≡ Menu

Psychology East and West

The Roar of Awakening Whitehead Derfer Wang Weber

The Roar of Awakening: A Whiteheadian Dialogue Between Western Psychotherapies and Eastern Worldviews


The chapter, On Zen Buddhism, in this book discusses how eastern psychology and philosophy can help us here in the West. It outlines some of the radical differences between western and eastern psychologies and discusses why the two are radically different and remain incompatible.

On Zen Buddhism

or Psychology East and West

Clive Sherlock*

This chapter describes how some key elements of Zen Buddhist practice can help relieve suffering by learning to adapt. Suffering includes the problems addressed by western psychology and psychotherapy, for example, depression, anxiety, grief, anger and stress.

Buddhism is fundamentally different from western ways, and as such the two are incompatible. Buddhism is based on different tenets and different underlying mythologies from those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which have shaped our Western attitudes, the way we think, our mental concepts and models and our perception.1

The Buddha re-discovered, as he put it, an ancient way out of suffering that entails meditation, introspection and changes in behaviour. It is to realize the true nature of self, to discover the life-function physically in the body as emotion and action and then to tame it, to make it civilized and truly human. Buddhism is not personal and does not allow opinion, theory or interpretation; nor, ultimately, does it allow belief in anything or anyone.

Essential to Buddhism is an understanding of cause and effect that describes how lack of insight leads from delusion to suffering and how changing our behaviour and conscious awareness can release us from suffering. This is described below together with consciousness and the functional make up of human beings.

Western belief in a permanent self, in the reality of individual human selves or souls, in divine beings who are not subject to the laws of nature, in a creator, and in a first cause is denied in Buddhism and regarded as illusory.

According to Buddhism, we are responsible for our volitional actions and their effects and there is no possibility of atonement. Due to lack of awareness we often fail to realize that what we think, say, and do is volitional and will have consequences for us. And so we fail to realize that how we are and how we react now is largely due to our previous volitional actions.

Buddhism maintains that there is no self in anyone or anything. The concept of self, ‘I’, soul, or ego is illusory. The Buddha made an analogy for this: a chariot is a composite of two wheels, an axle, and a platform, and as such is called a chariot. There is nothing apart from a particular arrangement of these parts that could be called a chariot. It has no self and when its parts are disassembled nothing remains that is a chariot. Words like chariot are only convenient ways of indicating such assemblages. So too with us human beings: there is no self, ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘soul’ and when the causal conditions that give rise to us cease to exist, we cease to exist. Nothing remains, nothing continues. There is nothing that could reincarnate.2

Everyone and everything is impermanent and in a state of flux: coming to be and ceasing to be. The universe is as it is because of its inherent nature without beginning and without end. Energy and matter are in ever-changing interdependent cycles of coming to be and ceasing to be.

Western theories hold that the fundamental cause of emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, anger and stress is genetic, psychological trauma in childhood, unreasonable thinking, social conditions or abnormalities in brain chemistry. Buddhism holds that the fundamental cause of such conditions is delusion and consequent attachment to desire. Whatever the physical, mental, and emotional conditions, past, present and future, we can reject them or accept them when they manifest. Rejecting them we suffer; accepting them we do not suffer.

Through Buddhist practice we can learn to let go of personal preferences, issues, opinions, theories and beliefs, and we can learn to accept what is actually here now. By letting go of thoughts and thinking, a shift occurs: the seat of consciousness moves out of the head and into the body; out of the realm of thinking and into the realm of physical reality. The Buddhist analogy is crossing over from this shore to the other shore. The other shore is beyond the grasp and understanding of ‘I’. It is without duality, has no cause, no beginning and no end. It is timeless and dimensionless. It is a shift from the world of thoughts to the world of emotions.

First we have to learn to let go. A Zen Buddhist text says of this: [Demons are] “… mental phenomena … that obstruct the potential for true understanding.”

[They include] “greed, hatred, conceit, opinionated views, … pride in knowledge, desire for personal liberation for one’s own sake alone, sentimental compassion, anxious haste to attain enlightenment, idolizing teachers, rejecting the teaching because of finding fault with teachers’ external behaviour, indulging in passions, and fearing passion…. Demons may arise because of incorrect application of mind. … a simple method of quelling demons is to refrain from clinging to anything mentally.”

