Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Discussed in the Jātaka Stories
Posted on September 23rd, 2016

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

Cognitive Therapy is one of the major components in today’s psychotherapy. Cognitive Therapy based on gaining insight into unconscious emotions and drives mainly focusing on thoughts, assumptions and beliefs. In general terms Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapeutic  approach that addresses dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviors and cognitive processes and contents through a number of goal-oriented, explicit systematic procedures.

The Psychiatrist Aaron T Beck – the developer of CBT or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy emphasized the role of cognitive distortions in Depression and anxiety. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the major orientations of psychotherapy and represents a unique category of psychological intervention because it derives from cognitive and behavioural psychological models of human behaviour.

According to the Buddhist point of view, suffering is not caused by external, traumatic events, but by qualities of mind which shape our perceptions and responses to events. These same words were repeated by the Psychologist Albert Ellis in 1953 when he introduced his action oriented therapeutic approach – Rational Emotive Therapy. 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 (Christopher, 2003).

According to Ellis not the event that causes psychological distress but the belief held by the client. He further argues that one’s emotional distress is actually caused by one’s catastrophic thinking in appraising stressful events. Rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT) argues that irrational beliefs result in maladaptive emotions leading to reduced well-being (Spörrle et al, 2010). Ellis considers strong emotions to result from an interaction between events in the environment and beliefs and expectations.

Buddha often used Socratic Method to teach his doctrine. Socrates (470 -399 BC) was a Greek philosopher who engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for truth. He sought to get to the foundations of his students’ and colleagues’ views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the Socratic Method.

The Buddha had exceptional communication skills. He was able to positively connect with people from all walks of life and people from different social layers with different education levels. He used vivid and colourful examples to give insight to his followers.

The Buddha often used Insight-oriented dialog to give awareness to his disciples. Insight-oriented dialog is similar to the methodology of cognitive therapies. In Buddhist Psychotherapy  therapist and patient work together to identify dysfunctional mental patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that stem from a patient’s identification with their traumatic narrative. Once these specific issues are recognized, patients are prepared to use the healing relationship as an emotional corrective and employ meditation techniques to counter their particular cognitive-affective-behavioral habits (Neale, 2012).

The Lord Buddha used numerous kinds of cognitive therapies. In the story of Kisa-Gotami Buddha used a cognitive mode of action to give insight to a young mother who lost her infant son. She was devastated with grief. She went to the Buddha Carrying the dead body of her son and asked for medicine that would restore her dead son to life. The Buddha told her to get some mustard seeds from a house where there had been no death. Emotionally overwhelmed Kisa -Gotami went from house to house but she could not find a single house where death had not occurred. She gradually got the insight and the meaning of death. She realized that the death is a universal phenomenon. By the end of the day Kisa -Gotami buried her dead son. Although she felt the loss she was able to move away from the pathological grief reaction that impacted her immensely.

The story of Angulimala narrates how the Buddha used to give insight and mental awakening in extreme situations. Angulimala –an innocent bright student who turned in to a vicious murderer was determined to kill the Buddha. When he saw the Buddha Angulimala started chasing the Buddha and screamed at the Buddha to stop.   The Buddha turned and told Angulimala that he, the Buddha, had already stopped and Angulimala, to do likewise.

These few words made a cognitive revolution inside Angulimala’s head. He realized that the Buddha has already stopped -means he does not commit any violence and does not accumulate any karmic energy that fuel the Sanasara Chakra. But Angulimala he himself is mounting up karmic force that keeps him moving in the Sanasara Chakra. In this analogy the Buddha has stopped but Angulimala is still moving. Angulimala had an aha moment and he was able to realise the gravity of his evil actions. He threw the sward and renounced violence.

The story Patachara is a dazzling example how the Buddha restored an acute stress reaction. Patachara a young woman went in to an acute stress reaction when she witnessed the death of her husband, two children and the parents. She lost her faculties and became overwhelmed. She came to Buddha weeping and with utter confusion. The Buddha gave her psychological first aid and brought her to proper sensors.

After she became rational Buddha explained her true meaning of suffering and the nature of impermanence giving numerous examples. Patachara realized that the death and suffering are innate parts of the human existence. Therefore her husband, two children and the parents could not evade these universal maladies.

The story of Patachara reveals an excellent case study of trauma counselling. As indicated by psychologists’ trauma counselling should offer practical help that works and should teach skills to manage flashbacks, painful memories and anxiety. Buddha used practically most of the above mentioned avenues to resolve the grief reaction of Patachara.

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