Reflections on Jung in the 21st Century

This is a blog on Jungian themes published by Michael Escamilla

Distressed Zen Buddhist Priest: The Healing Power of Dreams

Distressed Zen Buddhist Priest: The Healing Power of Dreams

 Michael Escamilla, MD and David Rosen, MD                (USA) 


     There is a natural, and perhaps mutual, affiliation between the disciplines of Zen Buddhism and Jungian analysis.  Although separated by continents, cultures (Eastern and Western) and millennia, each deal intimately with a search for transformation at the deepest level of the individual.  Each tradition also seeks the path to their respective transformative process from "within" - i.e. through reflection upon one's own thought processes (conscious and unconscious).  Accompanied by a guide (a Zen priest or Jungian analyst) the person seeking transformation enters into the work with an openness to exploring layers of consciousness and towards coming to an epiphany (or series of epiphanies) and self-derived wisdom that come from our capacity to experience all of nature within ourselves. 

       Zen Buddhism derives its origin from the sayings of The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, an Indian spiritual teacher who lived in the 6th century.  The Buddha derived much of his approach from already extant mystical and religious ideas such as the concept of a universal soul ("Atman" "Brahman").  At the forefront of Buddha's teaching is that life and all that we experience of it is essentially a process of attachment which engenders suffering ("dukkah").  For the  Buddha,  there is a "middle way" between suffering attachment to the experience of the world (maya)  and negating one's existence and desires through the suffering of asceticism.  Meditative practices allowed one to observe the ramblings of our consciousness and eventually experience an epiphany (Satori) in which one can connect to the essence of all life (the universal soul) while simultaneously achieving non-attachment to the transient elements of our existence.  Buddha taught both methods to approach this state as well as precepts for living in the world that incorporated the deeper knowledge which comes with the epiphanic realizations experienced in meditation.  As the teachings of the Buddha spread through the East, a form which we know as Zen Buddhism developed in China and, later, Japan.  Those who submit themselves to this form of Buddhism essentially follow a vocation that involves processes aimed at arriving at the Satori experience, which must ultimately be experienced and cannot be taught in a logical or dogmatic form.  From this form of Buddhism we owe statements such as "if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him" and in answer to the question of whether a dog has a Buddha nature, the answer "wu!"   Paradoxes in the form of koans are studied, in essence developing mental capacities that open the psyche to non-linear and non-dualistic forms of consciousness.

       Writing for a western audience, D.T. Suzuki wrote An Introduction to Zen Buddhism in 1934, and C.G. Jung later wrote a foreword to Suzuki's book.  Jung commended Suzuki's work to communicate some of the concepts of Zen Buddhism to a Western audience. Jung felt that "Western man" was in great need of experiencing spiritually transformative work that would lead to a process of "becoming whole" (this was Jung's euphemistic description of the individuation process). However, while drawing parallels between his psychological ideas and Zen Buddhism, Jung also warned that the spiritual process and illuminations of Zen Buddhism were ultimately likely to be unobtainable by Westerners trying to use these "philosophies" for themselves, as Jung stated that the work of the Zen acolyte unfolded within a longstanding cultural, philosophic and theological structure, many of whose concepts and formulations were unfamiliar to those who grew up in the culture of the West.

       One wonders if Jung would have felt the reverse were true.  Could analytical psychology have a resonance with persons from an Eastern culture, given that the concepts of ego, the unconscious and individuation were developed by Jung and his colleagues in 20th century Europe and America, based upon millennia of a civilization descended from Greek culture, Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religions, mythologies of Germanic, Celtic and Norman peoples, and alchemical mysticism?  In the last few decades, we have seen therapists from Japan, Korea, China and other countries in Asia become trained in Analytical Psychology, and have found that indeed the methodologies of Analytical Psychology bear fruit in therapy with those raised in the culture of the Far East.  The analyst Hayao Kawai has written about the bridge between Buddhism and therapy as practiced from a Jungian approach. Japanese analysts  Shunya Takeno and Tadashi Maeda have also written about the application of Jung's theoriesi in their patients in Japan where they have found it helpful in working in particular with psychotic patients.  Maeda's work in particular explores parallels between Buddhism and Jung's psychological ideas about the ego and Self.

       While in Japan on sabbatical at Kyoto Bunkyo University, David Rosen had the following encounter with a Zen priest, whom he had been encouraged to visit by a Jungian analyst colleague who was leaving Japan as David was arriving.

