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Title: Ryo Imamura Interview
Narrator: Ryo Imamura
Interviewers: Stephen Fugita (primary), Erin Kimura (secondary)
Location: Olympia, Washington
Date: August 3, 1999
Densho ID: denshovh-iryo-01-0022

<Begin Segment 22>

SF: Some of the themes that you're talking about here sort of remind me of, of the fact that you're both a Buddhist priest and also a psychologist. And it seems to me that Western psychology has some of these elements of a single path, the scientific way and trying to categorize and to quantify -- to put labels on things. Seems like there's some difficulties with the different theories of psychology. In fact we have so many of them. I was wondering, what do you, what do you think Buddhism might have to, say, contribute to contemporary Western psychology?

RI: Well, although both appear to be addressing suffering in a way, I think the level of suffering is quite different. Western psychology deals with rather mundane suffering; keeps it at changing behaviors, the ways we think, kind of on a practical level. Whereas Buddhism addresses what I would call more existential suffering. That even when all these, your relationships are going well, when you have a good job, whatever, there's still an uneasiness, an unhappiness that underlies it all. So you even see it in the Rockefellers, or the president of the United States. They have in every way a normal behavior -- normal, even an idealized existence that we'd all like to have in a way. Yet at the same time they commit suicide, and do very strange things that show they're unhappy. And so Buddhism, I think, goes beyond psychology in that way. It doesn't replace psychology. I think there's still a place for, to be able to talk out problems and think about different changes or strategies in one's marriage, or, you know, work or whatever. But it doesn't even begin to address the deeper let's say universal neuroses that all humans have when they're not fully awakened or enlightened. And this has a lot to do with ego. What we call any anger or hatred we feel, or greed, and the delusions we have. And so, if it were like taking care of this plant here, psychology would make sure that it got enough water and sun and got pruned and everything, looked nice. Buddhism would say, "Well, that's fine, but what's happening under the ground, the roots? It would be more concerned with the roots than the appearances and all that. Psychology is very clear; it wants to take those who are abnormal and make them normal, unproductive, productive. And, if you look at all the Buddhist teachers and saints, very unproductive people. They didn't -- weren't even married. They, a lot of them didn't even know their children, 'cause they're so intent on the bigger questions of life.


SF: Okay. So, before lunch we were talking little bit about some of the relationships between Buddhism and Christianity. Could you pick up where we...?

RI: Wasn't it Buddhism and psychology?

EK: Psychology.

SF: Psychology, I'm sorry. Psychology, geez, lunch effect already. [Laughs]

RI: [Laughs] Well, I've been using the analogy of this plant here, where both Buddhism and psychology address human suffering but at different dimensions of suffering. That Buddhism is at more of the existential level of suffering. That even after all kinds of therapy, and you feel fully functional in your relationships and your work. But there's still is a great deal of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, kind of a not knowing why you're here -- the questions about who am I still exist. And so this is where Buddhism comes in, in addressing these deeper issues, especially the so-called "hoo haws," or whatever -- three in the morning when you think you have everything all tied down and you look around and, gee, this is a nice home and all that. And you're worried about dying, or about not reaching your goals and all these things. Where does it come from? And so it gets down to basic ego issues around being attached to a permanence, having some unrealistic view of life having to be happy all the time. And then wanting to maintain your own individuality that you've worked so hard all your life to build, with all your degrees and accomplishments. Realizing that at any moment -- it's like standing over a flimsy floor -- you could just crash through and die. It could be a car accident, just one germ entering your body and taking over, or Alzheimer's, or something. And of course Buddhism then begins to point towards expanding your own identity from this ego or small self, to your connections -- inner connections with the rest of reality. I think Western psychotherapy has a great investment in Buddhism and all these -- they call them therapies, alternative therapies, which I'm always warning people about. I think it's part of this American "colonialist mentality." Going elsewhere, finding things that are valuable and bringing them back here, and using it on our own terms. So Buddhism has been in a way reduced to a psychotherapeutic technique that's called meditation, to be used against stress, against pain, and all kinds of seemingly practical means, but has nothing to do with Buddhist meditation which is only aimed towards awakening to one's true nature. And if one feels more comfortable, or less stressed, not so conscious of pain -- individual pain and so on -- these are all side products of doing a good job and looking at yourself. And there's a lot of differences that I point out in my writings, too, that show that they are addressing different issues. And if anything, Buddhism extends, complements psychotherapy adding wisdom and compassion to just the science of psychotherapy. And so as part of a great, kind of fight or controversy of Western psychologists who want to just grab Buddhism and stick it in their arsenal of, bag of tricks they call, and us Buddhists who don't want to be reduced just to that. It's very insulting to be seen that way. So there's a kind of a ongoing battle in academia right now. I wrote a chapter in a book called Western Psychotherapy and Western Buddhism, I think, an Asian American perspective, 'cause all the other perspectives are from Caucasians. And it's been roundly criticized because it just doesn't buy into this need to reduce Buddhism to a technique to be used by psychology, but rather it's the way around. They want to say Freud and psychology is the main picture, Buddhism is a nice, convenient add-on. But if you look at -- if you really understand Buddhism and psychology, it's the other way around. Psychology is a very recent add-on. It's still very young, full of confusion, none of the treatments work, or if they do, it's by accident. And they're still doing things like shock treatments and all this. Just out of sheer desperation at times. And there are a lot of experts in the psychology field who are also beginning to admit that it's not a science, that a lot of it's just blind hope. It's kind of like electric shock therapy where they admit that all it is is like taking a person's head and doing this for five minutes [pantomimes shaking a person's head] and hoping that something in here gets reorganized in some different ways so they'll forget their suffering, things like that. And certainly people are helped by talking therapy, and the various little interventions and maneuvers of psychology. But it still doesn't address the deeper issues that true religions do. And so all I'm saying if somebody, say Western psychologists wants to move into the area of Buddhist psychology, they'll have to change their whole understanding of themselves, expand that and also the world. It's not adding something on, but it's kind of an overhaul of themselves. Very few people are willing to do that; take the time if not this life, another lifetime. So anyway that's kind of a basic difference. I can get into particulars, but I'm not sure if that's what you wanna do.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 1999 Densho. All Rights Reserved.