The Buddha was a psychologist (maybe)

September 6, 2022

The Buddha’s early life

At the age of twenty-nine, Prince Siddhartha Gautama—the future Buddha—had his first encounters with an old person, a sick person, and a dead person—three of the four signs. In conjunction with these three, the fourth sign of seeing a wandering ascetic inspired the not so-young man to leave the comfortable confines of palace life to devote himself to an epic spiritual quest—to alleviate the suffering that the mortal happenstances of sickness, old age, and eventual death presented. This is what the reader of the Buddha’s mythology is asked to accept. The four signs were critical in the arc of his story propelling him forth to find the Way.

This episode has been presented countless times by countless authors, dharma teachers, and followers of the Buddha. The story is told almost entirely without commentary on or consideration of its plausibility. Any thoughtful engagement with this ‘narrative ask’ reveals in quick order that its claims are both fatuous and implausible, even when you consider that Siddhartha’s father wanted to protect his son from the existential realities of life to steer him away from the path of a spiritual seeker, hoping that he would instead assume his throne (or a Universal Monarch, Penner 2009).

Still, how could almost three decades go by without the boy seeing one of the household servants age, get sick, or die? If they were removed from the household with the first signs of aging, this might have caused more angst than seeing a faithful servant with a grey hair. Is it at all likely that, short of being imprisoned in the palace, curiosity wouldn’t have driven the prince out into the streets? In addition, the Buddha’s mythology references multiple residences according to the season. Would he have not seen the signs on any trip to and from one of the palaces?  Stephen Batchelor thinks it is more likely that the future Buddha was born into a privileged family of a regional magistrate, rather than into the royalty that is typically attributed and that he would have traveled for his education (Batchelor 2011). Why do we need this incredulous narrative device to move the Buddha’s epic story forward?

Questioning the myth

In the first section of my book The Buddha Was a Psychologist: A Rational Approach to Buddhist Teachings, I raise the question of this incredulous narrative in the larger context of what we can possibly know about the Buddha and the dangers of rendering him in the hagiographic light of a messianic saint—ordained by the gods to deliver humanity from suffering and providing the rationale for him to Go Forth and abandon his familial responsibilities. The future Buddha’s servant Chana—who did know the four signs and explained them to Siddhartha—was less convinced of the urgency of the situation:

How can you talk about helping people and, in the same breath, desert them. No master, enjoy the pleasures of life a while longer. Learn to know the child who will soon be born, carry him to the temple, present him to the gods, give him brothers. . . . Later, when your beard has grown gray, when your arms are less strong but you mind is strengthened by experience, then place your eldest son on the throne and go meditate in the forest. You can find the way to save us all from suffering then.

Percheron, 1960, p. 113

Obviously, the prince refused to heed Chana’s appeal, an act that required grandiosity and a callousness predicated on the expectations that the ends would justifying the means. If he did indeed leave his home at the age of twenty-nine—a highly unusual action for a man of his age—leaving behind his wife and young child, why did he do it? The four signs are a cover story; the real motivation might have been personal reasons: he was desperately unhappy.

The danger of hagiography

In the book, I argue that a secular depiction of the Buddha is possible if problematic in the way that all depictions of the Buddha are—we just don’t know anything about him for certain, not even that he existed vis-a-vis historical artifact (Penner 2009). Like myself and most psychotherapists that I know or have trained, we go into this field for personal reasons, often as a means to redress or out of curiosity for our own developmental issues. If the Buddha was inclined towards psychology, perhaps he was motivated similarly by distress. Rather than the dramatic and sudden exposure to the four signs, the ‘Buddha’s experience of samvega [horror, angst] was likely a gradual accumulation of dis-ease, disgust, and disquiet’ (Kozak 2021, 25).

