10 Yoga, Buddhism, Taoism, and Personality

This chapter is an attempt to include some Eastern traditions and thinking in to the study of personality. Yoga, Buddhism, and Taoism are vast subjects, spanning many thousands of years, and they are amazing philosophies that of course can’t be fully addressed in this chapter.  In addition there are many other important Eastern philosophies, but in this chapter we’ll study some philosophies/religions that have overtones of personality development, or directly address personality. Each of the theories we’ll study are styles of life that developed in order to help people be more in tune with their religion and with God or with nature. Yoga, which means unity, was a practice that developed within the Hindu religion to help Hindus achieve unity with God. So it developed as a practice in one’s daily life that led to religious fulfillment. The Buddha was a Yogi, and did not consider himself to be different than other people. His followers, however, have so fervently held to his teachings that the practice of Buddhism is often viewed as a religion, and over time it became mixed with religious stories and myths, as people tried to fit Buddhism into their traditional culture. Taoism is mostly associated with the wisdom teacher Lao Tzu, and initially began as a philosophy and then was also practiced as Taoist religion.

Placing Yoga in Context: An Ancient Plan for Self Development

The Concept of Self from a Yogic Perspective

Spirit, Nature, and Consciousness

In the metaphysics of Yoga our true self, the transcendental self, is a temporary manifestation of Spirit in essence. The great mistake in our lives is to confuse our body and mind with who we really are, to believe that this body and this mind are our self. The practice of Yoga, however, teaches us to still our minds, to eliminate all thought and sensation, so that we might be in union with our transcendental self and the universal spirit. Once we have accomplished this task, by subjugating our natural tendency to think and restraining our mind itself, we will know who and what we really are (Yoga Sutras I:2,3 [Bailey, 1927]). This is not an easy task, but it has a great reward. As Sri Yukteswar told Yogananda:

The soul expanded into Spirit remains alone in the region of lightless light, darkless dark, thoughtless thought, intoxicated with its ecstasy of joy in God’s dream of cosmic creation (Yogananda, 1946; pgs. 489-490).

Photo of Circle with Self in Middle
Diagram of Atman or The Self

William James, America’s foremost psychologist, is best known for his theory on the stream of consciousness. According to James, it is the continuity of consciousness that defines our self. This is in direct contradiction to Eastern philosophies, which consider the conscious mind to be derived from the natural world, and therefore only an illusion. Eastern philosophies consider the transcendental self to be real, but obscured from us by the distraction of the so-called conscious mind.

Yogic philosophies would suggest the body is yours but it is not you. The famous scientist Carl Sagan said:

“I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label.” (Carl Sagan,Cosmos[New York: Random House, 1980], p. 127.)

Sagan (1980) is suggesting we are the chemicals our body is made of, which is often how people identify themselves, such as “I am Alice, I am tall and have black hair”.  Human bodies however are always changing however and the yogic philosophy would suggest the “spark” or essence inside the human illuminates the body. According to yoga, you are made of an energy completely distinct from matter. You, the self (atma), are an indivisible unit of the element known as life. According to the science of yoga, you, the life particle, are seated in the heart (but not inseparably—you can remove the physical heart, but you will not be removed with it). Your influence spreads throughout the body by means of this vast network of channels (nadis) that carry the life force to every cell of the body. In a sense yogic philosophy would see the self as somewhat similar to what religions such as Christianity might call the soul – some part of a human that is eternal that continues after the death of the body. Yogic Philosophy looks at the self as and energy that is eternal, unchanging, essence nature. Whereas the Buddhist tradition holds the view that there is no self. The Buddhist idea of an emptiness and non- self is a stark contrast with the meditations on inner light, higher self, and eternal essence that one might find in Yoga classes. It should be said however that whether Buddhism believes in an ongoing self similar to yogic traditions, depends on definitions of the self and of the soul. Some of the earliest texts of Buddhism have an idea of the ontological self, which continues beyond death and evolves across lifetimes, and Buddhism does have an idea of the spiritual gene or spiritual self which continues beyond death and reincarnates, which we’ll discuss more about below.

Discussion Question: Do you believe in a transcendental self (whether you call it self, spirit, soul…whatever)? What does this make you feel about your physical body? As for all of nature can you really believe it is just an illusion?


Historical Description of Buddhism

Siddhattha Gotama

Siddhattha Gotama is recognized as the Buddha, but this is technically incorrect. Anyone can be a Buddha, there were many before Gotama Buddha, many after, and more to come. Indeed, Siddhattha Gotama had lived many lives before he was born into that earthly identity (if, of course, you believe in such things), and this had an important impact on his life. According to legend, Dipankara Buddha foretold that Siddhattha Gotama would be born as a prince in the kingdom of the Shakyas (so he is also referred to as Prince Shakyamuni and as Shakyamuni Buddha), and that in that lifetime he would become a Buddha. Sometime around the fifth or sixth century B.C., Prince Shakyamuni was born. Not wanting his son to leave the kingdom, the king indulged his son with every sensual pleasure known to man. The king also protected his son from knowing the unpleasant realities of life (disease, death, etc.). However, the prince’s destiny was set. Prince Shakyamuni decided he wanted to see the kingdom. In order to prevent the prince from seeing the reality of life, the king ordered that everything in the city should be cleaned and decorated and everyone should be on their best behavior. However, four heavenly beings appeared to Prince Shakyamuni: the first as someone suffering the ravages of old age, the second as someone stricken with disease, the third as a corpse, and the fourth as a wandering monk. These visitors made a profound impression on the young prince, who left his wife, child, and home to seek enlightenment.