[A demon appeared to a meditation master] “for ten years, and then it stopped. The meditation master told his disciples, ‘A … demon had been coming here to bother me, but no matter what appearance it created, I dealt with it by not looking or listening. The demon’s manifestations had an end, but my not looking and not listening have no end.’”3

Statements like this are easily misunderstood. It does not mean to close the eyes and ears. It means to see and hear clearly but neither to entertain nor to reject what is seen and heard. That is, not to engage with it either for or against. It is awareness and participation without interference.

Non-interference is a central theme in Buddhist practice. It should not be misunderstood as non-action, which can imply doing nothing, non- participation, inertia, and passivity. Zen Buddhist practice is very active and physical. Having ‘no end’ in the above text refers to causation: whatever has a cause also has an end. Not looking and not listening have no cause, no beginning and no end and do not interfere with anyone or anything. They leave no trace.

By and large Western lifestyles aim to satisfy desire to promote and confirm ‘I’, me, self. Buddhism aims to let go of desire and to diminish the sense of and attachment to the illusion of ‘I’, me, self. Buddhism does not try to shore up, strengthen or augment the illusory sense of self as Western ways do. On the contrary, Buddhist practice is designed to undermine ‘I’ until it is so weak and insignificant that it can be let go of altogether and allowed to drop off. What then remains is strength and compassion based on genuine insight (not opinion and theory). With the dropping off of ‘I’ there is no more fear because fear only arises when there is something to lose and only ‘I’ has anything to lose; only ‘I’ has attachments. ‘I’ is desire, ‘I’ is the wanting and so fear is the inexorable concomitant of ‘I’.

Consequently I am (‘I’ is) intimately involved in causing my own suffering. We want something: now this and now that; to have the one and to get rid of the other. We try to get what we want, to have our way, and we complain outwardly and/or inwardly when we cannot have it. We do not readily let go. Either we go on fighting to get it or we withdraw and give up—but still do not accept. This is our suffering.

The Buddha described suffering as not getting what we like and want, losing what we like and want, having what we dislike and do not want and not being able to get rid of what we dislike and do not want. Wanting and not wanting include everything we desire, not only excesses, indulgences and luxuries, but even the most basic and ordinary things in life: having enough food and water, feeling well without pain, not feeling depressed, anxious, angry or stressed, and living a reasonably quiet and enjoyable life.

The Buddha realized that the cause of suffering is attachment to desire: wanting and insisting on having our way. The Buddha’s remedy is to let go: not to insist and then complain or make a fuss when we cannot have what we want. Letting go and accepting cannot be done easily by an act of will. It requires changes in how we live day-to-day and in how we behave. The Buddha’s Teachings on this start with The Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering (attachments), the ceasing of suffering (letting go of attachments) and the way that leads to the ceasing of suffering: The Noble Eightfold Path.2

Normally, we are not willing to accept that we cannot have what we want and then, in addition to this, we will not accept the unpleasant emotion that flares up as a result of our not accepting. And so it gets worse and worse. We cause and compound our own suffering. Buddhist practice starts with accepting emotions as they flare up in us no matter what the cause. Anxiety is anxiety no matter what triggers it and the same goes for depression, anger, stress and all other emotions.

In Buddhism our lack of awareness and insight is called delusion. Specifically, delusion means not understanding The Four Noble Truths and not understanding that everything in life is impermanent, has no ‘I’ and entails suffering. Delusion is not understanding the principle of cause and effect and how it functions in us, in our life. This is the clue to the remedy. It means not aware and lacking insight. It has nothing to do with knowledge and learning. The focus is on the emotion, not the trigger.

When life goes well for us positive emotion flares up inside, and when life goes wrong negative emotion flares up inside. Positive and negative are defined by whether we like or dislike the emotion. Because we are unable to contain emotion, it drives us blindly in what we think, say, and do. Our state of consciousness therefore depends on the nature of the emotion and our reaction to it. The stronger the emotion, the more deluded we are and the weaker we are, the more easily and forcibly we are driven. Buddhist training develops the necessary insight and strength in us to be able to restrain ourselves and contain the emotion.

Our changing states of consciousness are depicted graphically in The Wheel of Birth and Death. The Wheel is held in the grip of impermanence. There are six states: heavenly beings, fighting demons, animals, hell, hungry ghosts, and the human state. We are driven from state to state by the Three Fires in us: desire/greed, aversion/anger and delusion. These are represented at the hub of the wheel as a cockerel, a hog and a serpent.

