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Carl Jung


Other Jung Socs.

A Jung-Buddha Conversation

Jeffrey Woodgate

On a recent June evening Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and his Indian guest Gautama the Buddha dined at a local restaurant without translators present.

Gautama the Buddha: I'd like the fish, please.

Dr Carl G Jung: An inspired choice, Gautama. And I'll take your English roast beef.

Waiter: Yes, sir. Anything to drink?

CGJ: A red wine please.

B: A glass filled with ice please.

W: Yes, sir, will that be all for now?

B: Thank you.

CGJ: As I was saying, here in the West our so-called Age of Enlightenment dawned several centuries ago. We began to look at things differently. We even began to apply our new scientific methodology to the causes of suffering of men and women. We made some great advances and replaced superstition with knowledge. Today, men and women are better off then before but, still, suffering persists.

B: It is always so. An unavoidable condition of being human. As you know, I am not unacquainted with suffering. Indeed, all my father's careful manoeuvring to keep me sheltered from the world of pain came to nought - how could it be otherwise? The West and the East are not so far apart.

CGJ: Nothing human is alien to me, the Roman poet Terence said. Our Age of Enlightenment may have cleared away many falsehoods but we awoke from our feudal past and suddenly found ourselves in a modern world unavoidably responsible for our own well-being.

B: No doubt a great shock but, as you say, unavoidable. How did you come to devote yourself to the problem of suffering?

CGJ: When I left my sheltered childhood world I fell into studying medicine, and graduated to work in the field of psychiatry. It seemed a world full of possibilities. Then I encountered patients suffering from the strangest ills, without apparent cause. They were not physically ill, organically diseased. Their mysterious mental suffering seemed unnecessary.

B: Were these patients fully aware of their suffering?

CGJ: I took note of their words and actions and eventually saw that their illnesses often made sense according to their own internal logic. I came to understand their ills served a "secondary gain" purpose. Symptoms were really a way of coping with painful aspects of their lives. Their symptoms were distorted internal responses to environmental challenges. These were not ideal adaptations, to be sure, but they allowed the patient to cope after a fashion.

B: Did you cure them of their ills?

CGJ: Some. There were some lasting cures. My associates in Freud's circle had also begun exploring this field. Separately and together for some years our small band of fractious pioneers set out to chart the territory of the human mind. This was not entirely new ground but we brought a certain fresh intellectual rigour to mapping out the largest landforms of the human psyche - id, ego, superego, collective unconscious.

W: The fish for you. The roast beef. Another glass of wine sir?

CGJ: Yes, thanks.

W: You are right sir?

B: Yes, thanks.

CGJ: Our main legacy, for which some reviled us, was, ironically, the upending of a key notion of our Age of Enlightenment. Our charting of unconscious forces scared many people. With God having been dethroned some time earlier, we now in turn dethroned the ego from its privileged seat of rationality. We showed that other actors - unconscious drives and motivations, emotions - sometimes held the human stage, even if we weren't consciously aware of this shadow play.

B: Carl, it has been my observation that most people are usually all too conscious of their drives and motivations. Greed, lust, pride. These - shall we call them disorders? - constantly motivate people to pursue particular desires. Attaching to these desires causes discontent and dissatisfaction. Only by ceasing our attachment to desires can we realise an end to such suffering.

CGJ: Let go of suffering. Just like that?

B: This letting go can be aided by the cultivation of wisdom, ethical behaviour and mindful awareness. Essentially, our suffering arises from the illusion that the individual self is enduring and needs to be protected. (Young-Eisendrath: 71)

CGJ: What I call psychological complexes, our personal patterns of thought or behaviour charged with strong emotional energy, can drive us to pursue illusions or throw us off balance psychologically. So it is never enough to think we know what we are doing; we need to become aware of these internal forces, see where they are leading us and then act accordingly to put ourselves in control.

