Buddhism Buddhism in Psychology and Psychotherapy
William S. Waldron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0130


In the early 1960s Chogyam Trunpga Rimpoche famously declared that Buddhism would come to the West through psychology. Events have borne this out. Buddhist ideas and practices have arguably influenced the thought and practice of psychology and psychotherapy more than any other area of Western life. There is now a bewildering array of works treating their divergences and convergences, interaction and integration, reflecting an equally bewildering array of viewpoints. Heuristic categorizations are nevertheless helpful and appropriate. The first serious engagements between Buddhism and Western psychology were dominated by the early-20th-century depth psychologies of Freud and Jung, contrasting their respective models of mind and comparing psychotherapy with meditation. Transpersonal Psychology began in the mid–20th century by recognizing a continuum between the medical aim of ameliorating psychopathologies and the spiritual aim of transcending “individual psyches.” These are united at the practical level in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which took the Buddhist practice of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna), aimed at developing insight and understanding, and adapted it for nonreligious, therapeutic purposes. More recently, the cognitive sciences have joined the dialogue, influencing all the other perspectives due to the strength of its scientific findings and the prestige of its institutional bases. Finally, there are works that so fundamentally integrate Buddhist and Western perspectives that they defy any simple categorization. They are nevertheless well worth investigating.

General Overviews

Buddhism and psychology/psychotherapy is too broad a field for any single work to be truly general. There are, however, excellent works in each area that are accessible and introductory. Gómez 2004 provides an excellent overview of Buddhist psychological ideas, including a useful bibliography. Epstein 1995 is an engaging introduction to both the Freudian psychoanalysis in general and to the Buddhism/psychoanalysis dialogue in particular. Jungians, starting with Jung himself, have found Buddhism particularly congenial, and Moacanin 1986 provides a good overview of their major points of comparison with Tibetan Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn 1990 offers the standard introduction to mindfulness-based stress reduction, while Harrington and Zajonc 2006 is representative of the work in Buddhism and cognitive science sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute. A more hands-on method of blending meditation and cognitive science is found in Hanson and Mendius 2009. Kornfield 1993 exemplifies a similar blending but with more mainstream psychotherapy. They are all representative of certain trends in the field.

  • Epstein, Mark. Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

    The first of a series of Epstein’s accessible and engaging texts that use both concepts and case studies to illustrate Buddhist meditation and Freudian psychoanalysis as living processes of growth and maturation—they illuminate the experiential meaning behind the jargon. A good place to start.

  • Gómez, Luiz O. “Psychology.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 678–692. New York: Macmillan, 2004.

    A comprehensive summary of Buddhist “psychological” ideas, including a critique of the very notion of comparing Buddhism with psychology by a senior scholar trained in both fields. Includes an excellent bibliography.

  • Hanson, Rick, and Richard Mendius. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

    This book provides practical guidance for cultivating wisdom and well-being by combining ancient Buddhist teachings with the latest research in neuroscience.

  • Harrington, Anne, and Arthur Zajonc. Dalai Lama at MIT. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    A collection of articles based on the famous conference at MIT with the Dalai Lama that discusses core topics in the current dialogue between neuroscience and Buddhism.

  • Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Delacorte, 1990.

    This book leads the reader through the popular training program in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to develop calmness and self-awareness as a way of handling stress, illness, and the “catastrophe” of life.

  • Kornfield, Jack. A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York: Bantam, 1993.

    A practical guide to spiritual life by an author whose training, teaching, and practice skillfully combine Buddhist meditation with psychotherapy.

  • Moacanin, Radmila. Jung’s Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism: Western and Eastern Paths to the Heart. London: Wisdom Publications, 1986.

    A simple introduction to the similarities and differences between Jung’s psychology and Tibetan Buddhism.

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