There are correspondences between the world of psychotherapy and that of religion. Some have suggested that psychotherapy is a modern profession that tries to fill in the gap for people in the age of technology left by the loss of religious faith and institutions. It is certainly true that research repeatedly shows that those with religious faith generally enjoy better mental health than those who lack it, but can this deficiency be remedied by rational technical means?
Along came Buddhism, and for many this has seemed like a religion that was not a religion, which, at best, offered the advantages without the drawbacks of the traditional faiths: inner development without dogmatic or authoritarian overtones. Could Buddhism be harnessed to the technical rational revolution at the core of the modernist paradigm? Could it solve the problems of alienation, anomism, loneliness and powerlessness that modernism seems to have inadvertently given rise to without undermining the rationalist, individualistic agenda?
In psychotherapy there has been a long standing debate and sometimes opposition between what we can call technical and generic approaches. In the technical approach improvement is attributed to the application of a particular, defineable technique or procedure. A simple example is the treatment of specific phobias by desensitization procedures. Here a specific technique is appropriate for a specific ailment. The psychological method constitutes a remedy. The personality of the professional is of little importance. The technique can be taught. The efficacy of the methodology can be researched in the same manner as is used for drug treatments. The conceptualization fits neatly into an allopathic medical paradigm.
On the other hand, in the generic approach, whose most well-known and clear exponent was Carl Ransom Rogers, improvement is considered to be a function of the chemistry between the psychology of the client and that of the professional. There is no one-on-one correspondence between inputs and outputs but general growth in personality with effects that penetrate into many aspects of the client's life may be expected. The client who sheds a phobia may incidentally gain a more vibrant social life and grow as a person. The client who grows as a person may engage in many new activities and, along the way, overcome phobias and many other symptoms. The two approaches are, as it were, coming at the human problem from opposite ends of the same tunnel.
The same is true in religion and very notably so in the case of Buddhism as now commonly practised. In recent years Buddhism has penetrated Western culture in many ways. Notable among these has been the technical approach. There has been an obvious appeal in the idea that you do not need to believe anything or join anything, just do the practice. The practices are techniques. The suggestion is that they cure particular ills. Many of the techniques are variants upon "awareness" or "mindfulness". In order to fit the technical paradigm these terms have undergone some shifts of meaning and the result has been a convergence between the religious technique and the psychological one to the point where many Buddhist practitioners do not see what they are doing as being religious. They see this as a gain. It may, however, be a loss.
When I worry that the true value and essence of what Buddhism is, what its wisdom has to offer and what Shakyamuni taught and awakened to is being abandoned in this process, I am giving rise to thoughts parallel to those that inspired Carl Rogers in the field of psychotherapy. He saw the technical approach of behavioural and cognitive manipulation as lacking vital ingredients of compassion and wisdom - or empathy, genuineness and positive regard - that were the real change agents in human life. To make this point he developed new research methods which showed that it was the operationalization of generic characteristics of the professional that made the difference rather than the technique utilized.
In a similar way what I wish to assert in a Buddhist context is simply that there is no efficacious technique. Buddhism is just about taking refuge. In the first place it was what happened to people when they met Shakyamuni. Although Shakyamuni might have given them something to do - collect mustard seeds from a house where nobody had died, do some form of ascesis, take on a role caring for others within the sangha - and although these tasks did bear an understandable relationship to life issues that the people in question were wrestling with - shock at the death of a child, over-privileged up-bringing, social deprivation, respectively - the same tasks prescribed by a different person could not be expected to be as efficacious. It was the love that they embodied that was conveyed and that transformed and this was a function of "generic factors": the Buddha's ability to hear deeply and to care wisely for the suffering soul before him. It was this love, compassion, sympathy and stability manifested by Shakyamuni that made him a refuge for those who came to him. They found their refuge, not in themselves, but in an enlightened other.
So where did he find it? Did he, for instance, discover his true self or bring out characteristics that had, in some sense, always been part of him? I do not think so. At the very least, I do not think that he thought of it that way. He himself makes it very clear that his life underwent a massive change. Buddhism revolves around the fact of his enlightenment. A new light came into his life, a light he often called Dharma and sometimes Tathata or, when embodied, Tathagata. It is important to grasp that this was a discovery, not a self-actualization. At this point, I think Buddhism philosophicqally parts company with Rogers. Buddhism suggests not that we can realise our existing nature so much as that we can go beyond it, and do so by finding refuge, which is to say, help outside of ourselves.
Buddha saw this as liberation, moksha. It was freedom; not freedom to do as one likes so much as knowledge that one can do a great deal more in life than one ever imagined possible. Subjectively this feels much more like shedding baggage than like realizing a potential. In fact, the person who makes such a change often then feels as though they know a good deal less about what life holds in the future than they did before. It is an entering into a space where it can be expected that there will be many possibilities, but not one where one will have increased certainty about what they will be. The liberated person is surprised more often. The unenlightened life is predictable to a fairly high degree whereas the liberated life is very much one step at a time because the possibilities are so much more numerous. Such liberation comes through refuge.