The story of the Buddha – a young person protected from all evil and all corruption, and surrounded only by health and beauty, is a story found in many religious paths, such as the Christian story of Adam and Eve. In 1987 mythologist Joseph Campbell completed a book called The Hero’s Journey about the common theme in stories and religions of the development of human beings and the integration of their personality — by leaving the ordinary world they live in and meeting challenges and difficulties, and eventually returning with wisdom. The book was and is a very popular book because many people can relate to their own “hero’s journey” and the wisdom it has brought to their personal development.

Living in India, the path to spiritual enlightenment that he followed was to become a yogi. He studied meditation, he became an accomplished ascetic (it is said he lived for a time on one grain of rice a day), but he failed to achieve anything satisfying. So finally he had a nice lunch and sat down under a Bodhi tree, vowing to remain seated until he achieved enlightenment. Finally, he was “awakened,” which is the meaning of the word Buddha. In his first sermon, Gotama Buddha revealed the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way, among other teachings. The middle way is a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. The middle way also refers to a proposal by the Dalai Lama for a compromise with China, allowing Tibet to have independent culture and religion but remain a part of China. China has not accepted the middle way proposal.

Those who have followed the teachings of Buddha have come to be known as Buddhists. For more on the life of the Buddha, an excellent chapter has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The sayings of the Buddha have also been collected, and are readily available (e.g., see Byrom, 1993). In his own words, we can see the relationship between Buddhism and psychology, and how these teachings were meant to guide people toward a healthy and happy life. In the teaching entitled “Choices,” the Buddha says:

We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world.

Speak or act with a pure mind

And happiness will follow you

As your shadow, unshakable. (pgs. 1-2)


His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Unlike the historical figure Gotama Buddha, the Dalai Lama is alive today. Although his home is Tibet, where he was born in 1935, he lives in exile in India. He is believed to be the 14th Dalai Lama, a reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lamas, the first of whom is believed to have been the reincarnation of a boy who lived during the time of Gotama Buddha. That boy was an incarnation of Chenrezig (also known as Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a Bodhisattva is like a Buddha – see below), and the Dalai Lamas have served for over 650 years as the religious leader of the Tibetan people. Due to political circumstances in Tibet today, it is unclear what may happen to Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama himself does not know whether he will be the last of the Dalai Lamas, but he hopes that choice will someday be made by a free and democratic Tibetan society (Dalai Lama, 2002).

Photo of man Dalai Lama in Gold Maroon Robes
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Characteristics of Existence


Karma is a difficult concept to grasp. We generally think of karma as the consequences of things we have done wrong, but karma does not apply simply to our misbehavior, it applies to all of our actions. An easy to understand discussion of karma has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The law of karma can be understood on two levels. First, karma refers to cause and effect. Whenever we perform an action, we experience some consequence at a later time. The second level of karma may be more important, as it refers to our state of mind at the time when we performed the action in question. Our intentions, or the motives behind an action, determine the nature of the consequences we experience. The importance of this point is that we control the nature of our karma. This, of course, has important implications for personality development. Once we understand the karmic law, it is only natural that we should begin to plant the seeds of healthy karma. In other words, we should be inclined to act only in ways that are healthy and socially beneficial, so that the consequences we then experience will lead to greater well-being for ourselves.

The second level of karma, that it is our intentions and motivation that affect the outcome of our lives, seems quite similar to cognitive theories in psychology. Cognitive psychology focuses on the nature of our thought, and problems often arise when we are trapped in a series of automatic thoughts that create problems for us. In other words, when we view the world negatively, we react in negative and maladaptive ways. Similarly, our past karma influences the karma we create for the future. If we think and act in negative ways, we create negative karma, but it is also true that if we think and act in positive ways we create positive karma. Cognitive therapy resembles much of what is written in the East about recognizing the cause-and-effect pattern that our karma traps us within. Successful cognitive therapy is something like enlightenment: when we realize the truth of what we are doing we have a chance to break that pattern and move in a healthy direction.

Discussion Question: Karma refers to the cosmic law of cause and effect, the idea that our past actions will someday affect our current and future lives. Do you believe this, and can you provide any examples of this happening to you?



The Buddha said that “everything arises and passes away…existence is illusion” (in Byrom, 1993). The idea of impermanence or that nothing is permanent is a central belief in Buddhism. People are born, grow up, grow old, and die. Buildings wear down, cars break down, and enormous trees wither away. Even mountains are eventually worn down by erosion. However, children are born, new cars and buildings are built, new plants grow, and life goes on. The implications for Buddhism are quite interesting. If everything, and everyone, changes, then even someone who is enlightened will change! One cannot be a Buddha, for they will change. We must always continue to grow. Likewise, Buddhism itself will change, so most of their doctrines are not seen as static. They anticipate change over time.

For psychology, this has both good and not so good implications. For people who are depressed or anxious, they might take heart in impermanence, since things should eventually get better. Indeed, studies on the effects of psychotherapy often show that some people get better over time without treatment. However, if things seem to be going great, if you are happy and having lots of fun, those things will change too. But knowing this, we can prepare ourselves for it. An important aspect of coping with life’s challenges is a sense of being in control. Although there are a wide variety of variables that contribute to individual resilience, maintaining a positive state of mind can help, and knowledge can help to maintain that positive state of mind (Bonnano, 2004, 2005; Folkman and Moskowitz, 2000; Ray, 2004).

Buddhism also brings to question whether personality really exists. It is clear people have individual differences. But depending on the school of Buddhism, some would suggest that all that we are is a temporary collection of attributes, made up of the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the reactions, and the consciousness of the mind (which, coming from the brain, is really part of the body). In this sense Buddhism has a more open attitude toward personality, seeing it as impermanent and it will change from lifetime to lifetime. 

