C.G. Jung on the Moon: Psychic Reality & Buddhist Phenomenology

Once upon a time, there was a bright young girl named Marie-Louise who loved fairy tales. One day, she made a journey to visit the famous psychologist, Dr. Carl Gustav Jung.

Dr. Jung explained to Marie-Louise that he had a female patient who lived on the Moon.

She corrected him – surely he meant to say that the women thought she lived on the Moon.

Jung replied that he had meant exactly what he said: the woman lived on the Moon.

As future Jungian analyst and collaborator Marie-Louise von Franz later recalled, ”[I] went away thinking that either he was crazy or I was.”

Regardless as to who was (in)sane, von Franz returned to work with Jung.

Jung called this phenomenon Psychic Reality; essentially, it is a form of ontological phenomenology.

*

Who-da what-a what? you might be asking at this point. Let’s examine those words together.

Ontology means the study, or logos, of the very nature of being, or existence.

For instance, Descartes’ famous statement “I think therefore I am” (“Cogito, ergo sum.” for those of you that enjoy a bit of Latin) is an ontological statement.

Now, as to the actual truth of that statement, we have to turn to another branch of philosophical inquiry, Epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how one knows something is true.

Now, for some people, the answer is easy: asides from the Dao Teh Ching, practically every major religious text, somewhere along the way, makes a self referential, logically circular, truth claim:

Q) How do you know what you believe is true?

A) Because [insert holy book here] told me so.

Q) And how do you know that [insert holy book here] is true?

A) Because [insert holy book here] told me so!

But back to our topic, we’ve covered Ontology, the nature of being.

Now, it’s time to turn to Phenomenology…which has no use for epistemology.

*

Buddhism got a handle on phenomenology nearly two and half thousand years ago.

Unfortunately, it took a while for the West to catch up.

Even more unfortunately, the man who championed Western phenomenology was a card carrying Nazi:

Martin Heidegger.

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What does phenomenology mean?

It means that all any sentient being can be certain of is what it experiences, through its senses and thoughts.

Thoughts are constructed both through sensual conceptions and memories, and the words that frame them.

It was this emphasis on language that Heidegger thought set Western phenomenology apart from similar Buddhist notions.

He even had a a fascinating debate with a Buddhist monk on that very subject; there is surviving video that can be found online

However, Heidegger’s basic supposition is wrong:

Buddhism actually takes language into account.

Buddhist philosophers just didn’t think it mattered all that much.

After all, in Buddhism, everything is empty…when everything isn’t full…

(this is the essence of the Two Truths, but that’s a subject for a later post)

*

So let’s loop back to Jung and the much younger Marie-Louise von Franz.

Jung’s statement is, in philosophical terms, ontologicaly phenomenological.

In other words, if his patient experienced living on the moon, then the only truth claim he could make about her was that she lived on the moon.

In this way, Jung very intentionally moved away from the Subject/Object, Patient/Doctor model of psychology.

He wasn’t there to tell his patients about “reality” because he understood that he only knew his experiential reality, which was every bit as subjective as theirs.

Pretty Buddhist, in a sense…

*

Was Jung a Buddhist?

He did write the foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism, though it is a little dismissive: if anything, it borders on the mechanistic/reductive.

However, years later, on his deathbed, he was pouring over Buddhist monk Charles Luk’s Ch’an and Zen Teachings: First Series, a work originally penned by Hsu Yun.

Jung was too weak to write, but he asked a now much older Marie Louise von Franz to dictate a letter to Charles Luk.

This is what she recounted:

“. . . he was enthusiastic. . . . When he read what Hsu Yun said, he sometimes felt as if he himself could have said exactly this! It was just ‘it’!”

*

And as for his patient?

Well, she’s probably still living on the moon….

buddha

2 thoughts on “C.G. Jung on the Moon: Psychic Reality & Buddhist Phenomenology

  1. Sounds ludicrous at first. Now it makes sense when I got to your, “In this way, Jung very intentionally moved away from the Subject/Object, Patient/Doctor model of psychology. He wasn’t there to tell his patients about “reality” because he understood that he only knew his experiential reality, which was every bit as subjective as theirs.”
    Powerful notion…
    It’s so tempting as a clinician to suppose YOUR conception of reality is more accurate than the patient’s. This is how doctors are traditionally schooled, of course.

    Like

  2. “We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the path of life.” I can see myself in the people I meet everyday. At work. At concerts. In my friends. My family. They are calling to me. Informing me. Guiding me. Too often I ignore.

    Like

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