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Mental Health, Religion & Culture Volume 6, Number 3, 2003

Albert Ellis and the Buddha: rational Soul Mates? A comparison of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and Zen Buddhism
The University of South Dakota, Vermillion, SD, USA


Although religion and psychology are generally conceived of as distinct domains, the theoretical underpinnings of certain psychological theories are inextricably related to religious ideology. This relationship is perhaps best exemplified by the theoretical and applied similarity between Buddhist principles and Albert Elliss Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Sharing a common purpose, both the Buddha and Ellis set out to improve the human condition, and to do so in a rational, empirical manner. The significance of these parallels is discussed in relation to the incorporation of early Buddhist and Zen Buddhism concepts into the current practice of REBT.

Introduction Siddhartha Guatama, born in the sixth century BC in what is today Nepal, actively sought to demystify lifes most perplexing conundrum, that is, the reason for our existence. Through his devotion to empirically based methodology he systematically devised a lifestyle, which if adhered to properly, allows human beings to overcome suffering and lead healthy, productive lives. As a result of his profound insights, Siddharta Guatama eventually became known to his followers as the Buddha, or Enlightened One (the word, derived from the Sanskrit root buthi, to wake up; Rajsuddhinanamongkol, 1997). Over 2500 years after the Buddha outlined the requisite steps for leading a healthy, productive life and achieving enlightenment, several psychological theorists began to note distinct similarities between the Buddhas revelations and various therapeutic theories and concepts (e.g., deSilva, 1984, 1985, 1990; Jung, 1969; Sato, 1958; Shapiro & Zifferblatt, 1976). Kazdin (1982) opines that Buddhist techniques are to be viewed as historical precursors (p. 5) for existing

Correspondence to: Michael S. Christopher, MA, The University of South Dakota; Department of Psychology, 414 East Clark Street, Vermillion, SD 57069, USA. E-mail: mschrist@usd.edu
Mental Health, Religion & Culture ISSN 1367-4676 print/ISSN 1469-9737 online 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/1367467031000100975

284 Michael S. Christopher techniques, and will go on to occupy a place in the history of behaviour modification. Extending the notion of Buddhism as a precursor to modern psychology, it has been argued that Buddhism itself was, and is in fact, specifically a psychology and dramatically not a religion (Mikulas, 1991). Buddhism shares with clinical psychology the motivation to facilitate beneficial growth and change on individual and societal levels (Kumar, 2002). The Buddhist monk is seen as someone who can take a detached and objective view of a problem, and produce sensible solutions, or at least provide support and consultation. This tradition is historically well grounded as the Buddha himself was, in his life, very much a counsellor in this way (deSilva, 1993). Nonetheless, the depiction of Buddhism solely as a psychology ignores the spiritual context within which Buddhism was developed. An analysis of the empirical and scientific components of Buddhism only represents one perspective of approaching the teachings of the Buddha. As such, although this paper focuses primarily on the psychological elements inherent to Buddhism, as a practicing Theravada Buddhist, the author also wishes to recognize the importance of the less scientific and more mystical processes of the spiritual evolution many Buddhists experience. Strictly from the scientific perspective, the concept of a Buddhist Psychology continues to evolve as principles and techniques outlined by the Buddha are subjected to the empirically scrutinizing methods of current day. This empirical basis of Buddhism is evident in early Buddhist discourse. During a noteworthy sermon (Kalama Suttra; deSilva, 1984) the Buddha advised a group of inquirers to not accept anything on hearsay, authority or pure argument, but instead to accept what is empirically and experientially verifiable. deSilva (1990) further notes that although Buddhism clearly developed prior to and outside the context of modern Western science, it does, however, as a non-theistic religion, offer clearly testable hypotheses (unlike theistic religions: e.g., does God exist?) and therefore can be brought within the realm of scientific inquiry. Given both the increased familiarity and popularity of Zen Buddhism in comparison to other sects of Buddhism in Western society, the majority of Buddhism and Psychology literature in Western academic journals has tended to focus on Zen. The Zen tradition was born of Buddhist ideology and its founding is somewhat analogous to the development of various sects born of other major religions (i.e., theoretical similarity between seminal religion and related sect). As such, although the focus in this paper is primarily on Buddhism as a whole, for purposes of convenience and clarity, Zen Buddhism will often serve as the point of comparison. Relatedly, much of the same literature has had a distinctly analytical flavor, which is to be expected given the extensive attention Jung (1969) and other psychoanalysts gave to Zen. However, in addition to the psychoanalytical majority, a small minority of behavioural and cognitivebehavioral theorists have begun to note the philosophical and applied similarity between these approaches and the various sects of Buddhism, including Zen. In the winter of 2002, the academic journal, Cognitive and Behavioural Practice published a special issue entitled Integrating Buddhist Philosophy with Cognitive and

