The Buddha: The First Psychologist
To paraphrase a common Buddhist saying, “All human beings are somewhat mentally ill until they are enlightened.” (“Sabbe putujana ummataka.”) Looking at this statement from a different direction we might say, “The only cure for mental illness is enlightenment.” During this season we are celebrating Vesak, the thrice-blessed day commemorating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passing away. It behooves us to intensify our practice of meditation during this time and do our best to attain enlightenment ourselves.
The Buddha’s teachings emphasize the mind more than any other element or component of the human experience. Mind is truly the key to everything. The Buddha, characteristically way ahead of his time, taught so much about the mind and analyzed its functions so completely, that we can easily give him the title of “World’s First Psychologist.”
At the beginning of the Dhammapada, in Verse 2, the Buddha says:
“Mind precedes all mental states,
mind is their chief;
they are all mind-wrought.
If with a pure mind
man speaks or acts,
happiness follows him
like his never-departing shadow.”
The Buddha spoke countless times about “seeing things clearly as they are,” which is a necessary requirement for attaining enlightenment, as well as a necessary factor for achieving a happy, healthy, and wholesome life. “Not seeing things clearly as they are” is another term for mental illness, which is a major form of human suffering.
The Buddha taught that the “original mind” is luminous, but it is soon spoiled by outside defilements. Spiritual work is ridding the mind of defilements, which renders it luminous again. Defilements, such as lust or anger, cloud the mind and render it incapable of producing happy, positive results. Examining and investigating the mind – along with meditation – are the tools the Buddha suggested we use to get rid of defilements and return our mind to its original state.
The Buddha said, “No other thing I know, O monks, brings so much suffering as an undeveloped and uncultivated mind. An undeveloped and uncultivated mind truly brings suffering. No other thing I know, O monks, brings so much happiness as a developed and cultivated mind. A developed and cultivated mind brings happiness.”
According to Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula, the Buddha’s use of the term bhavana, in its fullest sense, means “mental cultivation” – not just “meditation.” Bhavana aims at cleansing the mind of impurities and disturbances, such as lustful desires, hatred, ill-will, indolence, worries, restlessness, and skeptical doubts. It also aims at cultivating such qualities as concentration, awareness, intelligence, will, energy, the analytical faculty, confidence, joy, and tranquility lead finally to the attainment of the highest wisdom, which sees the nature of things as they are, and realizes the ultimate truth, Nibbana.
The simultaneous, dual activities of (1) ridding the mind of defilements while (2) cultivating and developing the Four Sublime States contributes to the end of suffering. On one side you are purifying the mind by emptying it of negative thoughts and feelings and eliminating unwholesome influences; on the other side you are strengthening the mind by filling it with positive thoughts and feelings, exposing it to wholesome influences.
The Buddha taught that health of every kind begins in the mind. For example, it is impossible to have a healthy body without a healthy mind. Negative, self-destructive thoughts have a direct impact on the body, weaken the immune system, and cause every form of illness. How could the body remain healthy when it is continually bombarded by negativity? What do you think are the effects on the body of fear, anger, hatred, ill-will, jealousy, or self-loathing?
In the Sallekha Sutta the Buddha refers to forty-four illnesses that afflict the human mind. In the same sutta he also gives a cure for each of them.
In the Vitakka Santhana Sutta, the “Discourse on the Stilling of Thoughts,” the Buddha gave us five effective methods for achieving focus in meditation as well as during daily life. In today’s psychological terminology we would call these: thought displacement, aversion therapy, sublimination, thought analysis, and will power.
In the Dvedha Vitakka Sutta, “Two Kinds of Thought,” the Buddha explored the cruelty of sadism and masochism, as negative thought is directed either to one’s self or to others and causing harm. He explains in detail the period before his enlightenment when he subjected himself to extremes of self-mortification, and said that it was wrong to do so. In our society today (e.g. some politicians and members of the media. etc.) there are many instances when people seem to enjoy inflicting pain on others and causing harm – rather than being constructive and building up the confidence of others, supporting them to their highest good. We must always be watchful of our thoughts, speech, actions, feelings, and behaviors, so we can prevent sadistic or masochistic elements from entering our minds, which will then filter to society.
In many instances the Buddha taught that we as humans must take responsibility for our lives, refrain from complaining and blaming others, and stop looking to the “outside” for causes of things rather than to the “inside” of our own minds. In the Dhammapada, Verse 50, he says:
“Let none find fault with others;
let none see the omissions
and commissions of others.
But let one see one’s own acts,
done and undone.”
As the World’s First Psychologist, the Buddha’s primary prescription for the healing of mental afflictions is the consistent application of Metta, loving-kindness. This powerful healing energy can be directed at will towards ourselves or others. We should never hesitate to employ the transmitting of Metta at all times, in all circumstances, without fail, no matter what. The positive results you will see in your own lives, as well as in the lives of others around you, will surprise you, encourage you, and inspire you.
“Sleep and wake in comfort;
You see no evil dreams;
You are dear to humans and non-humans;
Deities protect you;
Fire, poison and weapons cannot touch you.
“Your mind quickly concentrates,
Your countenance is serene,
And when you die,
It will be without
Confusion in your mind.
“Even if you fail to attain Nibbana,
You will pass to a world of bliss.”
- Asian Tribune –