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Buddhas
Photographs by Alison Wright

In the 1980s, I knew a remarkable man named Carl Rogers, one of the most eminent and influential psychologists of the last century. Carl, not unlike Shakyamuni Buddha, saw virtually limitless potential within human nature, and this inspired him in all he did. He was an explorer of human relations, a visionary, and a rigorous researcher. He was willing to ask awkward or demanding questions, consider them thoroughly, and then think about things in new ways as the situation required. Indeed, one of Carl’s favorite expressions was “the facts are friendly,” by which he meant we should not fear the truth even though it may not fit with what we already believe.

During Carl’s time, the world of psychotherapy had become polarized between various schools of psychoanalysis on the one hand, with their complex and untestable esoteric theories, and on the other, behaviorism, which in the name of a very narrow definition of science reduced human experience to simplistic terms and therapy to mechanically applied techniques. In his approach to research, Carl did not impose a theoretical structure on clinical practice; instead, he let theories arise from careful investigation of what actually happens in the clinical setting. His work was instrumental in the development of humanistic psychology, which presented itself as a “third force” in the field.

I find that the concerns Carl had about the psychology world of his time has parallels in the Buddhist world of today. With this in mind, we might do well to reflect on whether we modern practitioners of the dharma are not in danger of falling into one or the other of two extremes, one insular, heavily esoteric, and self-validating, and the other characterized by a narrow focus on the application of technique alone. I am especially concerned with the latter, because it seems to me that in adopting that perspective, we might think we are being progressive when in fact we are merely fitting Buddhism to certain unexamined but commonly held beliefs about the world.

For many Western Buddhists, a technical approach that says in effect, “You don’t need to believe anything, just do the practice” is very appealing. We are, after all, a culture very much driven by technology. Yet this technical emphasis directed toward Buddhism is something new. Traditionally, in the Asian cultures in which the dharma has flourished, Buddhism is more a matter of attitude than a set of techniques. Attitude is about the holding of an entire context, though it can take specific forms in ritual or meditation practice or other activities. But the main attitudes through which Buddhists have always expressed their connection to the dharma are devotion and faith. The form and content of these attitudes varies depending on the culture, the tradition, and even the individual, but the common characteristic is a whole (though not uncritical) and deeply felt sense relationship to the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

The idea that one can “just do the practice” is itself based on faith, yet it is easy to miss this sleight of hand. This view of practice does not avoid faith; it simply plays into a faith we already have—that is, faith in a technological approach to life. It assumes that meditation, like penicillin or Windows 7.0, works the same in any context. That is a lot to assume.

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