Albert Ellis and the Buddha 285 Behavioural Practice. This series provided one of the first articulations of Buddhism by empirically trained therapists and theorists with varying degrees of interest and personal involvement in Buddhist practice. Specific articles explored the application of Buddhist concepts to the practice of dialectical behaviour therapy (Robins, 2002), enhancement of mindfulness and compassion (Kumar, 2002), treatment of anxiety disorders (Toneatto, 2002), and other clinical areas.

Philosophical similarities Particularly relevant to the comparison of Zen Buddhism to contemporary behavioural and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapies is an analysis of Albert Elliss Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). In drawing comparisons between REBT and Zen, Kwee and Ellis (1998) contend that, both appreciate an empirical working mode and the logico-empirical methods of science, which are flexible and anti-dogmatic ( p. 19). Ellis (1979) contends that in addition to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the Buddha had a profound influence over the empirical focus Ellis infused into REBT. Elliss adherence to Buddhist philosophy is perhaps best exemplified by REBTs implementation of the Buddhas active-directive teaching style, in which he challenged his students to look at their self constructed thoughts and feelings, to reconsider them when they did not work, and to work vigorously at changing them (Kwee & Ellis, 1998).

Alleviation of suffering and hassle A striking similarity between REBT and Zen is the premise that human existence is essentially rooted in suffering (deSilva, 1984, 1990; Kwee & Ellis, 1998). From a Buddhist perspective to live means to suffer and as such life is generally unsatisfactory; suffering in turn is caused by craving or desire and can only be ended via the cessation of craving or desire (Ronruen, 1998). Similarly, in his seminal work, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, Ellis (1962) in great detail describes the human compulsion toward irrational thought, and subsequently depicts life as a hassle riddled with difficulties. In striving to improve the human condition, the teachings of the Buddha and Ellis promote the attainment of similar goals; namely, rational and appropriate feeling and affect, commitment to life, and an egoless state of being (Kwee & Ellis, 1998, p. 26). When applied specifically to REBT, the ensuing goal becomes the ability to provide clients with a method by which they can have rational beliefs, and as a result reduce anxiety and hostility (Patterson & Watkins, 1996). And when applied specifically to Zen, the goal becomes the attainment of satori or illumination (Ross, 1960). In striving to achieve the state of satori, the Zen student seeks the state of enlightenment as was attained

286 Michael S. Christopher through the ages by many Buddhas. The Zen experience of satori best translates into self-awakening, or . . . recognizing the real noumenon of a person, his original feature, not necessarily recognizing the real substance of various acts (Ross, 1960, p. 45). Paradoxically, this self-recognition is tantamount to the disidentifying of ones self with ones overt and covert behaviour and signifies the termination of the cycle of suffering due to the cessation of craving (deSilva, 1990). REBT and Zen both were empirically derived and consequently adhere to science rather than dogmatism. Zen, although in the strictest sense is considered a religion, has no sacred scriptures whose words are law; no fixed cannon; no rigid dogma; and no Savior or Divine Being through whose favor or intercession ones eventual salvation is assured (Aitken, 1993). The exclusion of zealous religious devotion in both REBT and Zen facilitates genuine interaction between teacher and client/student. In REBT, the therapist guides the client toward a more rational lifestyle, and in Zen the master guides the novice toward enlightenment; neither technique disregarding the necessary and unique contributions the client/ student adds to the process.

