BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking talk: Therapy vs Prayer

This is the transcript for a talk I gave at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking festival, at the Sage in Gateshead last month. The talk was broadcast on Friday 8th November on Radio 3 and is available to listen again here.


A neighbourhood of Osaka lies in ruins, following an air raid in the spring of 1945

Springtime in Osaka, and the smell of charred wood, smoke, and brick dust is in the air.

A young Japanese businessman paces the floors of his little company with a broad smile on his face – not just because those floors are still there to be paced, despite the best efforts last night of American B-29s and their firebombs.

More than that, all around him employee’s fears, grumbles and gripes have all but evaporated in recent months, replaced by an almost suspiciously warm, co-operative spirit.

The plan, it seems, is working. No pay rise, no change in working hours, no improvement in the canteen food. What Yoshimoto Ishin has done, is teach his staff to pray.

Back before the war, Yoshimoto was a member of Japan’s largest Buddhist sect, known for the hope, when a person dies, of rebirth in the ‘Pure Land’.

A visualization of the 'Pure Land'

While for many such hope was enough, a few sought reassurance, and there developed a prayer practice called mishirabe – meaning ‘to search oneself’.

This was no ordinary prayer. Preparation wasn’t a matter of comfortable clothing, kneeling down, or sitting on a cushion. You prepared for prayer by updating your will, by having taken away from you any belts or sharp objects. Such was the risk of death, possibly at your own hand.

You’d also need rest, a good meal, a drink – because until the prayer’s end was achieved, or you gave up, there was no food, no water, no sleep. No company either, in this little room for up to a week; just the occasional visit by an experienced practitioner of the prayer, encouraging you to dig, deeper and deeper.

Mishirabe was a confrontation with yourself: a descent into hell but also, if you were lucky, an encounter with Amida Buddha that resulted in unassailable knowledge that you were saved; that you would be alright.

Yoshimoto put himself through this three times without success, before finally something happened. His old sense of himself was obliterated, and he knew at that moment both that he was saved and that he desperately wanted other people to taste this for themselves.

Empire of Japan banknote depicting Yasukuni Shrine - where the souls of some of Japan's war dead are enshrined

But if mishirabe was controversial before the war, for its extreme nature and its unseemly pushing and prodding of the deity for information, after the war there were new problems.

Trying to understand how their country had come to be source and victim of such inhuman devastation, the people of Japan pointed the finger at religion.

At Shinto, whose talk of imperial divinity, blood, and sacrifice had fuelled the mesmerizing rhetoric of the military regime; and at the Buddhist groups that had fallen over themselves to collaborate. Japan’s new, pacifist constitution – basis and totem of a fresh start – aimed to banish from public life religion in all its forms.

Not a good time, then, to be an evangelist of any sort, and Yoshimoto found himself forced to ask a difficult question: what is it necessary to think or believe about a prayer practice, like mishirabe, in order for it to do its work?

Yoshimoto Ishin (left)

With a dash of the scientific spirit and a ready supply of guinea pigs, in the form of his workforce, Yoshimoto tinkered and tested until the mishirabe prayer became Naikan therapy. Out went Buddhist references to hell and the Pure Land; in came food, water, sleep, and secular ‘guides’ to help you ask yourself three questions.

‘What have you received from another person?’ is the first, often beginning with one of your parents, as the most fundamental, formative relationships we have. And then: ‘What have you returned to that person?’ and ‘What trouble have you caused to that person?’

Round and round you go, across a week’s residence at a Naikan training centre, realizing – very possibly through floods of tears – just how deeply you’re a creation of your relationships, and how you’ve failed to return even a fraction of what you’ve been given.

Yoshimoto offered Naikan, which means ‘looking inwards’, initially for free in the mid-1950s. Later he started to charge, mostly because people associate payment with professionalism, and free stuff with the typical enticement of a new religion or cult – of which Japan had more than her fair share, and from which Yoshimoto wanted to distance his new therapy at all costs.

Asahara Shoko, of the infamous Aum Shinrikyo cult

Yoshimoto also offered his therapy in prisons, and within a few years – thanks to enthusiastic psychologists and psychiatrists – Naikan was available in hospitals, high schools, and juvenile reformatories.

With nearly fifty training centres now across Japan, and branches in the US and Europe, this was a brilliantly effective piece of repackaging – from mishirabe to Naikan.

But just how simple is the journey from prayer to therapy, and what is the difference between the two?

Yoshimoto didn’t know. Only gradually did he allow talk of the Pure Land to be dropped from Naikan’s stated aims, and he himself never doubted his own future rebirth there.

Surely these are big claims – fairly major points of distinction between therapy and prayer? And people who pray would doubtless want to say that their intentions, too, really matter: it might be a formula like the Lord’s Prayer, something spontaneous, or a quieter, even silent practice, but ‘prayer’ surely involves a particular sort of intention, a reaching out for something, or even someone, beyond our psychological selves.

But there was a good reason why the medieval founder of Yoshimoto’s Buddhist sect routinely referred to himself as the ‘stupid, bald-headed one’. So convinced were he and his followers of humanity’s weakness of will and weakness of intellect that they found frankly laughable the notion that when we pray we do so with adequate intentions or accurate images and ideas of our own. Help comes from the outside.

Shinran: self-ascribed 'stupid, bald-headed one', founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect

Prayer is perhaps more like a child sitting at the table for dinner; her mother reaching around her, moving and guiding her hands as she uses knife and fork. That the child exists matters greatly, and so too her movement through these motions; but the understanding, the willing, the movement, originates with the parent.

Seen from this point of view, there’s less reason to fret over exactly how – or perhaps whether at all – a person imagines something as remote from experience as ‘rebirth in the Pure Land’. The value of the idea lies mainly in the inner motions through which it helps us move.

