Most recently I wrote about psychodynamic or psychoanalytic talk therapy, which was first proposed by Sigmund Freud. Freud created the psychoanalytic / psychodynamic paradigm and argued that mental illnesses arose from unconscious conflicts within an individual. Though Freudian thought remains influential, psychoanalytic methods have developed considerably since Freud.
Carl Jung was one of the most influential early proponents of Buddhism in the west and he was the leading mental health theorist who openly championed the systematic psychological value of this ancient religion. Jung famously broke with his mentor Sigmund Freud for many reasons, but one of the differences was in their varying interest in eastern philosophies and religion in general, and Buddhism in particular. For Jung, Buddhism was perhaps the foundation of his work, while Freud regarded it with far less zeal. Commenting on this marked difference of interest Freud observed: “In you the tempest rages; it comes to me as distant thunder” (McGuire, 2003, p. 434).
Jung’s interest in Buddhism was not only academic; on a deeply personal level he sought to integrate the teachings of Buddhism into his life. For example, while serving in the military during World War I, every morning when he woke up he would draw a mandala (Buddhist meditation device) as a form of personal devotion. Jung cited the Tibetan Book of the Dead as one of his strongest and most enduring influences and inspirations. As he noted, “For years, ever since it was first published, the Bardo Thodol has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights” (1935, p. xxxvi).
Jung wrote several influential works commenting on Asian religion and philosophy including his forwards to The Secret of the Golden Flower and the I-Ching and Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. But it was in his forwards to The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1935; Tibetan Bardo Thodol) and D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1964) where he most directly sought to ground his views of psychology in Buddhist thought. These famous texts are singularly important for inquiries into Jung’s views on Asian thought because it is in these latter two works where Jung most directly declares his reverence to and reliance on Buddhism.
Jung viewed The Tibetan Book of the Dead as being foundational in his own system of psychology, and in his Introduction to the Tibetan text Jung finds many parallels between ancient Buddhist philosophy and his own method of psychology, likening the concept of Buddhist enlightenment to his psychological belief that “the creative ground of all metaphysical assertion is consciousness” (p. xxxix). And he equates the Buddhist notion of karma with his conception of the collective unconscious (p. xliii).
Though he felt Buddhism surpassed most western intellectual disciplines, he still felt it demonstrated resonance with western conceptions of mental health. Jung argued that The Tibetan Book of the Dead conceptualized mental illnesses in the same way as contemporary psychology. He believed, for example, that the mythological Tantric depictions of violence in the Tibetan text skillfully depicted the experience of schizophrenia.
In his foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism Jung approvingly defines Zen as a “mysterium ineffable” and he characterizes Zen as having the “flowerlike nature of the spirit of the Far East” and as being “one of the most wonderful blossoms of the Chinese spirit” (p.11, 12). Similar to his interpretation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung characterizes satori, a Zen experience of enlightenment, as a psychological phenomenon.
Like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung finds kinship and grounding for his own practice of psychology in Zen. He argues that the enigmatic nature of koan meditation results in the practitioner transcending his or her day-to-day consciousness and typical intellectual means of understanding. The ensuing result of Zen koans, Jung believes, is a direct revelation of the unconscious. Thus, through the Zen practice of koans Jung believed he found a means to bring to fruition the goals of his psychology. Jung writes: "This displacement ensues as a rule in Zen through the fact of the energy of the conscious being withdrawn from the contents and transferred either to the conception of emptiness or to the koan….This increases the readiness of the unconscious contents to break through to the conscious….The connection is in substance a compensatory relationship: the contents of the unconscious bring to the surface everything necessary in the broadest sense for the completion, i.e. the completeness, of conscious orientation….and therefore abolishes fruitless conflict between the conscious and the unconscious personality (p. 22-23)."
As in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung finds profound resonance for his theories in his understanding of Zen Buddhism. And echoing his commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung employs his foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s Zen text to critique Freud’s notion of the unconscious. Jung viewed his form of psychology to be highly congruent to Buddhism, and he frequently observed how much Buddhism shaped his personal and professional thought. In my next entry I’ll offer some reflections of how Jung and psychodynamic psychologists have utilized Buddhist philosophy.
Jung, C. (1935). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Psychological commentary. In W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Ed.). The Tibetan Book of the Dead. London: Oxford University Press.
Jung, C. (1964). Foreword. In Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. An introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press.
McGuire, W. (2003). Jung, Evans-Wentz and various other gurus. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 48, 433-445.