"As expected, the Zen priest called and I went to his small, sparsely furnished priest quarters with tatami flooring and we sat on Zen pillows. "

"The Zen priest was middle-aged, as I was. He spoke better English than my broken Japanese, so we chose the former to converse in. "

"His first generous offering was foamy green tea, which he whisked repeatedly with a tiny bamboo utensil. He served this to me in a unique, wabi-sabi bowl. I quickly gulped the tea. "

"He informed me that he had read Jung's foreword to D.T. Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism. He added that Jung clearly understood the parallels between Zen and his own psychology. "

"I reflected quietly on the fact that Satori and oneness were similar to the Self and the ongoing healing process of individuation. "

"He then asked a question that was often repeated: "Would you like some more tea?" I said, 'Yes, thank you very much.' I drank this tea more slowly and observed him carefully."

"He was centered and I felt like I entered a meditative state. It was as if I was sitting next to a calm, running brook. "

"The Zen priest observed me in turn. It’s like we were mirror images. "

"I asked him what he wanted to see me about. He said: 'I had a really bad dream.'"

"He was puzzled, as he said in his training that he was told to disregard dreams because they are like thoughts. "

"He said, 'I tried to do this, but I couldn't ignore them. They kept breaking through, flooding my mind, and they disturbed me.' "

"I sat there, nodding silently."

"He asked if I'd like more tea. Again, I accepted. "

"He then asked a question: 'Are you individuated?' "

"I said, 'No, it's a process.' "

"We drank more tea."

"Then I asked him, 'Are you enlightened?' "

"He said, 'No, it's a process.' "

"Then he inquired again, 'Are you sure you're not individuated?' "

"I responded, 'No.' "

"He laughed, and so I laughed."

"He asked, after more silence, "Would you like more green tea?" "Oh yes," I said."

"There was more silence."

"Then came his deep, accepting look. He asked, 'Tell me the truth, are you individuated?' "

"Again I said 'No.' ,

"I subsequently asked him 'But you must be enlightened.' "

"He said, 'No.' And he laughed heartily."

"During a pause in our mutual laughter, he offered me more tea. Again, I accepted. "

"It was as if we were drunk, but we weren't. Laughing in that place where you want to cry. "

"I persisted, while laughing, 'But to be a Zen priest, aren't you supposed to be enlightened?' "

"He bent over in laughter. "

"I said, 'You wanted to ask me something?' "

"He suddenly turned very serious. "

" 'Am I a rapist and murderer?' "

"I was stunned by his question."

"He saw my surprise and said, 'Please tell me. Am I a rapist and murderer?' "

"I came to with the question: 'Are you a rapist and murderer?' "

"He said, 'Yes.' "

"I didn't know what to say or think."

"I said, 'Really?' "

"He said, 'Yes.' "

"He asked, 'Do you want more tea?' "

"I said, 'No.' "

"I gathered up the courage to say, 'Please tell me what happened.' "

"I felt like a priest who was taking confession."

"He said, 'I raped and murdered a young woman.' "

"I replied, 'This is critical. Were the police involved?' "

"He said, 'No.' "

"I remembered a case I had seen many years ago, when a professor who was a patient had said he murdered his mother and father. In shock, I didn't know what to do. I told the patient, 'Call home.' Then we both heard his mother answer the telephone. I wrote on a notepad: 'Ask how your father is.' She said, 'He's fine.' "

"I asked the Zen priest, 'Why do you think you did that?' "

" 'Because I saw myself doing it.' "

"I said, 'But wasn't that a dream?' "

"He replied, ' Yes, but it happened.' "

"I said, 'That's the difference between a dream and reality.' "

"Then, he bent over in laughter, 'Thank you.' "

"I said, 'Thank you...' "

"We started laughing together, because we didn't have to cry."

"He asked, 'Would you like another tea?' "

"I said, chortling, 'Please.' "

"Then, while drinking the last foamy green tea, we began laughing, alternated with tears."

"Nearly three hours had passed."

"As I prepared to leave, we embraced and bowed to one another."

       In Jung's introduction to Suzuki's book, as noted by the Zen priest above, Jung draws parallels between psychotherapy and the practice of Zen Buddhism.  Jung felt the process of obtaining enlightenment for the Zen Buddhist was similar to the work an analysand goes through in order to attain a state of wholeness.  Jung felt that the Satori experience derived from the unconscious illuminating the psyche with what has been missing as a result of the one-sidedness of the conscious "l".  The "I" - i.e.. the "Ego" stands as the ultimate development of the enlightened Western man.  For the Buddhist, the "I" is the great obstacle to insight and true wisdom.

