The Ideas of Carl Jung in Relation to Other Traditions — Buddhism
This is the latest in a series about the ideas of Carl Jung. In the previous few articles I have been discussing the parallels between his thinking and other religions. Having previously discussed Sufism, Taoism, Hinduism, and a brief excursion into Kabbalah (for details and links to articles please click the link above), I now turn to Buddhism.
There will obviously be some similarities to Hinduism, since the two are closely related. Traditionally the goal of both has been to achieve freedom from the need to reincarnate, and the associated suffering of life. Through spiritual practice one therefore seeks to disidentify from the personality, one’s apparent separate identity, and peel away various layers until one reaches a centre of pure consciousness, a state called Enlightenment or samadhi. This would seem to be an identical experience for anyone who achieves it.
In Hinduism one seeks to return to the experience of Atman, the true self which is the same as Brahman. The goal is the same in Buddhism, although the precise understanding and terminology may be different, since Buddhism denies the reality of Atman. (As an aside, an ignorant outsider like me finds it hard to tell the difference when I read passages like this from The Tibetan Book of the Dead: “Recognizing the voidness of thine own intellect to be Buddhahood, and knowing it at the same time to be thine own consciousness, thou shalt abide in the state of the divine mind of the Buddha”.)
I assume that, since the material level is considered to be the illusion of maya, and the goal of spiritual practice is to escape it, then both traditions place little or no importance on what we do down here in terms of a purpose, work that we are called to do. (One exception would seem to be Sri Aurobindo. There may be others.) That would be a significant difference between these two Eastern traditions and the ideas of Carl Jung.
Turning to his thoughts on Buddhism and the East, since he was highly critical of traditional Christianity, and sought to establish a spirituality that would remedy its deficiencies, Jung was generally sympathetic to the Eastern attitude. He says: “The Christian West considers man to be wholly dependent upon the grace of God, or at least upon the Church as the exclusive and divinely sanctioned earthly instrument of man’s redemption. The East, however, insists that man is the sole cause of his higher development, for it believes in ‘self-liberation’ ”¹. There is an obvious parallel here with the Individuation Process he advocated, since that is an inner search for personal illumination, without reliance on any external authority.
Just as he was highly complimentary about Hinduism (as mentioned in the previous article), Jung also had a deep appreciation of Buddhism. For example, he says of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: for years it “has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights”; “it is of an unexampled sublimity”².
Along similar lines as Sufism in my earlier discussion, Jung praises the East for believing in the reality of the psyche, “as the main and unique condition of existence… It is a typically introverted point of view… Introversion is, if one may so express it, the ‘style’ of the East, an habitual and collective attitude, just as extraversion is the ‘style’ of the West… In the East our cherished extraversion is depreciated as illusory desirousness, as existence in the samsāra, the very essence of the nidāna-chain which culminates in the sum of the world’s sufferings”³.
He also praises The Tibetan Book of the Dead for recognising deities (the inhabitants of the psyche) as both projections of the human psyche and real: this text can do that because its “ever-present, unspoken assumption… is the antinomian character of all metaphysical assertions, and also the idea of the qualitative difference of the various levels of consciousness and of the metaphysical realities conditioned by them. The background of this unusual book is not the niggardly European ‘either-or’, but a magnificently affirmative ‘both-and’ ”⁴.
I hope this makes it clear that Jung does not reject Eastern religion, and has a deep respect for it. When he appears to criticise it, it is when Westerners have turned to it, as he believes, inappropriately.
I’ll now turn to a discussion of the significant differences. Despite these, some similarities can nevertheless be found. Here Robert E. Ryan outlines what he perceives these to be: “(Jung) is detailing the anatomy of modern despair and meaninglessness which he had encountered in his patients. Somewhat like the Buddha, he determines that there is suffering, that suffering has a cause and that the cause can be overcome. And like many schools of Eastern or more ancient thought, he finds that this cause is itself a structure of consciousness”⁵. Thus, for both, the ego is perceived as the problem and the goal is the transformation of consciousness.
That only takes us so far, however, because differences then begin to emerge. In Buddhism the ego personality is considered non-existent, an illusion that we must rid ourselves of. For Jung, however, the ego is an outward, limited, ‘false’ personality (the persona) which is an obstacle that prevents us from realising our true self, our wholeness, our deeper unique personality, the God-image in a human.
