Carl Jung & Buddhism


 ‘In the years between 1920 and 1940 Jung immersed himself in many classic Indian, Chinese, and Buddhist texts on Yoga and meditation.  Tentatively he began to introduce some of the concepts from these writings into his maturing vision of a psychology that would eventually encompass both the personal and the transpersonal levels of the psyche.’  (Other Selves, Other Lives: By RJ Woolger – Page 343)

Carl Jung was not a Buddhist in any conventional sense; this has to be made clear to the mind of the reader from the beginning.  Once this fact is understood, the assessment of his extensive allusion to Buddhism (and Buddhist philosophy) in his writings can be broadly analysed.  As a psychologist living in the West, why did he mention Buddhism at all?  Through most of his extensive collected works, regardless of the wide subject matter under discussion, Buddhism is mentioned at least once and quite often more than once.  Such is the regularity of the mention of Buddhism in his work that it is clear that Carl Jung thought the subject of sufficient interest to be taken seriously in the study and understanding of the mind.  This is an interesting observation considering his medical academic background, and the departure away from materialist thinking that this inclusion appears to signify.  Jung, writing in his ‘Mysterium Coniunctionis’ (page 370) demonstrates an innate understanding of the purpose of Buddhism when he says;

‘The extremely radical reformation of Hinduism by the Buddha assimilated the traditional spirituality of India in its entirety and did not thrust a rootless novelty upon the world.  It neither denied nor ignored the Hindu pantheon swarming with millions of gods, but boldly introduced Man, who before that had not been represented at all.’

Jung was not religious in the conventional sense, as through the use of psychological insight, he saw through religious structure and understood its historicity.  He might be described as spiritual due to the obvious spiritual content of much of his work, but even this appellation is problematic.  In reality Jung viewed religion as being a subject of much psychological interest due primarily to its obvious archetypal content.  Through his developed psychological method, Jung demonstrated an often profound and startling insight into the inner structures of subjects like religion that at once swept away any unnecessary obscuration or excessive mystification, to reveal the true developmental nature of the teachings.  It could be said that at a time of great social change and secularism, Jung took religious teachings that had been slowly withering on the vine, and breathed a new ‘psychological’ reality and relevance into them.  This function was performed from the position of a modern psychologist who advocated a philosophy that not only included the attainment of a normal and healthy state of mind, but which also facilitated a continuing journey of self-discovery through mind development, which culminated in the full realisation of the complete human being.  Like the teachings of Buddhism, Jung viewed self-development as being ‘mind-led’, and this might shed some light on Jung’s interest in it.

There is a debate as to whether Buddhism should be viewed as a religion, or a philosophy of self-discovery.  On balance it does seem to be more of a path of self-discovery rather than a religion, although Jung often talked about the Buddha in the same light as he talked about Christ.  In his biography entitled ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflection’, (pages 309-310) Jung writes;

‘Christ – like Buddha – is an embodiment of the self, but in an altogether different sense.  Both stood for an overcoming of the world: Buddha out of rational insight; Christ as a foredoomed sacrifice.  In Christianity more is suffered, in Buddhism more is seen and done.  Both paths are right, but in the Indian sense Buddha is the more complete human being.  He is a historical personality, and therefore easier for men to understand.  Christ is at once a historical man and God, and therefore much more difficult to comprehend.  At bottom he was not comprehensible even to himself; he knew only that he had to sacrifice himself, that this course was imposed upon him from within.  His sacrifice happened to him like an act of destiny.  Buddha lived out his life and died at an advanced age, whereas Christ’s activity as Christ probably lasted no more than a year.

Later, Buddhism underwent the same transformation as Christianity: Buddha became, as it were the image of the development of the self; he became a model for men to imitate, whereas actually he had preached that by overcoming the Nidana-chain every human being could become an illuminate, a Buddha.’                         

Jung’s development of psychology was in fact the formulation of a philosophical meta-narrative that was able to include all phenomenon within itself, explaining everything as it was comprehended.  Jung developed an overview that granted a superior insight into the reality of things.  It is obvious that he had far outgrown the conventional boundaries of his childhood religion of Protestant Christianity.  The adult Jung no longer approached religion through blind faith, but rather through the developed intellect.  All religions became an expression of the human mind, regardless of the strictures of each.  Memories, Dreams, Reflections was compiled and edited by Jung’s biographer Aniela Jaffe.  Although the completed text was endorsed by Jung, he requested that it not be included in his completed works, as he had not written it.  Furthermore, Jung had no knowledge of the Introduction eventually published in this book, as it was written by Jaffe in December 1961, some six months after the passing of Jung.  In it (page 13) Jaffe writes;

‘Jung explicitly declared his allegiance to Christianity, and most important of his works deal with religious problems of the Christian.’             

No reference is given for this statement, but it is obvious even from just a cursory glance at Jung’s work that he did not favour a particular religion, or that he used his psychological work specifically to resolve Christian issues.  Jung’s attitude broke free of the yoke of religion, and enabled him to view it clearly as a specific set of religiously inspired circumstances.  In ‘Psychology and Western Religion’, (page 260) Jung writes;

‘I don’t know what God is in himself.  I don’t suffer from megalomania.  Psychology to me is an honest science that recognises its own boundaries, and I am not a philosopher or theologian who believes in his ability to step beyond the epistemological barrier.  Science is made by man, which does not mean that there are not occasionally acts of grace permitting transgression into realms beyond.’   


In short, his psychology saw through theology and was able to explain it within a rational framework.  Moreover, comments in his old age suggest that as a psychologist his ideas actually came closest to the teachings of Buddhism, and that the assertion of Aniela Jaffe must be viewed as being highly subjective, as so much of Jung’s academic output openly contradicts this position.  It is also important to remember that Memories, Dreams, Reflections, although dictated by Jung shortly before his death in 1961, was extensively censored by his editors before its posthumous publication.  In the book entitled ‘Other Lives, Other Selves’ (pages 346-347), the Jungian psychotherapist Roger J Woolger writes;    

‘It is well known in Jungian circles that large segments of Memories, Dreams, Reflections were excised by members of his family as being embarrassing to the family name; every single reference to his close collaborator Toni Wolff was removed before publication, for example.’                

