Reinventing the (Dharma) Wheel

Studying therapists' interest in Buddhism in the past informs practice today.

Posted Jul 19, 2019

In my previous post for “Therapy and Buddhist Traditions,” I explained how psychotherapists’ curiosity about Buddhist teachings and practices—often called a “new popular fad”—is actually fairly old, stretching back well over a century now. Today, I will make the case that it is important for therapists to know something of this history—not just as a matter of “correcting the record,” but for clinical practice itself.

When I point out to practicing clinicians just how long psychotherapists have investigated Buddhist teachings and practices, I can sometimes almost hear them asking themselves, “Well, that’s interesting, I guess, what? How does that impact the daily work I do in my office?” 

At a basic level, delving into this history teaches us that psychotherapists have not only investigated Buddhist traditions for many more decades than is typically discussed—therapists have also approached Buddhist teachings practices in far more diverse ways than is often known.

This diversity can sometimes be obscured by the blinding popularity of therapeutic mindfulness practices, but there are a multiplicity of ways that clinicians relate to Buddhist traditions beyond simply incorporating contemporary mindfulness practices into sessions.

Learning about this multiplicity gives therapists more options for exploring a Buddhist path, when it can sometimes seem today as if the choice is simply “to use or not to use a mindfulness practice in this session.” Some of those options may have been, to some extent, forgotten in the past.

For example, through the 1940s and 1950s, a group of psychoanalysts came to believe that the theoretical study of Buddhist teachings could offer insights about what it means to be human and improve the care that therapists offered in sessions.

Karen Horney and Erich Fromm would compare the Buddhist with the psychotherapeutic—juxtaposing, for instance, the analysand-analyst relationship with the Zen teacher-student relationship described to them by D.T. Suzuki. However, these psychoanalysts generally did not explicitly discuss this study of Buddhist teachings or incorporate Buddhist practices into sessions.

In my book Prescribing the Dharma, I introduce Horney and Fromm’s perspectives as examples of what I call “personalizing” approaches to Buddhist traditions—only one slice out of the diversity of ways that therapists have related to Buddhist traditions (in my book, I outline six, very artificial, categories in total).

And therapists have not only “personalized” Buddhist traditions in the past. In their personal time, important contemporary psychoanalysts—like Barry Magid, who teaches students at his Ordinary Mind Zendo in Manhattan—are applying these principles today.

Magid believes that his experience with Buddhist practice inevitably shapes his therapy sessions, but he holds his Buddhist identity silently within his person during those sessions, without ever explicitly speaking of it (or anything else from his personal life, for that matter).

Magid believes that explicitly incorporating Buddhist elements into therapy reduces them into instrumental “techniques” and destroys what is actually transformative about them. He is, thus, strongly critical of the so-called “mindfulness boom” and urges colleagues to be aware that there are alternative ways of approaching Buddhist traditions. 

My contention is that those approaches are impossible to ignore when we learn about our histories. Looking back to the 1890s, William James was utilizing the then-new academic discipline of psychology to discern what he believed were essential truths at the core of Buddhist and other religious traditions (an example of what I call in my book “filtering” approaches).

A hundred years later, in the 1990s, we find an increase of psychotherapists voicing their intention to make Buddhist teachings the very basis of entirely new psychotherapies (an example of what I call “adopting” approaches).

The full range of possibilities for therapists interested in Buddhist traditions are impossible to ignore when we take up historical study—even if a psychoanalyst like Franz Alexander, who I mentioned in my previous post, might otherwise seem forgotten in the past. In fact, there are some who feel that approaches like Alexander’s might be best forgotten.

Contemporary therapists often describe early perspectives on Buddhist traditions to be flawed or, worse, unenlightened and prejudiced. After all, talk therapy as we know it today was invented by a man who certainly had at least something of an aversion to religious traditions: The famously atheist Freud had diagnosed all religious beliefs to be generated by pathology.

Therapists will further observe, for instance, that the quantity and quality of translations of Buddhist texts has vastly improved over recent decades (which, of course, assumes that the best way to know Buddhist traditions is through textual study, an extremely debatable assumption best left for another time). 

The basic idea is that, as time has advanced, so has psychotherapists’ treatment of Buddhist teachings and practices. Personally, I find this is to be far from always the case. Alexander, for instance, is often branded as the paradigmatic pathologizer of Buddhist thought. And yet there is actually much in his writings on the subject that we can learn from today. Nonetheless, even those who believe that there is little worth preserving in early analyses of Buddhist thought lend us an argument for being aware of our histories. 

Because, from this perspective, it becomes important to study our past so as to avoid the mistakes of our predecessors. Historians have a handy shorthand they often use to justify their profession’s existence: variations on George Santayana’s famous “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And critics of how psychotherapists have treated Buddhist traditions say that there is much that should be avoided.

