Grounded in Faith: Psychotherapy and Pureland - paper presented at European Shin Conference 2012

Grounded in Faith: Psychotherapy and Pureland

Since the time of the Buddha people have looked to Buddhism as a source of salvation from their unhappiness and confusion. In the modern age, psychotherapy has become a route which many people choose to help them face and move beyond their personal suffering. Not surprisingly many Western therapists tend to gravitate towards Buddhist ideas and, conversely, Buddhists are often interested in exploring how their faith can find expression and parallels in the field of psychotherapy.

For the past twenty years or so I have been working in the field of psychotherapy and in particular in developing an integration of psychotherapy and Buddhism[1], initially with my former husband David[2], and more recently with others in Tariki Trust[3]. The models from which we work are based on Buddhist psychology[4], and particularly an understanding of the core teachings of the Buddha such as Dependent Origination, The Four Noble Truths, and the Skandhas. These teachings would be recognisable to Buddhists of any school even if their interpretation of them did not extend to the therapeutic implications we propose. The approach which we have developed at Tariki, Other-Centred Approach[5], is particularly concerned with our relatedness, exploring the conditioned nature of perception and the way in which our personal agendas colour and limit our view of others. It incorporates ideas of craving for and attachment to a perceptual world and the delusion of self which grows from it.

Although the approach which Tariki trust teaches is flexible enough to include different dimensions of Buddhist thought, as a Pureland Buddhist, I am especially interested here in exploring the role of Pureland concepts within the model which we have developed. More importantly, in the context of this conference I wish to investigate how Pureland can offer a distinct voice in the development of therapeutic method and theory. This paper is therefore an exploration of the role of Pureland faith in psychotherapy.

Other Pureland Therapies:

Pureland Buddhism has already contributed to psychotherapeutic thought. Although not well known in the West, these approaches have been important in developing my own thinking about its contribution. I have been grateful to draw on two approaches in particular. Firstly, the ideas of Yoshimoto Ishin as presented in Naikan Therapy[6] and secondly, those of Gisho Saiko, founder of Shinshu Counselling[7]. Both these approaches, whilst very different from one another, are based on Pureland Buddhist frameworks. They provide different windows on therapeutic method, quite distinct from Western styles of working, and invite us to question Western assumptions of what is healing.

Naikan draws on the Pureland understanding that we do not control our lives but rather depend on many sources for the physical, emotional and spiritual requisites which keep us alive and healthy. An enquiry focused initially on the relationship to the mother, the Naikan practice asks ‘What have I received, what have I given back, and what trouble have I caused? Through this reflective process, which is sometimes offered in a retreat format and sometimes through more conventional weekly therapy sessions, it draws the practitioner into an awareness of the grace by which they live and generally evokes a sense of humility and gratitude as a result.

Shinshu counselling on the other hand, which is a synthesis of the ideas of Carl Rogers[8] with the Pureland understanding of the role of faith, emphasises the importance of the therapist’s faith in Amida Buddha as the ground of the therapeutic relationship. Saiko Sensei sees the process of counselling as one in which the client gradually moves from a position of faithlessness and develops trust through ‘catching’ the therapist’s faith. It is this latter aspect of Pureland which I particularly wish to explore here in this paper.

Meeting with Others

Pureland Buddhism is relational. It emphasises our relationship to the spiritual realm. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, whose central structure of ideas is based on effort and the lone struggle of the practitioner to overcome the forces of Mara, the mental processes of attachment and craving, Pureland is centred on faith in salvation through a source of grace beyond the person of the practitioner, personified in Amida Buddha. We do not save ourselves through our own efforts and indeed, in as much as we try to do so, we simply magnify the folly of conceit.

At the time of his death, the Buddha gave his disciple Ananda the well known teaching

Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge (Parinibbana sutta [9])

For many Buddhists the significance of the Buddha’s words is taken to be an injunction to personal effort and a process of individual spiritual practice in which one can only reach the highest goals alone. For the Pureland Buddhist, however, this passage is interpreted as an invitation to take refuge in the Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching and continuing presence in the world, and specifically in Amida Buddha’s presence. For us the rejection of ‘external refuge’ cited in the passage above is understood to refer to a rejection of our impulse to take refuge in the objects of our craving – those things which we might cling to when our faith in Amida wavers. Instead we take refuge in the Dharma, embodied in the Dharmakaya, specifically in the form of Amida Buddha.