All six states are impermanent, and as long as we are bound to the wheel by our own blind (because deluded) attachment we are anything but free: we will be carried from one state to another. When happy and contented, we are heavenly beings. When arguing and fighting, we are fighting demons. When miserable and depressed, we are in hell. When wanting and dissatisfied, we are hungry-ghosts. When driven wildly by passions and unable to change our lot, we are as animals. When civilized and behaving properly—usually because we are not overly excited or upset—we find ourselves in the human state.

Release from the wheel is possible only from the human state because it is the only state in which we are not blindly driven by the Three Fires. Awareness and proper behaviour in the presence of emotion are only possible in the human state. This possibility, this potential, is the main difference between us and other animals. However, although we have a human body, we are not always truly human. Realisation of this requires hard, long training. Seeing into the true nature of ‘I’ and self is like realising that someone is a con man and therefore being deceived by him no longer.

In Buddhism, consciousness is regarded as an aspect of living beings inseparable from the physical form. Consciousness arises when the senses make contact with their respective sense objects. In Buddhism, consciousness does not depend on our being aware. It includes what Western psychology calls “unconscious.”

Consciousness is a flowing stream of a series of elements, or dhatus, that together compose each moment of consciousness. The Sanskrit dhatu is derived from the same root as the English datum (from Latin meaning give) and in Buddhism it means “that which enters into the formation of the human being.” Each moment depends on the previous moment and on the mix of dhatus as they influence each other. For example, something we see (visual consciousness) causes a pre-existing series of dhatus to manifest now (memory consciousness), and these together evoke a series of emotions and feelings (tactile consciousness) which cause corresponding thoughts (mental consciousness) and so on. Each moment of consciousness arises and ceases as the next moment arises. The flow, development and evolution of the stream is like a family line in as much as parents give rise to children who develop depending on all the influences acting on them and then become parents themselves. Each generation is affected by the family genetic structure, changes in the environment and each individual’s own volitional actions. A family only exists as long as children keep coming: there cannot be a break and then it starts up again. Similarly, series of dhatus continue until their causal conditions cease.

Our reactions to present circumstances, including to emotions, are volitional acts and so their effects will manifest in the future. This is the basis of the theory of karma (Sanskrit for the action itself and its consequences). It is how prolonged and recurrent anxiety, fear, anger, depression, and stress arise. Of special relevance to this paper is that when we willingly bear and endure the effects of past actions, when we suffer them through, they are thereby resolved and will not arise again. Our lack of reaction leaves no trace. When we reject, refuse or fight against them, our reactions will have their own consequences, which will manifest when the necessary circumstances arise. This keeps us bound to The Wheel of Life and Death. When they manifest we will again have the choice either to bear them or to reject them. The way to deal with emotional problems is to willingly bear and endure the impact, the force and the pain of them physically, in full conscious awareness in the body—not by thinking or talking about them. When everything in us is screaming out and feels as if it is about to explode, nevertheless we contain ourselves. If we genuinely and unconditionally accept what we dislike as well as what we like, then we will not suffer. This is the difference: we might not like it but we can accept it willingly and unconditionally. We can genuinely not mind.

Human beings are composed of five physical and mental elements known as The Five Clusters or Bundles. We are the temporary result of a particular arrangement of these just as chariots are the temporary results of their components. And as with chariots, there is no ‘I’ or self to us. The Five Clusters are: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. When The Five Clusters are disassembled, as at death, nothing remains of that individual.

Form is the physical world including the body with its sense organs and what enters through them: the physical world in and around us.

Feeling is the immediate effect of what comes in through the six senses. It is knowing in the body that what is sensed is needed (pleasant), dangerous (unpleasant, painful) or neutral (neither needed nor dangerous). Feeling is immediate and in the body before a thought has arisen.

Perception is the recognition and identification of what comes in through the senses. What has come in can now be named.

Mental formations are mental activities including will, preferences, desires, fears, aversions, opinions and beliefs. These are our idiosyncrasies which react with and distort what is felt and perceived and thereby give rise to volitional actions based on the illusion of ‘I’, self.

Consciousness arises in relation to the other four clusters. It is not a snapshot final result but an ever-evolving dynamic tapestry continually subject to the senses, feeling, perception and mental formations. What is in consciousness is sensed and so in turn is a continuing source for form, feeling, perception and mental formations. It is a reverberatory vicious cycle upon cycle in dynamic interdependence.

Insight and understanding of The Five Clusters arise when The Three Fires of desire/greed, anger/aversion and delusion are extinguished in each of them.