Penner recommends a literal reading of the Buddha’s mythology—as do most Asian Buddhists. For secular, rational Westerners, this is not a palatable ask. The Buddha’s dharma has been preserved and elaborated by the Buddhist religions (and Brahmanism) over millennia. While Buddhism is recognized to be a non-theistic religion, it is not without supernaturalism, metaphysical speculation, and reverence for the Buddha ascending to theistic levels (Lopez 2013). Even though there are no confirming artifacts, scholars grant that the figure of the Buddha likely existed, and while he may have been a prodigious yogi—in addition to some dozen others cited in the Samannaphala Sutta (Mu Soeng 2020)he like every other human being on this planet would have had issues—developmental traumas, insecurities, sexual hang-ups, and other garden variety or even serious mental health disorders. For example, becoming the founder of a solitude-leaning, mendicant, loosely organized collection of followers would have afforded an avoidant-type attachment style welcome—even elegant—cover. If he was conflicted over his sexuality, celibacy provided a refuge. Personal issues, then, are a more reasonable motivation for his decision to Go Forth at the age of twenty-nine and not the horrifying vision of his existential future.

The dharma as therapeutic practice

With the above context considered, the next section of The Buddha Was a Psychologist presents the dharma as a therapeutic praxis, a view confirmed by the Third Wave of cognitive behavioral therapies that features mindfulness and compassion (Tirch, Silberstein, and Kolts 2015). The basis for the Buddha-as-psychologist argument is: 1) the Buddha eschewed metaphysical speculation by refusing to answer speculative, ontological questions, as one famous example declares: ‘Why have I left your questions unexplained? Because they are of no benefit and do not lead to nirvana. What I have explained is the Four Noble Truths, because they are beneficial and lead to nirvana’ (Gombrich 2009, 167); 2) the foundation teaching of the Four Noble Truths can be readily presented within a medical—thus, therapeutic—metaphor; 3) the opening lines of the Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind/led by mind/made by mind’ (Fronsdal 2016) provides an explicit psychological basis for experience. The Buddha’s teachings are salvific, yet in distinction to other religious forms, the Buddha’s salvation is orchestrated by the individual. The mindfulness movement has been criticized for being an ‘inside job’ (e.g., Purser 2019); however, this is precisely what the Buddha advocated—a first person phenomenological and empirical science of self-transformation that discourages dogma, ritual, and metaphysical beliefs. In addition, he advocated self-reliance as reflected in one of his most famous quotes: “‘You should live as islands unto yourself, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Doctrine [dharma] as an island, with the Doctrine as your refuge’ (Penner 2009, 96).

The Bhuddha’s ‘Enlightenment’

Given the opportunity, humans will tend towards metaphysical speculation, deific exaltation of charismatic teachers, and hanker for permanence, even if it is a non-personal form of rebirth. The Buddha feared this and tried to guard his followers against them—tried and failed. His ashes had barely cooled before his teachings—the dharma—were codified into what would become the first of many Buddhisms. Jumping ahead two-and-one half millennia, a recent example presented itself to my inbox in an email from a local Buddhist dharma center where students were embarking on a study of H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III’s teaching, ‘Imparting the Absolute Truth through the Heart Sutra.’ Absolute Truth sets off alarm bells. Didn’t the Buddha caution against absolute truth in favor of practicality? I did some research on this teacher and found out ‘H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III is the true incarnation of the Primordial Sambhogakaya Buddha, Dorje Chang Buddha.’ To exalt someone like this dharma teacher to the status of a mythological Buddha can only follow in the fashion of the original Buddha’s exaltation. In the teacher’s words: ‘I say without the slightest ambiguity that the Buddha Dharma I impart is absolutely the true Dharma of the Tathagatas possessed by all Buddhas in the ten directions!’ (Dorje Chang Buddha III 2021). The Buddha-as-psychologist would not approve of the above example. The Buddha who did not name a successor would not, one would presume, approve of lineages; the Buddha who reacted against the Brahmanical reliance on priests, rituals, and metaphysical speculation on the absolute and the eternal self, would, likewise, not condone such claims.

Rather than hailing the Buddha’s ‘enlightenment’ and all its metaphorical entailments of radiance, illumination, and divinity, Stephen Batchelor prefers the more earthy and accurate—awakening.