These two interpretations, which are summarised by the terms Jiriki and tariki, seem to represent very different positions. In fact the substance of ideas is less different than might at first appear as both are concerned with the escape from samsara and our relationship to the unconditioned. They do however point to different methodologies. In Pureland, the route out of the craving and attachment does not come through our own power, but rather through letting go of the will to achieve and allowing ourselves to be embraced by Amida’s grace. This is Tariki. In self-power approaches, craving and attachment are overcome through effort. This is Jiriki.

 Because Pureland Buddhism is centred on our connection to Amida Buddha, it offers a relational spirituality. The route to salvation is not internal but external to the person. It is through a meeting with the ‘Other’ that we are rescued from the grip of samsaric cycles. We are pulled from our diminished worlds of karmic pressures and brought into the full light of the Buddha realm.

Modern European philosophy has made much of the encounter with otherness[10], and can, I believe, have productive dialogue with Pureland Buddhism in this respect. It is through meeting other that we are challenged to drop our self-focused perspectives. Buddhist psychology suggests that the human problem is that each of us is locked into our particular prison of attachments and craving and that our identity structures are based upon this process. Our fear of afflictions leads us to dwell in limited arenas, restricted to the spheres which feel safe and familiar. Buddhist practice in all schools is about breaking out of this shell, but in Pureland our emphasis is on allowing ourselves to be met by Amida, the measureless beneficence which is beyond our constructions, rather than on dismantling the jail stone by stone. 

From this doctrinal position, as a Pureland Buddhist therapist, the importance of quality encounters with both humans and nature in restoring mental health becomes apparent. Put in more secular, psychological language, the source of help is not to be found in the machinations of personal process and introspection, but rather in an authentic encounter and engagement with what is other. We do not escape our muddled, unhappy thoughts by clinging to material things or to the fantasies which our imaginations crave, but rather by opening ourselves to the unanticipated. Amida comes to us in our encounters with the unexpected wonder of life.

When we are surprised by another person, touched by a piece of music, inspired by a sunset, or uplifted by a walk in a forest, we are drawn out of our small minds in that instant. The glimpse may be brief, but in as much as we are touched by the experience of an other, we glimpse a foretaste of Amida’s Pure Land.  Psychological health grows from our ability to, at least some of the time, meet with the world and with others in a fresh, unencumbered way. Such a meeting can be likened to the I/thou relationship of Buber[11], in which real human connection transcends the formality of role or intrusion of self-interest. It can also be found in the wonder of encounter to the natural world and the recognition of its other-ness[12].  

Faith as a Foundation

In his model of Shinshu counselling, Gisho Saiko wrote of the role of faith in the healing process. His model of counselling involved a process whereby the therapist and client encountered one another as equals, but beneath the surface of the meeting, the therapist dwelt in solid faith, whereas the client’s faith was unsteady and unformed. Saiko Sensei represents his model of the therapeutic encounter in a diagram in which Amida Buddha is located beneath both therapist and client. Initially only the therapist is in touch with Amida’s presence, but as therapy progresses, the client’s faith strengthens, supported by the therapist’s, to the point where the client too has a solid faith and the therapy relationship is no longer needed.

Whether or not one frames such an idea in religious language, it is certainly my experience that the therapist’s faith in the broadest sense is vital to therapeutic process. It may be this means faith in the process itself, in life, or in a higher power, but whatever its conscious or unconscious focus, the solidity which faith brings to the therapist’s manner will subtly influence and hold the interaction. This does not of course mean that the therapist proselytises to the client. Such coercion has no place in therapy and as a Buddhist therapist I would rarely, if ever, discuss Buddhist ideas directly. Rather the confidence which such faith imbues provides holding presence and depth to the therapist’s manner. It brings wisdom. It also supports the client in finding faith in their own way, which in the melting pot of Western society may take a very different form to that of the therapist.

The idea that Amida is located beneath us as a holding presence, rather than being located somewhere above us as some kind of deity is not unique to Gisho Saiko’s model. It can also be found in the poem of the Myokonin Saichi which was quoted in a paper by Taira Sato[13] that was presented at a conference previous to this one. In this poem, Saichi likens Amida to the sea bed which holds the sea. Like the solid ocean floor, he is the container for our lives.

Both of these images convey an impression of Amida as providing the foundation for our lives, offering the holding presence and providing both safety net and bottom line for those with faith. This imagery offers an implicit model in which it is the ground of a person’s life which is most influential in their mental health rather than the more overt influences of powerful injunctions and conceptual frameworks.

