Victor Mansfield
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Colgate University
Hamilton, NY USA 13346
June 2005

For years, ever since it was first published, the Bardo Thödol has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights.

C.G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead


I. Introduction

Thanks to C.G. Jung’s association with the pioneer Tibetan scholar, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, Jung wrote two major essays[2] in the 1930’s discussing Tibetan Buddhism.  Jung’s quotation above gives some sense of his appreciation of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although Tibetan Buddhism strongly influenced Jung, it is hardly of the magnitude of such influences as alchemy.  Nevertheless, a reading of these two essays reveals many rich connections between Tibetan Buddhism and Analytical Psychology.  Tibetan Buddhism, especially the tantric expression of it, shares Analytical Psychology’s emphasis on imagination, dreams, synchronicities, attention to the feminine, and the importance of harnessing such potencies as sexuality in the transformation process.  A limited literature[3] has explored some of these connections.  Today, because of the Tibetan Diaspora, there has been a torrent of Buddhist scholarship and personal teaching.  Thanks to this output, many in the west are becoming aware of the vastness and profundity of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  We are thus in a better position than ever to appreciate the relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and Analytical Psychology.

Here, despite the many deep connections between these traditions, I focus on differentiating them and more fully appreciating their differences.  Whether learning elementary calculus or engaging in analysis in Analytical Psychology, we must differentiate before we integrate.  Only in light of differences, can we appreciate their many rich connections and reap their benefits.

II. Nondual Rigpa: Beyond Agnosticism?

A pivotal point in any discussion of Analytical Psychology and religion is Jung’s view about what he calls “metaphysical claims.”  For example, in his “Psychological Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation” he wrote,

Psychology accordingly treats all metaphysical claims and assertions as mental phenomena, and regards them as statements about the mind and its structure that derive ultimately from certain unconscious dispositions.  It does not consider them to be absolutely valid or even capable of establishing a metaphysical truth.  We have no intellectual means of ascertaining whether this attitude is right or wrong.  We only know that there is no evidence for, and no possibility of proving, the validity of a metaphysical postulate such as “Universal Mind.”  If the mind asserts the existence of a Universal Mind, we hold that it is merely making an assertion.  We do not assume that by such an assertion the existence of a Universal Mind has been established.  There is no argument against this reasoning, but no evidence, either, that our conclusion is ultimately right.  In other words, it is just as possible that our mind is nothing but a perceptible manifestation of a Universal Mind.  Yet we do not know, and we cannot even see, how it would be possible to recognize whether this is so or not.  Psychology therefore holds that the mind cannot establish or assert anything beyond itself.[4]

This oft-repeated position frequently gave rise to the criticism that Jung psychologized religion.  It is more accurate to say that Jung was advocating agnosticism about claims for principles beyond the psyche.  In a letter to Evans-Wentz about just this issue he wrote, “Thus agnosticism is my duty as a scientist.”[5]  He was affirming his scientific-empirical stance, which always demands clear and objective evidence for a point of view.  Such clear and objective evidence can never be supplied if we are possessed by an archetype.  For example, at the end of his long career, after suffering much misunderstanding on this point, Jung wrote,

If we are convinced that we know the ultimate truth concerning metaphysical things, this means nothing more than that archetypal images have taken possession of our powers of thought and feeling, so that these lose their quality as functions at our disposal.  The loss shows itself in the fact that the object of perception then becomes absolute and indisputable and surrounds itself with such an emotional taboo that anyone who presumes to reflect on it is automatically branded a heretic and blasphemer.[6]

There is little doubt about how powerfully archetypes condition our experience, both intellectually and affectively.  Figure 1 illustrates Jung’s view by designating the psyche, the conscious and unconscious whole, by a shaded ellipse.  The question mark represents whatever transcendent principle exists outside the psyche.  Archetypes, which also have a trans-psychic or psychoid nature, then express this transcendent principle in an archetypal image.  Of course, it is impossible to differentiate the contribution of the archetype from that of the transcendent principle, since they are inextricably intertwined in the archetypal image.  Finally, the relationship between this image and the ego generates consciousness.  For Jung, all conscious experience must take the dualistic form of an ego relating to an image.


Figure 1: Jung’s model of consciousness

Tibetan Buddhism, however, maintains that rigpa, pristine awareness, nondual mind, or Buddha Nature is a transcendent principle that we can consciously and directly experience.  Contrary to Jung’s model, such experience involves conscious functioning without an ego, in a nondualistic mode.  In his first essay, a “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Jung responded to this claim with, “I cannot imagine a conscious mental state that does not relate to a subject, that is, to an ego.  The ego may be depotentiated—divested, for instance, of its awareness of the body—but so long as there is awareness of something, there must be somebody who is aware.”[7]  He emphasizes this point in a letter to Evans-Wentz, where Jung says, “We know of no consciousness that is not the relation between images and an ego.”[8]  In a subsequent letter to Evans-Wentz, discussing the same issue, Jung clarifies his concept of ego by saying, “The ego in psychology is the cognizing subject designated as ‘I.’”[9]

Jung’s model for conscious experience, his need for “somebody who is aware,” is incompatible with his “constant companion.”  For example in the introduction to the Bardo Thödol, Evans-Wentz noted:

The whole aim of the Bardo Thödol teaching, as otherwise stated elsewhere, is to cause the Dreamer to awaken into Reality, freed from all the obscurations of karmic or sangsaric illusions, in a supramundane or Nirvanic state, beyond all phenomenal paradises, heavens, hells, purgatories, or worlds of embodiment.  In this way, then, it is purely Buddhistic and unlike any non-Buddhist book in the world, secular or religious.[10]

A state that is “beyond all phenomenal paradises . . . or worlds of embodiment” implies that there can be no distinguishable subject, no “somebody who is aware,” who knows an object in a dualistic way.  The text clarifies this point when it discusses the dawn of the primary Clear Light at death.  It reads, “Thine own consciousness [rigpa, pure, pristine awareness], not formed into anything, in reality void, and the intellect [shes-rig, consciousness revealing contents or intellect], shining and blissful,—these two,—are inseparable.  The union of them is the Dharma-Kaya state of Perfect Enlightenment.[11]  (The text inserted in square brackets comes from the footnotes to the quotation.)  In a footnote to these sentences, Evans-Wentz wrote, “In this state, the experiencer and the thing experienced are inseparably one and the same, as, for example, the yellowness of gold cannot be separated from gold, nor saltness from salt.  For the normal human intellect, this transcendental state is beyond comprehension.”

