The Buddhist Freud

As a graduate student in clinical social work, I spend a lot of time reading the theories of psychology. As a serious Buddhist practitioner, I read a lot of Buddhist philosophy and the Pali Canon. Eventually, you come across those moments when you feel like a Reese’s peanut butter cup commercial: “Hey, your Buddhism is in my psychology!” and “Hey, your psychology is in my Buddhism!”

The more you read about the ultimate “mamma’s boy” Dr. Sigmund Schlomo Freud, the more you realize that his observational analysis of the mind touches the teachings of the Buddha realized nearly 2,500 years earlier. As I overlaid over the Freudian architecture over the wisdom of the Buddha, it almost seemed like Siggy was using a cheat sheet at times.

The Buddha said that there were three poisons in this world: dosa, lobha and moha. Commonly they are translated as hate, greed and delusion; however, I believe a more accurate translation would be clinging, aversion and ignorance.

These three poisons create the conditions in our lives that keep us from fully engaging with our lives and living a life that is truly liberated from suffering.

If we cling and crave, we are never satisfied. We are always looking to the future or into the past, and missing the present moment. This mindset filters and distorts how we see the world and deal with people. The image of someone standing over a found treasure or delicious sweet with their mouth watering and hands wringing is an accurate representation of greed. But aren’t we doing the same thing when we daydream about a better job, the weekend fun, or “the glory days.” Liberating ourselves from clinging develops the confidence of faith.

Everyone knows a co-worker who when they walk down the hall, every other employee scatters and hides. They just don’t want to deal with that person. It is an extreme example of aversion, but how many gross and subtle aspects of our lives are avoided in the exact same way? We let our fear turn into aversion (and even hate), which results in missing out on so much of life. We devalue the valuable. We pass up on living. We lose out on developing wisdom.

The poison of delusion is the wallowing in the ignorance of being: the concept of “I”, the wanting of things to “be” and the belief in the conditioned reality that we observe around us.  We perceive the world as a photograph, where our observations and evaluations are permanently fixed and unchanging. The identity is solid and definable. The world around us is ageless. The universe is a noun.

However, the world is not a noun, but a verb. It is forever changing. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is forever. The Zen followers call it empty. I call it process of being: all that arises eventually passes and continually changes in-between. The delusions created from static thinking are what gives wrong value to the world around us and devalues the meaning of our lives. It is through the liberation of ignorance that we can develop the equanimous nature needed for liberation.

When Dr. Freud detailed his model of the thinking mind, he was surprisingly parallel to the Buddhist understanding of the mind. While much of Freud’s work has been reworked because science has come a far way, the origins of psychodynamic theory have held up pretty well.
When a child is born, Freud states that this is the “oral” phase. It is also when the mind is hardwired with the ID. The ID is the portion of the virtual mind that is not reality based and lives totally by appetites and desires. This is what the Buddha would have called tanha,or “thirsts.”
It is this part of the mind that suffers from the poison of “clinging.”

When the child reaches two years old, they shift from the “oral” phase to the “oral” phase. This is when the toddler develops the EGO. The ego is the concept of the “self.” It is when a child learns to label himself and the world around him. It is when the parent teaches the terms “mine” and “yours” and continues the conditioning needed to cognize and process the universe around that child.
This cognition makes it possible for the child to develop and survive in their environment. Nevertheless, this very useful skill also develops a delusion that the convenience of a mundane understanding of the world leads to the ignorance that the universe is an ever changing and interconnected process: much like a lava lamp that never stays still, changing shape form, materials and allowing objects to continually arise and reintegrate.

Finally, when the child reaches the age of 5 they enter the “phallic” phase. This is when the serious rules of society come into play. It isn’t enough to establish an understanding of the world around us, but the rules of interaction. The SUPEREGO is developed at this stage. While the ID is a continual craving beast and a great sucking maw of want, the SUPEREGO is the rule master. It is the little Jiminy Cricket that continually whispers “don’t do that” and “no” in your ear. It is the poison of aversion.

Have you ever noticed that there is a time in a child’s life when they start being rules crazy? “You are a liar.” “That is not fair.” “That is not the way mommy does it.” “That is wrong.” Children have learned that the world rewards those who do right and punishes those who do wrong. The SUPEREGO has arrived and—for a short time—takes charge.

While this doesn’t sound like a description of fear, hate and aversion, think about it. What are rules but boundaries to protect something? When we avoid that one annoying co-worker, aren’t we trying to protect ourselves from being annoyed, or assigned silly work, or being yelled at for no reason? When we are gripped with irrational phobias or tell a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings—aren’t we trying to protect ourselves with those same rules? Some rules are good, and some are irrational and arbitrary.

PUTTING FREUD AND BUDDHA TOGETHERSo the Buddha taught that our liberation from suffering needs to come from our removal of the three poisons of aversion, clinging and ignorance. However, it was Freud who observed how they psychologically develop in our world. Perhaps the understanding of both truths will bring the wisdom to observe ourselves and develop the wisdom to bring a touch of enlightenment in our daily lives.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Meditation, New Age, Philosophy, Relationships, Theravada, Tibet


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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One Comment on “The Buddhist Freud”

  1. RK
    March 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    Great article! You are right that Freud seemed to have picked up a lot of his ideas from Buddhism. The question is how he could know so much about Buddhism. There are some books and articles (unfortunately not widely known) written by some researchers at Stockholm University (Jan Barmark is one of them), who claim that Freud was among the first Westerners to read some translated books about Buddhism. They have quite astutely argued that Freud was greatly inspired by the books. In fact, the ideas of how you can turn neurotic anxiety to normal human misery (AKA acceptance), the Nirvana Principle, the ideas of opposing forces (Yin and Yan) etc etc appears “so Buddha” 😉

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