Ethics Buddhist ethics merit adherence not because a violation of them will offend some religious dogma, but rather because bad habits (e.g., alcohol abuse) can lead to demonstrable ill effects, such as poor health, mental derangement, loss of wealth, and proneness to socially embarrassing behaviour (deSilva, 1984). In this way, even the Buddhas direct instructions were based on rational consideration. Moreover, the Buddha urged followers to lead a morally sound life not solely because it resulted in enlightenment or cessation of suffering, but also because such a life was conducive to tangible benefits for the individual, and perhaps more importantly, for society as a whole (deSilva, 1984). Essentially, a lifestyle characterized by the ethical standards of restraint and moderation at the individual level is in fact ethical because it perpetuates community well-being, satisfactory living, and equal rights. The REBT ethical code mirrors the Buddhas emphasis on empiricism and anti-dogmatism, such that clients are encouraged to test theories co-generated by client and therapist during session in a real-life setting. Moreover, REBT also stresses the notion that individual acts can and often do have a global result, to the extent that enlightened self-interest (that recognizes the rights of others), social interest, and commitment to something outside of oneself are key therapeutic components of REBT (Ellis, 1979). That is, as the individual facilitates his own well being, he reciprocally benefits society. Relatedly, the ability to give more to others is eased by the unconditional acceptance of oneself as a fallible human being who is ready to take action for change (Ellis, 1973).

Albert Ellis and the Buddha 287 Applied similarities A-B-Cs and the Middle Way It is through the pursuit of a rational and ethical lifestyle that REBT and Zen adherents seek to terminate hassle and suffering, respectively. The direct method whereby an individual can terminate hassle is achieved therapeutically via treatment according to Ellis REBT framework. The Buddhist equivalent is through adherence to the Buddhas Four Noble Truths, which incorporate the Buddhas seminal works (Pinyunchon & House, 1996). These are: (1) all life is suffering, (2) suffering comes from desires, (3) the cure for suffering is the extinction of desire, and (4) the extinction of desire can be obtained by following a path of right, which is called the Noble Eightfold Path (Pinyunchon & House, 1996, p. 16). The Noble Eightfold Path advocates the Middle Way, that is, the avoidance of extremes of either overindulgence and luxurious life on the one hand or a life of rigorous self-mortification on the other (deSilva, 1990). More specifically, the Buddha espoused the view that the rational man incorporates the idea of the Middle Way into eight paths of life: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (deSilva, 1990). In following the right (or rational) aspects inherent to the Middle Way, the individual expedites and ensures his steady progression toward satori. The Buddhas Middle Way, essentially a lifestyle that avoids extremes, is rational and leads to the cessation of suffering, is nearly isomorphic with the A-B-Cs of REBT. That is, as the core of Elliss framework, the A-B-Cs are designed to provide insight into the individuals ability to determine, in good part, his own behavioural and emotional experience (Patterson & Watkins, 1996). The B or Belief component of the model is the crucial factor, for rational beliefs (rB) lead to rational consequences (rC) and irrational beliefs (iB) lead to irrational consequences (iC). Thus, an irrational consequence and subsequent emotional disturbance is caused, not by the A or Activating events, but by the views people take of these events (Ellis, 1976a). Similarly, the message that humans are largely responsible for their own emotions and disturbances echoes in the Buddhas words, . . . it is foolish to see any other person as the cause of our own misery or unhappiness (Storig, 1964, p. 93). In successfully navigating the Noble Eightfold Path, the individual attempts to see reality as it is, without distortions arising from the various factors that characterize the unenlightened persons functioning (deSilva, 1990). An integral aspect of reaching the state of satori is the freeing of ones perceptions from these distorting internal influences; when one reaches a state of perfection, ones perceptions become free of such distortions and allow for a rational appraisal of the objects (or events) (deSilva, 1990). The REBT therapeutic focus is on the present life situation of the client. Irrational beliefs are attacked in the here and now, much in the same way

288 Michael S. Christopher that Zen facilitates progression along the Noble Eightfold Path in present time. As Sato (1958) remarks, It is interesting to note that the emphasis on the now and here in recent Western psychotherapy has been one of the fundamental principles of the Zen mode of thought ( p. 215).

Active style An active therapist style is perhaps the most notorious feature of Ellis REBT. The therapist is verbally active throughout the entire therapy process, and Ellis (1973) recognizes that he does a great deal of talking rather than passively listening to what the client has to say. In a decidedly direct fashion, the identification of irrational beliefs, helping the patient to understand that these irrational beliefs cause emotional difficulties, and ultimately changing the irrational beliefs constitute the applied focus of REBT. Accordingly, Ellis argues that psychotherapy is the curing of unreason by reason (Patterson & Watkins, 1996). It is asserted in REBT that strong irrational beliefs, neurotic feelings, and dysfunctional behaviour may need forceful, dramatic, and affective approaches if they are to change (Ellis, 1962). Similarly, the active or directive therapeutic style evident in Zen is perhaps best exemplified by the following parables: Once Ma-tsu and Pai-chang were walking along and they saw some ducks fly by. What is that the master asked. Wild ducks, Pai-chang replied. Where have they gone? Theyve flown away, Pai-chang said. The master then twisted Pai-changs nose, and when Pai-chang cried out in pain, Ma-tsu said, When have they ever flown away? Elder Ting asked Lin-chi, Master, what is the great meaning of Buddhas teachings? Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away. Ting was stunned and stood motionless. A monk nearby said, Ting, why do you not bow? At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment (cited in Watson, 1993). Many examples illustrating the use of such an approach can be found in Buddhist texts (deSilva, 1984). Relatedly, a particularly functional method of identifying and changing irrational beliefs inherent to both REBT and Zen is the narrative technique.

