The Original Buddhist Psychology

What the Abhidharma Tells Us about How We Think, Feel, and Experience Life

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Beth Jacobs
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    North Atlantic Books
    , June
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scholars (should) love clarity of categories. It is therefore more than just unfortunate that so much has been published under the rubric of “Buddhist psychology” that should be better categorized as “psychological interpretations of Buddhist practices and teachings.” What would more properly be called “Buddhist psychology” are those strains of Buddhist thought that take the nature of mind and mental processes as their specific object of study, and which then develop systematic theories of mind. Actual “Buddhist psychology” in this sense includes abhidharma, Yogācāra, and tathāgatagarbha. These categories are themselves diverse, being a bibliographic category, a school of thought, and a doctrinal theory. In addition to these Indic categories, Buddhist psychology also includes the Central and East Asian refractions of these three categories. In both Central and East Asia there were not only translations and expositions of the Indic source materials, but also further developments.

However, because the study of Buddhist psychology has almost entirely been a highly technical subset of Buddhist studies, psychological interpretations of Buddhist thought and practice have almost naturally dominated popular understanding. The scholarship on Buddhist psychology as such has been very important, but has remained largely out of reach for nonspecialists, whether religious studies scholars specializing in other subject areas, students, or members of the general public, no matter how interested they are in the subject. It is fortunate therefore that a few recent publications have begun to make actual Buddhist psychology available for nonspecialist audiences.

Beth Jacobs’s The Original Buddhist Psychology is an example of this important new genre. The abhidharma is often portrayed as dauntingly dry—a matter of endless lists and endless fine distinctions, often made further obscure by arcane Pāli or Sanskrit terminology. Jacobs sets herself the task of making this subject matter not only accessible to contemporary general readers, but also—and more importantly—interesting to them.

Writing for a contemporary audience means that Jacobs needs to relate a system of thought originating in a radically different culture and era: classical to early medieval India. While abhidharma does address itself to how the mind works in general, there is no attention given to the personal or individual, as one might expect from modern conceptions of psychotherapy. Although perhaps overly simplistic, the difference can be characterized as that between process and content: abhidharma and other strains of Buddhist psychology are focused on mental processes, while much of Western psychology focuses on personal content. In other words, while there is attention in Buddhist psychology to the dynamics by which emotions, for example, arise, there is not attention to the personal history involved for the individual experiencing those emotions.

Jacobs presents the complexity of the abhidharma in a clear, systematic, and accessible fashion. An important instance of the balance of her approach is her treatment of rebirth (115–18). She neither explains away the Buddhist cosmology of possible postmortem existences as merely descriptions of different psychological states, nor does she present rebirth in such a fashion as to make belief in it foundational to understanding the psychological significance of the abhidharma system.

There are some aspects of Jacobs’s work that are, to this reviewer, problematic.

One of these is a tendency to connect abhidharma constructs to neuropsychology. Although this is a commonplace in present discussions of Buddhism, the significance of correlations between experience and neural states is not only unclear, but often interpreted prematurely. Throughout contemporary Buddhist discourse, references to neuropsychology seem to function largely as a means toward legitimacy. It is worth noting in this regard, however, that Jacobs successfully avoids what she refers to as the danger of parallelism, “saying this Buddhist concept equals that Western concept” (x).

Another unfortunate aspect of the work is that it perpetuates the equation: Theravāda = Pāli Buddhism = original Buddhism. Rather than being historically accurate, this equation is a key part of the propaganda promoted by the winning side in an inter-sectarian conflict in twelfth century Sri Lanka. (Interested readers are referred to the very important essay by Steven Collins, “On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon,” Journal of the Pali Text Society 15 [1990]: 89–126.) Consequently, the word “original,” found both in the title of Jacobs’s book and within the work itself reveals its function as part of a rhetorical strategy that by asserting authority exercises its power to determine contemporary Buddhist discourse. This does not seem to have been intentional on Jacobs’s part, but a consequence of the hegemonic role of this propaganda such that it is accepted uncritically.

These problems aside, the work is in general a very successful introduction of a complex area of study, making the abhidharma accessible for readers in the present. In a passing comment about the limitations of contemporary psychotherapy, Jacobs highlights an issue that is equally important for reflecting on the cultural framework into which Buddhist practices are being adopted. She talks about the problem of “overemphasizing the idea of control over mental processes” (xii). Last century Carl Jung had identified this as a central difficulty for the Western appropriation of yoga and meditation, referring to the “heroic attitude,” one in which the ego attempts to perfect its control over the mind in the same fashion that the hero conquers monsters and evil forces. Jacobs’s sensitivity to this problem in psychotherapy should be taken equally as a caveat for the ways that Buddhist meditation practices are being appropriated in the present.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Beth Jacobs is a clinical psychologist in private practice and a former faculty member of the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University. A lay teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, Jacobs incorporates Buddhist studies and meditation into her work as both a psychologist and a writer. She is the author of Writing for Emotional Balance (2005) as well as an award-winning
column for the National Association for Poetry Therapy.


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