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…