From this nonduality perspective, there can be no second principle of any kind.  There can be nothing outside or beyond the nondual to which it can be opposed, no oppositions within it, and no possible limitation of it.  As Evans-Wentz stated, such a nondual state is, for the normal human intellect, “beyond comprehension,” because the normally functioning human intellect must always work with oppositions, as Jung always stressed.  Nevertheless, nonduality is surely a pivotal aspect of the Bardo Thödol and Tibetan Buddhism in general.  Although there are deficiencies in the Evans-Wentz translations,[12] more accurate translations[13] along with modern scholarship on Tibetan tantra[14] are clear about the nonduality at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhists would respond to Jung’s model of consciousness by noting that imaginal, conceptual, intellectual, symbolic, or inferential knowledge is like “a finger pointing at the moon,” as they say in Zen.  All Buddhists want knowledge of the moon, not the pointing finger.  They are quite clear about the need for direct, non-imaginal, non-conceptual, and non-inferential knowledge.  Therefore, there is such emphasis on meditation, which can lead to direct knowledge—not the dualistic kind of knowledge where an image is in relationship to an ego.

We are actually at an impasse here because Jung is taking a scientific-empirical stance and demanding evidence and provability for any claims of knowledge beyond the limitations imposed by an ego relating to an image.  By the very nature of the nondual, such scientific-empirical demands cannot be met, since they require objectified or dualistic knowledge.  Furthermore, anecdotal reporting, such as that offered by Tibetan Buddhists, does not meet the scientific-empirical criteria demanded for evidence.  This deadlock and these contrasting views of consciousness illustrate how strongly Analytical Psychology and the Tibetan Buddhists diverge on this fundamental point.

Yet, this divergence of views and the resulting impasse is more than an expression of Jung’s scientific agnosticism.  It is one thing to say that because of the inevitable influence of archetypes we must remain noncommittal about ultimate principles and quite another to deny the possibility of such a principle.  For example, it is empiricist caution to say, “I am agnostic about the existence of God.”  It is denial to say, “The existence of God is impossible.”  In a letter to Evans-Wentz, Jung moves beyond agnosticism to outright denial of the experience of rigpa, the indivisibility of the luminosity of knowing and emptiness [Sunyata].  In that letter Jung wrote, “Thus it is absolutely impossible to know what I would experience when that ‘I’ [ego] which could experience didn’t exist any more.  One calls this a contradictio in adjecto.  To experience Sunyata is therefore an impossible experience by definition.”[15]  To deny the experience of emptiness in Buddhism is roughly equivalent to denying God in Christianity, since each principle is the center of that tradition’s intellectual formulation and the practice of that religion.  Of course, if Jung denied the existence of God he would be pilloried, but his denial of the corresponding pinnacle of Buddhism in mid 20th century Europe goes unnoticed.

We can encapsulate this divergence by noting that for Jung conscious experience requires a relationship between an ego and an image as diagramed in Figure 1 above.  Anything that does not follow this model is therefore impossible to experience consciously.  In this way, Jung moves from agnosticism about rigpa to its denial.  Of course, the crucial proposition is that conscious experience always requires a relationship between an ego and an image, that consciousness must be dualistic.  For Jung this position is uncontestable and obvious, but directly conflicts with Tibetan Buddhism.  To appreciate their view more fully we need to understand a bit more about rigpa.

III. Rigpa Via a Dream Analogy

Tibetan Buddhists distinguishes rigpa (pure awareness) from ordinary mind (shes-rig or in more modern translations, sem—the dualistic mind).  In the rest of this essay, I follow modern conventions and use sem for dualistic consciousness rather than shes-rig as found in Evans-Wentz.  Rigpa is the focus of the Dzgochen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, to which I now turn.  The Dalai Lama writes:

When mind is explained from the point of view of the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings and the path of mantra, we find that many different levels or aspects of mind are discussed, some coarser and some more subtle.  But at the very root, the most fundamental level embraced by these teachings is mind as the fundamental, innate nature of mind.  This is where we come to the distinction between the word sem in Tibetan, meaning ‘ordinary mind’ and the word rigpa signifying ‘pure awareness.’  Generally speaking, when we use the word sem, we are referring to mind when it is temporarily obscured and distorted by thoughts based upon the dualistic perceptions of subject and object.  When we are discussing pure awareness, genuine consciousness or awareness free of such distorting thought patterns, then the term rigpa is employed.[16]

Tibetan Buddhists would therefore argue that Jung’s model of dualistic knowing only applies to sem and not to rigpa.  They would point out that the ego, which Jung claims is the cognizing subject, and its structures can be known and objectified.  Developing this knowledge is an important aspect of individuation.  However, Jung’s assertion that all knowledge is in relationship to the ego, which is at least partly known, presents problems since then there is a circular condition where the ego would be distinct from itself in knowing itself.  (For the sake of clarity, note that when Jung uses the term consciousness he is always referring to dualistic or reflective consciousness while Evans-Wentz uses it to mean rigpa.)

