Friday, 20 November 2009

C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy

On first encountering Buddhist teachings, many Westerners wonder whether they are actually dealing with a philosophy or a type of applied psychology, rather than with a religion. Buddhism certainly has strong elements of both philosophy and psychology.

Buddhist Philosophy
Buddhist teachings do not require a suspension of the intellect by demanding a belief in scientifically implausible creation myths. There are no 'revealed truths' (i e doctrines which come from out of the sky and must be believed on the basis of faith rather than reason). Buddha encouraged his students to test his teachings against their own reason and experience. Only by thoroughly challenging the teachings can one gain confidence in their truth.

How things exist
One of Buddhism's main philosophical components is its ontology - the study of how things exist. A common misunderstanding is that Buddhists believe that 'things don't really exist' or that 'nothing exists'. In fact Buddhists believe that nothing exists by its own nature. All produced phenomena exist in dependence upon other phenomena - every cause is itself an effect of another cause. A table does not exist by virtue of it's innate 'tableness'. It exists due to the timber and the joiner, and its possessing a flat surface, a certain number of legs etc. It also exists by identification with the 'tableness' that is present in the minds of the observers (but not in the table itself!).

Tracing phenomena further back, the timber exists in dependence upon acorns, soil, sun, rain etc, and the joiner exists in dependence upon his mother, father and the midwife.

Buddhism as a Process Philosophy
In Buddhism, relationships such as cause and effect, structure and components, observer and observed are regarded as more fundamental aspects of existence than actual 'things'. Even the mind is not a thing or a substance. The technical Buddhist term for the mind is the 'Mental Continuum'. In western terminology we would regard Buddhism as a Process Philosophy.

Buddhist Psychology
Buddhist psychology is intended to be used for improving our state of mind. It is an applied science and is not usually presented as an abstract or academic discipline, because in order to understand it Buddhists are supposed to 'walk their talk'. Practices include meditation, visualisation and mindfulness throughout the day.

Buddhist Psychology and the Victorians
When nineteenth century Britons and Americans first studied Buddhism, they were impressed by the rational aspects of the philosophy, but were perplexed by some of the powerfully emotive and sometimes disturbing psychological symbolism and visualisations.

Victorian prudery about what appeared to be sexual and necromantic symbolism, and Protestant hangups about 'Idolatry' led many of them to denigrate these 'tantric' aspects as the corruption of an originally rationalistic philosophy by later mixing with primitive folklore and Shamanism. This is still a favorite Islamic critique of Buddhism. (See this Australian site for a robust refutation of this scurrilous propaganda and taqiyya. )

The Victorians had no concept of the power or even the existence of the subconscious mind. Then along came Freud and Jung.

Jung, Tantra, Archetypes and Alchemy
Buddha had recognised the importance of the subconscious activities of the mind, both individual and collective, 2400 years before the founders of Western psychology. He knew that purely rational arguments were insufficient to motivate a deep and lasting transformation of the mind. The practitioner also needs to harness and redirect the powerful emotional currents which well up from the depths. Jung discovered that the vivid symbolism of tantric art and visualisation involved the use of 'archetypes' - ancient patterns and symbols in the human subconscious which can be invoked to produce powerful emotional responses.

Since Jung's investigations, tantra has provoked much interest in the West, as well as many misunderstandings. For example, tantra is often portrayed as being just about sex. But in fact Tantra is about all kinds of transmutation and transformation of our ordinary mundane environment into the spiritual path to enlightenment:

'Secret Mantra [Tantra] is distinguished from Sutra by the practice of bringing the future result into the present path. For example, even though we have not yet attained enlightenment, when we practise Secret Mantra we try to prevent ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions of our environment and instead visualize our surroundings as the mandala of a Deity. In the same way, we prevent ordinary appearance of our body, our enjoyments, and our deeds, and, in their place, generate ourself as a Deity, visualize our enjoyments as those of a Buddha, and practise performing enlightened deeds. By doing such practices, we can attain the resultant state of Buddhahood very rapidly. These four practices are essential for both the generation stage and completion stage of Secret Mantra.' - Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Deity archetypes
'Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, often involving a sadhana liturgy and form, in which practitioners visualize themselves as the meditation Buddha or yidam. The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, and non-dual. By visualizing oneself and one's environment entirely as a projection of mind, it helps the practitioner to become familiar with the mind's ability and habit of projecting conceptual layers over all experience. This experience undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed. Deity yoga enables the practitioner to release, or 'purify' him or herself from spiritual obscurations (Sanskrit: klesha) and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously.' -

There is frequent alchemical symbolism in tantra, with visualizations of base and impure substances being transmuted into nectars and elixirs by the application of fire and seed-letter 'catalysts' . This symbolism represents the transmutation of contaminated emotions into enlightenment. Jung came to the conclusion that something similar was going on in Medieval western alchemy, with the alchemical processes being metaphors for the transmutation of the impure soul into the perfected soul.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Anonymous said...

Jung was a Theist and could not cognize Tantra correctly. If you are going to look at Tantra from a Jung perspective it will be monism or Theism and from a Hindu view and not Buddhist Tantra. Which is experienced through the view of Interdependent Origination and Emptiness which is very different to the view of Theism or monism.

Craig Hase said...

While I appreciate the above comment (Jung certainly was a Theist; Emptiness is non-Theistic), I appreciate this blog post even more. Well-researched and thoughtful, informative too. Thank you.