Cultural Shock

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the way we see things often depends on what we are looking for. It’s easy to forget that the way we classify things depends on our purpose. The Dalai Lama argues that one of the fundamental reasons Buddhist psychology and Western psychology see people differently is because their overall aim is quite different:

The principal aim of Buddhist psychology is not to catalog the mind’s makeup or even to describe how the mind functions; rather its fundamental concern is to overcome suffering, especially psychological and emotional afflictions, and to clear those afflictions.

Of course, most of us are probably aware of this at one time or another in our life, but over time it’s easy to forget. For instance, when I considered turning to a Psychology major many years ago I was bothered by the fact that psychology seemed overly concerned with abnormal behavior, and I wondered how you could develop sound psychological theories without also focusing on those who were “well-adjusted,” not to mention those who were also successful.

The Dalai Lama points out other critical social concepts that make it unlikely that Buddhist and Western psychologists would see a patient in the same light and wonders if modern technology will ever be able to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate perceptions:

So when a perception occurs, it is not a case of simple mirroring in the mind of what is outside but rather a complex process of organization that takes place to make sense of what are technically infinite amounts of information. These are all cases where the illusion is conditioned by very immediate circumstances. But there is a whole category of more complex conditions for false cognitions, such as the belief in an autonomous self or the belief that the self or other conditioned phenomena are permanent. During an experience, there’s no way to distinguish between accurate and deluded perception. It’s only in hindsight that we can make this distinction. It is in effect the subsequent experiences derived from such cognitions that help determine whether they are valid or invalid. It would be interesting to know whether neuroscience will be able to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate perceptions at the level of brain activity.

With such different basic beliefs, it’s not surprising that Buddhists and Westerners do not, perhaps, cannot, see the world in the same way. But this doesn’t seem too shocking to me. It’s impossible to study modern literature without reaching some of the same conclusions. Works like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury address some of these issues, and it’s impossible to read modern literature widely without being exposed to moral relativism.

I was, though, more shocked when I read that:

Neither Sanskrit nor classical Tibetan has a word for “emotion” as the concept is used in modern languages and cultures. This is not to say that the idea of emotion does not exist, nor does it imply that Indians and Tibetans do not experience emotions. Just as Westerners feel joy at good news, sadness at a personal loss, and fear in the face of danger, so do the Indians and the Tibetans. Perhaps the reasons for the lack of such a word have to do with the history of philosophical thinking and psychological analysis in India and Tibet. Buddhist psychology did not differentiate cognitive from emotional states in the way Western thought differentiated the passions from reason. From the Buddhist perspective, the distinctions between afflictive and non-afflictive mental states are more important than the difference between cognition and emotions. Discerning intelligence, closely associated with reason, may be afflictive (for example, in the cunning planning of an act of murder), whereas a passionate state of mind, such as overwhelming compassion, may be a highly virtuous, non-afflictive state. Moreover, the emotions of both joy and sorrow may be afflictive or non-afflictive, destructive or beneficial, depending on the context in which they arise. When we turn to the afflictive mental processes, the list is fuller, largely because these are what need to be purified by the person aspiring to enlightenment in Buddhism. There are six root mental afflictions: attachment or craving, anger (which includes hate), pride or conceit, ignorance, afflictive doubt, and afflictive views. Of these, the first three have a strong emotional component. Then there are twenty derivative afflictions: wrath, resentment, spite, envy or jealousy, and cruelty (these are derived from anger); meanness, inflated self-esteem, excitement including surprise, concealment of one’s own vices, and mental dullness (these are derived from attachment); lack of confidence, sloth, forgetfulness, and lack of attention (these are derived from ignorance); pretentiousness, deceit, shamelessness, lack of consideration for others, heedlessness, and distraction (these are derived from the combination of ignorance and attachment). Clearly many of the mental factors enumerated here can be identified with emotions. Finally, in the list of fifty-one, there is a group of four mental factors referred to as the “changeables.” These are sleep, regret, investigation, and minute analysis. They are called changeables because, depending on the state of mind, they can be wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral.

I’m so immersed in my own culture it’s difficult to understand why “Buddhist psychology would not differentiate cognitive from emotional states in the way Western thought differentiated the passions from reason,” though that statement makes me question in what ways cognitive and emotional states really are different. Unfortunately, by the time the Dalai Lama finishes listing the fifty-one mental afflictions, I feel totally lost.

If that weren’t enough, the Dalai Lama warns that the Buddhist distinction between “wholesome and unwholesome emotions” would not be the same a the Western distinction:

It is most important to be sensitive to the differing contexts in which Buddhist and Western psychology provide treatment of the emotions. We must not confuse the Buddhist distinction between the wholesome and the unwholesome emotions with Western psychology’s distinction between the positive and the negative emotions. In Western thought, positive and negative are defined in terms of how one feels when particular emotions occur. For example, fear is negative because it brings about an unpleasant feeling of disturbance.

The Buddhist differentiation between unwholesome or afflictive and wholesome mental factors is based on the roles these factors play in relation to the acts they give rise to-in other words, one’s ethical well-being. For instance, attachment may feel enjoyable but is regarded as afflictive since it involves the kind of blind clinging, based on self-centeredness, which can motivate one to harmful action. Fear is neutral and indeed changeable in that it may spur one to wholesome or unwholesome behavior depending on the circumstances.

I certainly don’t completely understand the Buddhist perspective, though my previous reading about Buddhism gives me an inkling of what the Dalai Lama is pointing out. Though I’ve encountered a number of the underlying Buddhist ideas, like “attachment,” I’d never really considered how these basic beliefs would ripple through so many other fields of thought, giving the viewer a completely different perspective.

What do you think?