Because nonduality and epistemology are such pivotal issues here, I will try to clarify these topics by developing an analogy between nondual mind and dreaming sketched by Anthony Damiani.[17]  This is not a psychological use of dreams as the “royal road” to the unconscious.  Rather, it attempts to use dreaming to illustrate the essentially philosophic ideas of nonduality and the nature of the knowing subject.  This approach provides us easy access to deep philosophic issues through analogies and images.  Although it suffers from the weaknesses of all analogies, it still gives a useful overview of the topic.

In Figure 2 below, the shaded ellipse with all its contents represents the totality of the dreaming mind.  I distinguish four terms.  First, there is the apparent dream subject or dream ego represented by the stick figure on the left—you who fears the lions in the dream.  The dream ego is not the person who says, “I had a dream with two fighting lions.”  That is the waking ego.  Instead, as the dream ego you fully believe that you are the center of the dream action and the knower of the experience.  Second, there are dream objects—the pair of fighting lions, the ground on which they fight, their roar, odor, and so forth.  Third, there are the relationships between all the elements in the dream—your fear of the lions, their fierce fighting, the spatial and temporal relationships within the dream, and so forth.  Finally, all the elements in the dream—the apparent dream subject or dream ego, the dream objects, and the relationships in the dream—are all productions, fabrications, or expressions of the dreaming mind.  The dreaming mind is the intelligence that produces out of itself, as a spider spins its web, the entire dream with all its vibrant contents, their relationships, and action.

Figure 2: Dreaming

The dream ego is caught in this web and believes in the independence and vivid reality of itself and all else in the dream.  For example, in powerful nightmares we never question the reality of our experience.  (Here I omit the possibility of lucid dreaming, where the dream continues but is known as a dream.)  As long as the dream goes on, there is no doubt about the compelling reality of the lions and the fearful dream ego.  Nevertheless, from the waking point of view, we know that the vividness and false sense of reality is as much given, as much a production, as any other aspect of the dream.

Imagine that Jung appears in the dream and asks you as dream ego, “Is there another state, called the waking state, outside of this experience you are now having?  One in which you can get away from these menacing lions?”  Of course, any reference to anything outside the dream is just content within the dream.  In other words, while in the dream, there is no possibility of contacting anything that is not a part of the dream.  The dream is a totality, complete, self-contained, and with nothing opposing it.  Thus within dream reality it is a nondual whole with differentiation within it.  The dream ego cannot turn around and know the source of the dream.  The dream ego cannot objectify and know as distinct from itself the very intelligence that is generating the dream along with the dream ego.

But who is the knower of the dream?  You as dream ego falsely believe that you are the knower and the one threatened by lions.  However, from the point of view of waking, it is clear that the dream ego is just as much a content as the two lions.  Although the dream ego falsely believes it is the center of the dream and its knower, this illusion is a content of the dream.  The true knower of the dream is the consciousness inherent in the dreaming mind, that intelligence which presents the dream in all its richness and simultaneously knows its creation.

We can also appreciate who knows the dream by recalling those experiences where we partially wake up in a dream and yet the dream continues.  We need not discuss the subtleties of lucid dreaming, but just consider a powerful dream in which the intelligence, which presents and animates the entire dream, the dreaming mind, breaks its exclusive identification with the dream ego.  Then contents are still presented, action goes on, but the dreaming mind appreciates that it is a dream and yet there is a dream ego that appears in the ongoing dream.  In these states, the dream ego is at least partially freed from the terrors of the dream.

Any content known in the dream, from the lions and their roaring to your fear, must be put into an image in dream space and time.  Following Jung, I use image in the widest possible sense as including a combination of any objectified sense qualities, thoughts, or feelings.  Of course, the dreaming mind, although it creates the sense of space and time in the dream and places all the dream images within that space and time, cannot itself be represented as an image.  The dreaming mind is simply at a different level or of a different nature than any of the known contents of the dream.  The dreaming mind must be known through identity, through a merging of the dream ego with its source, the dreaming mind.  Despite all the multiplicity of images and their relationships, the dreaming mind is a nondual intelligence that both presents and knows its creations.

With this description of dreaming, consider the following analogy.  Rigpa is the transcendent, nondual, totality analogous to the dreaming mind.  It is transcendent in that, like the dreaming mind, it cannot be objectified or known through image nor found within space and time.  Rigpa is a nondual totality since, like the dreaming mind, it unfolds as all possible experience and cannot be opposed to anything or principle outside of itself.  It can only be known through identity, by becoming it through meditation without form.

In contrast, consciousness revealing contents or sem, is analogous to the dream ego’s functioning mind (the dream subject fearing the lions).  Without special effort, this is the only mind most people know.  The various objects in the dream, including the dream ego, are analogous to the objects known in waking consciousness by rigpa.  Just as the dream ego cannot know the dreaming mind while in the dream, so we cannot know rigpa with or through sem.  We cannot know rigpa as we know a pen, a pain, or a fantasy.  We can only know rigpa by becoming it, by stopping all the motions and divisions of sem and merging into the ocean of rigpa.  The goal of meditation is to slow down the conceptual functioning of sem until it can merge in its source—rigpa.

Tibetan Buddhists maintain that you can get a conceptual understanding of rigpa, but even more importantly, directly experience it by shutting down the conceptual activity of sem and merging with this primordial ground, the pure pristine awareness or rigpa.  As the quotation from the Dalai Lama below makes clear, this is not unconscious; experience continues but in an egoless mode.  Similarly, we cannot know the dreaming mind by staying exclusively in the divided consciousness of the dream ego.  Instead, we can only know the dreaming mind by breaking the dreaming mind’s identification with the dream ego.  The following table summarizes the analogy between dreaming and rigpa.