Regardless of the treatment of his biography, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was an outstanding pioneer of the mind.  His academic background lay in medicine and in the then fledgling field of psychiatry.  Psychiatry tends to treat the personality as a by-product of chemical reactions that occur in the physical structure of the brain.  These reactions are inherently linked to the human nervous system, the dysfunction of which has the potential to cause all manner of abhorrent behaviour in the physical body and unusual states in the mind.  The state of mind was usually readily observable in the behaviour of the individual concerned, and through observation, a pattern was observed, studied, and understood.  Once understanding was gained, treatments involving all manner of activities, from electric shocks, cold baths, regimented daily routines, diets, exercising, and even the practice of lobotomy – that is the removal of part of the front of the brain – were often utilised as a means to cure the symptoms.  As time progressed, these ‘treatments’, which at best could only be described as ‘aversion therapy’, and at worse the gross practice of pseudo-science, gave way to the use of highly experimental drugs designed to affect directly the chemical processes in the brain.  This is more or less where psychiatry is today.  It is premised upon the idea that the sum total of human nature is nothing more than the chemical reactions within the physical structures of the brain, and that mental illness, despite its stark and dramatic impact upon the sufferer and his/her milieu, is only a non-alignment of these reactions.  Strong psychotropic drugs are designed to counter the numerous ‘non-alignments’ that can occur, and thus return the sufferer to a reasonably ‘normal’, or socially acceptable state of mind.  In ‘The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease’ (160) Jung writes;

‘Psychiatry has been charged with gross materialism.  And quite rightly, for it is on the road to putting the organ, the instrument, above the function – or rather, it has long been doing so.  Function has become the appendage of its organ, the psyche an appendage to the brain.  In modern psychiatry the psyche has come off very badly.  While intense progress has been made in cerebral anatomy, we know practically nothing about the psyche, or even less than we did before.  Modern psychiatry behaves like someone who thinks he can decipher the meaning and purpose of a building by a mineralogical analysis of its stones.’   

Jung discovered psychiatry near to its very primitive inception.  However, whilst working in a medical environment ostensibly as a psychiatrist with many patients suffering from many types of mental illness, he observed that their behaviour, regardless of its abhorrent nature, stemmed from patterns of thoughts in the mind, and that these patterns of thought could be studied and understood as being a product of personal history and experience in the life of the sufferer.  This is to say that the abhorrent thought structures, which depending upon severity were termed either ‘neurosis’ or ‘psychosis’, could be traced to a recognisable event in the life of the sufferer that was traumatic and over-powering.  These negative and severe interactive experiences in the physical environment led to the mind retaining a psychological imprint of the event itself, an imprint comprised of a permanent bundle of thoughts enthused throughout with traumatic emotional feeling.  This neurosis continued to inhabit the mind long after the reality of the physical event that caused it has faded from the memory, and yet its presence lurks just behind the content of the mind as it goes about its daily routines.  In this regard it either partially affects the personality and behaviour (neurosis), or completely swamps the mind (psychosis) thus preventing all normal interaction.

From this insight the foundation of Analytical Psychology was born.  Jung understood that if he talked to a patient in a certain manner, it was possible to penetrate the surface structure of the abhorrent thought patterns and get to grips with the real underlying causes of the problem.  Through the careful use of words in a questioning format, Jung was able to unravel the complex thought structures, but more than this he was simultaneously able to demonstrate this understanding to the patient.  As he unravelled their psychic bundles of trapped energy, the patient immediately became aware of the problem and the (historical) cause of the problem.  This insight immediately dissolved the neurotic structure.  Jung’s research demonstrated that when a patient was made aware of the structure of the thought patterns existing in the mind, those patterns, which were previously stuck in a self-destructive cycle of influence, immediately lost their coherency and disappeared leaving the mind completely free of their influence.  By carefully questioning the patient using word association exercises, the cumulative effect of the acquisition of self-knowledge eventually became so strong that any abhorrent influence was thoroughly superseded through the sheer weight of acquired insight.  This method worked even in cases involving highly psychotic patients. 

Of course, Jung did not have to resort to the rather severe and questionable practices often associated with early psychiatry, nor could he use the drugs associated with modern psychiatry.  What he did do was develop a highly unique psychological method that appeared to deliver results.  This demonstrates a very interesting transition from the medically based discipline of psychiatry, to that of psychology.  This is unusual as psychology is usually defined as being a branch of philosophy.  Psychology is really about the study of what people think, how they think it, and why they think it.  It is not generally associated with biology per se, but may be better defined as the study of thought in and of itself.  Socrates and Plotinus, for instance, are as much psychologists as they are philosophers, as each offers an understanding of the world, through the analysis of humanity’s involvement within it.  For the philosopher, the occurrence of a chemical reaction can not readily be observed subjectively as happening, and therefore its presence is not a consideration in the analysis of patterns of thought.  In this respect, psychology is the study of the mind as it appears to each individual observer.  Within the Analytical Psychological tradition (founded by Jung), the therapist assists the client in observing their own mind.  This is not as simple as it seems, as the complications of modern living have created all kinds of complex thought patterns enthused with strong feeling.  This trapped tension within the mind, so to speak, must be clearly separated into its constituent parts and unambiguously shown to the client by the therapist.  This constitutes the development of ‘self knowledge’.  The therapist, whilst serving this function acts as a mirror for the client.  However, the therapist does not only ‘reflect’ in a passive manner, but also actively acts as interpreter for the client.  This interpretive function is the essence of Jungian psychological method.  This is why a Jungian therapist must have undergone analysis and become fluent in the interpretation of the psychological content of the mind.  Those with no experience can not lead the way.

