ChapterPDF Available


In recent years, there has been an unprecedented influence of Zen Buddhism in Western psychology and psychotherapy. On the surface, the two disciplines seem incompatible: Psychotherapy wants to develop the self, whereas Zen tries to get rid of the self. Many may wonder where Buddhism, a 2500-year-old Eastern religion, and psychotherapy, a Western invention of psychological treatment, converge and diverge? In this chapter, Peiwei Li, Ph.D. of Springfield College, and Daniel Rodriguez Ramirez, M.Ed of University of California Santa Cruz, aim to entertain this very question and provide a multilayered critical reflection and epistemological critique. We will first provide a brief historical sketch about the synergy between Zen and psychotherapy, which lead to a discussion on a few key concepts that draw resonance and dissonance between Zen and psychotherapy. We argue that although the two traditions grew out of drastically diverging historical roots and manifest in varying forms, they share underlying understanding and aims related to the nature of the self and the process of self-development toward liberation. Grounded in this overarching vision, we will feature specific examples of their cross-fertilization drawing from classical psychotherapy orientations as well as representatives of contemporary mindfulness-based psychotherapy movements. We also include a brief clinical case discussion to illustrate how a Zen-informed therapy process might unfold in practice. This chapter will be concluded with a critical examination of the larger sociocultural contexts and system imperatives that might have simultaneously given rise to the popularity of Zen in psychotherapy while subjected it to truncation and objectification.