Table  1: the Dreaming Mind and Nondual Rigpa

Dreaming mind in its entirety

Rigpa: nondual, transcendent source

Dream ego, the apparent subject

Sem, dualistic consciousness, associated ego

All dream objects, including dream ego

Contents of experience

Dream Relationships

Relationship as ultimate nature (emptiness)

Here is a quotation from the present Dalai Lama summarizing the nature of rigpa.

Once you go beyond the alaya [an unwavering state of consciousness, which does not grasp after objects], it is like someone lifting a heavy hat off his head: an extraordinary quality of rigpa comes to the fore.  There is no inner and no outer, nothing like ‘this’ or ‘that,’ nothing to be experienced by something experiencing it, and no duality of subject and object whatsoever.  Yet it is not some unconscious state, where you do not know anything, or never think of anything at all.  This rigpa does not have to be sought the way that consciousness knows an object.  It is as though all objects of knowledge, outer and inner, come back to and return within it, and this is the extraordinary state of awareness that will arise.[18]

IV. Emptiness, Self, and Individuation

The quotation referenced in endnote 9 from the Bardo Thödol states that rigpa, or pure, pristine awareness is “in reality void” needs amplification.  Emptiness or voidness is the pivotal principle within Tibetan Buddhism[19] and it plays an important role in this essay.

Emptiness asserts that all subjects and objects, no matter how rarified or refined are totally empty or void of independent or inherent existence.  To understand this view, we need to define more fully this inherent existence being denied or negated.  Inherent existence or independent existence is the property we naively and instinctively believe makes objects real.  Using the term “objects” in the widest sense, we unreflectively believe that their reality is based upon their ability to exist on their own right, independent of the need for our knowing or the object interacting with other objects.  Objects can certainly be known and they can interact with other objects, but we instinctively believe that their deep reality is their independence of knowing or interaction, their ability to “exist from their own side,” as the Tibetan say.  For example, I have a pen in my pocket.  This is a “real” pen that fully exists, whether known or unknown, in my pocket or yours, in contact with paper or not.

Emptiness is the principle that all objects and subjects, pen or persons, are totally void or empty of inherent existence, or without any essence or independent identity.  The standard language Tibetans use it to say that nothing is finable upon ultimate analysis.  There are three main classes of arguments used to establish emptiness.  Rather than review them here, I just consider the idea of inherent existence and see that, despite our belief in this cardinal “reality principle,” it is fraught with contradiction.  For example, if something inherently existed then by its very nature it would be intrinsically independent of interacting with a knower or other objects.  Because it would then exist in independence or isolation, its essence would never change nor be influenced by anything.  Therefore, eternality is built into the definition of independent existence.  Of course, this is not our kinetic world of change.  Through such considerations, the Tibetan Buddhists show that the ultimate identity or inherent existence of a tree, a person, or an electron, which we assume underlies each phenomenon, is completely unfindable and nonexistent.

In short, emptiness is the rejection of any reified notion of substantial reality.  Yet, subjects and objects certainly have a conventional existence and can function to bring us help and harm, but their most fundamental truth is one of deep dependency and interconnection, as opposed to our naïve and false view in their independent existence.  Thus, ultimately all phenomena are empty or void of inherent existence and only exist as a complex series of dependencies and relationships.  This is not nihilism, since the ultimate truth of emptiness actually allows phenomena to conventionally exist and function.  In fact, emptiness itself, in that it depends upon the phenomena it characterizes, is empty and nondual.

Clinging to the false notion of independent existence, we form all the attachments and aversions that always lead to suffering.  For example, believing in the independent existence of our own personality we inexorably become selfish and fearful of death.  Breaking through this false belief in independent existence frees us from the opposites and permits the cultivation of limitless universal compassion—the desire and resolve to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings.  In fact, without a significant assimilation of the doctrine of emptiness it is not possible to cultivate genuine universal compassion.[20]

Given the central importance of emptiness and its expression as no-self or anatman, the question arises whether emptiness is in conflict with Jung’s view of the self.  Of course, the self is the axle around which individuation turns.  Jung noted:

Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination.  Therefore, an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory.  To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness.[21]

For Jung, the endpoint and goal of human development is attaining a unique wholeness as a distinct individual.  Surely, attaining psychological integration of the various forces that tear at our psyches is a precious goal, but it is not the aim of Tibetan Buddhism.

The ultimate goal of Tibetan Buddhism is to transcend all opposites and their concomitant suffering and to be aware simultaneously of the two truths, while practicing universal compassion.  On one hand, the practitioner honors the relative truth that individuals are finite and well defined—the empirical person identified in the passport.  On the other hand, in the ultimate truth of emptiness all subjects and objects are totally void or empty of independent existence or essence.  Therefore, on the plane of relative truth, the enlightened Buddhist has a distinct and unique personality.  She has a unique body-mind complex, historical identity, and passport with a distinctive number.  Yet, from the side of ultimate truth, she is continuously aware of her emptiness and nondifference from rigpa, her total interpenetration and nonseparable connection to reality in all its effulgence and emptiness.  The practice of universal compassion, the working toward freeing all sentient beings from suffering, naturally flows from such wisdom.

Returning to the dream analogy, individuation is analogous to the dream ego developing a clear sense of its own unique and distinct nature.  Then, through developing a symbolic mode of apprehension, the dream ego builds a relationship between itself and the intelligence being expressed as the entire dream.  Following Jung’s injunction that the ego should never identify with the self, the dream ego maintains its differentiation from the dreaming mind, yet through the ongoing dialogue seeks to embody the wisdom of the more inclusive principle.

In contrast, the dream analogy for Tibetan Buddhism has the dream ego merging with the dreaming mind and yet still having the dream continue.  Then we have a nondual unity that knows distinctions within it.  This is the dream analog of simultaneously knowing the two truths or conventional objects and their thoroughgoing emptiness of inherent existence.  Alternatively, the dreaming mind breaks its exclusive identification with the dream ego and thereby knows unity within diversity.

Given these differences, what can we say about the nature of the subject?  About individuation versus Buddhist enlightenment?  For Jung, the center of the personality is the self—the union of opposites, the archetype of distinctive wholeness, and the spiritus rector of daily life.  The self must be distinguished from the ego, which, as the quotations from Jung above show, is the center of only the conscious personality.  Jung describes the self,

As the apotheosis of individuality, the self has the attributes of uniqueness and of occurring once only in time.  But since the psychological self is a transcendent concept, expressing the totality of conscious and unconscious contents, it can only be described in antinomial terms; that is the above attributes must be supplemented by their opposites if the transcendental situation is to be characterized correctly.[22]

Following this statement, Jung presents the quaternity of opposites illustrated in Figure 3.


Figure 3: Opposites in the Self

Because the self is unique, eternal, and the “apotheosis of individuality” it appears to be in direct conflict with the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or no-self.  Tibetan Buddhism is particularly adamant, through its doctrine of emptiness, about denying any unique identity, essence, or independent existence to the self.  The emphasis both in theory and in practice for Tibetan Buddhism is on the thoroughgoing emptiness or selflessness of the personality.  It is not only doctrinally central, but it plays a critical role in practice.  As the Dalai Lama tells us, “Every sadhana [spiritual practice] begins with, is structured around, and ends with meditation on emptiness.”[23]

This apparent divergence between Analytical Psychology and the Tibetan Buddhist on the nature of the self can be softened.  Recall that for Jung we can never directly know the archetype, but only its image.  The archetype must therefore be approached symbolically.  Jung wrote,

Now a symbol is not an arbitrary or intentional sign standing for a known and conceivable fact, but an admittedly anthropomorphic—hence limited and only partly valid—expression for something supra-human and only partly conceivable.  It may be the best expression possible, yet it ranks below the level of the mystery it seeks to describe.[24]

The symbol is thus always a “limited and partly valid” expression, well below the level of the mystery of the archetype itself (recall Figure 1 above).  There is thus no direct contact with anything that could be said to independently or inherently exist.  It may indeed be the “apotheosis of individuality,” but, if symbolically and properly understood, it need not be in conflict with the Buddhist principle of no-self.  In fact, an appreciation of emptiness can help us avoid a reified and overly literal view of the self.  However, if we look more generally at the role of archetypes in Analytical Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism we can appreciate a significant divergence between these two traditions.

V. Archetypes in Analytical Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism

Jung identified the deities in Tibetan Buddhism as expressions of archetypes and suggested that the visions seen in the after-death states are projections of archetypes, which accounts both for their overwhelming power and seeming objectivity.[25]  This certainly fits the description of modern Tibetan experts on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Sogyal Rinpoche tells us.

I am often asked: “Will the deities appear to a Western person?  And if so, will it be in familiar, Western forms?”

. . .   They are not unique to Tibetans; they are a universal and fundamental experience, but the way they are perceived depends on our conditioning.  Since they are by nature limitless, they have the freedom then to manifest in any form.

Therefore, the deities can take on forms we are most familiar with in our lives.  For example, for Christian practitioners, the deities might take the form of Christ or the Virgin Mary.  Generally, the whole purpose of the enlightened manifestation of the buddhas is to help us, so they may take on whatever form is most appropriate and beneficial for us.  But in whatever form the deities appear, it is important to recognize that there is definitely no difference whatsoever in their fundamental nature.[26]

However, this point of convergence should not be misunderstood.  For example, Jung always stresses the necessity of relating to the archetypes.  However, he warns us, “The characteristic feature of a pathological reaction is, above all, identification with the archetype.  This produces a sort of inflation and possession by the emergent contents, so that they pour out in a torrent, which no therapy can stop.”[27]  Although Jung stressed the importance of relating to the archetypes, of appreciating the mythic, archetypal dimensions of both our inner and outer lives, he repeatedly warns of identification with these autonomous powers.  In particular, in active imagination,[28] a technique for directly addressing the archetypal powers, we are always to avoid identification with the archetypal images that arise.

In contrast, in Tibetan Buddhism tantra, there is a special focus on deity yoga, the goal of which is complete identification with the deity or archetype, to become it in the fullest possible way.  Through this complete identification, a “subtle divine pride” is cultivated.  For example, the present Dalai Lama writes:

For example, a main tantric technique is the cultivation of a subtle divine pride, a confidence that one is an enlightened tantric deity, the Lord of the Mandala.  One’s mind is the Wisdom Body of a Buddha, one’s speech is the Beatific Body, one’s form is the Perfect Emanation Body, and the world and its inhabitants are seen as a mandala inhabited by the various forms of tantric deities.[29]

This practice, involving body, speech, and mind in both the inner and outer worlds certainly flies in the face of Jung’s injunction about not identifying with an archetype.  However, Tibetan tantra is well aware of the dangers and prepares a tantric practitioner through immersion in emptiness, compassion, and renunciation.  As mentioned above, every spiritual practice begins, is structured around, and ends with meditation on emptiness.”  Deity practice cannot be done without such safeguards and an intimate relationship with a fully qualified tantric master.  The Dalai Lama warns us:

Thus, we have to utterly change our sense of I.  To do so involves the subject of emptiness.  To prac­tice the yoga of divine pride without an understanding of emptiness will not only be useless, but could lead to iden­tity problems and other undesirable psychological effects.  Therefore, it is said that although the Vajrayana [tantric practice] is a quick path when correctly practiced on the proper spiritual basis, it is dangerous for the spiritually immature.  This type of danger area is one of the reasons why the Vajrayana must be practiced under the supervision of a qualified vajra acharya [master].[30]

Jung and Tibetan Buddhism differ drastically in their advice on how to relate to these archetypal potencies because their respective views on consciousness and their goals for the spiritual journey are so different.  Jung defines consciousness as always dualistic, as an ego relating to an image.  The process of individuation is never completed and always avoids identifying the ego with the self.  For Tibetan Buddhism only the lower expression of mind, sem, is dualistic.  Its ground is the nondual rigpa.  While the goal of their spiritual journey is to realize the emptiness of the subject and know the innate nature of mind, rigpa, through union, by becoming it in the fullest possible sense.  Here their differences express themselves in their respective practices.

VI. Two approaches to Synchronicity

I have discussed synchronicity from the perspective of analytical psychological in two books[31] and several articles.[32]  Here it is only necessary to affirm the central principle that synchronicity represents a simultaneous incarnation of meaning in both the inner and outer worlds.  Jung views meaning as the sine qua non of synchronicity.  He writes, “Although meaning is an anthropomorphic interpretation, it nevertheless forms the indispensable criterion of synchronicity.”[33]  A genuine synchronicity experience is thus always an important episode in a person’s individuation, in coming to be a unique, whole, and distinct individual.

The primary intention of synchronicity is to manifest the archetype of meaning—the transformative intelligence of the self.  Synchronicity is individuation in action and like any major episode of individuation, such as an important dream, the meaning or intent of the experience is not right on the surface.  Ferreting out the meaning requires patience, a cultivation of symbolic consciousness, and alertness to the dangers of imposing convenient, but often misleading, analytical formulations on the experience.

Since Jung teaches us that the psyche and its archetypal structures encapsulate us, we can never be certain we have objective knowledge of any metaphysical claims.  Nevertheless, his synchronicity experiences of simultaneous incarnations of meaning in the psyche and the material world encouraged him to speculate that mind and matter or psychic events and material events do spring from the common ground of the unus mundus, the unitary principle described in alchemy.  For example, he writes,

Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irrepresentable transcendental factors [psychoid archetypes], it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing.  The synchronicity phenomena point, it seems to me, in this direction, for they show that the nonpsychic can behave like the psychic, and vise versa, without there being any causal connection between them.[34]

Because the meaning appearing in both the inner and outer worlds in synchronicity is archetypally determined, Jung believed that archetypes are more than psychic.  There must be an irrepresentable psychiod aspect to them (another metaphysical claim), meaning that their ultimate nature is logically prior to the division between psyche and matter.[35]  This psychoid nature of the archetype allows them to manifest simultaneously in both psyche and matter.

The “one and the same thing” out of which synchronicity springs is the unus mundus, an alchemical term for the unity of psyche and matter.  In the Mysterium Coniunctionis Jung wrote, “With the conjecture of the identity of the psychic and the physical we approach the alchemical view of the unus mundus, the potential world of the first day of creation, when there was as yet ‘no second.’”[36]  In a letter to Wolfgang Pauli, Jung is less cautious about affirming the unity of the world.  He also returns to the theme of consciousness requiring a relationship between the ego and an object when he wrote, “It is not in actual fact a split world, for facing the person who is united with himself is an unus mundus.  He has to split this one world in order to be able to perceive it, always bearing in mind that what he is splitting is still the one world, and that the split has been predetermined by [the nature of] consciousness.” [37]

Of course, in these statements Jung maintains his consistency with his injunction quoted above that, “Psychology accordingly treats all metaphysical claims and assertions as mental phenomena, and regards them as statements about the mind and its structure that derive ultimately from certain unconscious dispositions. (see note 11).”  Furthermore, within the same section of the Mysterium where Jung discusses the unus mundus, he reminds us of his oft-repeated position: “Psychology cannot advance any argument either for or against the objective validity of any metaphysical view.”[38]

Despite his desire to avoid metaphysical assertions and his disclaimers about the certainty of such claims, Jung’s postulating of a unity underlying psyche and matter draws him closer to the Tibetan Buddhist unitary principle of rigpa.  Although both Jung[39] and Tibetan Buddhism would deny that they are idealistic views, meaning that mind is the only principle, they draw together in their mutual appreciation of the need for unity underlying multiplicity.

I now give a Tibetan Buddhist perspective on synchronicity.  In my experience, along with many others who have generously allowed me to put their synchronicity experiences in my book,[40] two most salient features stand out.  First, we are stunned that the inner and outer worlds are so powerfully connected.  We are shocked that the world, which usually seems indifferent or occasionally even hostile to our concerns, correlates so uncannily with out innermost psychological states.  We ask, “How could my most private inner life have any connection to the material world, which grinds along its remorseless way with no concern for me?”  Second, within this astonishment, there is the direct intuition of the meaningfulness of the experience.  We usually do not immediately appreciate the meaning, which may take some time to unfold, but we have a direct conviction that “something of importance is going on here.”

This second feature, the direct intuition of the meaningfulness of a synchronicity experience, confirms, as noted above, Jung’s understanding of the centrality of meaning for synchronicity.  However, the first point, the astonishment, according to the doctrine of emptiness, arises out of our false belief in the mutually independent existence of the world and ourselves.  In other words, our amazement when a synchronicity occurs is an indication of just how much we believe in the mutually independent existence of the material world and our personality.  In short, it is an indication of our ignorance of the empty nature of the world and self.  Stated positively, synchronicity directly expresses the deep interconnectedness between the world and ourselves.

These different approaches of Analytical Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism to synchronicity express their different orientations toward the personality undergoing the experience.  For Analytical Psychology synchronicity experiences serve primarily to bring about a fuller expression of the self in our lives.  In other words, in Analytical Psychology the self, the unique “apotheosis of individuality,” is more fully incarnated in the world via the process of individuation and hence through synchronicity.  While in Tibetan Buddhism, the synchronicity experiences serve to confirm and illustrate the emptiness of both the world and the person.  Of course, these different approaches to synchronicity are fully in keeping with the differences between individuation and Buddhist enlightenment.

VII. Yoga for Westerners?

Jung often advised westerners to avoid any kind of yoga, whether deity yoga or any other variant.  In his essay, “Yoga and the West” he wrote, “I do not apply yoga methods in principle, because, in the West, nothing ought to be forced on the unconscious.  Usually, consciousness is characterized by an intensity and narrowness that have a cramping effect, and this ought not to be emphasized still further.  On the contrary, everything must be done to help the unconscious to reach the conscious mind and to free it from its rigidity.  For that purpose I employ a method of active imagination, . . .”[41]  He repeats this point in “The Psychology of Eastern Meditation” where he wrote, “And I wish to particularly warn against the oft-attempted imitation of Indian practices and sentiments.  As a rule nothing comes of it except an artificial stultification of our Western Intelligence.”[42]

Many westerns have ignored Jung’s advice and taken up meditation in large numbers.  Rather than try to understand this phenomenon, I unpack Jung’s warning against yoga as another way to clarify the distinction between Tibetan Buddhism and Analytical Psychology.  Here is a simple example:  I get powerfully angry with somebody.  Because of the powerful affect, Analytical Psychology would advise me to investigate my shadow, see where it leads me, and perhaps unearth the activated archetype.  Maybe my anger would generate a dream or fantasy, useful as a starting point for active imagination, where I might ferret out the intentionality of the experience.  In such activity, we often need to keep the controlling ego in the background so that the images can develop freely.  What does this anger tell about me?  Perhaps even more important, where is the psyche trying to lead me?

In contrast, Tibetan Buddhism recommends that I immediately apply the cardinal principle of universal compassion.  My adversary, no matter who it is or what the offense, is like me in desiring happiness and freedom from suffering.  I should therefore respond with clear-headed compassion.  In addition, my adversary offers me an opportunity to cultivate patience.  I might simultaneously reflect that, since we have had innumerable incarnations together in previous lives, my antagonist was at one time my best friend, my mother, my lover, and my worst enemy.  I must therefore respond with equanimity, patience, and compassion.  In short, rather than investigate the anger to see where it can lead me, I instantly and forcefully apply an antidote.

Psychologically we use the outburst of anger as a stimulus for reflection and building awareness.  Here the images guide us and we cultivate a feeling-intuitive approach toward them.  Tibetan Buddhism on the other hand, recommends willfully applying an antidote—to respond vigorously with compassion, equanimity, and recollection of our deep interdependence or emptiness.  Here we are not being guided by images, or following Ariadne’s thread, but destroying the negative ones and willfully replacing them with compassionate substitutes.

Let me develop this idea with one more example.  Consider a fantasy that keeps forcing its way into my consciousness.  Analytical Psychology would advise me to gently explore it, find out where it wants to take me, or use it as a starting place for active imagination and discover the meaning embedded in it.  In contrast, Tibetan Buddhism asks us to not follow images but discipline our mind.  Especially if this fantasy arises in a formal meditation practice, we are to instantly destroy it and focus more intently on the object of meditation, whether it be a deity or rigpa.  In contrast, Jung modestly says, “I owe my best insights (and there are some quite good ones among them) to the circumstance that I have always done just the opposite of what the rules of yoga prescribe.”[43]

Analytical Psychology advises us to take a meandering, feeling-intuitive approach to letting the psyche guide us to the fullest expression of our individuality.  This is diametrically opposed to the rigid disciplining of mind required in Tibetan Buddhism, which seeks not a unique expression of our individuality, but our Buddhahood—freedom from the opposite and universal compassion.  Will Tibetan Buddhism lead to “cramping” and “stultification” of our “Western intelligence?”  If wrongly applied, Jung’s concerns could be realized.

There is a time when carefully investigating the shadow can help embody compassion.  There other times when a heavy dose of compassion must be imposed through gritted teeth.  Nor should we confuse being guided by images with tightly disciplined meditation.  Nevertheless, we can synergistically use both approaches . . . providing we understand the differences in worldview, goals, and methods of the two traditions.

VIII. Summary and Conclusions

In keeping with my belief that understanding the relationship between Analytical Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism can only come about by first appreciating their radically different views, I have stressed the dissimilarities between these traditions.  Jung believes that the ego is the center of consciousness and is required for all conscious experience.  The goal of Analytical Psychology is to bring about a fuller expression of the self in the ego, while maintaining a clear distinction between the empirical subject or ego and its transcendental ground, the self, the most glorious expression of individuality.  Whatever enhances our realization of who we are truly meant to be, of what our unique role is in the great cosmic drama, severs the purpose of incarnating the archetype of distinctive wholeness, the self, and hence of individuation.

In contrast, in Tibetan Buddhism although the conventional view of the person, the one with a unique historical identity, is acknowledged, the entire focus of the Buddhist spiritual discipline is to help us consciously realize the emptiness of the self, its voidness of inherent existence.  For Tibetan Buddhism, clinging to the notion of our distinct individuality is the greatest source of suffering.  Such clinging brings about our fear of the underlying impermanence entailed by emptiness and serves as the foundation for our selfishness and lack of compassion for others.

Because Jung clearly understood how powerfully the archetypes condition our view of the world and ourselves, he always warned about the uncertain nature of what he calls metaphysical assertions.  However, regarding rigpa Jung moves beyond agnosticism to outright denial.  Of course, when you deny the highest principle of a tradition, it significantly compromises any dialogue.  But Tibetan Buddhism claims that we need not be content with mere philosophic analysis and argument.  It is possible to experience directly and non-conceptually the unity of the inner and out worlds, the nondual principle of rigpa.  This requires a compete stilling of the continuous motions of sem.  When achieved, even for brief periods, then there is no sense of ego, personhood, or subject.  In this egoless state of being, there are no desires, anticipations, or sense of a center to the perceptual act.  Yet, there are perceptions.  It is not an unconscious state.

