the mutual contributions of western psychological science and Buddhist psychology.  This has been most evident in the widespread public interest in mindfulness meditation as an intervention for a wide array of medical and emotional disorders.  The extensive empirical support for the efficacy of meditation, and the increasing body of neuroscientific studies of meditation attest to the growing scientific interest in this area.

Since 2007, an undergraduate Minor Program in Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health has been offered at New College and has grown exponentially.  The minor program offers several courses that allow students to investigate the diverse ways in which Buddhist and Western psychology intersect. Specifically, there are courses on Buddhism and psychotherapy, cognitive science, mindfulness meditation as well courses on the psychological philosophy of Buddhism, applied Buddhism, and research methods in Buddhist research.  There are plans to continue to expand and diversify course offerings to students in the near future and eventually offer a Major in Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health.

In addition to the Minor program, there are several additional ongoing and planned academic activities which the Centre for Buddhism and Psychology will coordinate and facilitate, and catalyze inter-departmental and inter-institutional collaborations, specifically with the Department of Psychology and the Department for the Study of Religion.  These include, in addition to the minor Program, the following activities:

  • The establishment in 2013 of the first peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to publishing academic research in this area, the Journal of Buddhism and Psychology;
  • A monthly seminar, Conversations in Buddhism and Science, which will feature the research of university faculty, visiting scholars, and doctoral students relevant to the study of psychology, science and Buddhism.  This seminar will be open to all students and faculty;
  • A yearly Senior Doctoral Fellowship, valued at $1,000, for one student who will have the opportunity to present their research and participate in the activities of the minor. Senior Doctoral Fellows will be expected to engage with the intellectual community at New College and give an academic seminar related to their research;
  • Conferences and seminars featuring recent research in Buddhism and psychology, addresses by prominent scholars in this area, and practical workshops on applications of Buddhism and psychology.
  • A peer-reviewed undergraduate journal, Upaya, which showcases the best of undergraduate writing in the area of Buddhism and psychology.
  • A yearly spring conference, Mind Matters, organized by the Buddhism and Psychology Student Union and the Jungian Society highlights innovative conceptual and empirical studies related to Buddhism, psychology and science;
  • Resources for those interested in academic literature related to Buddhist psychology;
  • A growing and active Buddhism and Psychology Student Union committed to sharing the wisdom of Buddhist psychology through weekly meditation and yoga classes, weekly discussion groups, invited speakers, movie nights, and social events;
  • The acquisition by the D.G. Ivey library at New College of the largest collection of texts related to Buddhism and psychology available at the University which will facilitate student research and course work.

Many of these activities are the result of several partners, including the Buddhist Education Foundation for Canada, Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, Cognitive Science Department, Department for the Study of Religion, and the Department of Psychology. The breadth and depth of the activities, current and planned, are a strong indication of the vitality of the minor program and its continued growth.

 

Buddhism is a path of liberation for the world. In the Buddhist analysis, peace in the world and peace in the hearts of people are simply different aspects of the same thing. Whether we intervene at the social level or in individual lives, the goal is the same. We seek to cultivate a more compassionately engaged way of life that is both happier and more constructive. Buddhist psychology is not, therefore, based upon the idea of advantage to an individual being in conflict with advantage to the community. It is precisely the same kinds of delusions that create neurosis as create an oppressive world and neurosis and oppression can be seen as closely related phenomena. If we would make a better world, we must also work on ourselves. If we would work on ourselves, we must find some concern for our world.

In Buddhist psychology we say that the mind is "object related". The objects that we relate to condition the present moment and also stay with us, especially when they have evoked strong reactions (vedana). We feel that we "know" (veda) the things that have "made an impact" upon us. Some of this knowledge is helpful - as when we are inspired by a good example. Some of it is pernicious - as when we are corrupted or abused. Past knowing shapes present perception. The self is a function of the way we relate to the things in our world. People are almost all of the time in some degree of trance (samjna) or delusion, past perceptions superimposing upon present ones. This leads to lives being driven and compulsive, driven by fear and desire in a way that is out of touch with immediate reality because still obsessed with anachronistic perceptions. Much of the above is common ground between Western and Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology, however, goes on to regard the whole self structure as a defence, and therefore as something to be abandoned rather than reinforced. Where western psychology aims for enhanced self-esteem: the transformation of negative esteem into positive esteem, Buddhist psychology regards the whole pursuit of any kind of self-esteem as a trap. The fully functioning person is not self-focussed. They are world focussed. The influence of psychology in the West in the second half of the twentieth century was consistently toward a more narcissistic approach to life. This is in line with the consumerist social philosophy that also held sway, and with the fact that this psychology was a product of the most affluent part of the world that was seeking justification for its self-indulgence.

Buddhism is a liberation psychology. It does not lead us to enhance our sense of entitlement to an unhealthy level of selfishness. It rather shows us how to once again engage with the real world in a way that is respectful and kind, realistic and satisfying. This more objective - less subjective - approach to psychology is in accord with a social perspective that sees us as having important work to do to spread a more compassionate spirit on this planet. The purpose of psychotherapy is not to teach us how to accumulate pleasant feelings - it is to help us to learn how to live more creative and wholesome lives. 

An important principle of Buddhist psychology is karma. Karma means action. In Buddhist usage, the term karma refers to the fact that a person is what they do. Actions are not a function of feelings - it is the other way round. Those who believe that they cannot be effective in life until they begin to “feel right” first, are putting the cart before the horse. A healthy life grows out of good things done. Buddhism teaches us a range of methods for maintaining calm in the midst of the confusions of life in order that we may be able to act effectively, since it is from such actions that a good life is made, and it is from such lives that a good society is created.

Papers and presentations introducing approaches used on the course

David Brazier presenting at International Conference on Other Centred Approach, Berkeley February 2011 (video)

Introduction to Buddhist approaches to mental health pack  (pdf)

The aim of meditation, for [the Seventh Century Indian Scholar monk] Dharmakirti was not to gain mystical insight into emptiness, but to arrive at an unfiltered experience of the fluctuating, contingent and suffering world.

What prevents you from experiencing the world in such a way? The problem lies in the instinctive human conviction that one is a permanent, partless, and autonomous self, essentially disconnected from and unaffected by flux and contingency. This conviction may provide a sense of security and permanence in an insecure and impermanent world, but the price one pays is that of alienation, disenchantment, and boredom. One feels cut off from the life around oneself, adrift in a self-referring world of one’s own imagining. For Dharmakirti, however, the point is not to dwell on the absence or emptiness of such a disconnected ego, but to encounter the phenomenal world in all its vitality and immediacy once such a conception of self begins to fade (Stephen Bachelor,writing in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (published Spiegel & Grau 2010 p34)

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