B: Yes, attaining mindful awareness and wisdom. This is necessary. In the meantime, we talk of being in control, but in control of what? We live as if everything is cut and dried. We try to control things. But in the end, we rely on God's grace or fate or luck to carry our plans through. We are not in control of our lives. Existence can't be dictated by human beings. All things are always shifting. So are we, moment by moment. Nothing is permanent. When I realised this it wasn't frightening. On the contrary, it was ... liberating. How is your beef, Carl?

CGJ: Very good, Gautama. And the fish?

B: I haven't tasted such fish in ages.

CGJ: Nothing is permanent. Yet, to ourselves, we always retain the view that we remain the same person, don't we? B: It is a very enduring illusion. But we must admit that we change, or else psychoanalysis couldn't hold out a promise of cure, could it?

CGJ: I see therapy as really a process of taking up responsibility for managing our changing selves to the fullest extent we are able.

B: Cure or enlightenment or salvation demands effort and practice. It won't come from outside. We have to go inside. This is why training in meditation is so useful. It aids in concentrating the mind but, more importantly, helps us to remain mindful in all circumstances. After all, we can hardly let go of our attachments if we are not aware of them.

CGJ: My old friend Freud said something like that. Where id was, there shall ego be.

B: I do not frame it in terms of restoring ego to the throne. The self is constantly changing. It has no lasting structure and content.

CGJ: So you don't have a concept of a whole integrated self?

B: I find it more fruitful not to think in terms of either self or non-self. Neither attachment nor aversion. There is a middle path. It is because we are ignorant of the truth that we think we can be made happy by fulfilling our attachments to a specific person, place, feeling, thing and then we form aversions and dislikes. We don't like it when we don't get what we want. When dislike is reinforced it often escalates to anger, hate and enmity. (Das 1997: 60)

CGJ: Frustrated desires can paralyse and poison us.

B: Yet desires are natural. I am not sure it is useful to focus upon the origins or content of desires. It is enough to understand that desires naturally arise and just as naturally cease. That is part of our existence. Things arise together. All is dependent upon all other things.

CGJ: Although I don't have knowledge of past lives, I certainly know that our past can condition or influence our present way of living. Most patients come to analysis with a particular problem. Sometimes together I can help them find a solution. They may suffer through an attachment to a frustrated desire or because they have an aversion to something. The cause of this suffering lies in the present, to be sure, but the patient's tendency is often to apply to the present problem a pattern of thought or action that formed in response to some previous setback to the ego's wants. It is this inappropriate choice of response that fails to overcome the present obstacle.

B: If it can be viewed as an obstacle.

W: Another glass sir?

CGJ: Yes, please.

W: Sir? B: I'm fine. Our past conditions us to be in the present in a certain way. But we have choice. One can see what is really occurring now. Understand the truth of the situation. And act ethically. No longer need we be prisoners of past deeds of ourselves or others. We can be in the world in a new way. Perhaps for most it's best to start with small things. Take that pipe of yours, for instance. If you were of a mind to quit smoking, you might start with examining your desire for smoking. Become aware of when and how it arises. Observe it. Feel the desire. Feel your attachment to it. Not intellectually, but really feel it in your bones - or your marrow. Practise letting go of your attachment and see what happens to this desire. It will hang around for a while, and then eventually disappear. Seeing the desire for what it is will allow you to come to grips with it. Before you can actually choose to stop smoking you must admit to the strength of your desire - not deny your desire or try and hide from it.

CGJ: Gautama, your glass is still empty. And that reminds me, we have an organisation for problem drinkers that operates along much the same lines. The desire of the drinker for attaining a particular alcohol-induced psychic state cannot be resisted or denied forever. That ties up too much psychic energy. The 12 steps path to freedom arises only when the drinker can sit with his or her desire comfortably without being compelled to act to satisfy this transient urge.

B: Yes, it is a case of learning the soft way to resist the seemingly irresistible. But the soft way is not the easy way - it can be immensely difficult to overcome the habits of a lifetime.

CGJ: How fortunate then that we may be given many lifetimes.

B: Indeed.

CGJ: Your ice is melting.