Grounding and Faith

In Buddhist therapeutic work, the mind and body are closely connected. Mindfulness based approaches[14] emphasise an awareness of body sensation and of action as it happens at the bodily level. They often use body scanning techniques to develop this awareness. In particular, this sort of physically based work often involves bringing awareness to our contact with the ground. The client or practitioner is encouraged to focus attention on the earth beneath his or her feet and the sensation of contact with it. The intention is to increase the sense of solidity in that contact both at a physical level, and through imaginatively extending the connection downward by using images like that of the roots of a tree. Such exercises are generally referred to as grounding exercises.

When we bring together the images of Saichi and Saiko with this body-focused awareness, we can see the value of grounding as being more than simply as a relaxation exercise. The earth contact which is developed has parallels with the image of Amida which they propose, representing the supportive underpinning of our lives. Grounding exercises can therefore give a concrete embodied experience of the spiritual truth which Saiko and Saichi describe. It can be seen as a symbolisation of Amida’s presence. This sort of conscious grounding thus creates a foundation for faith for therapeutic practice and for spiritual growth.

In feeling the earth beneath us, we can experience our contact to the infinite. On one level this can be felt in terms of the support which our planet gives to our lives. Literally, wherever we take ourselves in life we walk or sit or stand on the earth and are fed by her fruits. On another level this awareness echoes the experience Amida’s spiritual support. It reminds us of the spiritual dimension and the deeper truth of religious experience.

In discussing such themes one inevitably runs into questions of literalism versus symbolism and metaphor. Personally I do not think these arenas are at odds, though I am aware that for some they are problematic. In my view, ultimate spiritual truth is beyond our ordinary capacities of knowing. Our human understanding of the Dharmakaya is restricted by our unenlightened nature. As limited beings we cannot perceive the infinite directly, but need intermediary manifestations to point us towards it. In classical terms, we need the finger pointing to the moon.

Spiritual experience, however, is sensed in ways which are beyond words. The measureless remains ultimately indefinable and mysterious, and yet Amida’s presence is experienced through shinjin. To try to distinguish the literal from the symbolic therefore is to miss the point, for the symbolic is merely the representation of the truth in a form which can be conveyed to others and related to. The metaphor is the container and the lens through which we look towards what we cannot define.

So in leading grounding exercises I generally encourage participants to experience the ground in relation to its supportive quality, its otherness, its symbolisation of the planet and its manifestation of the immeasurable. These related images seem to me to bring together the qualities of Amida, our universal source of refuge, with the real presence of the earth. The ground is our mother, our support and our home. Our planet gives to us all that we need in great abundance, and we do little in return and create great troubles for it. In considering the use of grounding exercises, it is thus possible to integrate ideas about the role of faith and refuge found in Shinshu counselling, with reflections on the sense of dependence and gratitude which Naikan introduces.

Grounding exercises also provide a physical reflection of a person’s level of trust and faith. When a person works with awareness of the body and grounding, it is apparent whether they are really giving their trust to the earth or whether they are holding back. Body resistance can be felt and seen by the person experienced in such work. Exploring the body sense of letting go or holding on can help a person explore the processes of grasping or taking refuge in a physical way. As the person is able to inhabit their body sense more fully, they usually become less caught in anxiety and clinging attachments. 

Whilst grounding exercises offer a particular way of working with clients which has benefits for some, but which is not suitable for all therapeutic situations. Whether or not one formally teaches these methods to clients, grounded presence is foundational to the therapist’s skill. In training therapists at Tariki we teach these methods as the basis for therapist development, improving students’ capacity to offer quality attention.

Embodied presence is an aspect of mindfulness. We can be aware that the true meaning of mindfulness includes the idea of remembrance, and particularly means remembrance of Buddha and Dharma. In other words, nembutsu, which means having Buddha in mind, is the true practice of mindfulness. So we can think of the earth contact which is at the basis of these exercises as a form of nembutsu practice. 

Working in Nature

Pureland Buddhists in Japan have often expressed their Buddhism through their love of nature. The poetic tradition of Saigyo[15] and other poet-monks reflected this. Their poetry used natural images of the seasons, mountains, vegetation, birds and sea to express spiritual sentiments. Cherry blossom drifting on the spring wind reflected the fragility of life, and the sun sinking in the west, Amida waiting at the time of death.

