Buddhism and Psychology

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Course Description

  • Course Name

    Buddhism and Psychology

  • Host University

    Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

  • Location

    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  • Area of Study

    Psychology, Religion

  • Language Level

    Taught In English

    Hours & Credits

  • ECTS Credits

  • Recommended U.S. Semester Credits
  • Recommended U.S. Quarter Units
  • Overview

    Since the late nineteenth century, various forms of Buddhism have emerged from modernizing Asia and, with apparent ease, have penetrated new cognitive, spiritual and cultural domains—many far removed from their origins, geographically as well as epistemically. But how has this happened? What does the most recent global rise of interest tell us about Buddhism, and what does it reveal about those who are interested in it?

    Outside Asia and Asian communities abroad, Buddhism has almost become synonymous with meditation. More often than not, Buddhism is framed as a ‘science of the mind’ or ‘non-modern psychology’—as if it were not a contradiction in terms, given that psychology is the very flagship of modernity. The common language of popular Buddhism thus mostly derives from pop psychology. This language and particular mode of understanding indeed has become a prominent characteristic of global Buddhist modernism. 

    So when and how did this hermeneutical practice arise? As you will have ample opportunity to discover on this course, these somewhat complex processes of framing have been going on for quite some time; in fact, almost since the very birth of psychology as a discipline. In the end, such preferred readings of Buddhism may reveal more about the receiving cultures and the rise of global modernity than they do about Buddhism in its ‘original’ Asian contexts. 

    This course on Buddhism and Psychology thus provides a rare journey of self-discovery, touching the very core of modern self-understanding, across receiving cultures globally. A journey on which we critically examine everything we meet on our way, questioning modernist Buddhist assumptions, received wisdom of current Buddhist Studies discourse, and even some of the points of departure of this very course, and where needed fundamentally to revise or reframe them.


    At the end of the course, you will:

    • Become familiar with some of the major Buddhist theories and doctrines which have invited the hermeneutical rapprochement with psychology.
    • Understand the framing of Buddhism in psychological terms and its background, and also resonance, in modern Asia.
    • Become familiar with the complex relationships of psychological readings of Buddhism with their matrices in Buddhist modernisation movements in Asia and their reception history of Buddhism outside Asia.
    • Understand how things appear “in the eye of the beholder”, appreciating how the receiving cultures influence this curious marriage of convenience between Buddhism and psychology and how global modernity tends to “psychologize” the sacred and to “sacralize” psychology. 
    • Understand the problematic nature of patently modernist concepts such as ‘consciousness’ or ‘immediate experience’ in Buddhism, and are able to articulate the inherent epistemic paradoxes.

    Advanced Bachelor

    Interactive Seminar

    Group discussion, prsentation, paper

    Students of the humanities and social sciences, particularly those interested in Religious Studies, Psychology or Asian Studies.

    None, but a basic knowledge of Buddhism is helpful.