B: Letting go asks a lot of us. On the external level, think about all the things we don't want to relinquish. Think about possessions, money, youth, people, accomplishments, career and status. On the internal level, notice how we cling to self concepts and images, to our ideas, opinions, beliefs, politics and habitual ways of doing things; think about how attached we are to our feelings, moods, regrets, grudges, memories and the stories we tell ourselves. Think about all the ways we hold on to and control all the aspects of our lives. On the innermost level, reflect on how we don't want to let go of our egoistic, selfish, self-important view of self and who we think we are. As we walk the spiritual path to enlightenment, ego-clinging is what we are really attempting to shed. We want to let go of and empty out our separatist tendencies and our selfish agendas. (Das 2003: 86)

CGJ: I think this ego-clinging, all the discontent it engenders, must be understood ultimately as the suffering of a soul which has not yet discovered its meaning. Now, I am not suggesting that one may achieve a life without suffering but, rather, that the suffering is already upon us and we are obliged to find its meaning. (Hollis:18)

B: Although much in the universe is unfathomable, we are obliged to realise our Buddha nature. The ultimate goal of our lives is to be happy.

W: Any dessert sirs?

B: We'll take some cheese, please.

CGJ: I am not so sure.

B: Of the cheese?

CGJ: No, about happiness being our ultimate goal. But it all depends on what you mean by happiness. It all starts when we ask the question, 'Who am I apart, from my history and the roles I have played'? (Ibid: 19)

B: Will my life pass swiftly by as I wander upon this world like a hungry ghost, or will I undertake the work necessary to achieve salvation, which is already within me? Carl, everybody should become their own psychologist and learn to control the undisciplined mind in order to lead it from suffering to happiness.

CGJ: Suffering is painful, certainly, but is it really bad or undesirable? There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. (Jung)

B: Suffering arising from attachment to obsessive desires is certainly painful and completely unnecessary. Enlightenment is a state of becoming freed of limiting desires.

CGJ: Even so, and I agree that freeing yourself of limiting desires is a good thing, is not enlightenment itself limiting? Are you not advocating that the highest value lies in becoming a detached and happy carrot? Can suffering itself ever be eliminated? Should it?

B: Enlightenment is a permanent transformation of consciousness, leading to freedom from suffering and a life without discontent. The mind can be permanently transformed. There is a stage beyond egocentricity that is everlasting. (Rubin: 201-204)

CGJ: Even though everything is in a constant state of flux?

B: Enlightenment is an unchanging achievement, but there are different stages of enlightenment. You could think of it as a process. After all, it took me many lifetimes to reach my final stage of enlightenment. (Ibid: 206)

CGJ: Nevertheless, suffering that is worked though can enrich and deepen a human life, by generating greater knowledge, openness, sensitivity, compassion and passion. (Ibid: 208)

B: Yes, that is so, even in the grip of this changing world.

CGJ: How can one ever get beyond the changing world? Even after death, our material substance continues to change and transform. Even the enlightened follower of the way continues to age, change.

B: Our intrinsic Buddha nature is unchanging. It is our original face and has existed since before we or our parents were born. And will continue to exist after our death. This world is transitory but it is nevertheless real. Suffering exists. Pain is real.

CGJ: But our pain and suffering shows us the way to liberation, does it not? In this way worldly delusions can be valuable.

B: The world of delusions and suffering is not to be underestimated. It provides many valuable lessons.

CGJ: What do you seek to do in the world?

B: I set up the individual mind of each one who seeks peace, bring it to quietude, unify it, gather it together. (Sun: 7)

CGJ: Many patients lack a sense of wholeness. They are off-centre or out of balance, like a wheel riding off its axle or a bone riding out of its socket. This off-centeredness is most often experienced as negativity and restlessness. (Young-Eisendrath: 72)

B: That is dukkha.

CGJ: People think they want this, or that, but all along they are looking for someone else or something else to save them. They think, if only this person would like me more, if only things could be the way they used to be in the past, or if only I could live in such a way I'd be happy. They don't have what they want ...

B: - and so they are able to go on blaming some other cause for their misery. They are absolved from any responsibility, and guilt too, I suppose.

CGJ: But the guilt doesn't disappear. It just goes into hiding, papered over with neurotic or false suffering, a way of escaping from having to do the hard work themselves.