Overtime, Jung developed and refined these insights.  He theorised that there was transpersonal structure within the human mind that he termed the ‘Collective Unconscious.’  This was the deepest psychic structure that underlay the conscious and subconscious levels of the mind.  From it emerged the ‘Archetypes’ into the conscious mind.  The archetypes are a number of psychological motifs that are constant in every human being that are stimulated and developed according to circumstance.  Different experiences encourage the emergence and development of particular archetypes.  One person’s character may differ in the type of archetypes that present from those found in another person, simply because of differences in personal history.  Jung also understood that human characters tended to be bias in their natural development either toward introversion, or towards extroversion, etc.  The point of life, as Jung saw it, was to fully explore and become consciously aware of all the content of the mind.  This process of self-development he termed ‘Individuation’.  Although psychology can be used to cure abhorrent behaviour, Jung felt that it offered much more for human development in general.  It was not just the case of curing an individual from the sufferings of mental illness, but also from the relative darkness of not understanding the true psychological self.  The inner journey did not stop with good social behaviour, but required a continuing effort that Jung thought very few people ever succeeded in achieving.  Part of this failure was due to cultural norms and social pressure to conform, but in reality the stages of life, and the aging process allowed for ample self-exploration and Jung believed that he had discovered the key for this journey within a modern, Western, scientific setting, even though he had transcended the medical based psychiatry, and fully outgrown the science based theories of his former mentor Sigmund Freud.

There is no evidence that Carl Jung was influenced by the philosophy of Buddhism in his early formative years.  It is true that Buddhism was known in Europe by the turn of the 20th century, but at this time the understanding of the subject was undeveloped.  Furthermore, the strictures of otherwise obscure Eastern philosophies had very little, if any thing to do with the emergence of modern medical thinking, and it is this thinking that served as the background to Jung’s early academic career.  Although after this formative period, and as his psychological method was developing, he did turn to the extensive study of world philosophy and literature, a study that even saw him commenting upon a Chinese Daoist text (The Secret of the Golden Flower) introduced to him by his friend Richard Wilhelm.  This period of philosophical study was premised upon the idea that if the traits Jung had observed in the minds of his patients were universal and recurrent, then they should reappear throughout human history.  Jung examined world literature so that he could identify the underlying psychological influences that had created the texts, and this study tended to confirm his findings.  It is an interesting speculation as to whether this exposure to a multitude of different ideas from diverse cultures assisted in the development of the philosophy that underlies Analytical Psychology.  After-all, many of the Eastern traditions that Jung read about, routinely asserted that self-development was essentially achieved through the development of the mind.  Central, of course, to these philosophies was the teachings of Buddhism.

The archetypes, as Jung conceived them, were a scientific identification of recurring motifs in the mind that had previously been the foundation of religious dogmas.  Religious imagery often directly manifested archetypal material which explains why Jung had an intense interest in mandala, which he believed to be pictures representing conscious states of mind.  In ‘Psychology and Alchemy’ (pages 128-129) Jung writes;

‘Just as the stupas preserve the relics of the Buddha in their innermost sanctuary, so in the interior of the Lamaic quadrangle, and again in the Chinese earth-square, there is a Holy of Holies with its magical agent, the cosmic source of energy, be it the god Shiva, the Buddha, a bodhisattva, or a great teacher.  In China it is Ch’ien – heaven – with the four cosmic effluences radiating from it.’                    

Such statements, which are scattered throughout Jung’s collected works, demonstrates an innate and often startling insight into Asian spiritual culture.  This is remarkable for a person with little or no actual experience of Asian culture itself.  Jung’s philosophical insight into the ‘universalism’ of the human mind appears to have transcended the need for empirical experience.  He sees in his own mind the archetype that is manifesting throughout all other cultures, albeit in distinct and particular expressions.  Through the study of world literature Jung was able to familiarise himself with the differing surface structures of different cultures, and firmly equate those structures with familiar archetypes.  In ‘The Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness’ (page 142) Jung writes;

‘What is capable of transformation is just this root of consciousness, which – inconspicuous and almost invisible (i.e. unconscious) though it is – provides consciousness with all its energy.  Since the unconsciousness gives us the feeling that it is something alien, a non-ego, it is quire natural that it should be symbolised by an alien figure.  Thus, on the one hand, it is the most insignificant of things, while on the other, so far as it potentiality contains that “round” wholeness which consciousness lacks, it is the most significant of all.  This “round” thing is the great treasure that lies hidden in the cave of the unconscious and its personalisation is this personal being who represents the higher unity of consciousness and unconsciousness.  It is a figure comparable to Hianyagarbha, Purusha, Atman, and the mystic Buddha.  For this reason I have elected to call it the “self,” by which I understand a psychic totality and at the same time a centre, neither of which coincides with the ego but includes it, just as a larger circle encloses a smaller one.”   

The use of roundal imagery is common within Chinese traditional philosophy and is used within Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.  The Cao Dong masters of Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, for instance, used shaded and unshaded roundals to signify conscious development from the stage of non-enlightenment, to that of complete enlightenment.  Like Jung, these masters assumed that consciousness and its experience was essentially spherical in nature.  This is not mere theory, however, but a product of precise experience gained from looking within.  It is only through an intense examination of the inner mind that such an insight becomes available.  The consciousness of the mind, like the space it senses, appears curved in nature.  Enlightenment is not the acquiring of some thing different from that which is in a person at birth, but is rather the realisation of the totality of the mind as it is, here and now.  Self-development is a product of sustained concentration coupled with inner gazing – what is seen constitutes insight.  Ignorance exists within wisdom, or samsara within nirvana, and it is the ‘seeing through’ of this obscuring reality that constitutes enlightenment, or the permanent altering of the inner (and outer) terrain of the mind.  It is through this psychic totality that Jung expresses his understanding of enlightenment, and his idea is very similar to the Mahayana Buddhist conception.  The circle (or mandala) is very important within later Buddhism.  In ‘The Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness’ (page 358) Jung writes; 

‘Lamaic literature gives very detailed instructions as to how such a circle must be painted and how it should be used.  Form and colour are laid down by tradition, so the variants move within fairly narrow limits.  The ritual use of the mandala is actually non-Buddhist; at any rate it is alien to the original Hinayana Buddhism and appears first in Mahayana Buddhism.’

In early Buddhism of course, the representation of the Buddha by a round symbol is not entirely unknown, as the Buddha is often depicted in art by his physical absence, perhaps through an empty throne, a tree, foot prints, or a indeed a Dharma-wheel, etc.  This emphasis upon ‘emptiness’ or ‘lack of permanent self’ was eventually replaced with images of the Buddha himself which serve as focal point of concentration.  The mandala developed this concept so that the state of mind that Buddha represents became manifest in certain and meaningful geometric designs.  Specific symbols were developed to convey the deep (unconscious) mind to the observing conscious mind, thus linking the latter to the former by making the presence of the unconscious mind known to the conscious mind.  When Jung studied the I Ching (Yi Jing) he recognised that its ever transforming six-lined structures, which were continuously in flux, represented the ever moving mind and its development.  In ‘The Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness’ (page 340) Jung writes;

‘The phases and aspects of my patient’s inner processes of development can therefore express themselves easily in the language of the I Ching, because it too is based on the psychology of the individuation process that forms one of the main interests of Taoism and of Zen Buddhism.’                 

Meaning abounded in every activity and symbol.  Jung had come to this conclusion quite independently of Eastern philosophy, but he appears to take great pleasure in having his conclusion confirmed through the various teachings, and his appreciation of Buddhism clearly stands out as there is rarely a book of his that fails to mention the Buddha, his teachings, or even his birth.  In ‘Psychological Types’ (page 178) Jung writes;

‘So Maya, when her hour was come, bore her child beneath the plaska tree, which bowed its crown shelteringly to earth.  From the incarnate Bodhisattva an immeasurable radiance spread through the world; gods and all nature took part in the birth.  At his feet there grew up an immense lotus, and standing in the lotus he scanned the world.  Hence the Tibetan prayer: Om mani padme hum (Om!  Behold the jewel in the lotus).  And the moment of rebirth found the Bodhisattva beneath the chosen bodhi tree, where he became a Buddha, the Enlightened One.  This rebirth or renewal was attended by the same light phenomena, the same prodigies of nature and apparitions of gods, as the birth.’   

Everything that happens becomes meaningful, both as an experience in and of itself, and as an observable event.  In this manner of observation, Carl Jung imbues even the most apparently insignificant event with the most profound of underlying meaning.  Using this type of wise observation of external events and their inner, corresponding psychological traits, nothing is wasted, as there is not a single experience free of any deeper meaning.  In using this method Jung is not attempting to justify religion, or religious teachings, but he is stating that religion, as a major component of human activity throughout the ages, can not help but be riddled with archetypal meaning, even if the religion itself has no capacity to objectify its own, historically derived content.  In ‘Man and His Symbols’ (pages 85-86) Jung writes;

‘The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil.  We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain.  Life is a battleground.  It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.

It is precisely this conflict within man that led the early Christians to expect and hope for an early end to this world, or the Buddhists to reject all earthly desires and aspirations. These basic answers would be frankly suicidal if they were not linked up with peculiar mental and moral ideas and practices that constitute the bulk of both religions and that, to a certain extent, modify their radical denial of the world.’

In statements such as these, Jung differentiates his psychology and its philosophical view of the world, from that of the truly religious which he views as ‘world denying’.  His understanding of Buddhism presented here is peculiarly narrow when compared to his many other statements upon the subject, and when one considers that this book was completed only ten days before his death in 1961.  This is a view expressed by a mature Carl Jung, but appears to be more like an opinion of a younger, inexperienced man with limited exposure to the subject.  Nevertheless, the statement is useful as it appears designed to assist the religiously minded to look into and perhaps beyond their particular belief system.  It also works in another less obvious way, as it reminds the secularly minded that whatever they think they have discovered exclusively through the use of science, early human religion was already taking it into account, albeit in a rather less extensive, and far more localised manner.  Jung examines the world through its polar opposites and sees at least two of the major religions attempting to ‘deny’ one aspect of creation in favour of its opposite.  Jung, of course, through his psychology, advocated the integration of polar opposites and not the exclusion of one aspect in favour of the other.  The two religions, as Jung presents them, replace ‘integration’ with the development of peculiar mental and moral ideas that justify the religion and keep it locked in an eternal battle with the unfavoured polar opposite.  For Christianity the enemy is ‘evil’, whilst for Buddhism it is ‘desire’.  The battle is repetitive and cyclic.  In ‘Aion’ (page 136) Jung discusses the symbolism of the wheel or circle;

‘The wheel, it is explained, symbolises the circle or course or cycle of life.  This interpretation presupposes the ideas akin to Buddhism, if we are not to conceive the wheel merely as the banal statistical cycle of births and deaths.  How the wheel could ever be set on fire is a difficult question that cannot be answered without further reflection.  We must consider, rather, that it is meant as a parallel to the defilement of the whole body – in other words, a destruction of the soul.’ 

The use of the Germanic word ‘soul’ is a Christian habit in the West that essentially misrepresents the Greek word ‘psyche’, which can be translated both as ‘mind’ and ‘breath’.  This confusion has come about through the development of Christian theology, which within its determination to break free from its Hebrew roots, adopted on the philosophical terminology of the pre-existing Greek philosophers.  In so doing, the early Christian theologians altered and distorted the original Greek meanings of the words to suit their own needs and aspirations.  Needless to say, when the word ‘soul’ appears in translation in relation to the Greek philosophical sense, it should invariably be read to mean ‘psyche’, or ‘mind’, etc.  Jung appears to be saying that the cycle of deluded habit has the capability to destroy the mind (psyche) and the physical body along with it if unchecked through the use of constructive observation and behavioural modification.  In other words, this is more or less exactly the same observation as that of the Buddha involving a similar solution to cyclic existence that is non-individuated.  Unresolved issues of the mind must be brought out into the clear light of day so that they may be understood outside of the context of their usual cyclic appearance.

