Graham Pemberton
10 min readMar 6, 2023


The Ideas of Carl Jung in Relation to Other Traditions — Taoism, part 1

pixabay DG-RA

This is the latest in a series. In the previous article I discussed Jung in relation to Sufism. In the upcoming articles I’ll turn to his relationship with Eastern religions, beginning here and the following one with Taoism. The topics covered will be Jung’s deep friendship with the distinguished sinologist Richard Wilhelm, and the two books on which they collaborated, Wilhelm’s translations of the I Ching, and The Secret of the Golden Flower. There will be further articles on Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Before that, however, for anyone unfamiliar I’ll begin with a brief explanation of what the religion or spiritual tradition of Taoism is. Its essence is contained in its foundational text the Tao Te Ching, believed to be written by Lao Tsu, who was an older contemporary of Confucius. It contains 81 ‘chapters’, although these are very brief and more in the nature of poems, a total of approximately 5,000 words.

It opens with a cosmological statement: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things”¹. We see here a belief common to many traditions, and the statements of various mystics, that the ultimate reality is a mystery, ineffable and beyond all description.

Attempts to translate and describe the word Tao, the great mystery, are therefore bound to be difficult. Richard Wilhelm, possibly referring to that opening, says that “Lao-tse has used this word, though in the metaphysical sense, as the final world principle, which antedates realization and is not yet divided by the drawing apart of the opposites on which emergence into reality depends”.

This is his understanding: “The Tao, then, the Way, governs man just as it does invisible and visible nature (heaven and earth). The character for Tao in its original form consists of a head, which probably must be interpreted as ‘beginning’, and then the character for ‘going’ in its dual form in which it also means ‘track’, and underneath, the character for ‘standing still’, which is omitted in the later way of writing. The original meaning, then, is that of a ‘track which, though fixed itself, leads from a beginning directly to the goal’. The fundamental idea is that the Tao, though itself motionless, is the means of all movement and gives it law”².

For me what is fascinating here is that this seems to be a clear reference to panentheism, the idea that ‘God’ is both transcendent and immanent. The Tao is the ultimate infinite reality (motionless), but at the same time the driving force and intelligence (law) behind all change (thus the evolution of the lower levels including the material world).

Jung says that the Western mind has no concept for Tao, that there is therefore no adequate translation. Noting that Wilhelm translates it as ‘meaning’ (Sinn in German), and others as ‘way’, ‘providence’, or even as ‘God’, he offers his own interpretation of the characters mentioned by Wilhelm: “ ‘Head’ can be taken as consciousness, and ‘to go’ as travelling a way, thus the idea would be: to go consciously, or the conscious way”³. (Actually Wilhelm also, as in the passage quoted above, translates Tao as ‘Way’.)

I’ll turn now to the main focus of my article, beginning with Wilhelm rather than Jung. He was an important friend, and their relationship had a profound effect upon the latter. We can say therefore that when talking about one, we are also talking about the latter, since they seem to be of one mind. Jung wrote: “Wilhelm’s life-work is of such great value to me because it explained and confirmed so much of what I had been seeking, striving for, thinking and doing, in order to meet the psychic suffering of Europe”. This will also shed important light upon the divergence between Western and Eastern traditions, and the profound psychological conflicts that this can cause.

Wilhelm was an eminent sinologist, and it can be argued that he was, more than any other, perhaps even solely, responsible for opening up the vast spiritual heritage of China to the West. He was a linguist and a scholar, but also a spiritual seeker, according to Jung “a truly religious spirit, with an unclouded and farsighted view of things”. Wilhelm was “this mind which created a bridge between East and West and gave to the Occident the precious heritage of a culture thousands of years old, a culture perhaps destined to disappear”.

He moved to China in 1899 and lived there for over twenty years. He learned the language, and developed a passion for Chinese culture, particularly their religious texts. This transformed him into a new person, and he began to see the world through the perspective of the Chinese; he was very impressed by the deep spirituality which he found there. Jung says: “No sooner had he encountered the secret of the Chinese soul than he perceived the treasure hidden there for us, and sacrificed his European prejudice on behalf of this rare pearl”. It became his life’s mission to create a bridge between Western and Eastern spirituality.

He was fortunate to meet Lao Nai-hsuan, a Chinese sage and scholar who profoundly influenced his life. Lao came to trust Wilhelm, and accepted him as his pupil.

Lao was apparently related to the family of Confucius, and was an adept at Chinese yoga and psychological methods from the Taoist traditions. He realized that China’s isolation from the rest of the world had to end, so that for the first time the deep spiritual tradition of China was shared with a European. It would seem that his life’s mission was to reveal the secrets of Chinese spirituality to the West, and that it was Wilhelm’s mission to communicate them, thereby creating a bridge between Western and Eastern spirituality. I suggest therefore that this was one of the most important relationships of recent times for humanity in general. Jung says: “Wilhelm fulfilled his mission in the highest sense of the word. Not only did he make accessible to us the past treasures of the Chinese mind, but, as I have pointed out, he brought with him its spiritual root, the root that has remained alive all these thousands of years, and planted it in the soil of Europe”.

