Buddhist Psychology - Preface
Not long ago, I received the news that my kind mother had contracted terminal cancer, and this news triggered some very difficult emotions. Even with all the Buddhist teachings and practices I had at my disposal to ease the pain and confusion, it seemed initially that nothing would help. I have been a monk most of my life, and I have practiced mind training and studied Buddhist psychology since I was a teenager, yet due to this deep connection with my mother, I was unable to see beyond my basic reactive emotions. The experience really drove home to me how powerful our states of mind are and how important it is to develop a resilient and healthy mental life.
It is perhaps a truism to note that in modern society, while we are becoming more prosperous and have more technology at our fingertips, these external means to happiness are useless if our minds are in distress. Physical well-being and the well-being of society rely deeply on psychological well-being. For thirty years I have been taught this, and I have come to believe it. But personal trauma really brought home for me how our happiness in this lifetime is utterly dependent on a healthy mind. And of course, the Buddhist tradition goes beyond this one brief lifetime and addresses the countless lifetimes of our mindstreams, aiming for happiness in all future lives until we are able to attain the complete cessation of suffering and our final goal, enlightenment.
Once I adjusted to the tragic news about my mother’s condition, I was able to implement the training and practices I had been taught, and I slowly found more balance and calm. Thus the second valuable lesson from this time was not only how powerful our emotional life is but also how effective mind training can be. Without a doubt, applying the Buddha’s teachings can bring about a calm and stable mind and see us through potentially damaging emotions. Despite the situation, the episode provided me a practical opportunity to test the efficacy of the theories that I have been passing on to others all my adult life. Within a monastic environment such as the one in which I was trained, it is easy to study and learn and accept without fully testing the teachings. For me, teaching in the West and encountering Western students extremely interested in therapeutic psychology has also stretched my understanding, but this particular experience revealed clearly the crucial importance of mental well-being.
This book is my attempt to make the very traditional exposition of the mind and its mental states more accessible and hopefully more useful to you. I have taken what follows from the three main sources of Buddhist mindscience that are studied in the monasteries in South India. They are: the Abhidharma texts that deal with Buddhist psychology; the Pramana texts on epistemology that address the development of understanding; and the Vajrayana, or tantric, texts that explore the esoteric understandings of the mind.
Buddhist masters, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have said that without exploration of these three categories of the Buddhist literature, it is impossible to fully comprehend the Buddhist concept of mind. My main focus will be the first two of these areas of study, the Abhidharma and Pramana teachings. The Vajrayana teachings are very advanced and are largely beyond the scope of this book. Volume 6 in this series addresses the Vajrayana in greater depth. Similarly, although I will be looking at all the positive states of mind we can develop, and in particular the advantages of altruism, I will not deal in depth with the so-called method aspect of the mind, which is the subject of the fourth book in this series.
The traditional Buddhist understanding of the mind is incredibly profound. In many ways the Western mindsciences are only starting to move toward what has been standard monastery textbook material for centuries. In fact, the rigorous presentation that has been passed down to us from the great masters is such that you might find this book a little academic. Believe me when I say, however, that this is a manual for living and is meant to be used as such. If you challenge what you read at every opportunity, analyzing and investigating from the point of view of your own experience, you will find much that is relevant and practical. The Buddhist teachings are intended to bring about a state of happiness and an end to suffering. The information contained in this book must be relevant to your everyday life, or it is of no use at all.
We all have some concept of the emotional and psychological aspects of our minds. With this book I hope to help you investigate more deeply what your mind is and how and why it functions as it does. I hope that you will come to see the primacy of the mind and how to take your first steps on the long road to mental peace and wellbeing. And by that I mean more than attaining a state of mere mental balance, but the full development of qualities such as patience, tolerance, lack of attachment, and so forth. Furthermore, seeing the ever-deeper levels of subtlety of the mind, I hope to demonstrate how immense and powerful the mind is. The goal of Buddhism is the elimination of all suffering, and for this the deepest levels of mind must be addressed and understood. By seeing the complete picture, we will then be able to devise a strategy to liberate ourselves from our problems. If we understand the mind, we can change it.
I sometimes feel that the only people interested in changing our minds are the advertising agencies, and it is clear to me that their motivation is less than positive. Yet why is it that they alone seem to know the power of the mind and its points of vulnerability? I recently saw an ad for an insurance company on British television that opened with the image of a girl’s face. The face began to age, from a teenager through adulthood to the face of a woman in her sixties. As I watched this, two things came to mind. The first was how cunning the advertisers are, playing on our fears and vulnerabilities—we identify with the woman physically aging on the screen, and it’s impossible not to feel that old age is waiting for us as well, and so it logically follows that we must spend money insuring our interests for those years. Second, the face in the commercial stops aging at around sixty. Had they continued to age the face much more, I think it would have defeated their purpose. The insurance company does not want us to have the full realization of the devastation that we will succumb to through time. Their aim is to scare us just enough to spend money but not so much that we give up hope!
In one way, however, I found this advertisement very beneficial, for it graphically reminds us that we all move inexorably toward old age. And just as the face slowly transforms from that of a teenager to that of a retired person, we can understand that the mind is ever-changing as well. Our mind of today will produce all of our future minds, and the way they manifest depends on how we direct our thoughts now. We have the power to influence our future.
To understand the mind and this potential, we need to learn from people who themselves have deep understanding. The masters who gave commentary on the subjects in this book were highly realized and gained their insights through studying the teachings of the Buddha. Even if you don’t consider yourself a Buddhist or have any interest in liberation or enlightenment, such a study of the mind as we see in this book may profoundly affect your thoughts and actions, and the way you live your life from this point forward.
The scientific perspective permeates our thinking and defines our lives. I grew up deeply suspicious of the worship of technological progress and the “truths” expounded by scientists. When I first began delving into Buddhism, however, I realized that I nonetheless viewed everything through the lens of scientific reasoning.
The scientific emphasis on evidence and logic is part of the attraction that Tibetan Buddhism has for many Westerners. The Buddha said we should test his teachings as a goldsmith tests gold, and many of us would accept no less. One of the strengths of the Western system of education is that we are taught from a very young age to ask, “Why?” And yet, even though the logic of Buddhism attracts us, alone it would not hold us. As Geshe Tashi emphasizes in this book, Buddhism approaches reality through reason hand in hand with compassion, and the two cannot be separated. The wisdom perspective—the process of developing a sharp logical understanding of the nature of reality— must parallel the method perspective—the process of developing a good heart.
While this book focuses on logic, the intuitive, emotional perspective is not forgotten. And while this commentary is based on the various traditional texts that Geshe Tashi studied in his monastery, it is also grounded in his rare ability to adapt this ancient wisdom to the minds and needs of the twenty-first-century reader.
When I first met him in 1992, Geshe-la was staying at Nalanda Monastery in southern France, studying both the English language and the Western mind. From his very first contact with Westerners, he wanted to know us and understand us in order to see how best to bring us the very special message of the Buddhist teachings. Born in Purang, Tibet, in 1958, Geshe Tashi escaped to India with his parents one year later. He entered Sera Mey Monastic University at thirteen and spent the next sixteen years working for his Geshe degree, graduating as a Lharampa Geshe, the highest possible degree.
After a year at the Higher Tantric College (Gyuto), Geshe-la began his teaching career in Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, the principal monastery of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Geshe Tashi then moved to the Gandhi Foundation College in Nagpur, and it was at that time that the FPMT’s Spiritual Director, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, asked him to teach in the West. After two years at Nalanda Monastery in France, Geshe Tashi became in 1994 the resident teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London.
Very early on in his teaching career at Jamyang he saw that the text-based, passive learning usually associated with Tibetan Buddhism often failed to engage the students in Western Dharma centers in a meaningful way. And so, incorporating Western pedagogic methods, he devised a two-year, six-module course to give his students a solid overview of Buddhism. The book you have in your hands is derived from the third course book of The Foundation of Buddhist Thought.
As with the other books in the series, many people have been involved with its development and I would like to thank them all. I would also like to offer my warmest thanks to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the head of the FPMT and the inspiration for the group of study programs to which The Foundation of Buddhist Thought belongs.
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© Geshe Tashi Tsering & Jamyang Buddhist Centre, Buddhist Psychology (Wisdom Publications, 2006)
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