Jung’s philosophy and psychology are world affirming.  Even experiences that were surprising or unplanned were considered equally loaded with meaning.  Jung developed the theory of ‘Synchronicity’ to explain the phenomenon that he termed meaningful coincidence.  According to this idea, an individual experienced everything that he or she needed to individuate whilst on the journey through life.  In other words, the inner psyche content often appeared to collude with outer physical experience, as if the former had somehow generated the latter, to create potential circumstance for the realisation of wholeness.  Although Jung never directly associated synchronicity with karma, or mystified this notion in anyway, he did recognise that an apparently random set of circumstance could have a meaning far beyond that of the initial impression.  Included in his commentary for the Tibetan Book of the Dead (page xliii), Jung writes;

‘We may cautiously accept the idea of karma only if we understand it as psychic heredity in the very widest sense of the word.  Psychic heredity does exist – that is to say, there is inheritance of psychic characteristics such as predisposition to disease, traits of character, special gifts, and so on.’ 

Instead of cause and effect on the physical level being simply related to physical acts, Jung introduced the concept of ‘meaning’ and superimposed this over experienced circumstance, thus removing the gross material element.  However, the meaning was not really ‘superimposed’ but only appeared to be so.  For Jung, the meaning in the mind created the interpretation of the events as they unfolded, with the events themselves not viewed as existing within a vacuum free of psychic influence.  Taking the theory of synchronicity to its ultimate conclusion, the unfolding of events appear to be happening within the psychic fabric itself, a notion that requires the necessary transcending of ideas of ‘mind’ as being separate and isolated from the ‘physical world’.  Indeed, on one occasion Jung forbid a woman from attending his lectures, but instead advised her to read Schopenhauer’s The World of Will and Ideas.  In ‘The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease’ (page 260) Jung writes;

‘I chose Schopenhauer because this philosopher, who was influenced by Buddhism, lays express emphasis on the redeeming effect of consciousness.’

Perhaps Jung is explaining here, that he too, like the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, believed that redemption or salvation lay through consciousness and its development, and in so doing is recognising the similarity that the philosophy of his Analytical Psychology has with that of Buddhist teachings, even if it remained theoretically independent of it.  Jung continues the theme of the relationship between Buddhism and Schopenhauer in his autobiography entitled ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ (page 247).  Jung writes;

‘I cannot help thinking here of the Buddha, and his relationship to the gods.  For the devout Asiatic, the Tathagata is the All-Highest, the Absolute.  For that reason Hinayana Buddhism has been suspected of atheism – very wrongly so.  By virtue of the power of the gods man is enabled to gain insight into his Creator.  He has even been given the power to annihilate Creation in its essential aspect, that is, man’s consciousness of the world.  To-day he can extinguish all higher life on earth by radioactivity.  The idea of world annihilation is already suggested by the Buddha: by means of enlightenment the Nidana chain – the chain of causality which leads inevitably to old age, sickness, and death – can be broken, so that the illusion of Being comes to an end.  Schopenhauer’s negation of the Will points prophetically to a problem of the future that has already come threateningly close.’   

From this statement Jung appears to be conflating world annihilation through nuclear war, with that of what he perceives to be the negation of the ‘self’ through Buddhist meditation and the attainment of enlightenment.  Of course, Buddhist philosophy states that the position of ‘annihilation’ or ‘eternalism’ with regard to a permanent self is incorrect.  This misconception may arise from the fact that Buddhist philosophy is presented in a manner that informs the practitioner exactly what enlightenment ‘is not’, rather than exactly what enlightenment ‘is’.  As with everything Jung writes, his statements seem multifaceted and multilayered.  He is correct to say that Buddhism is not atheistic – as the Buddha spoke openly and often about the existence of gods – and although he does not elaborate the point in the extract above, he does hint of the existence of polytheism within Buddhism.  As each god represents a particular and different aspect of creation, that is to say different aspects of every possible characteristic that may be possessed by an individual, a study of these gods can open the mind so that the unconscious content comes into the light of conscious awareness.  The Buddha taught an independent path that acknowledged the existence of gods, but which did not depend upon their assistance for salvation.  Buddhism then, can best be described as non-theistic.  Whether ‘world annihilation’ is represented by Buddhist nirvana is open to interpretation.  On one level, the Buddha taught the uprooting of greed, hatred, and delusion, and said that this is the end of a life mistakenly predicated upon the notion of a permanent self, and driven entirely by gross desire.  It is true that indeed this is the end of one kind of existence, but does it follow, as Jung suggests, that it is the end of the world per se?  Is it true to suggest that as one mode of life ends, all life ceases to be?  Or is Jung writing in a very subtle manner that hides much of what he means behind simple metaphor and allegory?  When the mind readjusts into a new frequency of being, a completely fresh perspective is revealed that can not be correctly explained by the concepts created and used by the old mode of being – in this respect a mode of being ceases to function as it is subsumed into an all embracing and new reality.  Like everything Jung writes, it will mean whatever the reader wants it to, and I think Jung was very aware of this fact.  This is the deliberate writing of one conscious mind to another.  Through psychological development, Jung is drawing the reader’s attention to contemporary world problems and in so doing is suggesting that inner development has to have some innate connectivity to external events and that progression in the one, can not occur without progression in the other.  In volume 7 of Jung’s collected works there is the text entitled ‘Two Essays on Analytical Psychology’, in this (page 77) he writes;

‘We mentioned earlier that the unconscious contains, as it were, two layers, the personal and the collective.  The personal layer ends at the earliest memories of infancy, but the collective layer comprises the pre-infantile period, that is, the residues of ancestral life.  Whereas the memory-images of the personal unconscious are, as it were, filled out, because they are images personally experienced by the individual, the archetypes of the collective unconscious are not filled out because they are forms not previously experienced.  When, on the other hand, psychic energy regresses, going beyond even the period of early infancy, and breaks into the legacy of ancestral life, the mythological images are awakened: these are the archetypes.  As an interior spiritual world whose existence we never suspected opens out and displays contents which seem to stand in sharpest contrast to all our former ideas.’