Jung’s spiritual path is therefore a celebration of the individual. There is no sense of seeking release, or escaping the need to reincarnate. Instead it is a spirituality of the Earth, in which healing follows a search for, and connection with, the primeval depths.
The purpose of Buddhism is to overcome the suffering inherent in existing in the material world by seeking liberation from it. I assume therefore that Buddhism considers there to be nothing truly meaningful about the lives we lead. Jung, however, encouraged his clients to choose to suffer consciously in order to lead to this higher level of existence, the self which is the goal of the Individuation Process. This is accompanied by a discovery of one’s own purpose or mission in life. We can find meaning and value by living in a way that is authentic to us, guided by the self. We find our own way, rather than living according to someone else’s values or ideas.
It’s worth noting that this idea of individuation is clearly expressed in the text of the Seven Sermons to the Dead, which was Jung’s attempt to put into words the teachings of his inner guide Philemon. His house was haunted by spirits who refused to leave until he started to write this text. (For more details of this background see this article.)
Here is the translation of the relevant passage by the Gnostic scholar and bishop Stephan Hoeller: “You say: What harm does it not do to discriminate, for then we reach beyond the limits of our own being; we extend ourselves beyond the created world, and we fall into the undifferentiated state which is another quality of the Pleroma. We submerge into the Pleroma itself, and we cease to be created beings. Thus we become subject to dissolution and nothingness.
“Such is the very death of the created being. We die to the extent that we fail to discriminate. For this reason the natural impulse of the created being is directed toward differentiation and toward the struggle against the ancient, pernicious state of sameness. The natural tendency is called Principium Individuationis. This principle is indeed the essence of every created being. From these things you may readily recognize why the undifferentiated principle and lack of discrimination are all a great danger to created beings”⁶. (For a translation in somewhat old-fashioned language, see footnote 7.)
Is it possible to reconcile the two traditions? Might both be true? I am always keen to seek to emphasise the similarities rather than differences between religious ideas. It occurred to me therefore that the esoteric idea of involution and evolution might be relevant here. This is how the relevant Wikipedia article puts it:
“In theosophy, anthroposophy and Rosicrucianism, involution and evolution are part of a complex sequence of cosmic cycles, called Round. When the universe attains a stage of sufficient density, the individual spirit is able to descend and participate in the evolution. Involution thus refers to the incarnation of spirit in an already established matter, the necessary prerequisite of evolution…
That period of time devoted to the attainment of self-consciousness and the building of the vehicles through which the spirit in man manifests, is called involution. Its purpose is to slowly carry life lower and deeper into denser and denser matter for the building of forms, till the nadir of materiality is reached. From that point, life begins to ascend into higher Worlds. This succeeding period of existence, during which the individual human being develops self-consciousness into divine omniscience, is called ‘spiritual evolution’ ”⁸.
If we assume that this idea can apply to the microcosm (the individual) as well as to the macrocosm (the universe), as for example in the cosmology of Surat Shabda Yoga⁹, then is it possible that Jung had reached the climax of his involutionary process, while Buddhists are on the evolutionary path? Just a thought. I would hope that they are sure in their own minds that they have truly completed their involution, and are not avoiding the difficulties and suffering of the Individuation Process by seeking to escape this world.
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- Psychological Commentary on ‘The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation’, in Psychology and the East, Princeton University Press, 1978, p109–110
- Psychological Commentary on ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’, as footnote 1, p60
- as footnote 1, p109
- as footnote 2, p61
- Shamanism and the Psychology of C. G. Jung, Vega, 2002, p64
- The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Quest, 1982, p46
- “If we do not distinguish, we get beyond our own nature, away from creatura. We fall into indistinctiveness, which is the other quality of the pleroma. We fall into the pleroma itself and cease to be creatures. We are given over to dissolution in the nothingness. This is the death of the creature. Therefore we die in such measure as we do not distinguish. Hence the natural striving of the creature goeth towards distinctiveness, fighteth against primeval, perilous sameness. This is called the PRINCIPIUM INDIVIDUATIONIS. This principle is the essence of the creature. From this you can see why indistinctiveness and non-distinction are a great danger for the creature”. (C.G. Jung, VII Sermones ad Mortuos, Watkins, 1967, p11)