The symbol in the image above is called an unalome, with the spiral and lemniscates representing twists and turns in life and the line representing the path to enlightenment. To some this results in a state of perfect happiness, while to others nirvana is a transcendent state attained as a result of being released from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Either way, the point is that, about 2,500 years ago, the Buddha developed the Dharma for that very purpose. In so doing, rather than making the pursuit of happiness the purpose of their lives, the Buddha instructed his followers to rid the world of unhappiness. As part of this, samsara is to nirvana what attachment is to detachment, and what misery is to joy. Another way of thinking about this is that Buddhism is mainly concerned with overcoming ignorance, greed, and anger, by replacing them with knowledge, generosity, and lovingkindness. So, in essence, the whole point of Buddhism is to foster an attitude of attentive openness.
A perfect example of spirituality meeting psychology in this kind of way is in the case of Shin Buddhism and Naikan therapy. The former is a religious path from around the 6th-century directed toward realizing the utility of the Dharma, as it was understood by a monk named Shinran in Japan. The latter developed as a program to help rehabilitate prison inmates. Yoshimoto Ishin used it to help convicts in the mid-20th-century, and then a decade later psychiatrists started to use it as a form of psychotherapy. The aim of which is to transform oneself and those around them, beginning with their family and then moving out to larger social groups. Thus, altruism is allowed to serve as an antidote to evil, as one begins to cherish the lives of others more than their own. Moreover, during the process of this therapeutic program, one realizes the extent to which they have depended on more people than people have depended on them. This effort to enhance prosocial behavior often leads to self-examination and then the reduction of self-centeredness.
More importantly, this is just one of the many ways in which people can become liberated from the sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction that they tend to be burdened by in any and every walk of life. In many ways, this is about accepting the impermanence of everyone and everything. As part of this, several different traditional Buddhist techniques can and do serve as useful therapeutic interventions for the psychosis of the unenlightened, in many of its various forms. This can then allow certain people to attain a blissful state of mind resulting in gamma brainwave peak experiences, as described by the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow in the hierarchy of needs. This is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualized transcendence at the top.
These peak experiences result in a state of consciousness that exists above the everyday waking state of beta brainwaves. One way to think about this is that the delta state is when you are the most asleep, whereas a gamma state is when you are the most awake. In this way, the level of gamma awareness is what it means to become “awakened” in the Buddhist sense. This is known in Sanskrit as bodhi. Of course, this is just the beginning stage of enlightenment, when the process of self-transformation truly starts to occur, being an opportunity as well as a responsibility. As the Zen Buddhist Phillip Kapleau put it:
“Before awakening, one can easily ignore or rationalize his shortcomings, but after enlightenment this is no longer possible. One’s failings are painfully evident. Yet at the time a strong determination develops to rid oneself of them. Even opening the Mind’s eye fully does not at one fell swoop purify the emotions. Continuous training after enlightenment is required to purify the emotions so that our behavior accords with our understanding. This vital point must be understood.”
I think the American Theravada Buddhist Jack Kornfield summed it up perfectly, stating that:
“Only a deep attention to the whole of our life can bring us the capacity to love well and live freely.”
When you think about it, this isn’t about theology. It’s about psychology. In fact, Buddhists don’t even believe in God or a personal soul because the Buddha rejected Brahma and atman during his training as a mystic. This is completely different than Rastafarianism which centers on “I and I”, meaning God and me. At the same time, Buddhism is a reflection of the internal personal revelation of the Buddha. So, he was more like a psychiatrist than a prophet, exploring the inner depths of the mind in order to root out the causes of unhappiness in all of our lives. In so doing, the Buddha diagnosed everyone with a chronic case of recurring suffering, caused by personal attachments and aversions. Furthermore, the prognosis is that this will continue until one seeks treatment through right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right understanding, right concentration, right thought, and right mindfulness. Thus, the seven types of secular psychology (psychodynamic, biological, cognitive, behavioral, evolutionary, humanistic, and socio-cultural) are just a few of the multitude of facets of Buddhist philosophy.
In line with this, the Buddha made it his mission to make sense of the mind, seeking a rational explanation for our place in the world. This is why the New Kadampa Buddhist monk Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says the Buddha founded a “science of the mind” and Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, has reaffirmed this truth by stating that:
“Buddhism is more than a religion. It is a science of the mind.”
More importantly, much like the effects of cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation and other aspects of Vedantic and Buddhist psychology can enable anyone to verify through self-study that beneath their deluded mental states there exists a self-renewing wellspring of empathy that we all share in common. Thus, self-compassion is both a result and a factor of the effectiveness of mindfulness-based approaches toward living in the here-and-now. This is how to “tame the monkey mind” through inner peace, based on calming and centering yourself through breath regulation and focused concentration. More to the point, this highly significant spiritual condition is empirically verifiable through disciplined practice. This allows one to attain and sustain an overall good mood and positive mental attitude. As part of this, in Western post-secular Late Modernity, ancient Eastern perennial wisdom is finally being proven by a number of academics in a wide range of fields, such as neuroscience and sociology, to name but a couple.
Granted, the Western representation of Buddhism is heavily influenced by Romanticism. So, the standard Eurocentric discourse on the Budddhist belief system is usually characterized by having cessation as its primary goal, which isn’t altogether untrue. It’s just a gross oversimplification. As part of this, due to Schopenhauer’s misunderstanding of the purpose of Buddhism, during Carl Jung’s time, the concept of nirvana was taken to mean the cessation of the ego, which is actually more closely related to the Buddhist concept of anatta, the doctrine that there is no underlying substance that can be called the soul. The point is that by categorizing Buddhism as a world-denying atheistic ascetic paradigm, many Western philosophers and psychologists have conflated Eastern concepts, which then muddled their meaning. For instance, individuation isn’t synonymous with awakening, as many modern scholars have come to believe, and this is not a trivial concern. These are incredibly important distinctions that need to be made, otherwise far too much can get lost in translation.
Regardless, it’s undeniable that Buddhism contains invaluable teachings that share a number of commonalities with modern scientific and philosophic schools of thought. More to the point, from an ontological and teleological point of view, one could say that the purpose of sentient life is to help conduct an impartial investigation of the cosmos, with the principal object of study being oneself. Furthermore, this kind of contemplation, introspection, and rumination is known as dhamma-vicaya, which means discrimination of states or investigation of doctrine. In addition to this, the primary goal of Buddhism is to cultivate bodhicitta, which is the altruistic intention of attaining enlightenment and then spreading it to every other sentient being in existence. As an extension of this, the bodhisattva vow is a pledge taken by Mahayana Buddhists to liberate all sentient beings. In the end, as far as I can tell, these all-important acts are both the purpose and function of properly conducted science, as well as spirituality, among humans and aliens alike.