As Jung matured his ideas developed further and it is known that he began to take the possibility of rebirth, or reincarnation seriously.  In his collected works as it stands, there is no overt assertion to this end, but as with the above quote, hints can be found here and there.  More than this, however, but various researchers and academics have gained access to the censored portions of Jung’s biography – Memories, Dreams Reflections, and have discovered that Jung did indeed write about reincarnation, but that these sections of the book were removed before publishing apparently on the behest of his family who, presumably as devout Christians, found the notion of rebirth theologically unpalatable at the time.  The British Sinologist and Ch’an Buddhist – Richard Hunn (1949-2006) – related to the author during a conversation that in the years prior to his migration to Japan in 1991, he had been part of a research project regarding the study of the unpublished works of Carl Jung, and had travelled to Switzerland and been granted access to these texts, of which there were many.  Richard Hunn reported that amongst them were a number speaking favourably about the possibility of rebirth.  This included the censored Memories, Dreams, Reflections extracts, as well as other, unrelated texts.  A similar finding is included in Roger Woolger’s book ‘Other Lives, Other Selves’ (page 347) which states;

‘Was Jung’s growing belief in reincarnation also embarrassing in some way?  Apparently it was, according to a colleague of mine.  This colleague visited Zurich recently and called upon one of Jung’s daughters in order to interview her specifically about Jung’s past life beliefs.  She told him that her father had written quite a bit about the subject in his autobiography, but that it had all been changed by the Zurich editors.

“How do you know?” my colleague asked.

In answer to his question she led him into another room and showed him a glass case containing the manuscript of Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  She then proceeded to show him where certain words and passages had been altered by editors to tone down the specific reincarnation content.  Apparently Jung’s family and editors had put pressure on Jung to make changes out of some fear that he might appear senile to the public.’  

Whatever the exact truth of the matter, it appears without doubt that Jung’s personal, psychological development continued apace up until the last days of his life.  An example of this continued development can be seen in his collected works as their theoretical content slowly evolves decade by decade.  There is a case to be made that Jung’s essentially secular (and distinct) philosophy of psychology edged ever closer toward a broad agreement with that of Buddhist thinking.  This is not to say that he agreed uncritically with the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhist thought exactly, but rather that in his inner work of self-exploration, he came to recognise in the Buddha, a fellow traveller on the path toward full Individuation.  In other words, Jung perceived in the Buddhist teachings, the justification of many of his own psychological theories.  The Buddhist example of self-development, although not entirely in agreement with Jung’s psychology, nevertheless, passed very close to it, to such an extent that Buddhists might well benefit from Jung’s teachings, and Jungians gain a greater insight into the nature of the very theory they uphold.  With an appropriate strength of insight, Buddhism and Jungianism can be reconciled into a developmental totality.  Indeed, evidence suggests that near to the end of his life, Jung was doing just this.  In ‘Carl Jung – Wounded Healer of the Soul’ (pages 244-245) the author Claire Dunne relates a conversation Carl Jung had with Miguel Serrano on May 10th, 1961 – Jung would die peacefully in his bed on June 6th, 1961.  Jung said;

“Today no one pays attention to what lies behind words…to the basic ideas that are there. Yet the idea is the only thing that is truly there. What I have done in my work, is simply to give new names to those ideas, to those realities. Consider, for example, the word ‘Unconscious.’ I have just finished reading a book by a Chinese Zen Buddhist. And it seemed to me that we were talking about the same thing, and that the only difference between us was that we gave different words to the same reality. Thus use of the word Unconscious doesn’t matter; what counts is the idea that lies behind the word.”

The book Jung was reading was the English translations of important Chinese Buddhist texts rendered into English by the Chinese Buddhist scholar Charles Luk (1898-1978), entitled ‘Ch’an and Zen teaching – First Series’.  In it are translated the Heart and Diamond Sutras, as well as stories of six Ch’an masters.  Also included are the teachings of eminent Ch’an master Xu Yun (1840-1959) – that is ‘Empty Cloud’ – which cover meditation technique and what mental states to expect when engaged in extensive introspection.  Jung asked his colleague – Dr Marie-Louis von Franz – to write a letter to Charles Luk in Hong Kong stating his appreciation of the text.  This letter is as yet unpublished by the Jung family, but Charles Luk allowed an extract of it to be quoted on the back-cover of the above book (first published in 1960), which sees Marie-Louis von Franz stating on Jung’s behalf;

‘He was enthusiastic…  When he read what Hsu Yun said, he sometimes felt as if he himself could have said exactly this!  It was just it!’                

From a Buddhist perspective, it would be interesting to see the entire content of this letter, because from it might be ascertained Jung’s definite and final statement on the usefulness of Buddhism as a path of self-cultivation, and as a method of developmental psychology.  As it stands, it is obvious from his extant work that Jung was very interested in Buddhism, despite being generally very careful about what he wrote about it.  His collected works are written in a purely academic style – as would be expected – but every now and again what Jung really thought about Buddhism breaks through to the surface.  This is not to say that Jung’s developed psychology is the same as Buddhist teaching, there are substantial differences, but Buddhist self-cultivation can be explained through the use of the Jungian terms of ‘conscious’, ‘subconscious’ and ‘unconscious.’  Generally speaking, Buddhist meditative technique, of which there are many variants, essentially involves the building of concentration through an intense focusing of the mind.  The ability to gather all thoughts and feelings into a single place in the mind is crucial if Buddhist enlightenment is to occur.  Through this concentrative effort all thoughts and feelings in the mind, which the Buddhist is taught to ignore as delusive content, is eventually brought to a stand still. 

