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What is Zen Psychology?



If people are confronted with the words "Zen" and "Psychology" in the same sentence, many will envision visiting some sort of guru meditating on a mountain top, while thoughts of "oneness with the universe" float through his head. People may also foresee a client in East-influenced therapy turning into a Birkenstock and bead-wearing "granola" who, at the hair salon, won't stop talking about her "mystical visions while in a transcendental state." Warping the stereotypes further, people may associate "Zen and Psychology" with Dianetics, Moonies, Hare Krishna, or any one of the unsettling cults they heard about on "Oprah" and "Hard Copy." Are these stereotypes warranted? Is there any truth to them? What is Zen, anyway? Please, read on...

Is Psychology a Science?

What Is Zen?

Is Zen a Religion?

Zen Psychology

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Zen Psychology


Here's the "barebones" on Zen's application to psychological research, paradigm, and therapy. This page will be better understood after reading this site's What is Zen? and Is Zen a Religion? pages. I'll be expanding the text as soon as possible...

Ties between Zen Buddhism and Western psychology may first have been explored by the academic D. T. Suzuki. He wrote several English language books and essays about Zen for Western readers. Psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Erich Fromm each explored the implications of Zen on consciousness and the potential effects of Eastern practices on Western people. Work by many of today's practitioners of depth psychologies, such as psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists, continue the exploration of Zen and consciousness.


"I have no doubt that the satori experience does occur also in the West... The only movement within our culture which partly has, and partly should have, some understanding of these aspirations is psychotherapy... The psychotherapist, however, who is seriously concerned with the question of the aims of his therapy cannot be unmoved when he sees what ultimate results an oriental method of spiritual 'healing'--ie. 'making whole'--is striving for."

-Carl Jung, forward to D.T. Suzuki's (1964) Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 25 & 26.


Other modern psychologists have focused on meditation as a tool for mental and physical health. The word Zen comes from the Japanese word for "meditation," and is quite appropriate as meditation is at the heart of Zen practice. Harvard's Herbert Benson was a pioneer in the medical study of the effects of meditation. His early studies culminated in the book The Relaxation Response (1975), which discussed various meditative practices and relaxation techniques (TM, zazen (Zen), Yoga, autogenic training, PMR, hypnosis and sentic cycles), and included results of his studies measuring short and long term effects of these practices. His data showed that regular meditation can decrease the effects of stress, leading to better coping skills and a lessening of hypertension, a leading cause of heart disease. He called this phenomenon the Relaxation Response, and created a simple method of meditation for patients to practice once or twice a day for 10-20 minutes.
Benson's work has influenced hundreds if not thousands of successive studies linking meditation with mental and physical health. Some recent studies are noted on this site's Abstracts page.

In addition to long-term effects on health, meditation and other relaxation techniques have been used to reduce pain and anxiety in immediate medical settings.

"Some psychologists teach dental students ways to incorporate pain relief techniques into their practice. Indeed, psychologists' relaxation techniques from hypnosis and meditation to desensitization and cognitive-behavioral therapy help soothe all forms of dental pain, including short-term, acute forms, such as toothache and drilling."

-psychologist Samuel Dworkin, PhD, DDS, who holds a joint appointment in psychology and dentistry at the University of Washington
(Psychology gains visibility in nation's dental schools, Bridget Murray, APA Monitor)

Meditation is not only used for physical health, but can also be used for insight during therapy. Meditation can help clear the mind, sorting thoughts and eliciting breakthroughs to a more honest, true view of reality.

"Most meditations are directed towards enhancing one's life in some way, and there's nothing wrong with that. The premise of most of these pop meditations, however, is that one can develop some kind of psychological attitude that defends oneself against reality. In Zen Buddhism, meditation is not directed towards defending oneself against the stresses of reality but rather towards confronting reality as it is and becoming one with it. This requires a world view and a way of being in the world that reinforces it."

-Zenshin Roshi, from Zen and Popular Culture: An Interview with Zenshin Roshi By Linnea Lamar (CyberSangha, Spring 1996)

These two articles titled Meditation is becoming more mainstream and Successful Practice Based on Mind/Body Connection, printed in the American Psychological Association's Monitor, provide a summary of the recent popularity of meditation in psychological practice.

This extensive review of Mark Epstein's book, Thought Without a Thinker presents the author's view of Buddhistic Psychology.

For more links, books, and information, check out this site's Reading Room, Bibliography, and Abstracts pages.

Below are more quotes relevant to Zen's relation to psychology:


"...the psychologist may not be religious minded, not be a practictioner, not be concerned with or even not believe in future lives and is skeptical: well, that doesn't matter. As a professional, as a psychologist, he only needs to deal with this life and care sincerely but unbiasedly. Then his attitude toward future lives doesn't matter."

-Dalai Lama interview in "Tibetan Buddism and Psychotherapy" by David Ross Komito, JTP, Vol. 15, #1, 1983.

""There is only one way--taught by the Buddha, by Jesus, by the Stoics, by Master Eckhart--to truly overcome the fear of dying, and that way is by not hanging onto life, not experiencing life as a possession."

-Erich Fromm

"If a person is psychologically secure, they are able to shift from a personal focus to a universal focus. This is what I believe is meant in spiritual practice when people talk about "losing one's ego". I believe that if people have a level of personal maturity and ego integration, they can make the shift from "life is happening to me" to "life is happening". It is a happy shift, a shift from an inside-out, "me-focused" view to a cosmic or universal overview."

-Sylvia Boorstein, "Spiritual Issues in Psychotherapy", JTP, Vol. 26,#2, 1994.


I'll be adding more quotes with better source info. as I can! Please keep the suggestions coming!

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The text on this page (c)April, 1998. All images are thought to be public domain. If you feel an image infringes on a copyright, please e-mail me at the address above.