Monthly Archives: April 2016

Carl Jung on Zen and enlightenment

Carl Jung has written an interesting foreword to a book called An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki which was published first of all in 1949. By chance I picked up a copy in a second-hand bookshop and see that the book was reprinted many times after that – my copy is dated 1979 and the latest edition seems to be in 2013. In the foreword Carl Jung is writing very much with his analytical psychology hat on questioning first of all how enlightenment comes about and what it consists of… ‘By what or about what one is enlightened.’ He then settles down to look at various definitions in somewhat an academic way whilst acknowledging that doing what he is doing in other words trying to reach a way of understanding satori or enlightenment experiences goes against the very spirit of Zen.

Jung comments on the abstruse obscurity of certain Zen anecdotes and koans. However, perhaps it is rather more our Western rationalism which seems to obscure a more holistic and experiential perspective. Jung gives an example:

A monk once went to Gensha [a Zen master], and wanted to learn where the entrance to the path of truth was. Gensha asked him, ‘do you hear the murmuring of the brook?’ ‘Yes, I hear it,’ answered the monk. ‘There is the entrance,’ the Master instructed him.

Yet while such stories may sound opaque or as Jung puts it examples of ‘exotic obscurity’ for anyone who has sat meditating by a small river the answer seems relatively straightforward. Of course it may be that the reader in 1949 would have been less comfortable with Eastern teachings…

Jung reveals his own awareness when he says that enlightenment comes as something unexpected. Such experiences can he says sound like complete nonsense to the simple European so there needs to be a renunciation of various Western prejudices. Once this happens Jung suggests that satori – experiences of enlightenment – can be seen as a matter of natural occurrence… something that is so very simple like the murmuring of the brook. However Jung keeps a strong hold of his own understanding which is to keep enlightenment firmly within psychological parameters as an insight into the nature of self – something other than the ego and so surpassing it.

I like the quote that Carl Jung includes from a book on German theology: ‘man [meaning all of us] says, “Poor fool that I am, I was under the delusion that I was it, but I find it is and was truly God”.’ Conscious of the truth involves an awareness of God – the more than ourselves – more than the ego-self. Jung also links Zen to the mysticism of Meister Eckhart who when commenting on the breakthrough (meant here in a similar way to satori/enlightenment when a Zen master describes ‘the bottom of a pitcher is broken through’) says: ‘when I wish to remain empty in the will of God, and empty also of this will of God and of all his works, and of God himself – then I am more than all creatures, for I am neither God nor creature: I am what I am, and what I will remain, now and forever!… I perceive what God and I are in common. I am then what I was… An immovable being who moves all things… Man through his poverty has won back what he has always been and will always be.’

Surely that’s a breakthrough into enlightenment…

Rebirth and transformation of consciousness

Thomas Merton saw the renewal of the self and the new creation in Christ – in other words the idea of rebirth ‘as a central fact of Christian existence’ and ‘fundamental to Christian theology and practice.’ As he tells us in ‘Rebirth and the New Man’ in Christianity this is not merely a ritual affair or result of exterior acts it is rather an ‘inner revolution’ involving complete self-transcendence and transcendence of the usual cultural norms and attitudes, where all are seen as created, redeemed and loved – ‘one in Christ.’ The insistent voice which tells us ‘you must be born again’ is in part about a recovery of something and some quality of being that is still deep within us: it is to become ourselves.

Merton saw this as the search for inner truth and as an inner transformation of consciousness, and importantly as both a psychological and spiritual rebirth, and it is this that is the goal of authentic maturity. Resurrection for Merton is in part a metaphor for contemplation involving an inner revolution: ‘It is the obscure but insistent demand of [a person’s] own nature to transcend itself in the freedom of a fully integrated, autonomous, personal identity.’ He sees this as a deep spiritual instinct, an urge for inner truth that can be found, as in the poem, through interior silence and contemplative prayer: it is ‘a continuous dynamic of inner renewal.’

‘Emphasis is placed on the call to fulfil certain obscure yet urgent potentialities in the ground of one’s being, to ‘become someone’ that one already (potentially) is, the person one is truly meant to be. Zen calls this awakening a recognition of ‘your original face before you were born.’

Rebirth involves a death, and so the dynamic of resurrection consciousness is a continuous earthly transformational pattern of dying and rising. The Franciscan Richard Rohr says that we need to deeply trust this pattern and if we do we are indestructible. Rather than the death and resurrection of Jesus as some kind of heavenly transaction it is instead an earthly transformation on his and our part that can only be achieved by deep trust but that in the end saves us from meaninglessness, cynicism, hatred and violence – which is indeed death. For it seems as if the process is not one of ascent, but rather descent, and this involves going into the darkness to see the light. This it seems is what is required, and through it we will be known.

And we know this from meeting and coming to terms with our shadow in analytic work…not a pleasant task and sometimes humiliating to find that what one dislikes so much in others is in fact a strong but previously repressed part of oneself. In my personal experience it has taken years to uncover and look at some of this stuff – often easier to be the victim than to accept the inner bully and so on. Yet the ideal is to integrate and so become a whole or real person…warts and all.

