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Carl Jung on Zen Buddhism

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Psychology and Religion

[Carl Jung on Zen Buddhism]

For these and many other reasons a direct transplantation of Zen to our Western conditions is neither commendable nor even possible.

All the same, the psychotherapist who is seriously concerned with the question of the aim of his therapy cannot remain unmoved when he sees the end towards which this
Eastern method of psychic ‘healing”—i.e., “making whole”—is striving.

As we know, this question has occupied the most adventurous minds of the East for more than two thousand years, and in this respect methods and philosophical doctrines have been developed which simply put all Western attempts along these lines into the shade.

Our attempts have, with few exceptions, all stopped short at either magic (mystery cults, amongst which we must include Christianity) or intellectualism (philosophy from Pythagoras to Schopenhauer).

It is only the tragedies of Goethe’s Faust and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra which mark the first glimmerings of a break-through of total experience in our Western hemisphere.

And we do not know even today what these most promising of all products of the Western mind may at length signify, so overlaid are they with the materiality and concreteness of our thinking, as moulded by the Greeks.

Despite the fact that our intellect has developed almost to perfection the capacity of the bird of prey to espy the tiniest mouse from the greatest height, yet the pull of the earth drags it down, and the samskaras entangle it in a world of confusing images the moment it no longer seeks for booty but turns one eye inwards
to find him who seeks.

Then the individual falls into the throes of a daemonic rebirth, beset with unknown terrors and dangers and menaced by deluding mirages in a labyrinth of error.

The worst of all fates threatens the venturer: mute, abysmal loneliness in the age he calls his own.

What do we know of the hidden motives for Goethe’s “main business,” as he called his Faust, or of the shudders of the “Dionysus experience”?

One has to read the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, backwards, as I have suggested, in order to find an Eastern parallel to the torments and catastrophes of the Western “way of release” to wholeness.

This is the issue here—not good intentions, clever imitations, or intellectual acrobatics.

And this, in shadowy hints or in greater or lesser fragments, is what the psychotherapist is faced with when he has freed himself from over-hasty and short-sighted doctrinal opinions.

If he is a slave to his quasi-biological credo he will always try to reduce what he has glimpsed to the banal and the known, to a rationalistic denominator which satisfies only those who are content with illusions.

But the foremost of all illusions is that anything can ever satisfy anybody.

That illusion stands behind all that is unendurable in life and in front of all progress, and it is one of the most difficult things to overcome.

If the psychotherapist can take time off from his helpful activities for a little reflection, or if by any chance he is forced into seeing through his own illusions, it may dawn on him how hollow and flat, how inimical to life, are all rationalistic reductions when they come upon something that is alive, that wants to grow.

Should he follow this up he will soon get an idea of what it means to “open wide that gate / Past which man’s steps have ever flinching trod.”

I would not under any circumstances like it to be understood that I am making any recommendations or offering any advice.

But when one begins to talk about Zen in the West I consider it my duty to show the European where our entrance lies to that “longest road” which leads to satori, and what kind
of difficulties bestrew the path which only a few of our great ones have trod—beacons, perhaps, on high mountains, shining out into the dim future.

It would be a disastrous mistake to assume that satori or samadhi are to be met with anywhere below these heights.

As an experience of totality it cannot be anything cheaper or smaller than the whole.

What this means psychologically can be seen from the simple reflection that consciousness is always only a part of the psyche and therefore never capable of psychic wholeness: for that the indefinite extension of the unconscious is needed.

But the unconscious can neither be caught with clever formulas nor exorcized by means of scientific dogmas, for something of destiny clings to it—indeed, it is sometimes destiny itself, as Faust and Zarathustra show all too clearly.

The attainment of wholeness requires one to stake one’s whole being.

Nothing less will do; there can be no easier conditions, no substitutes, no compromises.

Considering that both Faust and Zarathustra, despite the highest recognition, stand on the border-line of what is comprehensible to the European, one could hardly expect the educated public, which has only just begun to hear about the obscure world of the psyche, to form any adequate conception of the spiritual state of a man caught in the toils of the individuation process—which is my term for “becoming whole.”

People then drag out the vocabulary of pathology and console themselves with the terminology of neurosis and psychosis, or else they whisper about the “creative secret.”

But what can a man “create” if he doesn’t happen to be a poet?

This misunderstanding has caused not a few persons in recent times to call themselves—by their own grace—”artists,” just as if art had nothing to do with ability.

But if you have nothing at all to create, then perhaps you create yourself.

Zen shows how much “becoming whole” means to the East.

Preoccupation with the riddles of Zen may perhaps stiffen the spine of the faint-hearted European or provide a pair of spectacles for his psychic myopia, so that from his “damned hole in the wall” he may enjoy at least a glimpse of the world of psychic experience, which till now lay shrouded in fog.

No harm can be done, for those who are too frightened will be effectively protected from further corruption, as also from everything of significance, by the helpful idea of “auto-suggestion.”

I should like to warn the attentive and sympathetic reader, however, not to underestimate the spiritual depth of the East, or to assume that there is anything cheap and facile about Zen.

The assiduously cultivated credulity of the West in regard to Eastern thought is in this case a lesser danger, as in Zen there are fortunately none of those marvellously incomprehensible words that we find in Indian cults.

Neither does Zen play about with complicated hatha-yoga techniques, which delude the physiologically minded European into the false hope that the spirit can be obtained by just sitting and breathing.

On the contrary, Zen demands intelligence and will power, as do all greater things that want to become realities. ~Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion, Pages 554-557.