Contact with nature is increasingly being used as a way to provide therapeutic space[16]. At Tariki we are developing a new training programme in environmentally based therapies[17] called Ten Directions[18]. This programme uses a variety of methods to invite participants to explore their relationship with the natural world through ten ‘directions’ or methodologies. The first two of these are foundational to the work: firstly developing embodied presence through grounding and mindful awareness, and secondly developing a sense of the sacredness of the spaces in which the work is carried out and an ability to define and hold them. These first two dimensions echo Gisho Saiko’s model which defines the therapeutic ground through faith in Amida. Connection to the earth and a sense of its sacredness can, as we have seen, reflect an expression of nembutsu and faith in the Pure Land.

Other dimensions in the model involve, on the one hand, the use of encounter and, on the other, an appreciation for the symbolic. They bring us into contact with the other both directly and through imagery, or they explore ways in which perception is distorted or limited by our bombu minds.

Working with nature offers different levels of therapeutic and spiritual possibility. On the one hand it gives a rich experience of otherness as manifested in plant, animal and insect life. Nature constantly surprises us with new experiences, waking us from habitual cycling thoughts. On the other hand, as the poets of Japan demonstrated, the natural world provides a rich resource of imagery which expresses spiritual and human truths. The natural world provides a mirror to our individual and collective selves and also a lens through which to view the eternal.


Whilst Buddhist psychology provides scope for a variety of therapeutic interventions, Pureland Buddhism in particular offers a distinct contribution to the field of psychotherapy, just as it does to Buddhist doctrine. This paper has in particular identified six areas of importance to the creation of a distinctly Pureland therapeutic model:

  • Pureland Buddhism is a path of faith. As we have seen one aspect of its contribution to therapy theory is Gisho Saiko’s model which proposes that faith is the central factor in the therapeutic process.
  • Pureland Buddhism is concerned with our relationship with what is other. The encounter with things which are beyond the self has the power to draw us out of the limiting aspects of identity into fuller relationship with people and things. Such encounter offers both a mundane dimension and a symbolic pointer to spiritual truth.
  • Pureland Buddhism is compatible with a body-focused approach. Through our contact with the physicality of the earth we experience both our relationship to the planet and symbolically our connection to the Pure Land. Through increased body awareness, we can also feel both the bodily act of trust, of taking refuge, and the bodily resistance to trust, of clinging and compulsion.
  • Pureland Buddhism invites an appreciation of the natural world. It has a long tradition of connection with nature as a source of imagery, artistic creativity and spiritual insight. As such Pureland Buddhism supports environmentally based therapeutic work.
  • Pureland Buddhism is concerned with enquiry into our dependent nature and the cultivation of appreciation as conducted through Naikan therapy. This includes directing attention in such a way as to support the development of a sense of appreciation and awe. Seeing Amida’s presence in all things, it supports an approach which holds the other, whether human or non-human, as sacred.
  • Pureland Buddhism is less individualistic in its outlook than some other paths[19]. Because it is less focused on the path of individual effort, it supports a therapeutic model which recognises the role of community and groups in shaping people’s lives.

These factors support a therapeutic ambience which is respectful and exploratory, which values connection, but also holds a sense of the mystery of others. They offer both insight and critique to all branches of therapy. In particular though, as this paper has suggested, because of its relational, outwardly orientated spirit, Pureland Buddhism gives a rationale to work in natural environments and more body based therapies. Integrated with the Buddhist understanding of the mind, Pureland brings to therapy practice a practical and world-embracing methodology. As such it is a force which has potential to contribute both depth and much needed challenge to the world of psychotherapy.

Caroline Brazier 2012


[1] Brazier C 2003 Buddhist Psychology Constable Robinson

[2] Brazier D 1995 Zen Therapy Constable Robinson

[5] Brazier C 2009 Other-Centred Therapy O-Books

[8] Rogers C.R. 1961 On Becoming a Person. Constable, London

[10] Bazzano M 2012 Spectre of the Stranger: towards a phenomenology of hospitality University of Sussex

[11] Buber M 1937 I and Thou (re-print 2004, Continuum Publishing)

[12] Brazier C 2007 The Other Buddhism O-Books (final chapters)

[13] Sato, K Buddhist Faith and inner Peace

[14] Kabat-Zinn, J, 1991 Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness Delta USA

[15] Watson (trans) 1991 Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home Columbia University Press, USA

[16] Rust M and Totton N 2012 Vital Signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis Karnac

[17] Brazier C 2011 Acorns Among the Grass Earth Books

[19] See the ideas of Galen Amstruz on the role of communitarianism in Pureland groups.

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