‘He is Risen’ continued: Resurrection as liberation, power and hope

Thomas Merton is describing what could be called resurrection consciousness which is about a capacity and resilience in life to bounce back to change, and creatively transform ourselves even although we might feel defeated, and despite the battle between death and life that goes on within us all. It could be said that that is a daily struggle… It is only through the cross that this renewal takes place and this may involve disagreement and unpopularity and alienation from others, but each is called according to their own purpose and grace. Merton writes of the Christian in whom Christ is risen who ‘dares to think and act differently from the crowd. He has ideas of his own not because he is arrogant but because he has the humility to stand alone and pay attention to the purpose and the grace of God.’ This may involve standing alone with Christ who liberates us from all forms of tyranny and domination.

Perhaps the most important section of the booklet-homily is when Merton writes that we are called to share in the resurrection not because we are religious heroes, but rather because ‘we are suffering and struggling human beings.’ It is so hard for us to believe that Christ is risen; rather, as with the disciples and the women who went to the tomb after the crucifixion, we secretly believe him in practice to be dead with a massive stone blocking the way that keeps us from reaching the living Christ. This too Merton thinks is what happens to our Christian faith – for Christ is not an inert object, not a lifeless thing, not a piece of property, not a super religious heirloom. Instead as Merton adds in capital letters towards the end of the homily – it looks as if her were shouting: HE IS NOT THERE, HE IS RISEN and indeed is going ahead before us.

And where is He going? Well to Galilee which is the place where the past can be recovered in such a way as to make it the foundation for a new and extended identity. Rowan Williams sees Galilee as ‘the soil on which a redeemed future may grow’.

So Galilee becomes the place of discipleship. And the path that leads from Galilee to Jerusalem is the path towards the place of suffering and death but also Jerusalem as the place of divine self-revelation. Here Merton understands that St Mark is speaking of the way of the cross so that if we are to meet with Jesus in Galilee then it is not necessarily some glorious trouble-free existence but rather a suffering discipleship, and an existence perhaps permanently characterised by human failure. But equally as the gospel implies but does not state explicitly, failure can be and is overcome because the power of forgiveness and restoration is in the end greater than human failure and its consequences. In Mark’s account Christ rises as the crucified one and Jesus can only be ‘seen’ and experienced by the way of the cross. This involves a letting go of the false self and the person we might like to be seen as so as to allow a new consciousness to emerge.

Merton says that to understand Easter and to live it we have to renounce our dread of newness and freedom. If we consent to new life and his emphasis is on the phrase if we consent to it, grace and trust are renewed from moment to moment in our lives. This Merton understood as the same mystery that is found in the Mass each time we participate when, ‘we die with Christ, we rise with Him and receive from him the Spirit of Promise who transforms us and unites us to the Father in and through the Son.’

Resurrection, renewal and rebirth

During April I’m going to look at Thomas Merton’s writings on the resurrection and these are edited extracts from the keynote talk given at the 2016 Thomas Merton Society conference. The full talk which includes extracts from Merton’s Journals and my further reflections will be in the publications section of the web site.
The Easter homily published in a booklet as ‘He is Risen’ is Merton’s most extensive reflection on the resurrection of Jesus, and fundamental to Merton’s thinking is St Paul’s insistence that the resurrection is not simply an event that happened to Jesus; it is also something that happens to us: Merton believes that we are called to experience it in our own lives. The work of the Easter homily is based on chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel, when the women come to the tomb seeking for what they can only think of and imagine is a dead Christ. For Merton the danger is that Christianity can become in itself merely a cult of the dead body with implications for our own state of being half dead or half alive. Instead it is the cross that makes the resurrection possible.
I worked for six years for the Church of England in Bath and Wells, and spent a lot of time meeting clergy discussing various concerns in different parishes. On one occasion I visited the team rector of a large parish with many problems and after a difficult meeting the vicar and I spoke about where we got our inspiration from. Imagine my delight when it turned out that we were both avid readers of Thomas Merton. It was this vicar who so kindly photocopied the whole of ‘He is Risen’ and sent it to me after explaining that it was these words from Merton that enabled him to keep going year-on-year. So what was it that so inspired him and what did he find from these words that he couldn’t find anywhere else? From talking to him it was the dynamics of resurrection consciousness and that through Merton’s work he found a Christ that is not static but who moves ‘walking ahead of us to where we are going.’ This invitation, says Merton, is dependent on our willingness ‘to move on, to follow him to where we are not yet, to seek him where he goes before us – to Galilee.’ There are two things required of us: one is that we are called not only to ‘believe that Christ once rose from the dead but we are called to experience the resurrection in our own lives by entering into this dynamic movement … The dynamism is expressed by the power of love and of encounter.’
Merton goes on to say that Christ leads us through mutual encounter to a new future which we build together – the kingdom of God which is at the heart of the Christian faith, and so the resurrection rather than merely being seen as historical fact becomes the life and action of Christ in us through his Spirit. Above all else resurrection consciousness has to be personal and real – where ‘true encounter … awakens something in the depth of our being, something we did not know was there.’