If we practice mindfulness and meditation, we can begin to see the impermanence of our lives. Mindfulness is a technique extracted from Buddhism where one tries to notice present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgement. As we let go of our attachments to our self-image, our life will flow by like the pictures of a movie, each one a separate image, which only appears to flow smoothly when viewed at high speed. As we observe these fleeting images, we see how our sensations, thoughts, feelings, every aspect of our lives, change so quickly. We might then embrace the change that is truly our life. This process of letting go can be very difficult, but also very liberating (Goldstein and Kornfield, 2001).

“Do not seek perfection in a changing world.

Instead, perfect your love.” – Kornfield, 1994


As we learned with the first of the Four Noble Truths, suffering is an integral part of the human experience. It is easy for us to think of suffering in terms of big pictures: war, famine, natural disasters, and the like. But how often do we think of suffering as an inherent part of our daily lives? Life is difficult, it is a struggle, especially the way most of us live it. A struggle can only lead to suffering. The ultimate outcome of life’s struggle, should we lose the battle, is death. If we could defeat death we would end up alone, and that loneliness might be even worse than the original suffering itself (Suzuki, 1962). Still, we do not even need to look at suffering in terms of a lifetime battle against aging and death, we can see suffering in every moment of the day. Goldstein and Kornfield offer a marvelous description of the daily challenge to be satisfied (2001). It goes something like this. Suppose we woke up on a day when we had no obligations at all. It might be tempting to stay in bed all day, but eventually we become uncomfortable because we have to go to the bathroom. Finally we go, and then crawl back into bed to get warm. But then we get hungry, so finally we get up to get something to eat. Then we get bored, so maybe we watch TV. Then we get uncomfortable, and have to change positions. Even each pleasurable moment is brief, and fails to bring lasting satisfaction. So on, and so forth. We just keep suffering!

The source of this suffering is attachment. Gotama Buddha taught that suffering is the result of craving or desire.  This was a problem of “attachment” to things in life such as money or love or anything that we get too attached to. Learning detachment or non-attachment to things is an important practice in Buddhism, and decreases suffering. We are attached to pleasurable things because we crave them. We are also attached to things that are not pleasant, because they occupy our mind and we cannot be free. The Buddha says, “Free yourself from pleasure and pain. For in craving pleasure or in nursing pain, there is only sorrow” (in Byrom, 1993). It may seem strange that we would be attached to our pain, but the word is used differently here than in most of Western psychology. Traditionally, psychologists think of attachment in a positive way, such as the attachment a child feels toward his or her parents. And yet, some cognitive psychologists do talk about individuals whose automatic thoughts lead them into consistently negative states of mind by disqualifying positive events, catastrophizing events, taking everything too personally, etc. (Pretzer and Beck, 2005). In Buddhism, attachment is neither positive nor negative, it is simply anything that reflects our illusion that the natural world is real. Only when we let go of our attachments to this world can we be one with the universal spirit, and only then can we end our suffering. There is also something hopeful in suffering. Bodhidharma taught that every suffering is a Buddha-seed, because suffering leads us to seek wisdom (in Red Pine, 1987). In this analogy, he describes the body and mind as a field. Suffering is the seed, wisdom the sprout, and Buddhahood the grain.

Discussion Question: Gotama Buddha taught that suffering is the result of craving or desire. Many of us have heard the saying that money is the root of all evil. Is our society excessively focused on buying more and bigger things? Do you ever find yourself obsessed with some material purchase? What problems, if any, have you experienced because people were more concerned with getting things than caring about the people around them?


In keeping with its origins in Yoga, Buddhism teaches that there is no immortal, unchanging soul. Buddhism refers to the concept of Anatman from sanskrit, which breaks down “an” = not and “atman” = self. All that we are is a temporary collection of attributes, made up of the what Buddhism calls the five aggregates, which are: body, the feelings, the perceptions, the reactions, and the consciousness of the mind (which, coming from the brain, is really part of the body).  The Buddha taught that we can’t really locate the center or soul in any one of these aggregates or a combination of these five aggregates. These can be thought of as the five aggregates of clinging, in that clinging must be mediated by something such as one of the aggregates such as feelings or sensory experiences. We are convinced something is real and important as it is mediated through what we feel is an absolute experience our self is having.  For example, if we have an absolute experience of our opinion, and we are convinced we are right through the aggregate of mental formation, we cling to that mental formation and opinion and are sad and suffer as others disagree with us and as we are twisted up with our absolute experience of mental formation.

In one of the great Dharma talks (Dharma is teachings or truths in Buddhism) given at Deer Park in Sarnath to monks, Gautama Buddha takes the monks through each possible aggregate and asks, could the self be located in this aggregate? The Buddha’s logic is if something is the self it should be like a controller and include permanence. The Buddha then answers that the self cannot be located in any particular aggregate, and that we confuse our true self (the transcendental self) with this temporary collection of aggregates and illusory things. For example the self can’t be located in the body, because the body does not allow full control and permanence. Through each of these aggregates we get confused and crave satisfaction, and ultimately suffer as a result. It’s important to remember the Buddha was teaching to monks, who were more willing to renounce earthly experiences for transcendent ones, relative to an ordinary person. Nevertheless the teaching may be beneficial to everyone, that clinging occurs through the idea that our self is locked in a particular perceptual channel of experience, and that we can gain some freedom by understanding that this may not really be our “self” –although it sure feels like it.

The Buddha did not often talk about the permanent or transcendental self, or of a soul, as the Buddha intentionally was trying to teach that we are interconnected to each other, and more flexible than we think. Perhaps the primary teaching here is that we are not a separate self- we are a relativity. There is no non-relative thing.  We have a core but actually our core is part of other cores. We are deeply interconnected with other people.

In other teachings of the Buddha, it does suggest there is something of a transcendental self or soul that continues on after death. It is often debated whether Buddhism believes in the idea of a permanent soul, and this really depends on how soul is defined. The Buddha did talk of something that could be framed as the idea of a spiritual gene that exists on an esoteric level and provides a continuity of mind and continuity of consciousness, and for example may be involved in choosing one’s next incarnation and parents and lessons to be learned (Thurman, 2014). But the Buddha was reluctant to frame this as similar to the Hindu idea of an ongoing soul or permanent person and self that travels across time.

There are many studies in psychology showing the bias and belief in a self that is making rational decisions, yet this doesn’t turn out to be true. For example Prinz, Jesse & Seidel, Angelika. (2012) completed a study where they played neutral music and scary music as subjects saw ambiguous figures. If scary music was being played, subjects were more likely to say they saw a dangerous object such as a snake. If neutral music was played subjects were more like to say the figures they saw were neutral and benign. The suggestion of the authors is this study evidences the fact that feeling influences perception and creates actual visual bias. Something that feels clear in perception, in other words, is influenced by emotional bias. It may seem illogical to reject everything we are familiar with, including our own physical body, as an illusion, but Buddhists would suggest that there are dangers in identifying too much with an absolute self, and in choosing our intellectual experience and logic over faith. According to Buddhist psychology, the self is an experience that human beings have as a result of the conditioned factors of their existence. This self is a fluid process that emerges from the interaction of a sentient being and its environment. Mindfulness training is meant to facilitate a shift in the experience of the self away from identification with a narrative sense of self and toward an experience of the self as an ongoing process of present moment-focused experiencing. This can be thought of as similar to what a person may hear in cognitive behavioral therapy, that a person is not there thoughts or emotions, they are more than this (or less than this). 
According to D.T. Suzuki (1962), “Faith lives and the intellect kills.”  By intellect the great teacher Suzuki means something similar to external knowledge that creates more questions than answers.  And for faith he means something similar to the “innerliness” of things or inner wisdom and observed experience. Try the following exercise. Consider your body. Is it real? How much food have you eaten in your life, and where is it now? How many times have you gone to the bathroom, and where did all of that come from? It certainly isn’t the same as when you ate it! Your body has been replaced many, many times. It is being replaced right now. It isn’t real, it is only temporary, ever changing. The same is true with your mind. Even when William James discussed the stream of consciousness, he described a constantly changing awareness, one in which you cannot have the same thought twice. It just isn’t possible. James (1892) realized that we cannot establish a substantial identity continuing from day to day, but concluded that our sense of continuity must reveal a functional identity. Arriving at a very different conclusion, Buddhists consider this to be maya, our inability to see things as they truly are (Suzuki, 1960).

These three characteristics of existence (impermanence, suffering, and selflessness) can be somewhat unsettling. It is not very appealing to believe that we don’t really exist, that we will suffer as long as we believe we do exist, and all of it will just eventually pass away anyway. So, how does one continue in this practice? It is important to keep as our goal a true understanding of the way things are, and the practice of meditation and other aspects of Yoga and Buddhism will help to deepen our realization of these basic truths (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001). The practice remains challenging, however, because as we deepen our understanding the characteristic most often occupying the center of our greatest realization is that of suffering (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Suzuki, 1962). We must then put aside our intellectualizing, we must slay it and throw it to the dogs, experiencing what Buddhists call the “Great Death” (Suzuki, 1962). Only then will we know the greatest wisdom and compassion. This is the beginning of our transcendence. It is not a separation from others, but a realization that we are all one. In other words, we are all in this together.

Interbeing – A Connection Between All People and All Things

Many people are familiar with the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you! This Christian saying also has great implications when considered from a Buddhist perspective. Based on the same philosophical/cosmological perspective as Yoga, Buddhists believe that there is one universal spirit. Therefore, we are really all the same, indeed the entire universe of living creatures and even inanimate objects in the physical world come from and return to the same, single source of creation. Thus, we could alter the golden rule to something like: as you do unto others you are doing unto yourself! This concept is not simply about being nice to other people for your own good, however. Much more importantly, it is about appreciating the relationships between all things. For example, when you drink a refreshing glass of milk, maybe after eating a few chocolate chip cookies, can you taste the grass and feel the falling rain? After all, the cow could not have grown up to give milk if it hadn’t eaten grass, and the grass would not have grown if there hadn’t been any rain. When you enjoy that milk do you remember to thank the farmer who milked the cow, or the grocer who sold the milk to you? And what about the worms that helped to create and aerate the soil in which the grass grew? Appreciating the concept of interbeing helps us to understand the importance of everyone and everything.