The prominence of therapeutic mindfulness practices makes them an especially easy target for condemnation. The litany of criticism is worth cataloging in more depth in the future. In one major line of attack, however, cultural commentators accuse clinicians, who are predominantly of European descent, of “culturally appropriating” centuries-old traditions from marginalized Asian populations, extracting them from their religious frameworks, completely denaturing and secularizing them, and employing them to further the ends of greedy capitalists.

These criticisms, in large part, only make sense when we know something about the past. Critics are often telling a particular story about the historical origins of mindfulness practices, a story that includes an awareness of, for example, the violence of colonial imperialists from Europe and the United States.

There are a number of prominent psychotherapists, beyond the aforementioned Magid, who seek to avoid these mistakes and to leave them in the past. But perhaps an even better phrase to describe what history can offer today’s therapists comes from one of the more famous mindfulness practitioners, Marsha Linehan. 

Over a decade and a half ago now (which may not be “ancient history,” but is also not “just yesterday”), Linehan expressed concern about teaching mindfulness practices outside the context of religious communities. Writing with the psychologist Sona Dimidjian, Linehan suggested that researchers developing guidelines for “therapist training and competence” for the use of therapeutic mindfulness practices should consider “creat[ing] and maintain[ing] ongoing and public dialogues with spiritual teachers” in part because “it may prevent an unnecessary reinvention of the wheel, given that these traditions possess a body of time-honored methods for teaching” (2003, 167).

Linehan is thinking further back here than the hundred or so years of psychotherapy’s history, to the couple thousand years that have passed since the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, is said to have lived and taught. Buddhist communities hold methods for teaching and practicing that therapists can learn from rather than “reinventing the wheel”—if not the “Dharma Wheel.”

Linehan is far from the first psychotherapist to make this point. Back in the late 50s-early 60s, Erich Fromm argued that those elements of the Zen Buddhist teachings of D.T. Suzuki that he found helpful should not, as he wrote, be treated as “a ‘technique’ which can be isolated from the premise of Buddhist thinking, of the behavior and ethical values which are embodied in the master and in the atmosphere of the monastery” (1960, 138). 

Around the wheel of time, again and again, therapists may find themselves repeating the same admonitions against the same mistakes. Today, critics write of a “mindfulness conspiracy” in which therapeutic mindfulness practices do not liberate people (as their proponents hope). Instead, they say, the calming peace of mindfulness pacifies sufferers into accepting systemic injustice.

However, decades ago, Erich Fromm spoke out against therapists who only helped “adjust” people to the conditions of modern society—though he actually did believe that the mindfulness meditation practice taught to him directly by the German-born Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera would bring people to an awareness of oppressive forces like global capitalism. 

This conversation between therapists echoing out of the past with those working today begins to reveal just how consequential our history really is. Uncovering the histories of therapeutic mindfulness practices, as just one prominent example, has very practical implications. Are contemporary mindfulness practices not secular, but historically religious, spiritual, and/or Buddhist? And if so, what do we do with this knowledge?

This question does not just animate debates in the pages of magazines and online forums. Parents are suing public school districts for teaching mindfulness practices to students, claiming that doing so violates the establishment clause of the constitution. The history of today’s mindfulness practices, then, may determine whether it is actually legal to use them in public schools or, by extension, publicly-funded hospitals. 

Again, the case of therapeutic mindfulness practices is only one example of how our histories concretely impact clinical practice. As a religious studies scholar, I am biased: To me, learning how psychotherapists viewed religious traditions throughout the past is fascinating. But I hope I can persuade others that it is more than just interesting; it’s integral to our work.

And, as a psychotherapist, I realize that all of this speaks to deeper questions that come up every day for therapists in their sessions with suffering people: How much does the history of that suffering really matter—or should we focus solely on alleviating it in the present? Can we only find the origins of people’s suffering by looking back into their histories to learn about their parents, their upbringing, etc.?

Or does a focus on “personal histories” end up obscuring the larger societal and environmental forces that shape people’s lives? Clinicians have debated these questions since the invention of talk therapy; there are histories to that, too. 

In the final analysis, holding an awareness of the histories of our discipline inevitably deepens our clinical practice. This deepening can happen in ways that can be hard to put into words, the sensation of realizing we participate in what are, simply by virtue of their age, traditions initiated long ago and carried forward into the future.

It is a common experience for people who stand with awareness in the stream of all traditions (including religious traditions): the knowledge that we stand on a foundation built by predecessors, and that, in the present moment, we cultivate those traditions anew, that we are tending to something much bigger than our individual(ized) selves. 


Dimidjian, Sona, and Marsha Linehan. 2003. “Defining an Agenda for Future Research on the Clinical Application of Mindfulness Practice.” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 10: 166–71.