13-1-92-1-1Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings
Seth Robert Segall, Ed.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003
214 pp.; $57.50 (cloth), $18.95 (paper)

Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue
Jeremy D. Safran, Ed.
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003
464 pp.; $19.95 (paper)

A friend of mine, a math whiz financier obsessed with superlatives, once halted a round of perfectly genial dinner-party talk with a surprisingly divisive query: Which is smarter, he wondered, the ant or the bee?

I think of his question every time another volume appears amid the growing shelfload of titles attempting to straddle the gap between Eastern and Western views of mind. Some of the earlier works emphasize divergence and contradiction; others focus on overlap and synergy. Some are daring solo efforts; others reflect a range of traditions and expertise. Some whisper about breathtaking possibilities; others fill the air with the sound of one hand clapping its owner on the back. Taken as a group, however, they share several traits. For one thing,meditation is often used as a synonym for Buddhism, and Buddhism as a blanket term for a diverse array of practices and beliefs. For another, the authors, in addressing the goals and methods of psychotherapy, tend to speak to the analytic priesthood, leaving the curious but unanalyzed meditator lost in a linguistic funhouse, wondering how to tell her ideal ego from her ego ideal. What’s more, there’s an insidiously reductionist tilt to much of the writing. The innocent reader is apt to come away believing that psychotherapy is merely a damp rag for the mundane messes that even lengthy and intensive Buddhist training can leave behind—a psychic Swiffer, as it were, for all those lascivious lamas and their codependent acolytes. Buddhism’s potential contribution to psychotherapy, meanwhile, is often pared down to the utility of mindfulness techniques for the doctor or patient trying to “stay present” in the consulting room.

Encountering Buddhism and Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, two recent additions to the canon, illustrate the genre’s weaknesses and strengths. Both offer the work of Buddhist practitioners and prominent therapists from a variety of schools—Theravada, Tibetan, and Zen; Jungian, Freudian, and Lacanian—and both accept as a given that each side has something to learn from the other. And while both books sometimes sink into the swamps of jargon and abstraction, each manages in places to rival the best of the comparative commentaries published so far.

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