The value of this concept of interbeing is that it can be much more than simply a curious academic topic. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes very eloquently about interbeing and its potential for promoting healthy relationships, both between people and between societies (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995):

“Looking deeply” means observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. The result is insight into the true nature of the object. When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. It “inter-is” with everything else in the universe. … When we see the nature of interbeing, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born. (pg. 10)

Having understood this concept, how might it apply to personality? One of the best known cross-cultural topics in psychology today is the distinction between collectivistic vs. individualistic cultures (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). It is generally accepted that Western cultures focus on the individual, whereas Eastern cultures focus on society as a collective group. One can easily imagine how people whose religious and cultural philosophy focus on a single, universal spirit (the basis of interbeing) would focus more on their family and societal groups than on the individual. Both individualistic and collectivistic cultures seem to have advantages. People living in individualistic cultures report higher levels of subjective well-being and self-esteem, whereas people in collectivistic cultures have tend to have lower levels of stress and correspondingly lower levels of cardiovascular disease (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). In collectivistic cultures people tend to view the environment as relatively fixed, and themselves as more flexible, more ready to fit in (Triandis & Suh, 2002). The collectivistic perspective supports the value of social cooperation and social interest (something Alfred Adler would likely appreciate). Still, even within cultures there are individual differences. There are idiocentric persons (those who favor individuality) living in collectivistic cultures, and allocentric persons (those who favor ingroups) living in individualistic cultures. The best relationship between personality and culture may be the “culture fit” model, which suggests that it is best to live in the culture that matches your personal inclinations.

Discussion Question: The concept of interbeing suggests that all things are ultimately connected. Have you ever taken the time to think about all the things that had to happen, and all the people who were involved, in producing anything you hold in your hand? What about all the things that had to happen, and all the people who were involved, in your creation? And if we are all connected in some way, if we are all interbeing, what have you done to value those relationships?

Quote Nhat Hanh
To Be is to Inter Be

Connections Across Cultures: The Non-Violent Struggles of Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 14th Dalai Lama

The four men listed above are famous in a variety of ways, but they are probably best known for their commitment to nonviolence as a way to achieve political and social justice. Most importantly, they vowed non-violence while those around them were committed to terrible violence in order to deny justice to others. The two who are not alive today were both assassinated, and the other two were forced to live in exile. Gandhi was a Hindu who practiced Yoga, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama are Buddhists, and M. L. King, Jr. was a Christian, and it was their spiritual beliefs that so profoundly determined those aspects of their personalities that demanded peace.

Gandhi (1869-1948) is considered the father of modern India. He was born when the British ruled India, and spent much of his life fighting for the independence of his homeland. Twice he was imprisoned by the government, even though he insisted that all protests should be nonviolent. Indeed, he had established a movement of nonviolence known as Satyagraha. Ultimately this movement was successful, and India achieved its independence. Gandhi, however, was assassinated less than a year later. As he died, he spoke the name of God: Rama (Easwaran, 1972; Wilkinson, 2005).

Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-present) was born in Vietnam, and saw his country dominated first by the French and then by communists. During those difficult times he helped to develop what he and his friends called “engaged Buddhism.” Rather than sitting in the temple meditating, they went out into the villages and tried to help the poor people of Vietnam. When confronted by soldiers they did their best to remain mindful, and to feel compassion for the soldiers who threatened them. After all, it was clear to Thich Nhat Hanh that many of those young soldiers were frightened themselves, and so their behavior was very hard to predict. Thus, the calm and peace that accompany mindfulness was often essential for protecting everyone in those terrifying encounters. After being exiled from Vietnam in 1966, he established a community called Plum Village in France, where he still resides today (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1966, 2003).

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was a major figure in America’s civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The King children learned at an early age about the realities of racism in America. Coming from an educated and socially active family, both his father and grandfather were ministers, he vowed at an early age to work against racial injustice. According to his sister, he said he would turn the world upside down (Farris, 2003). However, he always insisted on doing so in a nonviolent fashion. For this commitment to nonviolence, in 1964 he became the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the peace prize and the passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, discrimination continued in America. So did the nonviolent protests led by Dr. King. Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (Burns, 2004; Hansen, 2003; Patrick, 1990).

The Dalai Lama (1935-present) lives in exile in India, though he also spends a great deal of time in America. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, he appealed to the United Nations, other countries, and even tried to reach an agreement with the Chinese leadership. Eventually, however, he was forced to leave Tibet in 1959. Today, nearly 50 years later, he continues to seek a peaceful resolution resulting in freedom for Tibet. He also works to deliberately cultivate feelings of compassion for the Chinese, believing that someday those who have harmed the people of Tibet will have to face the consequences of their actions (Dalai Lama, 2002). The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

These men have more in common than simply their shared belief in nonviolence. In addition to M. L. King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, as Nobel Laureates are entitled to do, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the same award. Dr. King had received a letter from Thich Nhat Hanh asking for help in protesting the Vietnam war, which by the 1960s involved the United States. Dr. King was impressed by the Buddhist monk, and once appeared with him at a press conference in Chicago (Burns, 2004). Dr. King was also familiar with and impressed by the teachings of Gandhi. In 1959 he traveled to India to learn firsthand about Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the basis for Gandhi’s nonviolent independence movement (King, 2000). In 1966, Dr. King delivered the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at Howard University (Hansen, 2003). Since both the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are alive today, they have met one another and the Dalai Lama has written several forewords for books by Thich Nhat Hanh. If these men from different countries and different cultures can share so much through the simple (though not easy) practice of nonviolence, perhaps there is something special here for everyone to learn more about.


Meditation Techniques

Meditation is the means by which we control our mind and guide it in a more virtuous direction (Dalai Lama, 2001). Modern brain imaging techniques have even begun to identify the brain regions involved in these processes (Barinaga, 2003). There are many different meditation techniques in Yoga and Buddhism, and no one technique is necessarily better than another. What is most important is to pick one type of meditation and stick with it. Meditation takes practice. Most of us find it very difficult to relax and clear our mind. Even when we do, it is difficult to stay relaxed and keep our mind clear. We are distracted by constant thoughts, getting uncomfortable, we have itches and sneezes and whatever… But over time we can get better at relaxing. It helps to have a well-described procedure, and it can be very helpful to meditate in a group (especially if they offer classes or lessons on how to meditate). If you try meditation, don’t get discouraged the first few times. Keep it up. As with all paths toward self-improvement, it takes time to progress in your ability to meditate.

