Freud and Buddha By Mark Epstein

TRAVELING IN ASIA IN MY EARLY TWENTIES WITH MY AMERICAN Buddhist teachers (Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Richard Alpert), I woke up one March morning, still a bit Valium-encrusted after an all-night train ride from Bangkok, to find myself in the forest monastery of a Thai meditation master named Ajahn Chah. The monastery wasn’t just in the tropical forest; it was constructed out of it. Ruddy wooden buildings rose on stilts over neatly swept dirt strewn paths. Bird calls mixed with the ringing of chimes, the murmurs of the monks and the faint residue of incense from the temple. Ajahn Chah met with us after we shared the monastery lunch. It was obvious to everyone why we were there, we were part of a pilgrimage of psychologically-minded Westerners pillaging the wisdom of the East, trolling for some seed or shoot that might take root in American soil–we hurriedly constructed a question so as to generate a reply. I can no longer remember our question, but Ajahn Chah’s response still lingers.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

People ask me what Buddhism brings to psychotherapy and I think of Ajahn Chah and his glass. Freud, whose dourness put me off in my first encounters with his work, used to say that the best he could do for someone was to take them from a state of neurotic suffering and return them to one of common unhappiness. When I first heard this, I did not sufficiently appreciate Freud’s wry humor, nor did I accept what an achievement common unhappiness could be. I heard Freud as a fatalist instead of as a realist and did not yet see the spiritual potential in his unrelenting opening to reality. I heard the Buddha’s teachings on nirvana as promising relief from common unhappiness and I obviously wanted him for a therapist. I did not yet realize how close the Buddha’s vision was to Freud’s. For just as the monastery was constructed out of the forest and was not separate from it, so is release from suffering constructed out of common unhappiness. Instead of feeling defeated by our suffering, according to both Freud and Buddha, we can learn to use it to open our hearts.

Both the Buddha and Freud came to appreciate that the source of self-generated misery is an exaggerated sense of self’s absolute reality. As with the glass, we try to make ourselves more real than we really are and we struggle and squirm and fight to maintain that illusion. We fear that if we surrender to the self’s fragility, we will break, not realizing the inherent freedom in being already broken. Professor Robert Thurman of Columbia remembers his elderly Mongolian teacher as putting it this way:

“It’s not that you’re not real,” his teacher would say. “We all think we’re real, and that’s not wrong. You are real. But you think you’re really real, you exaggerate it.”

This is true on a personal level, within the domain of psychotherapy, and on a societal one. In the group psyche, as in the individual, there is tremendous fear of instability of all kinds. Once having achieved a degree of independence, power, control, or success, we will do almost anything to maintain it, even if that means inflicting pain upon other people, other cultures, or the world. Our self-image (as an individual or as a nation), our exaggerated sense of self-importance (and the insecurity that underlies it), demands it. As the Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor put it in his recent Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, “We try to ward off fear by desperately avoiding or destroying whatever seems to pose a threat to our well-being.” This tendency increases in proportion to the magnitude of the perceived threat. The mood today in America, where we are sensing a decline in our international authority, a lessening of our hegemony, and an erosion of our currency, is a prime example of the anxiety that comes when a society starts to see through the illusion of its own solidity.

Living and working in Vienna during the rise of the Nazis, Freud watched what was unfolding in his historical moment with the same dispassion that he brought to all of his work As chronicled by Mark Edmundson in his recent book The Death of Sigmund Freud, Freud was particularly interested in “the adulation of the tyrannized for their tyrants.” Like Buddha, Freud recognized how powerful the lure of absolute authority can be. People want their rulers to not only be real, but to be really real: all powerful, all knowing, and full of authority. In return for this guarantee, they are willing to give up their freedom and their own individual initiative. Buddha outlined this phenomenon in the individual–Freud was unsparing in his elucidation of it in the group. For Buddha, this need manifested in clinging to an absolute self, for Freud in the attachment to a patriarchal God–a father, a ruler, or a leader. “It is hard to escape the view that when people subordinate themselves to cruel dictatorships and tyrannical deities,” says Edmundson, “they are satisfying needs that are, among other things, psychological, infantile. They are creating sound, solid identities for themselves, rather than exploring human possibility.” The longing for the Freudian father who can serve as a bulwark against weakness, helplessness, and instability is another version of the wish for a glass that will not break, for a father that will not falter. Submitting to such an authority is a way of paralyzing oneself while still feeling a part of something powerful–it takes away individual responsibility and substitutes the gratification of belonging to the primal horde.

Like Freud, Buddha lived in a time beset by war and tyranny, and like Freud, he did not often confront the perpetrators directly nor was he able to bring about any lasting cessation of hostilities. He shuttled between two warring kingdoms, but rarely counseled any of the rulers, to whom he turned for patronage and protection, to put down their arms–he asked only that they treat their soldiers and subjects fairly. Just before the Buddha’s death from food poisoning, one of the rulers invaded his home province and slaughtered most of his Shakyan clan. Like Freud, who died of mouth cancer in London in 1939, Buddha passed away just as many of his blood relatives were being massacred by the tyrannical rulers of his day.

