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Difficulties encountered by a European in trying to understand the East~Carl Jung






Psychology and Religion: West and East (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 11)

Harem Pool by the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme

COMMENTARY BY C. G. JUNG (From ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’)


A thorough Westerner in feeling, I am necessarily deeply impressed by the strangeness of this Chinese text.

It is true that some knowledge of Eastern religions and philosophies aids my intellect and intuition in understanding these ideas to a certain extent, just as I can understand the paradoxes of primitive beliefs in terms of ‘ethnology’, or in terms of the ‘comparative history of religions”

Indeed, this is the Western way of hiding one’s heart under the cloak of so-called understanding.

We do it partly because of the misérable vanité des savants which fears and rejects with horror any sign of living sympathy, and partly because a sympathetic understanding might permit contact with an alien spirit to become a serious experience.

The so-called scientific objectivity would have reserved this text for the philological acuity of Sinologues, and would have guarded it jealously from any other interpretation.

But Richard Wilhelm penetrated into the secret and mysterious vitality of Chinese wisdom too deeply to have allowed such a pearl of intuitive insight to disappear in the pigeonholes of the specialists.

I am greatly honored that his choice of a psychological commentator has fallen upon me.

This entails the risk, though, that this unique treasure will be swallowed by still another special science.

None the less, anyone seeking to minimize the merits of Western science and scholarship is undermining the main support of the European mind.

Science is not, indeed, a perfect instrument, but it is a superior and indispensable one that works harm only when taken as an end in itself.

Scientific method must serve; it errs when it usurps a throne.

It must be ready to serve all branches of science, because each, by reason of its insufficiency, has need of support from the others.

Science is the tool of the Western mind and with it more doors can be opened than with bare hands.

It is part and parcel of our knowledge and obscures our insight only when it holds that the understanding given by it is the only kind there is.

The East has taught us another, wider, more profound, and higher understanding, that is, understanding through life.

We know this way only vaguely, as a mere shadowy sentiment culled from religious terminology, and therefore we gladly dispose of Eastern ‘wisdom’ in quotation marks, and relegate it to the obscure territory of faith and superstition.

But in this way we wholly misunderstand the ‘realism’ of the East.

This text, for instance, does not consist of exaggerated sentiment or overwrought mystical intuitions bordering on the pathological and emanating from ascetic cranks and recluses.

It is based on the practical insights of highly evolved Chinese minds, which we have not the slightest justification for undervaluing.

This assertion may seem bold, perhaps, and is likely to be met with disbelief, but that is not surprising, considering how little is known about the material.

Moreover, the strangeness of the material is so arresting that our embarrassment as to how and where the Chinese world of thought might be joined to ours is quite understandable.

When faced with this problem of grasping the ideas of the East, the usual mistake of Western man is like that of the student in Faust

Misled by the Devil, he contemptuously turns his back on science, and, carried away by Eastern occultism, takes over yoga practices quite literally and becomes a pitiable imitator. (Theosophy is our best example of this mistake.)

And so he abandons the one safe foundation of the Western mind and loses himself in a mist of words and ideas which never would have
originated in European brains, and which can never be profitably grafted upon them.

An ancient adept has said: ‘If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.’

This Chinese saying, unfortunately all too true, stands in sharp contrast to our belief in the ‘right’ method irrespective of the man who applies it.

In reality, in such matters everything depends on the man and little or nothing on the method. For the method is merely the path, the direction taken by a man.

The way he acts is the true expression of his nature.

If it ceases to be this, then the method is nothing more than an affectation, something artificially added, rootless and sapless, serving only the illegitimate goal of self-deception.

It becomes a means of fooling oneself and of evading what may perhaps be the implacable law of one’s being.

This is far removed from the earth-born quality and sincerity of Chinese thought.

On the contrary, it is the denial of one’s own being, self-betrayal to strange and unclean gods, a cowardly trick for the purpose of usurping psychic superiority, everything m fact which is profoundly contrary to the meaning of the Chinese ‘method’.

For these insights result from a way of life that is complete, genuine, and true in the fullest sense; they are insights coming from that ancient, cultural life of China which has grown consistently and coherently from the deepest instincts, and which, for us, is forever remote and impossible to imitate.

