Close this search box.


Interview with Dr. Helen Ma: Buddhism’s Impact in Modern Psychology

The mind is an extremely complex entity. From

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 2, January 2007. 

Dr. Helen Ma is an esteemed clinical psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based interventions, and a visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies, where she teaches a course titled ‘Mindfulness, Stress Reduction and Psychotherapy.’ Despite an extremely busy schedule, Dr. Ma generously donated her time to share with readers her vast knowledge and many insights regarding the exciting, avant garde area of Buddhism-related psychological research.

In this edition’s interview we asked Dr. Ma questions regarding the nature and extent of Buddhism’s influence and impact upon modern psychology.

Dr. Helen Ma – Dr.

Bodhi Journal – BJ

Edited Interview Transcription:

BJ – Lately there has been a lot of talk about interactions between Buddhism and psychology.  There has been a neurological forum that invited the Dalai Lama and engaged with Buddhist theories, there has been a popular book titled ‘The Art of Happiness’ that was written by a psychologist which contained interviews with the Dalai Lama, and there has been a lot of research in different sub fields of psychology which has focused on Buddhist themes. To your knowledge what is the nature and extent of this engagement with, or at least current interest in Buddhism amongst practitioners and scholars in psychology and psychiatry?

Dr. – The research you mentioned just now of course is so exciting. I Think the Mind and Life Institute is doing a three year longitudinal study on the impact of meditation on people’s brain activity, emotions and well being. In fact, it’s very avant garde and very exciting. So that’s the field of neuroscience; a lot of neuroscientists are taking a very active interest in the study of brain plasticity in relation to meditational training. My field of studies was in psychotherapy, helping people to cope with mental illnesses and also to stay well and maintain their wellbeing, so in that regard I actually came in touch with this trend in 1997. That was when I first knew that in the University of Massachusetts in the [United] States, as early as 1979 they already designed a program called mindfulness based stress reduction. It’s an eight week program; patients meet once a week for two to three hours, and it was a group of about 20 or 30 people. So they learn mindfulness meditation throughout the eight weeks, and the research since then has shown mindfulness has helped them cope with their symptoms, to get better. There has been a 20% improvement in their medical[ly diagnosed] symptoms. And also it helped them with their depression and anxiety. And recently the eight week program has been adapted. People with different kinds of problems, like [those] with major depression and anxiety, with binge eating, and also [those] with physical illnesses like cardiac diseases or even psoriasis – it has been showing very promising results.    

BJ – I believe there was also a few [research programs] focusing on cancer patients.

Dr. – Yes. It’s very exciting! Not only did they find that the cancer patients improved, but also their t-cells increased. And there is another study by Professor Davidson on healing – he studied how this eight-week program could be of help to people working in a biotech company, people working with high levels of stress. You know, they don’t necessarily have physical problems, but [are] people like you and me subjected to [high levels of] ‘ordinary’ – quote unquote, stress. Now that you have mentioned cancer research, which uses psychological as well as biological indicators, Dr. Davidson’s research also did [indeed deal with] that. So not only did these people report a reduction in their anxiety and stress levels, but also they found that their brain activities showed a pattern that is consistent with people having increased positive emotions, which means their left anterior region is more active than their right anterior region after learning mindfulness. And also after learning mindfulness they were given an injection of flu vaccine, and then four weeks later the antibodies in their blood were found to have increased significantly much more than those who did not learn meditational training and had the vaccine at the same time.

BJ – That must have been an unpredicted result.

Dr. – Yeah…  But what is more interesting was that they found the percentage that the antibodies increased was proportional to the change in brain activities…

BJ – Mind over matter!

Dr. – Yes! It really shows that the body and mind are so closely related together, and that’s probably a bit like the Buddha often said, that maybe there is ‘only consciousness’…

BJ – Buddhism also, of course, has a strong emphasis on training and practice, and it also has its own practical psychology, and its own ‘take’ on what is the ideal psychological outlook [for a person to have], amongst other things. What are the ways in which there is converge with what we see in modern psychology – granted Buddhism was created 2000 years earlier than modern psychology! What do you believe to be the extent and specific nature of the convergences between the two traditions?

Dr. – That’s an interesting question! Up till now in Western psychology, mindfulness practice has been the major… contribution to psychology. To put it another way, Western psychologists seem to be – that’s something they seem to be interested in. But the scope has actually widened now. Yale University in recent years has designed a therapy called the Self Spiritual Schema Therapy (Note: also known as the ‘Three ‘S’ Therapy’) which actually incorporates explicitly – not implicitly – explicitly, the noble eightfold path. It actually teaches it! The course itself caters for people with drug addiction, so, I mean, its just wonderful to use this Buddhist teaching to cope with this strong attachment – and what stronger attachment could you find than drug addiction! So the program actually takes people through all the [steps of] the noble eightfold path and helps them to nurture and get strengthened along these eight different dimensions. So in that regard I suppose more and more Buddhist teachings are being used, for want of a better word, by Western psychologists.Dr. – We talk of a convergence. I suppose the convergence is, up till now, I think [underlied by the fact] that the Western psychologists have [taken] a very pragmatic approach, and that if they can find something in Buddhism that can be of use to enhancing happiness, as you mentioned by the name of the book ‘The Art of Happiness’, I think they are quite happy to use it. But it depends really on the individual psychologists – how deeply they understand the Abhidharma or how Buddhism sees the world. And also we talk about Sila (morality or precepts), Samadhi (meditational concentration) and Prajna (spiritual wisdom), and I think that a lot of psychologists would probably shy away from teaching Sila, for teaching [this schema of] morality as such. Of course having said that the Three ‘S’ Therapy uses the Noble Eightfold Path which has, explicitly, a moral value. So, yes, to answer your question about this convergence, as I see it know, [it] is getting closer and closer. 

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments