Buddhism and Carl Jung
My main purpose here is to offer an alternative spiritual path to Buddhism, that of Carl Jung. Before I move on to that, however, I’m going to prepare the ground by discussing some responses to my previous article on the Dalai Lama’s views on Buddhism and Quantum Physics. The conversations have focused on the Buddhist theory of emptiness, thus whether there is an essential core to our being, or whether to believe this is a “fundamental error”, as the Dalai Lama says. I pointed out that, if this is an error, then it casts doubt upon the Christian belief in a soul, and the concept of atman in Hinduism. I also asked the question whether it makes any significant difference to our lives which one we believe.
My two correspondents, StillJustJames and Larry Roberts, seem to be trying to persuade me of the truth of the Buddhist point of view. In this response StillJustJames says that “a Christian soul is a discrete entity and has eternal life. But from the Buddhist perspective of ultimate truth they would not be, because there are no entities in Buddhism. Similarly for the Hindu Atman. This is truly different than any other philosophy, and it comes out of meditative insights, not speculation”.
I would respond, if no entities exist, who or what is it that chooses to meditate and achieve these insights? Also, if Buddhism believes in reincarnation, then what exactly is it that leaves one body and incarnates into another, if not an entity of some kind? Is it possible that things are not as simple as Buddhism believes?
Larry Roberts challenges my questioning of the Dalai Lama’s use of the word fundamental to describe this error. He seems to think that I haven’t fully grasped the point, and need further explanation — as if the Dalai Lama wasn’t clear enough on this point. (His responses can be found here and here.)
My response to all this is that, if the reality of the external world can be understood to be relative, not absolute, as the Dalai Lama concedes — saying that it “is real in that we experience it” — why can we not say the same of the soul or atman? It has apparent independent existence, but is ultimately merely an aspect of the great oneness. It may be in some sense a temporary core to our being, but also ultimately illusory. Why do we have to be so dogmatic and call it a fundamental error? Does it really matter that much?
Why do I think such questions important? It makes a difference because I believe that we should be attempting to reconcile the different religions, noting what they have in common, rather than engaging in unnecessary arguments about which has better access to ultimate truth.
If I understand them correctly, my two correspondents are convinced of the truth of Buddhism. There are others similar on Medium, some very dogmatic, whose names I have now forgotten. Do Buddhists ever consider the possibility, however, that there might be limitations, perhaps even significant errors, in Buddhist thinking?
Here’s a possible example. The Dalai Lama says: “The principal aim of Buddhist psychology is not to catalogue the mind’s make-up or even to describe how the mind functions; rather its fundamental concern is to overcome suffering, especially psychological and emotional afflictions”. If this is true, then in simple language its purpose is closer to therapy than to science.
It is hard to argue against such a noble aim. Who wouldn’t want to overcome suffering? Is this possible, however? Is it achievable? The ultimate Buddhist solution is to see through the illusion, escape from the cycle of death and rebirth and achieve nirvana, a process which may last many incarnations. This suggests that anything we do on this Earth, apart from meditating in order to achieve enlightenment, is ultimately futile and meaningless.
I would like to offer an alternative viewpoint, that of Carl Jung, who in my opinion is the modern equivalent of the Buddha for Westerners. I cannot remember the exact quote, so this is something of a paraphrase, but somewhere in his voluminous writings he says something along these lines: anyone who has lived life to the full, or perhaps as it is meant to be lived, will have suffered much.
Jung called the spiritual path that he offered individuation, which we can interpret as becoming the whole person that one truly is. In my attempts to find the original quote on an internet search, I came across this: “Like all paths in life, on the path of individuation, suffering is inevitable. When suffering comes our way, Jung was of the strong opinion that we shouldn’t flee from these situations, or deny or repress the feelings that accompany them, but instead we should experience our suffering to the fullest as only then can we move beyond it: ‘Real liberation comes not from glossing over or repressing painful states of feeling, but only from experiencing them to the full’ (Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious). But even though the path of individuation is challenging and even though it does not free us from suffering, it is a path that generates fulfilment and such cannot always be said of the paths of modern day conformity. If, therefore, we are stuck in a life of boredom, mediocrity, anxiety, depression or addiction Jung’s method of self-development offers a way out”¹.
I might add that the path of individuation does not seek to escape this world and its accompanying suffering, rather that work to transform oneself and the planet is an essential part of the process. The true spiritual path in our current situation involves the transformation of the material level — a kind of cosmic alchemy; it does not involve trying to escape it.
This is not to say that Buddhist ideas may not be relevant for us many incarnations down the road, merely that Jung’s individuation is the appropriate spiritual path for Westerners at this stage of the evolution of human consciousness.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, and all but the most recent can be found on my website (click here and here).