Narratives and koans The Zen narrative technique is conceivably the most utilized method to assist students in pursuing the state of satori. Inherently difficult to comprehend, these

Albert Ellis and the Buddha 289 narrative teachings or koans can be best described as a profound story or riddle that is a tool for the master to help the novice attain an insightful experience (Sato, 1958). Paramount to Zen practice, koans began in the 7th century and were more fully developed by the Rinzai school of Zen beginning in the 12th century (Aitken, 1993). In Zen training the koan can become a process to focus ones questioning and corresponding doubt; it becomes a means to see through the false mind of duality that creates and perpetuates a life of pain, suffering and anxiety (Nhat Hanh, 1995). With intense effort the koan takes ones natural questioning beyond thought and perception, beyond the relative and the absolute, to awaken that which has always been there but has been obscured by clouds of delusion (Loori, 1994). Koans can also employ dramatic, forceful, and strongly evocative methods. Traditionally, the Rinzai school represents a dynamic, powerful Zen, in which adherents are demanded to experience enlightenment and realize this experience in their own lives (Kapleau, 1989). Eisai, the fonder of the Rinzai School was well-known for his unusual methods, (e.g., shouting, hitting, use of paradox) which were employed to jolt students out of their fixed ways of thinking and their habits (Kapleau, 1989). These methods often take the form of a question and answer session between disciple and master, which involves sudden beatings and illogical answers all in an attempt to wake or stimulate the disciples mind to make it ready for the discovery of the truth inside. This style is perhaps best exemplified by the following koan entitled Chu-chih Raises One Finger: Whenever Chu-chih was asked a question, he simply raised one finger. One day a visitor asked Chu-chihs attendant what his master preached. The boy raised a finger. Hearing of this, Chu-chih cut off the boys finger with a knife. As he ran from the room, screaming with pain, Chu-chih called to him. When he turned his head, Chu-chih raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened. When Chu-chih was about to die, he said to his assembled monks: I received this one-finger Zen from Tien-lung. I used it all my life but never used it up. With this he entered his eternal rest (cited in Schloegl, 1976). Koans (or narratives) also have therapeutic value in REBT, particularly as a method of establishing rapport or infusing humor into the therapeutic situation (Kwee & Ellis, 1998). Moreover, Kwee and Ellis (1998) contend that from an REBT perspective, emotional disturbances are largely due to over-seriousness, and humorous interventions can, (a) highlight the fatuous nature of irrational beliefs, (b) be an effective teaching device, (c) become a vehicle for rapport building (p. 10). Accordingly, the following koan was used during an REBT group therapy session to address guilty feelings when one member reported that he thinks about other women during sex with his wife. This was done to emphasize that such ideas are normal and it is often difficult to maintain a high

290 Michael S. Christopher degree of attraction within a long-term marriage (Yankura & Dryden, 1990, p. 129): A couple had a good sexual and marital relationship. Theyd been married for 25 years, their children were grown-up and married themselves, and everything was fine. They decided, Hell its our 25th wedding anniversary wed better do something special! So they went for a gourmet meal, which they love. But neither one got very aroused or excited. Finally, after about ten minutes, the wife patted her husband on the shoulder and said, Well dear, I guess on this night of all nights, youre having trouble of thinking of someone else too!