The seat of consciousness is called the heart mirror (“heart” as in “I feel it from the bottom of my heart” and “heartfelt”—not the physical organ). It is pure—that is, empty of ‘I’, of self—and therefore devoid of the distorting influences of the mental formations. Consequently, it reflects exactly what comes into it. From an early age a second mirror develops which, because it is associated with the newly developing ‘I’, ‘me’, reflects the reflection of the heart mirror and distorts it. Being deluded, we believe that these reflections are reality.

The contents of consciousness differ from person to person, and from moment to moment in each person because what enters through the six senses changes and is reacted to differently. Individual interpretations differ because the mix of mental formations differs.

Buddhist practice brings all this into awareness and so brings the realization that our opinions, theories and beliefs are just what they are and are not how things really are. This helps us let go of our attachments and of ‘I’—of our selves. We are not so easily deceived by them. The Five Clusters function naturally without hindrance when there is no illusion of ‘I’, of self.

As ‘I’ become less significant, the inherent pure heart mirror is uncovered like the sun shining forth when the clouds disperse. The sun was always there, it was only obscured by the clouds. On his Awakening the Buddha said “How wonderful, how marvellous, all beings, all beings, are fully endowed with the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata, but sadly owing to sticky attachments, human beings are not aware of it.” Tathagata is a Sanskrit term the Buddha used to refer to himself meaning thus come, thus gone. The Buddha said “Who looks for me in form, who seeks me in sound, his footsteps go astray: he will not find the Tathagata.” The true nature is not the form or the sound, or any other sense object, and yet it is not other than them either. Centuries later a Chinese Zen Master said “That which is before you is it. Begin to reason about it and you will at once fall into error. Only when you have understood this will you perceive your oneness with the original Buddha-nature.” “It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured.”

There is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood. By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using Buddha to seek for the Buddha and using mind to grasp mind. The Heart Mirror is not the less for being manifested in ordinary beings, not is it greater for being manifested in the Buddhas.4

And the same Master said of followers of the Buddha’s Path

“you … who are attached to appearances or who seek for something objective outside your own minds [hearts], have all turned your backs on the Way [Path]. The sands of the Ganges! The Buddha said of these sands: ‘If all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with Indra and all the gods walk across them, the sands do not rejoice; and, if oxen, sheep, reptiles and insects tread upon them, the sands are not angered. For jewels and perfumes they have no longing, and for the stinking filth of manure and urine they have no loathing.’”4

Around the perimeter of the Wheel of Birth and Death is depicted the Twelve-linked Chain of Dependant Origination which exemplifies the Buddhist theory of causation. It is a detailed description of how the process of cause and effect leads from delusion to suffering. The formula is outlined as “because of the existence of this, that arises; in the absence of this, that does not arise.” The Buddha saw this with regard to the question, On what does suffering depend? It, together with old age, sickness and death depends on birth, becoming, clinging-attachment, desire and craving, feeling, contact, the six senses, name and form, consciousness, mental formations and delusion. That is, delusion leads to suffering.

The 12 links of the chain are:

(1) Delusion—not aware. Lacking insight into the true nature of life, not seeing that everything is impermanent, without self and entails suffering. Not understanding The Four Noble Truths. Dependent on delusion, mental formations arise.

(2) Mental formations—life moves to live, survive, grow and develop, but is as yet blind. Dependent on mental formations consciousness arises.

(3) Consciousness—innate awareness arising in the mind and body. Dependent on consciousness, name and form arise.

(4) Name and form, mind and body—this is the beginning of an

individual life form. Dependent on name and form, the six senses arise.

(5) Six senses—eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin and mind. Dependent on the six senses, contact arises.

(6) Contact—sense organs and sense objects bring awareness of the world inside and outside the body. Initially touch is the predominant sense. Dependent on contact, feeling arises.

(7) Feeling—(as in The Five Clusters) feeling of what is needed or wanted is pleasant, of what is dangerous or not wanted is unpleasant and painful. Dependent on feeling, desire and craving arise.

(8) Desire and craving—pleasant feeling gives rise to desire and craving to have while unpleasant feeling and pain give rise to desire and craving to get rid of. Dependent on desire for and aversion against, grasping and clinging-attachment arise.

(9) Grasping and clinging-attachment—depending on desire we reach out and grasp, seeking satisfaction of the senses for pleasure, safety and security. Dependent on grasping and clinging-attachment, becoming arises.

(10) Becoming—the streams of moments of consciousness, dhatus, are the inexorable effects of grasping and clinging. Dependent on becoming, birth arises.

