The Zen Man

In her Diary of Vowels, Jungian analyst Helen M. Luke describes a type of person she refers to as “the Zen man.” According to Luke, “He is … one who does everything with his whole heart, with complete commitment and devotion – or, in Jung’s words, one who lives his hypothesis to the bitter end, to the death if need be.”

Buddha Statue

It is a mistake to compare Buddhism’s wholeheartedness with Jung’s idea of authenticity. (Image: public domain.)

The concept of wholeheartedness in Zen Buddhism refers to complete sincerity and commitment. Many in the West, including Luke, have tried to equate Zen wholeheartedness with Jung’s notion of wholeness and authenticity. Jung himself may have made the comparison, as Luke seems to suggest.

To claim that the Zen man is completely committed for life is the same as saying that he lives wilfully. However, given the realities of Buddhism, this cannot be true. Luke believes the Zen man to be an individuated person who is psychologically whole. Yet Buddhists do not individuate, they rid themselves of their present false persona (the rigid conscious self) in order to put on a new false persona whenever they want to (the changeable conscious self). They become consummate actors. As such, they have no real connection with their authentic selves, which lie, in large part, in the unconscious. They are not authentic. Therefore, since true will originates in the authentic self, the Zen man does not live wilfully.

Luke goes on to say, “It is the devotion that matters – the conscious devotion with which we are willing to risk all kinds of mistakes and willing to pay the price if we are wrong.”

Notice that there is no mention of the unconscious here. Yet there is no authentic self without the unconscious.

This kind of conscious devotion could only be present in someone who has worked through Jung’s individuation process. Devotion used in this context is commitment to some purpose; and commitment to purpose is will. Since will is not a function of the conscious mind (ego) it is necessary that the “devoted” ego has learned and knows what the self wills. This is to say, unconscious contents must have been raised into conscious awareness. With that done, the individuated person knows himself or herself well enough to know fully what they genuinely will. Without this degree of self-knowledge, a person may tackle things they do not genuinely will, and there can be no devotion or wholeheartedness without the backing of will.

So conscious devotion is ego aligning itself with what the authentic self wills. Christians would externalize this psychological framework and say that one must obey the will of God. Jung described the process as the ego putting itself in orbit around the much larger self. (The launching of Sputnik delighted Jung and he quickly adapted the image of an orbiting satellite for use in his work.) Establishing the enlarged – by the inclusion of formerly unconscious contents – ego in its proper place in the psyche is a key aspect of what individuation is all about.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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