Rather than describing his experience beneath the tree at Uruvela as a transcendent insight into ultimate truth or the deathless. . . . Awakening is not a singular insight into the absolute, comparable to the transcendent experiences reported by mystics of theistic traditions, but a complex sequence of interrelated achievements gained through reconfiguring one’s core relationship with dukkha, arising, ceasing and the path.

Batchelor, 2012, p. 99

A rational, secular perspective assumes that Buddha remained a human being after his dramatic if prolonged moment of transformation under a fig tree in what is now Bodhgaya—he was still subject to the laws of physics and he could not ‘as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond’” our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 19). His attainment could not have been permanent because nothing is. The Buddha’s hagiographic enlightenment is misleading and not helpful or illuminating, if you will, for his therapeutic project. Impermanence is central to everything and is, of course, one of the Three Hallmarks of Existence. It also features strongly in one of the other hallmarks—not self, as there is no permanent, independently existing self. If everything—and he meant everything—is constantly in flux and subject to precarious uncertainty, why would his enlightenment have been irrevocable—i.e., permanent? Rather than irrevocable enlightenment we can work towards revocable awakenings.

The body is still subject to affliction but not necessarily to reaction—one can be, like the Buddha, more imperturbable. The seeds of reactivity never stop dropping to the ground as long as we are sensory-perceptual creatures with a pulse. What can stop, however, is the ownership, contingency, and proliferation of that built-in reactivity.

Kozak, 2021, p. 46

Regarding the Buddha as a psychologist can, perhaps, enable a retrofitted, humanizing of this great historical figure as a bulwark against the ongoing, cross-cultural, morphing and extravasation that has occurred over millennia and is still occurring today

The Buddha’s mind map of experience

Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich noted: ‘I certainly do not intend to claim that the Buddha anticipated all the discoveries of modern psychology. . . . Nevertheless the similarity between some of his ideas and the picture painted by modern cognitive psychology is striking’ (Gombrich 2009, 197). After presenting a secular context for appreciating the historical Buddha and outlining his therapeutic program, the third section of The Buddha Was a Psychologist is organized around the khandas (five aggregates). The Buddha didn’t have the luxury of knowing Darwin’s theory of evolution but his teachings are prescient as Gombrich noted and as Robert Wright has wonderfully mapped out these striking similarities in Why Buddhism is True. Each of the aggregates has a function provided and constrained by evolution. Each confers an adaptive advantage and each also incurs liabilities for modern persons (as well as those of the Buddha’s time). The Buddha’s teachings are aimed—therapeutically—at those liabilities. From this model, the Buddha’s teachings could be summarized for the information age thusly: #resistevolution.

Khanda translates to bundles or heaps and can thus have the metaphorical entailment of piles of wood that burn with the three fires of desire, aversion, and confusion (Gombrich 1996). To put out the fire in each location requires a distinct attitude and action.

The rupa (form) fire is fueled by the very architecture of the brain and requires the attitude of patience to overcome and necessitates a long-term commitment to and persistence with meditation practice (aka effort from the eight of the fourth ennobling praxis). The sanna (perception) fire requires cognitive flexibility (mindfulness) and is addressed, among other things, through deliberately looking for novelty in sameness [e.g. Langer’s mindfulness], that is finding distinctions. The vedana (feeling) fire requires containment and the practice of the phenomenological embodied investigation (mindfulness, concentration, meditation). Sankahara (mental formations/conditionings) requires skepticism and the practice of extrication from contingency along with equanimity—the capacity to be engaged without reactivity. And finally, vinnana (consciousness) requires humility and the practice of appreciation—of the brain’s complexity, of the predominance of unconsciousness, of not being in charge.

Kozak, 2021, p. 64.