(11) Birth—depending on conditions we will once again be born (find ourselves) in this or that state. Dependent on birth, suffering, old age, sickness and death arise.

(12) Suffering, old age, sickness and death—our sojourn in any one state will not last and we will remain insecure, tied to the Wheel and a slave to passions and instincts. Eventually we will go through the process of decline, old age, sickness and death still deluded, lacking awareness and insight. The chain will continue as cause and effect continue. Dependent on suffering, old age, sickness and death, delusion again arises—that is, continues to arise.

Delusion and desire and craving are the past causes of the present. We can do nothing about them—they are gone but their influences remain. Nor can we do anything to prevent the effects of our actions once we have done them—that is, from grasping and clinging to suffering, old age, sickness and death and so on to delusion again. These are the effects of the present in the future. The only link in The Chain of cause and effect that can be changed, where there is choice, is grasping and clinging. These are voluntary actions.

Buddhist practice develops in us the strength to withstand the urges and compulsions of the emotions: not to get rid of or avoid them but to bear and endure them—which is to suffer them. Normally we behave like fish in a stream: seeing a juicy worm we rise to the bait and bite (engage). In that instant we are hooked and our destiny is out of our hands for another cycle—that is, until desire and craving arise in awareness again. When not reaching out to grasp and cling, not rising to the bait, there is no cause for becoming and so the chain is broken and there will be no more becoming, birth, suffering, old age and death, delusion and the rest.

In contrast with Buddhism, Western ways try to shore up individual selves, to make us feel better and to satisfy desire. Buddhism sees all this as deluded behaviour.

Before considering what we might learn from Buddhism we should first realize that ultimately Buddhist practice cannot be taken out of its religious context. Like other traditional religions, Buddhism requires submission and deference to something or someone we can trust, believe in and aspire to: something altogether greater than ‘I’, something without an ‘I’ or self, something to which we can humble ourselves and learn to be obedient to. In Buddhism this is presented in the being of the Buddha, as Buddha Nature, as a temporary and necessary measure which eventually must be let go. Irreligious, secular ways such as Western psychology, psychotherapy, social work and science do not have this feature, and so lack the all- important genuine and reliable belief and faith which is so necessary in the face of fear.

Nevertheless, training in basic Buddhist theory and practice without reference to the religion is possible up to a certain point and appears to be effective in dealing with emotional problems such as depression, grief, anxiety, anger and stress. Adaptation Practice is such a way without specific reference to religion. It is the same preparatory training necessary before starting a traditional monastic religious training but without the religious aspects.

†   Sherlock C: Zen Buddhism in The Roar of Awakening: A Whiteheadian Dialogue Between Western Psychotherapies and Eastern Worldviews. George Derfer, Zhihe Wang, and Michel Weber (eds.) Frankfurt / Lancaster, ontos verlag. 2009 ISBN 978-386838-039-2         pp. 225-236

*   Sherlock, Clive: psychiatrist, founder of Adaptation Practice. (1975).


1   Sherlock Clive, 2003 The Universality of Impermanence, in Searching for New Contrasts, pp 231-242. Eds. Riffert Franz G. and Weber Michel, 2003, Peter Lang.

2   Piyadassi Thera (1964) The Buddha’s Ancient Path. Rider & Company, London. (1964)

3   Muso Kokushi (1275-1351), Dream Conversations – On Buddhism and Zen. Translated by Thomas Cleary. Shambala. 1996.

4          Huang Po. Zen Teaching of Huang Po (Ninth Century Chinese text translated by John Blofeld), The Buddhist Society. 1968. London.

George Derfer, Zhihe Wang, and Michel Weber (eds.), The Roar of Awakening. A Whiteheadian Dialogue Between Western Psychotherapies and Eastern Worldviews, Frankfurt / Lancaster, ontos verlag, Process Thought XX, 2009.

The primary goal of this volume is to describe the contemporary state of affairs in Western psychotherapy, and to do so in a Whiteheadian spirit: with genuine openness to the relative ways in which creativity, beauty, truth, and peace manifest themselves in various cultural traditions. This Whiteheadian Dialogue explores afresh an important cross-elucidatory path: what have we, and what can be learned from a dialogue with Eastern worldviews? In order to generate meaningful contrasts between these different systems of thought, all the papers address common core issues. On one hand, how does the given system understand the interaction of the individual, society, and nature (or cosmos)? On the other hand, what is the paradigm of all pathology and what is its typical or curative pattern?