Lao’s special expertise and passion was the I Ching (to be discussed below). In Wilhelm’s words, “Lao first opened my mind to the wonders of the Book of Changes. Under his experienced guidance I wandered entranced through this strange yet familiar world”. Together they translated the I Ching from Chinese into German, a task which continued for ten years. Jung notes: “When the last page of the translation was finished and the first printer’s proofs were coming in, the old master Lau Nai Suan died”. It would seem that his mission had been completed.

Wilhelm paid a price, however, for his absorption in Chinese culture, which conflicted with his Christian upbringing. (His original reason for relocating to China was as a missionary. However, according to Jung, he once said “It is a great satisfaction to me that I never baptized a single Chinese!”) Upon his return to the West, his upbringing began to reassert itself, which led to a deep conflict; his being was split into two. As Jung put it: “This reversion to the past seemed to me somewhat unreflective and therefore dangerous. I saw it as a reassimilation to the West, and felt that as a result of it Wilhelm must come into conflict with himself… If, as I assumed, the Christian attitude had originally given way to the influence of China, the reverse might well be taking place now: the European element might be gaining the upper hand over the Orient once again. If such a process takes place without a strong, conscious attempt to come to terms with it, the unconscious conflict can seriously affect the physical state of health”.

Wilhelm did indeed become ill, which Jung believed was the result of this spiritual conflict between West and East. He says “I believed I understood his situation, since I myself had the same problem as he and knew what it meant to be involved in this conflict”. This is a highly important statement in the context of my current series, since it shows what a strong attraction Eastern traditions had for Jung, whatever reservations he may have expressed elsewhere, to be discussed in later articles.

The I Ching

The I Ching hexagrams, pixabay Glitchwitch

For those unfamiliar, it is considered to be a Taoist book of wisdom, but also an oracle to which questions can be addressed. In the Western method, the answers are determined by throwing three coins six times into the air, then noting how they land in terms of heads and tails. (The original Chinese method used yarrow stalks.) The 64 possible combinations are related to hexagrams in the book, some of which can be further developed by a changing line into a second hexagram. (Each hexagram can therefore potentially change into any of the others, which provides a large number of possible answers.)

It is believed that the origins of this ancient Chinese book of wisdom and oracles may go back as far as the fourth millennium B.C.E., although such a claim is hard to substantiate. Wilhelm says that “according to general tradition, which we have no reason to challenge, the present collection of sixty-four hexagrams originated with King Wên, progenitor of the Chou dynasty”, therefore about 1150 B.C.E.

Jung says that, even before meeting Wilhelm, he had been interested in Oriental philosophy, and had begun experimenting with the I Ching. Then one summer he decided, as he put it, “to make an all-out attack on the riddle of this book”. He asked many questions, and says that “all sorts of undeniably remarkable results emerged, meaningful connections with my own thought processes which I could not explain to myself”⁴. The mystery, despite the apparent randomness of the procedure, is that “meaningful answers are the rule”. (As an example from later, Jung says: “At his first lecture at the Psychological Club in Zürich, Wilhelm, at my request, demonstrated the method of consulting the I Ching and, at the same time, made a prognosis which, in less than two years, was fulfilled to the letter and with unmistakable clearness. This fact could be further confirmed by many parallel experiences”⁵.)

When he met Wilhelm, they talked a great deal about Chinese philosophy and religion. Jung says that “what he told me, out of his wealth of knowledge of the Chinese mentality, clarified some of the most difficult problems that the European unconscious had posed for me. On the other hand, what I had to tell him about the results of my investigations of the unconscious caused him no little surprise; for he recognized in them things he had considered to be the exclusive possession of the Chinese philosophical tradition”. It would seem therefore that there is a meaningful connection between Jung’s psychological discoveries and the ancient wisdom of Taoism. We can assume that what Jung calls the collective unconscious was responsible for this.

Unsurprisingly, Jung says that the oracle of the I Ching “is extremely unscientific, in fact, taboo, and therefore outside the scope of our scientific judgement, indeed incomprehensible to it”. He nevertheless attempts to explain how it works. He notes that “according to the old tradition, it is ‘spiritual agencies’, acting in a mysterious way, that make the yarrow stalks give a meaningful answer”; as the book is considered “a sort of animated being, the tradition assumes that one can put questions to the I Ching and expect to receive intelligent answers”.

Adopting a somewhat more modern attitude — although one might wonder what he secretly believed — he says that “nothing ‘occult’ is to be inferred”, and that in the field of psychotherapy and medical psychology there are many unknown quantities. His alternative hypothesis is synchronicity, thus a meaningful correspondence between the inner and outer worlds. (Rationalists might consider this also to be a somewhat occult explanation.)

He says that this Chinese tradition seems unconcerned with linear time and causality, in contrast with modern Western science. It sees rather an interconnectedness of everything in any given moment: “a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers”⁶. (There would seem to be a connection here with the views of certain quantum physicists.)

In the next article I’ll discuss the Taoist text The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Wilhelm with contributions from Jung.

pixabay Activedia

The edition of the I Ching that I’ve been quoting is the Routledge & Kegan Paul third edition, 1968, 8th reprint 1978.


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 of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.



  1. as in the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Wildwood House Limited, 1973, 8th reprinting 1980
  2. The Secret of the Golden Flower, Wilhelm/Jung, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, 7th reprinting, p11
  3. ibid., p97
  4. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Appendix IV, Collins Fount, 1977, p405
  5. as footnote 2, p142
  6. I discussed Jung’s thinking on synchronicity in this earlier article.



Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships.