Liberation in One Fell Swoop? Conversations About Awakening in 1958 and 2015

Conversations about Human Liberation: 1958 and 2015, Buddhism & Psychoanalysis

Hisamatsu ShinichiOn May 16, 1958, the Japanese Zen master and philosopher, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu (1889-1980) met with the psychoanalyst and writer, Carl Jung (1875-1961) at Jung’s home in Kusnacht, Switzerland. Hisamatsu asked to meet with Jung to talk about the nature of human awakening or liberation. As a part of his comparative research into Eastern and Western religion and philosophy, Hismatsu had lectured extensively in 1958 throughout the US. On his way back to Japan, he visited with a number of prominent European thinkers to talk about various topics relevant to Zen and Western philosophies of liberation. The most complete English translation of this complex and fascinating conversation between two masters is published in Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy, (2002, Routledge, edited by Polly Young-Eisendrath and Shoji Muramoto). The translation is by Muramoto.

At a key moment in the conversation, Hisamatsu poses a question about liberation: “Can psychotherapy liberate us from suffering in one fell swoop?” Jung responds, “Liberate us from suffering? One tries to reduce suffering, yet some suffering is always present. There would be nothing beautiful if the beautiful were not in contrast with ugliness or suffering. The German philosopher Schopenhauer once said: ‘Happiness is the cessation of suffering.’ Psychotherapy must not disturb the problem of suffering too much in people. Otherwise, people would become dissatisfied.” And Hisamatsu replies, “Suffering is, in a sense, necessary for life. You are right. Nevertheless, we have a genuine wish to be liberated from it.” What ensues after this key interchange is somewhat confusing because Hisamatsu is trying to find out what Jung thinks about the Zen notion that we are liberated from the “I” or “self” in a moment of awakening and Jung is trying to make use of some Sanskrit terms from Buddhism as they apply in his model of mind and to the notion of psychological healing through individuation. It is this exchange about “liberation in one fell swoop” that I want to focus on here.

In 1958, there was not much knowledge available to either Europeans or Japanese about models of psycho-spiritual development that originated outside of either culture of origin. Jung and Hisamatsu were opening up a new frontier. In 2015, however, there is a remarkable body of knowledge about all of the traditions of Buddhism — very capably translated into English – and more refined and developed psychoanalytic models of mind and methods of psychotherapy. Conversations about human liberation are still on the outer reaches of what we know about the conscious and unconscious mind, however.

We now know that the model of mind that originated with the Buddha’s “supreme awakening,” as it’s called, includes a highly developed understanding of unconsciousness, hidden motivations, and emotional habit patterns that are very hard to break. This is the classical Buddhist model of mind that was developed in the Abhidharma teachings on Buddhist psychology. In this model, the mind wants to be awakened – to have the light of mindfulness shine on its unconscious meanings and habits. The mind is happiest and most serene when it is awakened and conscious of its true nature. By contrast, the model of mind that comes from psychoanalysis is one in which there is inherent conflict between conscious and unconscious desires, wishes, and views. The psychoanalytic mind cannot tolerate all of reality, ever, because of the complexity of the human personality with its hidden aggressions, competitions and longing for omnipotence. Later in the interview Jung states the psychoanalytic goal of liberation: “If a person is able to adopt the attitude that both good and bad are part of life, that person will suffer less. With an objective attitude, he or she can find a way to be released from morbid neurotic suffering. If he or she can say ‘yes’ to the suffering and accept it, the pain is suddenly diminished.” In psychoanalytic practices, there is no “liberation in one fell swoop” because it is impossible for the mind to know itself and its motivations all at once.

Enlightening ConversationsThese two models of human liberation – the Buddhist model of insight through mindfulness and the psychoanalytic model of insight into conflict – will be the subject of spontaneous inquiry and conversations between renowned Buddhist teachers and psychoanalysts at Harvard Divinity School this fall, November 12-13th. We will be talking about enlightenment, Buddhahood, idealization and disillusionment, as they are relevant to human liberation in the twenty-first century. Please register now and join the conversation. Seating is limited.