Western imitation of the East is doubly tragic in that it comes from an unpsychological misunderstanding as sterile as are the modern escapades in Taos, the blissful South Sea Islands, and Central Africa, where ‘primitivity’ is earnestly being played at while Western civilized man
evades his menacing duties, his Hic Rhodus hic salta.

It is not a question of our imitating, or worse still, becoming missionaries for what is organically foreign, but rather a question of
building up our own Western culture, which sickens with a thousand ills.

This has to be done on the spot, and by the real European as he is in his Western commonplaces, with his marriage problems, his neuroses, his social and political delusions, and his whole philosophical disorientation.

We should do well to confess at once that, fundamentally speaking, we do not understand the complete detachment from the world of a text like this, indeed, that we do not want to understand it.

Have we, perhaps, an inkling that a mental attitude which can direct the glance inward to this extent can bring about such detachment only because these people have so completely fulfilled the instinctive demands of their natures that little or nothing prevents them from viewing the invisible essence of the world?

Can it be, perhaps, that the premise of such vision is liberation from those ambitions and passions which bind us to the visible world, and does not this liberation result from the sensible fulfillment of instinctive demands, rather than from the premature or fear-born repression of them?

Is it that our eyes are opened to the spirit only when the laws of earth are obeyed?

Anybody who knows the history of Chinese culture, and has also carefully studied the I Ching, that book of wisdom which for thousands of years has permeated all Chinese thought, will not pass over these questions lightly.

He will know, moreover, that the views set forth in our text are nothing extraordinary from the Chinese point of view, but are actually inescapable, psychological conclusions.

In our Christian culture, spirit, and the passion of the spirit, were for a long time the greatest values and the things most worth striving for.

Only after the decline of the Middle Ages, that is, in the course of the nineteenth century, when spirit began to degenerate into intellect, did a reaction set in against the unbearable dominance of intellectualism.

This movement, it is true, at first committed the pardonable mistake of confusing intellect with spirit, and blaming the latter for the misdeeds of the former.

Intellect does, in fact, harm the soul when it dares to possess itself of the heritage of the spirit.

It is in no way fitted to do this, because spirit is something higher than intellect in that it includes not only the latter, but the feelings as well.

It is a direction, or principle, of life that strives towards shining, supra-human heights.

In opposition to it stands the dark, the feminine, the earth-bound principle (yin), with its emotionality and instinctiveness that reach far back into the depths of time, and into the roots of physiological continuity.

Without a doubt, these concepts are purely intuitive insights, but one cannot very well dispense with them if one is trying to understand the nature of the human soul.

China could not do without them because, as the history of Chinese philosophy shows, it has never gone so far from central psychic facts as to lose itself in a one-sided over-development and over-valuation of a single psychic function.

Therefore, the Chinese have never failed to recognize the paradoxes and the polarity inherent in what is alive.

The opposites always balanced one another- a sign of high culture.

One-sidedness, though it lends momentum, is a mark of barbarism.

The reaction which is now beginning in the West against the intellect in favor of feeling, or in favor of intuition, seems to me a mark of cultural advance, a widening of consciousness beyond the too narrow limits of a tyrannical intellect.

I have no wish to undervalue the tremendous differentiation of Western intellect; measured by it, Eastern intellect can be described as childish. (Obviously this has nothing to do with intelligence.)

If we should succeed in elevating another, or even a third psychic function to the dignity accorded intellect, then the West might expect to surpass the East by a very great margin.

Therefore it is sad indeed when the European departs from his own nature and imitates the East or affects it in any way.

The possibilities open to him would be so much greater if he would remain true to himself and develop out of his own nature all that the East has brought forth from its inner being in the course of the centuries.

In general, and looked at from the incurably external point of view of the intellect, it would seem as if the things so highly valued by the East were not desirable for us.

Intellect alone cannot fathom at first the practical importance Eastern ideas might have for us, and that is why it can classify these ideas as philosophical and ethnological curiosities and nothing more.

The lack of comprehension goes so far that even learned Sinologues have not understood the practical application of the I Ching, and have therefore looked on the book as a collection of abstruse magic spells. ~Carl Jung, Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower, Part I.