The differences between Analytical Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism surface again in their differing approaches toward archetypes, or deities.  According to Jung, psychological wholeness demands that we relate to these intelligent powers, but never identify with them, never blur the distinction between the ego and the archetype.  Such identification is the source of pathology.  On the other hand, in Tibetan Buddhism many meditation practices focus intently upon bringing about the fullest possible identification with the deity.  They too recognize the dangers inherent in such work, safeguard the student with a thorough grounding in emptiness, compassion, renunciation, and close supervision by a qualified teacher.  However, deity yoga is not the endpoint of the Buddhist quest for enlightenment.  Rather they seek complete freedom from the opposites and the cultivation of limitless compassion.

When deciding on the suitability of yoga for westerners we must appreciate the world of difference between skillfully following an archetypal image into the lair of the unconscious as opposed to shutting down the motions of sem, the concept generating mind, that prevents us from directly knowing rigpa.  Of course, Jung does not believe that we could legitimately posit such a nondual principle, much less experience it.

However, we all tend to believe in the experiences with which we are most familiar.  It is clear from Jung’s writings and recent biographies[44] that nondality was not a big part of his life.  Although he was an extraordinary articulator of the unconscious and graced by an astonishingly rich set of dreams, visions, and synchronicities, there is no suggestion that he experienced the nondual states that he repeatedly dismisses in his treatment of Tibetan Buddhism.  However, Jung’s dismissal of nonduality expresses more than a lack of personal experience.  It expressed his commitment to the scientific-empirical method.  Proof or evidence for nonduality are ruled out by the very philosophic presuppositions of science, such as the need for objectivity, underlying this method.

Despite these divergences between Analytical Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism, many people are deeply and simultaneously involved in both disciplines.  There is little doubt that there are many connections between them and that they can be synergistically combined.  However, deriving maximum benefit from such dual allegiance is furthered by understanding just how different they actually are, while not denying the many profound connections between them.


[1] C.G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Psychology and Religion, Collected Works, Vol. 11 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969) p. 510.

[2] C.G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation” and “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Collected Works, Vol. 11 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969).

[3] H. Coward, Jung and Eastern Thought (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1985);  D.J. Meckel & R.L. Moore, editors, Self and Liberation (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1992);  R. Moacanin, Jung’s Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism (London, UK: Wisdom Publications, 1986); R. Preece, The Alchemical Buddha (Devon, UK: Mudra Publications, 2000).

[4] C.G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation,” p. 476.

[5] C.G. Jung, Letters: 1906-1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 264.

[6] C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis Collected Works, Vol. 14 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp. 551-2.

[7] C.G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation,” p. 484.

[8] C.G. Jung, Letters: 1906-1950, p. 249.

[9] Ibid., p. 261.

[10] W.Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1977) p. 35.

[11] Ibid., p. 96.

[12] H. Coward, “Jung’s Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead” in Self and Liberation, edited by D.J. Meckel and R.L. Moore (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1992) pp. 262-3.

[13] F. Freemantle and C. Trunkpa (translators), The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo  by Guru Rinpoche (Berkeley, CA: Shambhala, 1988); Lati Rinpoche and J. Hopkins, Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism (Valois, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1981); R.A.F. Thurman, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1994).

[14] R.A. Ray, Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2002).

[15] C.G. Jung, Letters: 1906-1950,  p. 263.

[16] Dalai Lama, Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000), p. 31.

[17] Anthony Damaiani, Looking Into Mind (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1990).

[18] Dalai Lama, Dzogchen, p. 178.

[19] J. Hopkins, Meditation on Emptiness (London: Wisdom Publications, 1983); R A. Ray, Indestructible Truth (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2000.

[20] Tenzin Gyatso, The Compassionate Life (London: Wisdom Books, 2003) pp. 22-3.

[21] C.G. Jung, “On Physic Energy,” Collected Works, Vol. 8 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 59.

[22] C.G. Jung, Aion, Collected Works, Vol. 9, II (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975) pp. 62-3.

[23] Tenzin Gyatso, The Path to Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995) p. 170.

[24] C.G. Jung, “Transformation Symbolism of the Mass,” Psychology and Religion, p. 207.

[25] C.G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation” and “Psychological Commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” pp. 518-520.

[26] Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) p. 284.

[27] C.G. Jung, “The Phenomenology of the Sprit in Fairytales,” Collected Works, Vol. 9,1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977) p. 351.

[28] M-L. von Franz, Psycho-therapy (Boston, MA: Shambhala,  1993) pp. 146-176.

[29] Tenzin Gyatso, The Path to Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995) p. 170.

[30] Ibid.

[31] V.N. Mansfield, Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making (Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1995) and Head and Heart: A Personal Exploration of Science and the Sacred (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2002).

[32] V.N. Mansfield, “Distinguishing Synchronicity from Paranormal Phenomena: An Essay in Honor of Marie-Louise von Franz, Part 1” Quadrant, Vol. XXVII:2, Summer 1998. Part 2 of this article is in the following issue.

[33] C.G. Jung, “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Vol. 8 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 485.

[34] C.G. Jung, “On the Nature of the Psyche,” Collected Works, Vol. 8 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 215.

[35] Ibid. pp. 200-216.

[36] C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, p. 537.

[37] Ibid. p. 157.

[38] Ibid. p. 468.

[39] Ibid. p. 537.

[40] V.N. Mansfield, Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making.

[41] C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, Vol. 11, Collected Works, p. 537.

[42] Ibid. p. 568.

[43] C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, Vol. 11, Collected Works, p. 534.

[44] D. Bair, Jung: A Biography (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003).