Some of the writings of Master Dogen (1200-1253), the monk who founded Japanese Soto Zen, have survived during the 800 years since he lived (in Cook, 2002). Master Dogen recommends a very traditional form of seated meditation. Basically, sit straight up on a comfortable cushion with your legs crossed. Place your right hand in your lap, palm up, and your left hand on your right hand in the same manner, so that your thumbs touch slightly. Keep the eyes slightly open, the mouth closed, and breathe softly. Next comes the hard part: “Think about the unthinkable. How do you think about the unthinkable? Non-thinking.”

Non-thinking may sound strange, but it is a fascinating experience for those who achieve it. It can actually make a 3- or 6-hour mediation seem to go by more quickly than a shorter meditation in which you never quite clear your mind. If it sounds a little too strange, don’t worry, it isn’t the goal of every form of meditation. Some forms of meditation focus on a mantra, or in Christian mediation a short prayer. Trying to focus on God through the celestial eye (in the middle of the forehead) is also a common technique. The Dalai Lama describes several different approaches in one of his books (Dalai Lama, 2001), and Thich Nhat Hanh discusses being reasonable in one’s approach to longer meditations (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991). Once again, there is not a right or wrong method of meditation. Whatever technique you try, whether from a book, a guru, a teacher, or a group, it is whatever works for you on your path to personal development.


Mindfulness is a form of meditation that occurs throughout every moment of the day. Indeed, it is very important to live fully in every moment, and to look deeply into each experience (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995). By being mindful, we can enter into awareness of our body and our emotions. Thich Nhat Hanh relates a story in which the Buddha was asked when he and his monks practiced. The Buddha replied that they practiced when they sat, when they walked, and when they ate. When the person questioning the Buddha replied that everyone sits, walks, and eats, the Buddha replied that he and his monks knew they were sitting, knew they were walking, and knew they were eating (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). Mindfulness can also be applied to acts as simple as breathing. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, conscious breathing is the most basic Buddhist technique for touching peace (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995). He suggests silently reciting the following lines while breathing mindfully:

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment!

The concept of mindfulness, viewed in its traditional way, is also being used today in psychotherapy. Two recent books address the use of mindfulness either in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to treat depression (McQuaid and Carmona, 2004) or as its own approach to the treatment of anxiety (Brantley, 2003). McQuaid and Carmona (2004) discuss how combining cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness together can provide a much stronger approach to treatment than either technique alone. Since the approaches have much in common, they amplify the effectiveness of each, and given their differences, they offer a complete path to moving beyond simple recovery toward more positive self development. Dr. Brantley (2003) moves more completely into the practice of mindfulness, emphasizing that it must become a way of life. It is not simply a clever therapeutic technique or gimmick.

Discussion Question: Mindfulness refers to maintaining a meditative state throughout the day. A similar approach is essential to cognitive/behavioral therapy. Are you aware of what you do during the day, or are you overwhelmed with being too busy? Could you see the practice of mindfulness as a helpful way to deal with your hectic life, and perhaps reduce stress at the same time?

Compassion and Loving-Kindness

“Just as compassion is the wish that all sentient beings be free of suffering, loving-kindness is the wish that all may enjoy happiness” (Dalai Lama, 2001). With these simple words about Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has captured the history of psychology briefly presented in the introductory chapter: that psychology focused for many years on helping to identify and treat mental illness (hopefully freeing people from suffering), whereas now there is a strong movement toward positive psychology (hoping to improve well-being for all). This recognition of compassion as the strong feeling or wish that others be freed from suffering comes from mindfulness. As one becomes truly aware of the suffering involved in human life, and if one is able to feel genuine empathy for others, then compassion naturally arises (Chappell, 2003; Dalai Lama, 2001; Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). Compassion has described as the ideal emotional state (Bankart et al., 2003; Cook, 2002; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003), and Carl Rogers considered genuine empathy to be essential for client-centered therapy to be successful. Aside from Rogers, however, have other psychologists begun to examine the value of compassion and loving-kindness? The answer is an unequivocal “Yes” (Bankart et al., 2003; Batson et al., 2005; Cassell, 2005; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Keyes & Lopez, 2005; Khong, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003; Schulman, 2005; Young-Eisendrath, 2003)!

“Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”

– Kornfield, 1994

Obstacles to Personal Growth: The Three Poisons of Buddhism

Buddhists believe in three poisons, the great obstacles to personal development. They are greed, anger, and delusion. These poisons, or realms as they are often called, have no nature of their own, they are created by us and they depend on us. Greed flows from attachment, anger flows from our emotions, and delusion flows from maya. By following the practices of Buddhism, we can free ourselves from these poisons as did the Buddha. According to Bodhidharma, the Buddha made three vows. He vowed to put an end to all evil, by practicing moral prohibitions to counter the poison of greed. He vowed to cultivate virtue by practicing meditation to counter the poison of anger. And he vowed to liberate all beings by practicing wisdom to counter the poison of delusion (in Red Pine, 1987). Likewise, we can devote ourselves to the three pure practices of morality, meditation, and wisdom.

It is interesting to note how well this philosophy fits with the growing field of positive psychology (e.g., see Compton, 2005; Peterson, 2006). Indeed, whole books have been written on the study of virtue in psychology (Fowers, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Note, however, that these books are quite recent. Although the seeds of positive psychology, studies on virtue and similar topics have been around since the earliest days of psychology in the Western world, we seem to be just starting to “discover” concepts that have been well established in Eastern philosophy/psychology for thousands of years. As we recognize more similarities between traditional Eastern perspectives and current Western perspectives, it may help to guide these developing areas of psychological research in the Western world.

History and Theory of Taoism


The Tao: Tao (道; dào) literally means “way” in Chinese, but can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line. Tao can be also viewed as the “flow of the universe”. A person who follows the Tao can be called a Taoist, and tries to live in  harmony with the flow of the universe. Taoism is a philosophical or religious tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, literally: ‘the Way’. Taoism is a Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-tzu ( fl. 6th century BC), advocating humility and religious piety, and teaching on living a long and prosperous life. The roots of Taoism go back at least to the 4th century BCE. Early Taoism drew its cosmological notions from the School of Yinyang (Naturalists) and was deeply influenced by one of the oldest texts of Chinese culture, the I Ching (Yi Jing), which expounds a philosophical system about how to keep human behaviour in accordance with the alternating cycles of nature.
Taoism is most often compared to metaphor of water.  Following the Tao is following the “river’s way”, as a river finds the most natural path of least resistance, yet is powerful in its ongoing force.  Taoism has no God Taoism and is a nature philosophy and religion. It focuses on principles of action (or non-action), genuineness, longevity, health, immortality, vitality, detachment, refinement (emptiness), spontaneity, transformation and omni-potentiality. The founder of Taoism is often credited as Lao Tzu (or Lao Tse). In the most prolific and important book on Taoism, the author Lao Tse says: 
“When we try to control the future, we are like an inexperienced child trying to take the place of a master carpenter.”
Verse 74, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse
A fundamental principle of Taoism is Wu wei, which is a Chinese word meaning inexertion or non-action, or natural action, but in practice might be best characterized as effortless action. This is the noblest kind of action according to Taoism, as it is action in congruence with the nature of life. It is natural action, or in other words, action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. Wu wei is the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life, or the Tao. Below are some quotes from the Tao Te Ching that represent this idea of following the flow of life. 

“The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings. He knows that he is going to die, and he has nothing left to hold on to: no illusions in his mind, no resistances in his body. He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being. He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work. Verse 50, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse

“Therefore the Master takes action by letting things take their course. He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning. He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose. What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn. He simply reminds people of who they have always been. He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things.” Verse 50, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations”. Verse 1, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse

“The Master’s power is like this. He lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire. He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed. He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.” (55)

Readers will notice the similarities in Lao Tzu’s viewpoints, to Buddhist concepts such as detachment, non-clinging, and non-desire, or control of desire.

Lao Tzu’s book is a short book of verses yet a very popular book.  The basis of the teachings in the book is the idea of “don’t push past the breaking point”, and the person who can live that way is enlightened. Carl Jung, the great personality theorist, had an interest in Chinese studies including Taoism. Jung believed we each had a journey to pursue, and we had to be in touch with this journey by reading the signals life presents to us and not trying to force life to conform to a certain program that was not our path.

When one follows the path of individuation (journey towards wholeness), when one lives one’s own life, one must take mistakes into the bargain; life would be incomplete without them.
There is no guarantee–not for a single moment–that we will not fall into error or stumble into deadly peril.
We may think there is a sure road.
But that would be the road of death.
Then nothing happens any longer–at any rate, not the right things.
Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead.
~Carl Jung, MDR, Page 297
Taoism does not have a developed theory of personality, but is more a recommendation for character and how to live the most noble and long life. Taoism suggests we should be like water, which is ‘submissive and weak’ and ‘yet which can’t be surpassed for attacking what is hard and strong’. Through gentle persistence and a compliance with the specific shape of a problem, an obstacle can be worked round and gradually eroded.  The attitude a practitioner of Taoism would carry is similar to being a little bit drunk – meaning going lightly on our way (Towler, 2021). Taoism emphasizes integration of the personality, as in this verse from the Tao Te Ching.

Hold your male side with your female side

Hold your bright side with your dull side

Hold your high side with your low side

Then you will be able to hold the world

Lao Tzu, Chapter 28, Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu is recommending the integration of opposites and traits of our personality. Let these traits live in peace and harmony with each other, respecting each trait as important. All of our traits must be organized with some type of unity.
Taoism has been studied in multiple empirical studies. Although it is challenging to operationalize the concepts of Taoism, some researchers have suggested that the idea of the river’s way or watercourse way advocated by Taoism can be operationalized as a kind of altruism – acting with flow and kindness toward other human beings. Lee et. Al (2008) studied altruism or watercourse way behavior between US and Chinese college students, finding that both groups of students were altruistic but that cultural altruistic behaviors interacted with the traits within each student. Lao Tzu advocated a “wateristic or water-like personality” partly because he observed that human conflict (e.g., fighting, killing, wars) was most likely to occur if everyone wanted to compete and to go after his or her interest (e.g., moving or fighting for more material, or more fame or higher rank). Thus, we human beings should learn from water because water always remains in the lowest position and never competes with other things. Instead, water is very helpful and beneficial to all things. According to Lao Tzu, the highest value (or goodness) is like water, The value in water benefits all things and yet it does not contend, It stays in places that others despise, And therefore is close to the Tao. (Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching)

A Final Note

Personality Theory in Real Life: Are You Really You?

We ended the first chapter in this book by asking an interesting question: Who are you? In this chapter, we have addressed the possibility that everything you know about yourself is an illusion, and that even knowing is an illusion. How can this be? The answer may be found, or perhaps not found, in the mystery that is God. The Christian Bible teaches that God’s ways are not Man’s ways. Paramahansa Yogananda provides a marvelous image of the mystery of the Godhead being so far beyond our comprehension that it defies description (Yogananda, 1946); and Dante’s awesome description of the appearance of the divine essence in Paradiso is difficult to envision, even as one reads Dante’s words (in Milano, 1947). Perhaps some things are beyond our comprehension.