This is considered the successful ‘stilling’ of the surface content of the mind; a content which the Buddha taught is the product of greed, hatred, and delusion.  The student of Buddhism is taught that all suffering arises from this never ending stream of thought, and that if this stream of thought is ‘stilled’ through meditation, then human suffering comes to a halt.  Once the surface mind has become ‘stilled’ and therefore ‘empty’ of content, the Buddhist practitioner can then see clearly into the underlying depth of the mind.  The surface or conscious mind is cleared of all activity and this allows the subconscious mind to be observed as thoughts and emotions begin to arise (or originate) within it.  The concentrative method, however, is sufficiently strong at this point to prevent this content sprouting into a full conscious presence.  The nature of the mind at this point is experienced as ‘spacious’ and ‘empty’, but there is still a feeling of an ‘observer’ looking at a separate ‘content’.  With further practice, the subconscious content is also thoroughly ‘uprooted’ so that at this level of the mind all is also completely ‘stilled’.  This is the achievement of the realisation of the ‘relative void’; it is ‘relative’ because there is still an observer looking at a void that appears separate and distinct.  The Buddha taught that all delusion begins with the separation of the mind into ‘subject’ and ‘object’, and although much has been achieved at this point by the Buddhist practitioner, further attainment is required.  This further attainment requires the Buddhist practitioner to ‘look’ directly into the unconscious mind.  The ‘unconscious mind’ is, within Buddhism, the true void aspect of the mind.  It is not a negation of reality, but rather the basis that all reality arises within.  Looking into the unconscious requires a definite strength of mind that does not waiver in its intensity or function.  It must simultaneously ‘look’ whilst also being sufficiently strong so as to prevent any thoughts and feelings arising that could obscure the entire process.

Complete enlightenment, for the Buddhist, involves the integration of the ‘observer’ with the ‘observed’, or to attempt to put it into Jungian terms, the integration of the conscious/subconscious mind directly with the unconscious mind, so that an experience of wholeness and totality is achieved.  This integration is an effort of will for the Buddhist.  There must be no inner or outer disturbance to disrupt the developmental process.  Buddhist philosophy views this process as the dissolving of an imaginary sense of permanent self (conscious/subconscious), through the realisation of the true empty (unconscious) essence of the mind, mediated through a successful meditative technique.  For Jung, of course, the content of the mind, which the Buddhists view as delusionary, has a specific and profound meaning.  Whereas the Buddhist strives to ‘still’, or prevent this content from arising, Jung strives to analyse and understand its meaning.  The Buddhist is seeking to directly perceive the essence of the mind through stilling its content, whilst Jung is attempting to interpret the meaning of the very same content.  Both approaches advocate the gaining of knowledge of wisdom to proceed further, but obviously differ in a fundamental manner.  For the Buddhist, understanding the mind’s content is simply adding more delusive thought to a bad habit, whilst for Jung, removing or negating the mind’s content removes the very fabric through which his analytical method is designed to work. 

The difference between the path advocated by the Buddha, and that as developed by Jung lies in the treatment of the content of the mind.  The Buddha teaches that all beings are inherently and habitually attached to the ever present stream of thought and his answer to this attachment is the cultivation of ‘non-attachment’.  For the Buddha, non-attachment is essential as he equates attachment to thought as the basis of all human suffering.  Jung readily admits that most people do not understand the content of their minds, but instead of rejecting that content as an antidote to not understanding it, he instead advocates the development of the understanding of the content, as for him, this content is loaded with a deep and profound meaning that is often not obvious to the average person.  Where these two distinct paths – Buddhism and Jungianism – meet is in the fact that both agree that the cultivation of knowledge and wisdom is essential if self-development is to be successful.  Jung, like the Buddha, agrees that simply maintaining a balanced mind is not enough in the developmental process.  A mind that is under appropriate control, within both systems, is only a short term goal, albeit a socially useful one.  The Buddha removes the surface, or obscuring stream of thought from the mind so that he can see clearly the mind’s foundation, or the receptacle that thoughts arise within.  This is logical from the Buddhist perspective, as the incessant stream of thoughts and feelings is so strong that attention to it is the only aspect of the mind that is allowed – all else is obscured from view.  Seeing the underlying and all embracing fabric of the mind is the aim of the Buddhist path.  This experience profoundly changes perception through facilitating the development of insight into the true essence of the human mind.  This insight, in and of itself alleviates suffering through the transcendence of the ‘subject-object’ dichotomy. 

Jung’s process of Individuation is the full and complete integration of all aspects of the mind, coupled with the realisation that the physical world and the thought process are inherently linked.  The Jungian method teaches that the content of the subconscious and conscious mind emerges from the unconscious mind, and as such is always inherently linked with it and to it.  Through the correct cultivation of the interpretation of the content of the mind, each psychic phenomenon can be understood in its archetypal manifestation, with all the developmental implications such an understanding entails.  This developed insight, overtime, eventually leads the conscious mind to the understanding of the subconscious and the unconscious.  This is to say that eventually the conscious mind is made so strong and calm that it is able to fully integrate all aspects of the mind into itself, free of any obscuring paradox or contradiction.  In other words, the unconscious and its content are brought into the bright light of the conscious mind, and full individuation is eventually achieved.  Insight into the deep, unconscious meaning of the content of the conscious mind creates a permanent transformation of the mind and the world as it is perceived.  In ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’, written by DT Suzuki, Jung writes (on page 3 of the Foreword) about the importance of the unconscious mind to the conscious mind;

‘It constitutes the entire disposition from which consciousness takes fragments all the time.’   