Form (rupa) is the physicality of the brain that supports the other aggregates and this gives the brain incredible flexibility and makes it slow to change. The Buddha contended that the untrained mind was an unhappy one and that training required a dedicated rigorous process of application. For the khanda of fabrication (sankhara):

The goal for the practitioner is to attempt to transcend these signifying language functions. It is an attempt to realize that all such signification is a metaphorical process that invariably results in substituting symbols, words, and concepts for the lived experience that is otherwise available. It requires a process of deconstructing the constructed nature of all experience. The Buddha claimed that all forms are fabricated. The categorizing habit of experience with its concomitant signification leads to ownership and it is such appropriation that is the root source of dukkha. … While the Buddha claimed to have extinguished his fires, most of us will have to be content with tempering them, cooling them to a manageable glow, perhaps even to embers one is not sure have gone out—they are quiet but readily inflamed. To seek total extinction is to invite perfectionism—yet another source of flammable fuel.

Kozak, 2021, pp. 119, 121.

The goal of dharma practice

The aim, then, is to engage a conversation between the narrative, conceptualized, and instinct-driven elements of life while relinquishing the posture of non-contingency. Since the Buddha has likely been idealized through hagiographic exuberance, we don’t aspire to be the perfect, infinitely illuminated, and unattainable Buddha but more like how he might have actually been: disciplined, motivated, curious, and persistent—and imperfect. Each time we become mindful and set aside the contingent narratives that insist things be a particular way, we become Buddha-like for moment. We’re never quite sure what will happen in the very next moment. Perhaps we’ll continue to be Buddha-like, absorbed in jhanic concentration. Or perhaps we’ll strive to continue being Buddha-like and with that efforting take ourselves out of this little hit of nirvana and back into contingency. Or perhaps some other glittering object will pull attention away and we’ll be back once again in contingency—our conditioned home. Working through the khandas with their benefits, limitations, and challenges can help us to give up these conditioned homes in favor of becoming psychologically homeless—the fluid, non-fixed place we find ourselves in  (Mu Soeng 2016). A secularized, psychologized Buddha reclaimed from Bronze Age Buddhist religions is relevant because his message is compatible with the contemporary values of reason, self-reliance, dedication to inquiry, and thoroughgoing assumption of responsibility.


Batchelor, Stephen. Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011.

Batchelor, Stephen. “A Secular Buddhism.” Journal of Global Buddhism, 13 (2012): 87–107.

Dorje Chang Buddha III (

Fronsdal, Gil. The Buddha Before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016.

Gombrich, R. F. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. London: Athlon, 1996.

Gombrich, R. F. What the Buddha Thought. London: Equinox, 2009.

Kozak, Arnold. The Buddha Was a Psychologist: A Rational Approach to Buddhist Teachings. New York: Lexington Books, 2021.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and  Its Challenges to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books. 1999.

Lopez, Donald S. From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013.

Mu Soeng. The Question of King Ajatasattu: Fractured Narratives of the Samannaphala Sutta. Barre MA: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 2020.

Mu Soeng. “Going Forth From Homelessness.” To be psychologically homeless is to jettison the contingencies that fuel dukkha.

Penner, Hans H. Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Percheron, Maurice, and Adrienne Foulke. The Marvelous Life of the Buddha. New York: St. Martins Press, 1960.

Purser, Ronald E. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Repeater, 2019.

Tirch, Dennis, Laura R. Silberstein, and Russel L. Kolts. Buddhist Psychology and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Clincians Guide. New York: Guilford, 2015. Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: the Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Arnie Kozak, MFA, Ph.D, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. Arnie is also an artist and has been practicing yoga and meditation for nearly forty years and a student of Buddhism since meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1984. He is dedicated to translating the Buddha’s teachings into secular and readily accessible forms. To that end, he is the author of ten books, including The Buddha Was a Psychologist: A Rational Approach to Buddhist Teachings, 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, Mindfulness A-Z, Timeless Truths for Modern Mindfulness, The Awakened Introvert, and Buddhism 101. He also contributed a chapter to Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science. An avid golfer, he’s also written about the parallels between the creative process, sport, and meditation. The Buddha Was a Psychologist is being developed into a series of forthcoming continuing education courses. For more information please visit: or



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