How then, should we proceed to live our life? Based on the concept of Karma, our past actions will influence our future experiences. Consider things you have done in your life. Have you regretted some of them? Did they seem out of character for you? Try to determine if unfortunate events followed those actions you regret. On the positive side, are there things you have done that make you proud or happy? Have those things involved other people, or were they done for other people? Try to determine whether those good things you have done resulted in favorable consequences for you and for others.

Now, here comes the tricky part. When you have done good things, do they feel more like you than the bad things did? If the answer is yes, it may be that you have begun to touch something special within yourself. You are responsible for both the good things and the bad things you have done in this life. But perhaps the good things feel better, feel more like you, because they begin to connect you with your transcendental self, that spark of the divine within you, which may be called spirit or soul. Thinking this way is a deep and powerful challenge, which requires you to have some faith in yourself. Meditate on this, and see what happens!

Review of Key Points

  • Although Yoga and Buddhism have significant religious overtones, they are actually lifestyle guidelines that promote psychological well-being.
  • In Yoga there is a dichotomy between spirit and nature, with spirit being pure consciousness. Our belief that we are actually our physical selves (our natural self) is an illusion.
  • Karma refers to the cosmic law of cause and effect. Our past actions, both good and bad, affect our future.
  • Everything in the natural world is composed of three gunas: rajas (craving and action), tamas (ignorance and dullness), and sattva (light and joy).
  • Buddhism is based on the 2,500 year-old teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, who is also known as Gotama Buddha. Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China some 1,500 years ago, and the Dalai Lama is a very famous Tibetan Buddhist leader alive today.
  • The Buddha taught that there are four noble truths: suffering is a reality in human life, suffering comes from craving, the craving that leads to suffering can be destroyed, the path to destroy craving is the Middle Way (aka, the Eightfold Path).
  • Buddhists believe in three basic characteristics of existence: nothing is permanent, suffering is an integral part of human life, and we have no immortal, unchanging soul.
  • The Buddhist concept of interbeing emphasizes the connection between all living things, and even inanimate objects, because there is only one single source of all creation.
  • Meditation, the common element in all forms of Yoga and Buddhism, is a means for controlling our mind and moving it in a more virtuous direction. Soto Zen emphasizes sitting meditation alone, whereas Rinzai Zen adds to seated meditation the practice of meditating on a koan, an unsolvable riddle.
  • Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a meditative state throughout our daily routine.
  • The ideal emotional state for Buddhists is compassion. Both compassion and loving-kindness flow naturally from mindfulness, since mindful individuals recognize the reality of our existence.
  • Buddhists believe in three poisons, or obstacles to personal growth: greed, anger, and delusion.
  • Zen Buddhism has been taught in the United States for over 100 years. It has found its way into popular literature and has had a clear influence on psychology.
  • Taoism suggests we should be like water, which is ‘submissive and weak’ and ‘yet which can’t be surpassed for attacking what is hard and strong’. Through gentle persistence and a compliance with the specific shape of a problem, an obstacle can be worked round and gradually eroded.


Attachment and Detachment: Gotama Buddha taught that suffering is the result of craving or desire.  This was a problem of “attachment” to things in life such as money or love. Learning detachment or non-attachment to things is an important practice in Buddhism, and decreases suffering.

Buddha: Buddha’s name was Siddhattha Gotama, who is also known as Gotama Buddha. He created teachings and a path of awareness and enlightenment. Buddhism is the philosophy of following the teaching of Buddha.

Dalai Lama: The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet, a country on the Northern side of the Himalaya mountains. The Chinese government requires the Dalai Lama to be in exile because China has colonized Tibet yet Tibet wants to be a free and independent country and practice their religion and customs independent of Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama is an incarnation of previous Dalai Lama’s and is an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism and as a world spiritual leader.

Impermanence: Buddha said that “everything arises and passes away…existence is illusion”. The idea of impermanence or that nothing is permanent is a central belief in Buddhism. Impermanence also influences the study of personality issues, as in a sense there is not really a personality within a person, since everything will fade and change. All that we are is a temporary collection of attributes, made up of the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the reactions, and the consciousness of the mind (which, coming from the brain, is really part of the body).

Karma: refers to cause and effect. Whenever we perform an action, we experience some consequence at a later time. The second level of karma may be more important, as it refers to our state of mind at the time when we performed the action in question. Our intentions, or the motives behind an action, determine the nature of the consequences we experience.

Interbeing: the idea in Buddhism that all things are related, which when one is aware of this it creates additional compassion toward all things.

Mindfulness is a technique extracted from Buddhism where one tries to notice present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgement. It can take many forms including focusing on one thing and being present, or non-thinking and empty mind, or yoga poses or walks in the forest.
The Tao: Tao (道; dào) literally means “way”, but can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line. Tao can be also viewed as the “flow of the universe”.
Wu wei:  a Chinese word meaning inexertion or non-action, or natural action, but in practice might be best characterized as effortless action in alignment with the natural flow of life. 


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This chapter is an edited and adapted version of an open textbook available by Mark Kelland.  The original authors have no responsibility for the contents of this chapter. The original chapter can be found here:  Mark Kelland, Personality Theory in a Cultural Context. OpenStax CNX. Nov 4, 2015 http://cnx.org/contents/9484b2cb-a393-45aa-96bf-e9ae9380dd3e@1.1. 
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