Where Buddhism and Jungianism agree is on the point of developing insight into the nature of the unconscious mind.  Both systems view this as the ultimate philosophical aim.  This fact is particularly poignant considering Jung’s equation of the Buddhist ‘void’ with that of his interpretation of the unconscious mind.  Each system, using different methods, eventually attains direct awareness of the essence of the (unconscious) mind, and in so doing confers upon the practitioner a thoroughly new way of viewing existence.  The Buddha appears to be removing, by an act of sheer, concentrated will, the functioning conscious mind to reveal the unconscious that lies beneath and around it, whilst Jung is using the inherent meaning implicit within each conscious element to draw the unconscious (and its content) into the conscious mind itself, so that it can be fully observed and understood.  What is interesting is that the Buddhist path does not end merely with the perception of the empty mind (i.e. unconscious), but that after such an awareness has been developed, all the normal functioning of the conscious mind is reactivated, so that the conscious mind is fully integrated into the unconscious mind.  In this fully enlightened state there is a full totality of mind in operation, that is fundamentally different from the normal, undeveloped (and therefore one sided) previous state of being.  Jungianism aims at exactly the same integration of all aspects of the mind.  Despite the difference in the treatment of the content of the mind, Buddhism and Jungianism share exactly the same destination, albeit through two very radically different pathways.  The Buddha advocates self-study through meditation whereby a practitioner observes the mind in isolation, with perhaps occasionally seeking guidance from a sutra or a master.  There is probably a ratio of around 90% quiet meditation, to 10% guidance in this model.  The analytical psychology as developed by Jung, by way of comparison, is reliant upon a patient or client receiving treatment from a qualified therapist.  The ratio for this method is the exact opposite with around 90% of the process being taken up by active guidance, and probably around 10% of the time taken up in self-observation.  The Buddha’s path is ‘self-reliant’, whilst the professional Jungian path is ‘other-reliant’.  In ‘Psychology and Western Religion’ (page 292) Jung explains the general context within which he quotes Buddhism in his work;

‘My little essay on Eastern Meditation deals with the popular tract Amitayar Dyhana Sutra, which is a relatively late and not very valuable Mahayana text.  A critic objected to my choice: he could not see why I should take such an inconspicuous tract instead of a genuinely Buddhist and classical Pali text in order to present Buddhist thought. He entirely overlooked the fact that I had no intention whatever of expounding classical Buddhism, but that my aim was to analyse the psychology of this particular text.’         

Jung formulated his approach to psychology through the observation of patients suffering all kinds of debilitating mind problems within a clinical setting.  It is unlikely that he knew of Buddhism in these early days, or that Buddhism served as any kind of inspiration for his developed viewpoints about the mind.  In reality, Jung used the observation of the mind (of many different patients) to gain an understanding of certain psychic generalisms applicable to all.  As a good all round scholar, Jung sort to find evidence of his findings within world literature.  Obviously this involved the study of texts from virtually all religions, including Buddhism.  He saw in Buddhism something unique that touched a cord in his own research.  Here was a man who lived around 2500 years ago in ancient India, who decided that he wanted to relieve human suffering through looking into his mind.  Of course, Jung had access to the many Buddhist sutras already translated into German by this time, and could see the method that the Buddha advocated.  Jung could not agree with this method exactly, as it appeared to contradict the Western secular science of the day that taught that only the conscious mind can know anything.  From Jung’s perspective the Buddha appeared to be teaching the negation of consciousness – the very faculty that was needed to be cultivated through self-development.  This is a misinterpretation of Buddhist philosophy based primarily upon a lack of adequate and advanced translations of important Buddhist texts.  It is true that within early Buddhism the sutras tend to give the impression that only a ‘stilled’ mind is required for the attainment of enlightenment, but within the Mahayana sutras it is clear that this intermediate stage is not the end of the matter, and so the Buddha teaches that ‘void is form, form is void.’  The early sutras are correct, however, and probably relied upon the augmentation of a meditation teacher who would guide the student to the next stages as and when they got that far in their development.  In reality the Buddha does not ‘negate’ consciousness, but merely suspends its most obscuring tendency so that it becomes fully translucent and other aspects of the mind can be perceived through it.  In the fully enlightened state, the mind is fully functioning but no longer retains a limited outlook.  The re-emerging contents of the mind are now viewed as being the product of the deepest part of the psychic fabric.  When Jung first encountered Buddhism, he probably had a feeling that it would be archetypically useful in his ongoing work which explains its inclusion throughout.  Eventually, as he matured, and more advanced Buddhist texts became available in translation, he understood that his path, and that of the Buddha, shared exactly the same transpersonal objective of freeing an individual from a limited psychological perspective.

Carl Jung’s Collected Works Cited – Routledge (UK) Series:

Readers are advised that the books and their publication dates quoted below are of the English translations of Jung’s original German manuscripts, and that the German editions were published at an earlier date.  The (UK) Routledge collection of Jung’s Collected Works stands at 20 Volumes, and I have selected nine of these volumes to demonstrate the presence of Buddhism in that work:

Volume 3 – The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease – Published in England 1960

Volume 6 – Psychological Types – Published in England 1971

Volume 7 – Two Essays on Analytical Psychology – Published in England 1953

Volume 9i – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious – Published in England 1959

Volume 9ii – Aion – Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self – Published in England 1959

Volume 11 – Psychology of Religion: West and East – Published England 1969

Volume 12 – Psychology and Alchemy – Published in England 1953

Volume 14 – Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into Separation and Synthesis of Psychic opposites in Alchemy – Published in England 1963

Volume 17 – The Development of Personality – Published in England 1954

Volume 18 – The Symbiotic Life – Published England 1954

(Note: For volumes 11 and 18 of Jung’s collected works, I have accessed the 1984 Princetown University Press edition entitled ‘Psychology and Western Religion’, which contains extracts of both texts.)    

Other Works Cited:

Dunne, Claire, Carl Jung – Wounded Healer of the Soul, Watkins Publishing London, 2012.

Evans-Wentz, W.Y., The Tibetan of the Dead, OxfordUniversity Press, 1960, with Commentary by Carl Jung. 

Jung, Carl, G., Man and His Symbols, Arkana, 1990.

Jung, C.G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Fontana Press, 1993.

Luk, Charles, Ch’an and Zen Teaching – First Series, (Rider) Century Paperbacks, 1987.

Suzuki, D.T., Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Rider, 1957, with Foreword by CG Jung.

Wilhelm, Richard, I Ching, Routledge, 1968, Foreword by CG Jung.

Wilhelm, Richard, Secret of the Golden Flower, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, Foreword by CG Jung. 

Woolger, Roger, J., Other Selves, Other Lives – A Jungian Psychotherapist Discovers Past Lives, Crucible/The Aquarian Press, 1990.

Wilhelm, Richard, I Ching, Routledge, 1968, Foreword by CG Jung.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2013.


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