4. Buddhist Psychology
Buddhism is, to a large extent, a psychology. Traditional Buddhist thought draws a map of the mind that includes normative human mental states, but goes beyond this to describe exalted states of spiritual awakening. The psychological detail in the earliest suttas was systematized in the later Abhidharma texts, masterful (if often overly ponderous and technical) Buddhist scholastic manuals. Whereas Western psychology was, until recently, exclusively concerned with pathology (mental illness, its symptoms, causes, and cures), Buddhist psychology always assumed that the typical human being operates at a psychological deficit, but that complete mental health to the point of transcendent human happiness, based on ultimate human potential, was possible, and was the goal of the spiritual path.
Though Buddhist psychology has a lot to say about emotions, both positive emotions (like compassion, loving-kindness, acceptance, joy) and negative emotions (like greed, hate, anger) it does not preserve the typical Western division between intellect and emotion. Both are understood as functions of consciousness that are ever-present, influencing each other constantly. More importantly, Buddhism does not assume that emotions are fixed conditioned by-products of our essential personalities; instead, it proposes that emotions can be cultivated, positive emotions encouraged, negative emotions gently discouraged. The cultivation of positive emotions is a crucial dimension of the Buddhist spiritual path.
Classical Buddhist texts discuss negative emotions in terms of the five hindrances: attachment, aversion, excitement, laziness and doubt. They discuss positive emotions in terms of “Four Immeasurables,” loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The Six Perfections (generosity, ethics, energy, patience, meditation, wisdom/compassion) is a Mahayana format for discussion of positive emotions. In Zen practice, zazen (meditation), and ongoing daily mindfulness, provide a way of being with our emotions non-judgmentally and honestly, to see how and what they are, and how they work. Watching emotions rise and fall, we begin to see patterns of suffering and happiness. In sitting practice clarity arises in the midst of ease and hindrance, and we can note the effects and complexities of both.