The courtship between clinical psychology and Buddhism officially began in September of 1893 at The World Parliament of Religions, convened in the building that is now the Art Institute of Chicago. The World Parliament of Religions was organized as part of a Quad-Centennial celebration of the arrival of Columbus to the Americas. At that convention, writer and publisher Paul Carus became enthralled with the presentation of Zen Master, Shaku Soen. Subsequently, Soen Roshi’s closest disciple, D. T. Suzuki, moved to the United States to collaborate with Carus in a formal promulgation of Buddhism for Westerners. Although Carus was schooled in philosophy, not psychology, he and Suzuki nevertheless facilitated the early seeding of serious inquiry into the psychological underpinnings of Buddhism that eventually blossomed in its significant influence in the works of Carl Jung and Erich Fromm.
Although Buddhists are predictably receptive to the notion that the Enlightened state of the Buddha afforded him complete understanding of not only his own psyche but also the intricate psychic structures of others, the unique character of Buddha’s teaching is that knowledge, particularly knowledge of the Truth, must be individually discovered for oneself. It is ultimately not useful for the process of self-realization to have merely heard the Truth. Therefore Buddha taught a methodology of introspection, supported by behavioral modification, that could effectively penetrate the various mental and psychic structures that obscure our Essential Nature. Early Buddhism is characterized by its emphasis on behavior modification, codified as the various vows associated with ordination, but of course meditation is the chief feature of Buddhist practice. If we carefully read the accounts of how Buddha interacted with people, however, it becomes clear that he was also a great psychiatrist. With seemingly perfect insight and empathy, Buddha always asked just the right questions in just the right way that would open a person’s wisdom eye. Since we humans have very complex and deeply embedded ego structures, self-realization normally requires on-going work to maintain the life-line to our own real nature, even if our wisdom eye may have been opened. Whatever type of spiritual practice we employ we will eventually need to come to terms with the fact that we don’t really know definitively who the practitioner is. Who is it that could become realized? Whether we never consider this question at all, or whether we are obsessed with the question, this is a psychological dilemma that will limit any spiritual practice if left unsolved.
If we pursue our spiritual practice scientifically (as Buddha recommended) then we need to devote ourselves to objectivity. Especially we need to learn how to be objective about our subjectivity. For that, we need to first recognize our subjectivity. In the Dzogchen Nyingtig tradition this practice is called drenpa and she-zhin, remembering and minding. From the Dzogchen perspective, what needs to be remembered is that our true identity is in our essential ontological presence. More specifically then, drenpa is the continuing reverberation of Direct Introduction that manages to penetrate our distractions (via serendipity) and lights up certain blessed cells in our brain’s memory centers. Then, by just simply being as presence, mental activities in the various forms of thoughts, feelings, judgments, etc. can be observed objectively (she-zhin) in the context of our presence. When this is successful, all of our mental activities and states are seen to arise and vanish like writing on water. By continuing in this way all of our mental and psychic structures such as ego, superego, self-image, etc. become transparent. Due to the emerging transparency of our mental structures, our core psychological compass of goals and ideals can thus be seen for what it is – an arbitrary set of immature guideline artifacts. Although historically relevant as having been either actually or symbolically expedient to our early-life situation, the light of our real nature clearly shows how limiting this mental patterning is. If our system is sufficiently initialized by having established patterns that permit some degree of relaxation, and we have learned how to tolerate the sometimes overwhelming storms of energy released by deactivated psychic structures, we can then simply do nothing while our Essential Nature automatically optimizes our now available self. Our true nature is self-optimizing even as our fictitious ego-structures are self-limiting. But the constraining and constricting affects of ego-mind are not real, even though they obscure that which is real. In actual practice the dis-empowerment of mental and psychic structures is only possible in a sufficiently mature psychological system. This makes sense if we understand how and why these structures were originated. Conversely, so long as these structures continue to control and limit our perspective, we continue to live incarcerated in a psychologically immature way. According to this understanding, maturity can be understood as a function and measure of the genuine disenchantment with one’s own limitations.
If we find that we still maintain a personal interest in samsara, i.e., any goal or ideal, then some kind of specific maturation regimen may be indicated. As mentioned above, knowing how to relax is indispensable. Depending on the individual, certain critical psychic structures may be formed in such a way as to require special work before they will be able to deactivate and release their energies. Sometimes this might be best handled through psychotherapy. But if the therapist doesn’t work from a perspective of ultimate self-liberation or is ignorant of Essential Truth, such work would need to be coordinated with a qualified spiritual teacher. There are, however, organized spiritual groups whose curricula integrate meditation and psychotherapy, most notably, the Ridhwan School. There are a number of therapists, who are also spiritual practitioners, who have become well known for their advocacy of integrating psychotherapy and spiritual practice. John Welwood Ph.D and Tara Bennett Goleman have written books on this subject that are very compelling. Also, as alluded to in the beginning, the entire corpus of Carl Jung’s work can be viewed as an effort to reconcile and integrate the distorted illusions of the psyche with the dimension of absolute reality. However, at least theoretically, even the most distorted and deeply embedded mental and psychic structures can and will self-diffuse just in the context of being-as-presence, given sufficient exposure. In the Dzogchen method there is a direct introduction to one’s own essential nature and once this has been recognized, it becomes less and less necessary to work from the outside in. Rather than having to establish goals (based on a mistaken sense of incompleteness), the very fact of our being is realized as the self-evidence of completeness. Rather than having to uphold certain ideals (based on very limited and questionable personal data), we (as our real nature) just naturally manifests in an ideal way, as the ideal. Then, with the transparency of all mental constructs, one’s Essential Being shines through all mental constructs as a self-known fact, neither needing nor even considering the need for reification, solving everything naturally and effortlessly.
If this is perfectly done (by not doing anything, really) nothing else need be done. It is a fact, however, that most of us have a very strong habit of believing our mental constructs to be real. So even if some of those structures start to become a little transparent, there is still a strong tendency to get drawn back into their distracting and convoluted story-lines. For this reason there are many secondary practices in the Dzogchen teachings that can be utilized to help with the sometimes rocky transition from entrenched ego-centric delusion to self-liberated Essential Knowledge. Dzogchen is not the same thing as Dzogchen teachings however, and in fact Dzogchen practitioners are in no way limited to Dzogchen teachings. It is the very nature of Dzogchen to not be limited to anything, so, any knowledge that is useful for the purpose of realizing our true nature can be utilized by a Dzogchen practitioner.