Refuge is help from outside. Buddhism challenges the modern tendency toward solipcism. In many quarters, however, solipcism is winning and Buddhism itself is being seduced. Taking reguge is now commonly presented as taking refuge in oneself or in one's "true self". Buddha, however, said the opposite - if you want to be a light, make Dharma your light.
Some of this difference is merely linguistic. It is, of course, possible to construe anything new as the realisation of a "potential" however invisible that "potential" was before the change occurred. If you win the lottery then the money that you now have is the realisation of the potential for lottery winning that you were born with. This is a possible linguistic manovre but it is not a parsimonious use of language and it implies an unnecessary limitation of horizons.
The advocates of solipcism tend to try to get round the inherent contradiction of their position by distinguishing between two "selves" - a true one and a false one - the false one being the one that people operate as normally. Thus the poor person is simply somebody who has not yet actualised his lottery-winning-potential. This way of thinking leads to endless philosophical problems - if the false sense is the empirical reality how can one say it is false? If the true self is not attained, in what sense is it true? An unenlightened person is in the dark, pure and simple. All this division of self into two opposed concepts is also commonly accompanied by an extensive rhetoric about "non-duality" which redoubles the confusion and leaves the whole system hopelessly incoherent, if still sufficiently intriging to generate an enormous literature, much of it about the impossibility of saying anything ultimately true about the subject. To say that we have inherent buddha nature, define this as a future potential and at the same time say the future does not exist is an incoherent philosophy, but it is surprisingly popular.
Buddhism is simpler than that and, to the dismay of modernists, much more religious. Simply have faith, take refuge, be willing to receive the love. We are human. We are what we do, so this love and faith needs expression. It might be expressed in lifestyle or in stylised rituals, so do have a practice that expresses it in some way if this feels good - call the Buddha's name, light a candle every morning, walk round stupas, go on pilgrimage, turn up at the temple, whatever. But don't think of this practice as a way of achieving a goal or remedying an ailment. It is not a technical approach to a problem, it is a celebration. It is celebration of a relationship between oneself and the Dharma-Tathagata. That Dharma may be mediated in various ways - the tradition, the teacher, the sangha community. If there are specific techniques they are auxiliary, take place within this context and are unlikely to be effective without it.
What Shakyamuni did was to manifest a way of going beyond what one's life has been. People changed and did so in very short order. His presence enabled a metanoia that was not just the shedding of a specific symptom, but was a reorientation of the whole of life. Later this was conceptualized by some as the bringing out of one's inherent Buddha nature, but I don't think that that was how he saw it. Meeting him provided a context of safety and honesty in which people faced the reality of impermanence, suffering and the meaning of life. That context is provided - it is not self-generated.
What one does generate is faith and willingness, yet even this generally only arises through some kind of inspiration juxtaposed with awareness of personal failure, just as Shakyamuni was inspired to go on his spiritual quest by seeing the dignity of the saddhu crossing the market square and was inspired to go forth and teach the Dharma by his encounter with Brahma Sahampati.
So what is the place of specific techniques in Buddhism? The conclusion of this line of enquiry has to be that techniques are auxiliary. At most, they assist the larger generic transformation. If one already has faith, then naturally one will want to overcome obstacles embedded in one's character. One will want to let go of specific sufferings. Sometimes there may be a task or method that can assist this. One will want to make the fullest possible use of the time of one's lifespan. There will be tasks that it is worth carrying out. Really, however, little, if any, of this is a matter of self-improvement except incidentally. It is much more aptly described a carrying out life's work. There are things to be done.
When I am cutting wood at the Amida retreat in France I get a lot of exercise and this is generally good for my metabolism and health. People who live in circumstances where they get little opportunity for exercise might pay substantial money to belong to a health club or gymnasium. There they may have a coach who prescribes specific techniques or exercises to strengthen this or that muscle or help them reduce excess fat. Such is modern life. It might be better overall to consider a complete change of lifestyle - to do something generic that cuts through the whole complex of problems for which such techniques are needed. I've never needed to belong to a gym.
In summary, therefore, Buddhist practice techniques are all too often used by those who have not got the basic message that something more generic is needed and have not actually taken refuge in that which is capable of bringing such wholesale change about. They carry the substantial danger of reducing the wisdom of enlightenment to a hobby and of giving the impression that something is being done when the "thing needful" is actually being ignored. Practice techniques have their specific benefits but they are no substitute for truly taking refuge. Nonetheless, truly taking refuge requires the availability of a teacher, a Dharma and a community that can provide the necessary safety, honesty, faith and love.
Also, taking refuge can massively upset whole structures of one's personality - habits of denial, defense and avoidance - that one has spent years perfecting and this is not something that people seek voluntarily. There are many people who give lip service to the idea that they want to be spiritually enlightened, but, in reality, want nothing of the kind. They do not want what it would entail.
This is why the transmission of the Dharma hangs by a thread and is not something that can be mass produced or provided via books or technical know-how. Interestingly, the word religion includes the root word for thread ("lig"). None knows when that thread will dangle before them and few are prepared to grasp it even when it does. This, however, is not really to be wondered at. Liberation may be exquisitely wonderful but nobody knows that in advance and most people are busy avoiding it. Liberation is simply a life of faith.