Unwanted cognitions Another focal point for therapeutic intervention in nearly all psychotherapies is the issue of dealing with unwanted, intrusive cognitions. Here REBT and Zen differ somewhat with regard to their exact methodologies. To bring about a change in irrational thinking the REBT therapist confronts the clients irrational beliefs, that is, the therapist attacks the irrationality of the cognition (Ellis, 1976b). In contrast, Zen often relies on more non-verbal, internal techniques to eliminate unwanted cognitions (deSilva, 1985). deSilva (1985) outlines several techniques based in Buddhist literature that are used to eliminate unwanted cognitions; these are presented in hierarchical fashion, each to be tried if the preceding one fails ( p. 438): (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) Switch to an opposite or incompatible thought Ponder on harmful consequences Ignore and distract Reflect on removal of causes Control with forceful effort

Meditation, homework, and modelling Unwanted cognitions are a phenomenon that hold a particularly problematic significance in Zen training because they distract the novice during meditation (deSilva, 1985). A mastery of mindfulness meditation becomes essential to the novice as he progresses toward the state of satori via the Noble Eightfold Path. The Pali word for meditation, bhavana, etymologically means development or cultivation (Rajsuddhinanamongkol, 1997), the aim of which is to achieve total and immediate awareness or mindfulness of all phenomena. Thus, the competent meditator is able to gradually remove all thoughts and images, thereby allowing him to let go of cognitive labels, to reopen the senses, and to be more receptive to internal and external stimuli; or in the words of a Zen master, the individual

Albert Ellis and the Buddha 291 learns to be able to see the flower for the five hundredth time as he saw it the first time (Shapiro & Zifferblatt, 1976, p. 588). Although relevant, meditation plays a much less significant role in REBT where it is primarily utilized as a relaxation method (Ellis, 1984; Shapiro & Zifferblatt, 1976). Often practiced outside of the therapy session, Ellis (1984) notes, . . .meditation usually requires a great deal of self-training, especially cognitive self-regulation through homework ( p. 672). Meditation from the REBT perspective in and of itself will not change irrational thinking, but can, however, help patients with their overwhelming anxieties and dysfunctional obsessions and compulsions. In addition to homework, REBT patients are given assignments and in vivo experiences to complete. Kwee and Ellis (1998) argue that these shame-attacking exercises of REBT in which clients engage publicly in behaviours normally considered foolish or silly resemble ordeals that could also be assigned to Zen novices on their way to satori. Whereas Ellis would urge a client to go into a drugstore at a crowded hour and say to the clerk in a loud enough voice for everyone to hear, I want a gross of condoms. And because I use so many of them, I want a special discount (Kwee & Ellis, 1998, p. 35), a Zen master would perhaps, instead instruct a novice who is fearful of public speaking to work toward himself becoming a master via giving a public sermon. Another extension of the homework process is bibliotherapy, whereby REBT clients familiarize themselves with REBT literature. Similarly, a Zen master will often train his novice to read and commit to memory the original Buddhist cannon, the Tipitaka, which consists of three parts: Sutta Pitaka, which contains the discourses of the Buddha on various occasions throughout his preaching life; Vinaya Pitaka, which contains the rules of discipline for the monks; and Abhidhamma Pitaka, which contains highly systematized philosophical and psychological analyses. Both Ellis and the Buddha espouse the notion of setting examples for followers via modelling or vicarious learning. Teaching by example is a trademark of both REBT and Zen, and it is through role playing techniques that the client or novice can begin to generalize to a more rational philosophy of life. More specifically, to succeed in generalizing to a more rational philosophy of living, the REBT client will substitute irrational attitudes and beliefs for rational ones. This goes beyond dealing with specific illogical ideas of clients, it gives consideration to irrational ideas in general (Patterson & Watkins, 1996). The development of a rational lifestyle from a modern Zen perspective entails the use of Zen practices for prophylactic purposes (deSilva 1984, 1990). Mindfulness meditation training, self-monitoring, following the Middle Way, and other Buddhist techniques appear to play a potential role in the prevention of certain kinds of psychological disorders (deSilva, 1990). And finally, the REBT client usually meets with his therapist once a week, whereas the Zen relationship between novice and master is continuous and lengthy. The degree of overlap between REBT and Zen becomes rather evident when a direct comparison between the two is made. In applying Zen techniques and

292 Michael S. Christopher concepts to the REBT therapeutic framework, a shared identity between the two ideologies emerges. Both Ellis and the Buddha sought to improve the human condition; and to do so in a rational, empirical manner. An analysis of their respective theories reveals that the birth of REBT was heavily influenced by the Buddhas teachings and modern Zen includes Elliss predilection for relativism. Ultimately, as the founding father of REBT, Ellis wryly notes that, like the Buddha, I try to practice what I preach, and worked my ass off to achieve selfmastery from my childhood onwards (Kwee & Ellis, 1998).

Author note The author wishes to thank Randal P. Quevillon, PhD, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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