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Dharma Care

Pastoral Care and Counseling from Buddhist Perspectives

A Therapeutic Path

     Certain elements of Buddhism, when appropriately practiced, can be therapeutic whether one is a religious Buddhist or not. The Noble Eightfold Path is an ancient cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that predates and informs many CBTs today. According to, CBT:

  •  is based on the idea that thoughts cause feelings and behaviors, not people, situations, or events;
  • therapist's role is to listen, teach, and encourage, while the client's role is to express concerns, learn, and implement that learning;
  • therapists do not tell their clients what to do -- rather, they teach their clients how to do it;
  • the goal of therapy is to help clients unlearn their unwanted reactions and learn new ways of reacting;

utilizes the inductive method by encouraging clients to look at their thoughts as hypotheses or guesses that can be questioned and tested. Incorrect hypotheses can lead to a change in thinking to accept the situation as it really is;

  • must be practiced, not just talked about.

Do these CBT principles sound similar to the Eightfold Path? ( Let's take a look.

1. Right View means to see and to understand things as they really are. According to the CBT principles, the goal of CBT clients is to see things as they are.

2. Right Intention is a commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. CBT clients want to learn new ways of reacting and have employed a therapist to help them achieve their goal.

3. Right Speech means: to abstain from false speech; to abstain from slanderous speech; to abstain from harsh words that are offensive and hurtful; and to abstain from idle chatter. Much harm comes from wrong speech. Clients in CBT often regret the words they've spoken and seek ways of communicating better.

4. Right Action means: to abstain from harming sentient beings; to abstain from taking what is not given; to abstain from sexual misconduct. There are a variety of ways wrong action can manifest. CBT clients often regret actions they took or behaviors they displayed. Sometimes they are confused by the decisions they made because in times of mental peace, they know right from wrong, but do what is wrong and therefore harbor regret.

5. Right Livelihood means that one should earn one's living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. How one earns their living is not normally a subject of CBT unless it is a cause for concern for the client. CBT therapists engaged in work that is spiritually integrated might do well to ask their clients about their work and the impact of their work on their emotional well-being.

6. Right Effort means putting energy to accomplish something in the proper place. In CBT, effort is made by both the therapist and client, but it is the client who has to make the right effort (how to think, how to speak, how to act) to effectuate change. It would be wrong effort on the part of the therapist to coerce the client to change.

7. Right Mindfulness is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clearer consciousness. In CBT, the emphasis on mindfulness in on the thoughts because it is believed that thoughts lead to behaviors.

8. Right Concentration means the ability to direct the mind to one object and keep it there. Needless to say that CBT is made more difficult if the client cannot concentrate on what is being taught and cannot complete his or her homework because of distractions. With this in mind, a therapist would do well to determine their client's ability to concentrate before embarking on a CBT path.

What can Buddhist caregivers, teachers and leaders learn by comparing and contrasting the Eightfold Path with CBT?

1. The Eightfold Path, aside from the religious promise of liberation, has therapeutic value in this realm at this time. Any student whose suffering manifests through problems in thinking and behavior can benefit from practicing the Eightfold Path (though the practice should not be offered as a guarantee for healing).

2. Some areas within the Eightfold Path will hold more value for students than other areas. Listen carefully to assess the dear one's issue to isolate which path factor the dear one would most benefit from and which one the dear one has the greatest capacity to begin with.

3. Ask the student, the dear one, how they plan to practice. Is there a particular person they have difficulties with? Is there a particular situation they need to change? Offer to be their accountability partner so they have someone to report back to and receive feedback from.

4. Encourage what is working, give guidance and support on what isn't working. How will you know what isn't working? Let the dear one tell you.

5. Commitment is key. Make a commitment to see the dear one at least four times over the next four weeks. If the dear one was committed to the process but nothing changed, consider referring them to a therapist.