In this same introduction, Jung writes about psychotherapy:

"psychotherapy is a dialectical relationship between the doctor and the patient.  It is a discussion between two spiritual wholes, in which all wisdom is merely a tool.   The goal is transformation; not indeed a predetermined, but rather an  indeterminable change, the only criteria of which is the disappearance of 'I-ness.'"

In the encounter between David Rosen (who by the way, had previous to this encounter developed a theory of "Egocide" as a path towards transformation and encounter with the far richer and more complete archetype of the "Self") and the Zen priest, we see an encounter of two human psyches, each from a tradition promising realization of a deeper, transpersonal wisdom. The discussion between these "two spiritual wholes" takes place at first as a series of questions regarding whether the other has obtained enlightenment or individuation, with each repeatedly insisting (like Peter's three-fold denial of Christ!) that he has not obtained a state of enlightenment (for the priest) or individuation (for the analyst).  The healing which takes place is evident from the release of emotion - deep laughter and tears - on both sides of the encounter.  We might say that, through this session, the priest individuates a bit and the analyst has a glimpse of enlightenment.  For both, this comes at the expense (relievedly so) of their respective egos.  Neither "I" is enlightened or individuated, although there is some of each occurring in the room.  At the end of the session, each thanks the other.  Both psyches have shifted to some extent and each has mirrored the other in the process.

          Given more time, perhaps the priest could accept the concept of dreams being somewhat more than just the "thoughts" he had been taught to recognize them as.  Indeed, dreams come from the unconscious and hence carry unknown content and knowledge to the conscious observing ego, in essence echoing the process of Satori.  Perhaps this is why the priest could not let them go, as he had likely been able to do with the more ego-connected thoughts that bubbled up in him during meditation.  More connected to the Self, dreams are not from the same place as the ego and our day to day world of Maya, and they perform their work symbolically, rather than in a material manner.  And they can therefore confuse the ego.  Like the priest, with his statement of being a murderer because he dreamed it, and Rosen's professor who had, in his imagination only, murdered his mother and father, Michael Escamillal once had a patient who only in a delusion had killed someone - causing his treating doctor considerable angst until the self-reported homicide could be documented as a fiction.    

          In the violent images dreamed by the Zen priest, we are reminded of images of Kali and Shiva the destroyers, archetypal divine images of death, destruction and rebirth which arose in the Hindu culture that Buddha himself grew up in.  Like dreams, the archetypes of murder and rape exist within the deeper recesses of the Self and occupy a place worthy of attention, but are clearly distinct from the ego and its humdrum discharges of associations.  A more extended therapy, paying attention to the symbols found in the priest's dream, perhaps would have revealed aspects of the Zen priest's Self that needed attention in order for him to become more whole.  What in his psyche was needing to be killed, or to be ravaged?  And what within him was needing to commit such acts and to what intra-psychic end?  For instance, he may have been individuating through attacking a strong mother complex, which the analyst

 Kawai feels is the dominant complex (both nurturing and devouring) underlying the collective Japanese psyche. 

          The images and thoughts emanating from our conscious mind may indeed be the root of both our attachments and our suffering.  But the contents of the deeper unconscious, although carriers of the expansion of consciousness (and bringer of our Satoris) can cause equal turmoil and, if not properly contained, suffering.  As we are able to work with these inner images and dialogue with them, as Dr. Rosen helped the priest to do in this session, we can be thankful that we are not possessed by these archetypes.  Similarly, we might hope that, through the practice of non-attachment,  we as analysts and teachers help protect our egos from becoming identified or inflated by our work towards achieving a bit of enlightenment or individuation in our walk through these present incarnations.



Armstrong, K.  Buddha, 2001. Penguin Books, London, England.

Kawai, H.  Buddhism and the Art of Psychotherapy.  Texas A & M University Press, College Station, Texas.

Maeda, T.  The Understanding and Psychotherapy of Schizophrenia.  2004. Thesis.  C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich

Rosen, D.H. Transforming Depression: Healing the Soul through Creativity. 2002. Nicolas-Hays, Inc., York Beach, Maine.

Suzuki, D.T. (introduction by Jung, C.G.), An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, 1964. Grove Press, New York, New York.

Takeno, S. Schizophrenia – Myth or Reality: How Can We See and Face Schizophrenia. 1991. Thesis: C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich.



Dr. Escamilla is a Jungian analyst and a Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center of Emphasis in Neurosciences at Texas Tech University Health Science Center at El Paso, and is the McMillan Institute Scholar at the Jung Center in Houston, Texas.

 David Rosen is a Jungian analyst and a Professor of Psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, in Eugene, Oregon.  He served as the McMillan Professor of Analytical Psychology at Texas A&M University, where he is now Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology.

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