I was once told by a woman in Nagasaki, survivor of the atom bomb, that hundreds of years ago both Buddhist priests and Jesuit missionaries liked to give people a feel for hell, as part of their preaching.

The Buddhists would walk them through rocky wastelands punctuated by boiling yellow sulphur springs: ‘hell is like this’, they would say, gesturing around. The Jesuits threw cats into ovens: ‘hell is like this’, they’d say, over the top of the feline screams.

Whether or not these things are true – and part of me would be disappointed if they weren’t – perhaps what Buddhists and Christians alike were aiming at wasn’t so much an accurate reconstruction of some steaming, stinky, shrieky hereafter, but rather getting these crucial inner motions going; shaping and powering people’s commitments in life.

But for Yoshimoto these sorts of answers were too easy, if they implied that prayer and therapy were anything like the same thing. They’re different, he insisted, though words failed him when it came to saying how. In the end, he could do no more than offer architecture by way of answer: taking Buddhist vows, he turned his home into a temple, with a Naikan therapy centre as an annex off on the side.

Dr Frieda Fromm-Reichmann: 1889 - 1957

To get an idea of what might have been bothering Yoshimoto, we have to follow those B-29s back from Osaka to base: to America in the 1950s, where a young Christian convert shifted uncomfortably in his seat as his therapy session turned sour.

Psychoanalysis was on the rise, his therapist was the famous Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, and as a visiting student from India, studying psychology, Kannu Rajan was willing to concede that dark, traumatic elements in his recent inner life could be described in terms of ‘severe neurosis’.

But Fromm-Reichmann, an atheist who shared many of Freud’s critical ideas about religion, wanted to widen the focus. She claimed that Rajan’s dramatic conversion to Christianity was no more than an outcome of this neurosis, and so should now be renounced.

But Rajan read the situation differently. ‘What else did God have to use but my neurosis?’, was his reply.

And when the flustered therapist countered that it must be his ‘Oriental background’ making him think this way, Rajan insisted: ‘It’s not; it’s the Gospel, the New Testament’. He went on to quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans, ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly’.

Fromm-Reichmann was unimpressed, and Rajan soon found himself looking for another therapist. For many of Fromm-Reichmann’s generation, the emerging mental health professions had a duty to fight and overcome old religious taboos about mental illness: fears of possession; illness as punishment for past misdeeds; notions of ‘moral’ weakness or failure. How else to respond to client after client whose stubborn visions of themselves were bound up with wrathful Gods and their impossible expectations?

Prayer and therapy, then, might be seen as diametrically opposed: prayer, a matter of playing out or reinforcing harmful fantasies; therapy, about exposing them.

But did Rajan and his therapist mean the same thing by ‘sin’?

‘Sin’ as misdeed or transgression is familiar enough, and some might think of ‘forgive us our trespasses’, in Christianity’s best-known prayer. But Rajan was looking beyond particular trespasses, considering himself a ‘sinner’ in a more primordial sense: a being who, like the ‘stupid, bald-headed one’ of Yoshimoto’s Buddhist sect, is limited, finite, fallible.

Carl Rogers: 1902 - 1987

This would have made sense elsewhere in the US at the time: to a pioneer of psychotherapy like Carl Rogers, and to the Christian theologian Paul Tillich.

In Rajan’s more encompassing sense of sin, they might have said, lies the potential for a more encompassing sort of forgiveness – the kind of forgiveness that, in moments of silent prayer or in those crucial therapeutic silences, when a client’s attempts at diversion or deflection fall away, suddenly bursts in, as though from the outside.

It’s hard to make intellectual sense of what ‘from the outside’ means. But it has a clear, irresistible moral and emotional logic.If I smash all the windows on your car, and then tell you it’s okay because I’ve forgiven myself for it, you’re not going to be very impressed. It’s not meaningful.

So too for Rajan: the idea of forgiving or accepting himself would be a mere platitude – unless, it’s a recollection, or somehow an echo, of an acceptance that has come first from outside him.

Tillich might also have understood Yoshimoto’s uncertainties about mishirabe and Naikan. Both could have agreed that it’s through relating to other people – and having them relate to us – that as human beings we’re created and re-created. And both struggled with this question of ‘from the outside’ – this problem of saying precisely where forgiveness and acceptance actually come from.

Tillich’s conclusion was that what therapists and counsellors do is not so much initiate things like forgiveness and acceptance but mediate them, from origins elsewhere.

Paul Tillich (1886 - 1965) makes the front cover of Time magazine in 1959

Ideas like these – especially when rather fuzzily formulated – are a hard sell in some corners of contemporary Japanese and British culture.

They seem to reflect two of the least missed aspects of the religious worldview: humans are weak, and clarity about how the world works is ultimately beyond us.

Listen out for how words like ‘mystery’ and ‘mysterious’ are increasingly used in our public life: you’ll find that ‘mystery’ as ‘not yet explained’ is fine, but declaring something inherently unsolvable feels like cowardice, deliberate obfuscation – a kind of treason against reason.

What’s more, under pressure of time and money it’s tempting to take the clear and immediately useful ideas to be the true ones.

The fact that neither prayer nor therapy readily offer these – unless ‘religion’ is reduced to coping and ‘mental health’ is reduced to a superficial kind of functioning – means that in our time as well as Yoshimoto’s it’s probably not so much a matter of ‘therapy versus prayer’ as therapy and prayer… versus culture.

That Yoshimoto kept hold of both prayer and therapy in the way that he did makes that smile of his, as he paced the boards of his Osaka business, look just that little bit less sure of itself, and all the more appealing.



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