B: Fine cheese, no?.

CGJ: Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. (Jung 2)

B: Exactly. The hardest task of all is to become truly aware of your own strategies for avoiding yourself. The self, our true self, sometimes plays a devious game of hiding itself in its shell of wants. If we continue to follow our own desires, we remain in the world of samsara still. Enlightened self-interest cannot lead to enlightenment. All beings already have everything they need to live the existence allotted for them. We just don't realise it. This is the world of samsara.

CGJ: We need courage to risk all our ego defences and unconscious avoidance strategies in order to move from our one-sided off-balanced position towards wholeness.

B: There is value in wholeness. Living an off-balance life will get us nowhere. We'll eventually run out of steam. CGJ: Usually around the time of our middle years, when the great tasks of the ego are accomplished - establishing ourselves in the world independently of mother and father, becoming educated about things we need to work in a job, make money and gather possessions around us, find a mate and raise a family of our own. And then where are we?

B: But this is important. You first need to develop a healthy ego before you can move beyond its one-sidedness towards wholeness. You must be somebody before you can be nobody, so to say.

CGJ: If we live long enough, the life passage eventually arrives where we have to face what we have avoided so far in our journey. Some people live too much in their heads and block out or avoid dealing with their emotions. These patients have to really feel their emotions first, painful as it is, in order to get better. Other people are constantly swayed by emotional reactions. Their task on the other hand is to work at developing a rational framework to better deal with their emotions.

B: The ways of escaping these tasks are endless.

CGJ: I am constantly amazed at how so many of my patients will do anything to prevent themselves getting better. (Suler: 336)

B: We think we know what is good for us, but it is neither thoughts alone nor emotions alone that have the answers we need. This is apparent when we sometimes get what we think we really want. It doesn't satisfy. Things don't turn out right ever after. Even wanting to be enlightened won't satisfy. Striving for enlightenment will only make it so much harder to attain.

CGJ: My thoughts exactly. Now Gautama, tell me this, how should you live your life?

B: Act always as if the future of the Universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference. (Olson)

CGJ: Well said.

B: And you Carl?

CGJ: Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. (Jung)

B: I wish I had said that.

CGJ: Why aren't you drinking?

B: I always like really cold water and I have just been waiting for the ice to melt. But look! We seem to be finished. Shall we have a little after dinner brandy?

CGJ: Why not? And you can tell me all about reincarnation and what happens after death.

B: Oh, certainly. But it's not really all that interesting, you know.

CGJ: Waiter!

Their conversation continued on in this vein for a glass or so.



Das, Lama Surya, Awakening the Buddha within: eight steps to enlightenment: Tibetan wisdom for the Western world, Broadway Books, New York, 1997.

Das, Lama Surya, Letting go of the person you used to be, Broadway Books, New York, 2003.

Hollis, James, The middle passage: from misery to meaning in midlife, Inner City Books, Toronto, 1993.

Jung, Carl Gustav, quotes @ on 12 June 2005. J

ung, Carl Gustav (2), quotes @ on 12 June 2005.

Olson, Pam @ on 4 June 2005.

Rubin, Jeffrey B (1996), The Emperor of Enlightenment May Have No Clothes, in Molino, Anthony, Editor, The couch and the tree: dialogues in psychoanalysis and Buddhism, North Point Press, New York, 1998, pp 200-213.

Suler, John R (1993), Paradox, in Molino, Anthony, Editor, The couch and the tree: dialogues in psychoanalysis and Buddhism, North Point Press, New York, 1998, pp 321-343.

Sun, Joe Tom (1924), Psychology in Primitive Buddhism, in Molino, Anthony, Editor, The couch and the tree: dialogues in psychoanalysis and Buddhism, North Point Press, New York, 1998, pp 3-11.

Young-Eisendrath, Polly, The transformation of human suffering: a perspective from psychotherapy and Buddhism, in Young-Eisendrath, Polly & Muramoto, Shoji, Editors, Awakening and insight: Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy, Brunner-Routledge, UK, 2002, pp 67-80.



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