The failure of either Freud or Buddha to effectively counter the gross oppression of their day has reinforced a common tendency to read both of their worldviews as counseling resignation in the face of injustice or suffering. If the glass is already broken, one might think, isn’t common unhappiness our fate no matter what? Doesn’t the inevitability of suffering somehow let us off the hook? If the world is inexorably deteriorating, what hope is there of saving it, what purpose in pouring energy into a doomed enterprise? In fact, both Buddha and Freud were champions of the individual, great encouragers of one’s ability to break free from mass delusion. To return to Ajahn Chah’s parable of the glass, the crucial, and often overlooked, aspect of his story is his statement that every moment with the glass is precious. His attitude is not a passive one of letting the glass fall and break, it is a caring one that is mindful of what a gift the glass is in the first place. Seeing the fragility of the glass did not make him careless with it. To extend the analogy, allowing the ubiquity of suffering to open one’s heart does not breed callous or selfish disengagement, it breeds care and concern and an active sense of responsibility.

Both Freud and Buddha were interested in what keeps people from healing their worlds, in what keeps them passive, selfish, complacent, or in thrall to their masters. They each pointed out that there are only a few times in ordinary life when we break through the illusion of separateness and instinctively look out for the other before ourselves. One instance, as Freud observed in Civilization and Its Discontents, is in love. “Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact,” he wrote. The other state, much extolled in the Buddhist literature as well as by later psychoanalysts, is that of parenthood. As the British child analyst D.W. Winnicott put it, the “good-enough” mother is sometimes able, through her “ordinary devotion,” to put her child’s needs ahead of her own. The Buddhist approach takes this capacity and builds upon it, encouraging its practitioners to question what is called the “intrinsic identity habit,” the tendency to set the self up in opposition to the rest of the world instead of as a part of it. In order to undercut this tendency, Buddhist monks cultivate compassion by reflecting upon all beings as having once been, in the endless cycle of death and rebirth, their mothers. The personification of this shift in perspective is the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her enlightenment to work tirelessly for the benefit of all beings. Rather than resigning oneself to the inevitability of suffering and retreating into nirvana, the individual chooses to remain in the world and work for the liberation of others.

The other day, after a lecture that I gave in which I quoted Ajahn Chah’s story, a therapist in the audience come up to me and, in a troubled voice, told me of her guilt over not doing more to help heal the world. She wanted me, I think, to either reassure her that she was already doing enough or to tell her directly what more she could do. She clearly felt helpless, as many of us do. I encouraged her to wrestle more directly with the problem, not to hide out in her shame. There is certainly no shortage of meaningful activity that she could engage in. The eruption of this feeling of responsibility is important, though, and we all too often quell it before it makes too much trouble for us. I thought of a story I read in the paper not long ago, written from the Thai border with Burma, about a young monk, one of the fifteen leaders of the recent uprising in Burma, who had recently escaped his country. He described for a reporter the moment this autumn when he stepped forward to lead the monks’ protests. “We were like a train with no locomotive,” he said. “Someone had to lead.” He asked for ten monks to come forward to form a committee of leadership and fifteen stepped up. After the crackdown, he hid in a shed in his home village, then, after his mother was arrested, took off his robes, dyed his hair blond, bought a crucifix in the local market and boarded a bus to the border where he was ferried across the river to Thailand, the only one of the fifteen to escape so far. I thought also of an obituary I found in the paper last week of a Dutch woman who died in her nineties in upstate New York. During the war she and her husband lived in Holland in a three-bedroom farmhouse at the end of a dead-end road abutting the forest. From a shed in their backyard was a hundred foot tunnel that reached to the trees from under an unused coal stove. Throughout the war, they sheltered up to thirty-six Jewish neighbors in their house and in the forest. A friend who worked as a village policeman would call the house, ring twice, hang up, and call again whenever the Gestapo were approaching. Her husband, who knew the forest from his youth, would guide the Jews while she would dissemble to the Gestapo. Jewish neighbors who refused to accept her shelter sent their three year-old daughter to them on the day they were taken away to the camps. The couple raised that child as their own. The woman refused to be called a hero, said that she didn’t even know that her neighbors were Jewish before the war, and consistently denied doing anything extraordinary. Yet she and her husband were able, in the moment, to make decisions that put their own apparent self-interest at risk.

The Buddha always encouraged his followers to make their own choices. The closest he ever came to giving a clear directive was to a brigand named Angulimala who was terrorizing the countryside robbing and murdering people. People warned Buddha not to go walking unescorted through the countryside but he ignored them and went anyway. Angulimala, garlanded with a necklace of the severed fingers of his victims, came after Buddha, but no matter how fast Angulimala ran, Buddha managed to remain out of his reach. Finally, the brigand shouted out, “Stop, stop!” and the Buddha replied, “I have stopped, Angulimala. Why don’t you stop?” That was enough to wake him up–he became one of Buddha’s closest disciples.

Buddha was extraordinarily careful in the way he used the authority that his followers conferred on him. He did whatever he could to create circumstances where the consequences of acting or not acting could be known. When he was first forming his order, his own monastic community was riven by dissension. The precipitating event seems trivial to a modern eye, but it was critical at the time. The threat to the Sangha, the community of monks and nuns, was major. It seems that one elderly monk, a teacher of Discourses, left a vessel of washing water in the latrine one day, only to be taken to task by another monk, a master of Discipline. The disagreement that followed, as chronicled in the Buddhist Sutras, reads much like the details of the recent Presidential debates. The glass in this case, far from being already broken, seemed all too real to the warring monks.

“Did you leave your washing water in the latrine?” asked the master of Discipline.

“Yes,” said the teacher of Discourses.

“Did you know it was an offence?”

“No,” said the teacher of Discourses.

“If you did not know it was an offence, then it will be considered no offence,” offered the master of Discipline. Thus the former left thinking he was forgiven while the latter went to his monks and told them that the Discourse master didn’t even know when he had committed an offence. Gathering momentum, he proceeded to inform the Discourse master’s students that their teacher had broken the rules, even though he was under the impression that he had not. All hell broke loose. The disgraced master of Discourses told the Discipline master’s students that the Discipline master was a liar. The Discipline master convened a council and suspended the Discourse master. Buddha, unaware of these developments, was eventually brought the bad news.

“There will be a schism in the Sangha, there will be a schism in the Sangha,” Buddha repeated. He tried three times to urge the two parties to stop their quarrelling and then gave up. “These misguided men seem obsessed,” he said. “It is impossible to make them see.” Then, uttering a famous stanza, Buddha began a policy of sanctions against his own followers. He withdrew from them all, refusing to be drawn into their battle.

“If you can find no trustworthy companion
With whom to walk, both virtuous and steadfast,
Then, as a king who leaves a vanquished kingdom,
Walk like a tusker in the woods alone.
Better it is to walk alone:
There is no fellowship with fools.
Walk alone, harm none, and know no conflict;
Be like a tusker in the woods alone.”

Over time, Buddha’s sanctions worked. Laypeople began to withhold alms from the warring monks and they eventually sought mediation. As the two sides convened, questions were put to Buddha about how to welcome them. His guidelines stipulated only that no senior monks on either side were to be shown any disrespect. Finally, while waiting for the meeting, the Discourse master, who had originally left his vessel in the latrine, took responsibility. “That was an offence, not no offence,” he realized. “I have offended … I am suspended.” With this admission, the senior monks reinstated him and the Sangha reunited.

Buddha’s emphasis on respect, even for those accused of an offence, coupled with his reliance on sanctions while there was conflict, was effective in his own community but could not quell the broader discord that eventually enveloped the society in which he dwelled. Buddha shared with Freud a skepticism of the political judgment of the masses. “There is no fellowship with fools,” is a statement that could just as easily have come from Freud. Both were so suspicious of the group tendency to cling to an absolute patriarchal authority that each leader set themselves up to subvert the very power that their own followers imbued them with. Freud built psychoanalysis around his patients’ eventual and inevitable disappointment with him. They might fall in love with him or wish that he could solve all of their problems but he was the patriarchal authority who ultimately revealed his humanity, exposing his patients’ infantile wishes and forcing them to accept him as imperfect. Buddha did something similar. He made it impossible for his community to have an absolute leader. He scattered his monks after his death, telling them each to be a “lamp” or an “island” unto themselves, not to rely on any other authority. He built his teachings around the idea that clinging to any absolute was the source of more suffering. He rarely took a fixed position, often contradicting himself and changing his teachings depending on the person he was talking to. The famous expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him,” derives from this stance. The point was never to venerate the Buddha, it was to develop oneself.

People might wonder what relevance the integration of Freudian and Buddhist approaches might have for the troubled state of today’s world. Could such an integrated approach help to heal a society like ours that is suffering and inflicting more suffering? What can we learn from the interplay of Buddhism and psychoanalysis that could help us in today’s uncertain political climate? Both traditions point to the same threat: the human tendency to seek refuge in an absolute. In seeking protection from common unhappiness by elevating a father figure granted unlimited authority, people surrender individual responsibility in favor of the security of the status quo.

At the time of this writing, the presidential candidate courting the mantle of absolute authority is Rudolph Giuliani. While the Democrats are playing catch-up from the last election, insisting on their belief in traditional values and religion, the twice-divorced defender of abortion and gay rights is staking out the patriarchal position. As America’s authority continues to be threatened, his charisma will snowball. And as the country admits to the ineptitude of its current rulers, many of its citizens, rather than choosing to be disruptive, will seek a stronger, more invulnerable leader: one who will see to it that no one ever speaks of the glass being already broken, who will use common unhappiness to justify oppressive means. Both Freud and Buddha died with such leaders in ascendance. Maybe their warnings, unheeded in their own eras, can help us now.

Mark Epstein, M.D. is a psychiatrist and the author of Thoughts Without a Thinker, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart, and, most recently, Psychotherapy Without the Self, (Yale University Press).

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