Jung vs Buddha  – Self vs Non-Self

The Self is the central archetype of Jungian psychology. For Jung, it is the organizing principle, the process and goal of psychic growth.

The non-self is the core Buddhist teaching. For the Buddha, insight into non-self is the organizing principle, the process and goal of spiritual growth.

So, are Buddhism and Jungian psychology at odds? Must you reject the one if you are to embrace the other? And why is the nature of the self (or non-self) such a big deal anyway?

As a student of both Jung and the Buddha, I’ve been wrestling with these questions for years.

The Self archetype and the non-self teaching appear as incompatible views on reality. At the same time, both reveal deep insights into the nature of experience.

How are we to make sense of this contradiction?

Common wisdom in academia has been to ignore the issue. How little has been written on it speaks to the difficulty of the task.

This, I believe, is a missed opportunity.

(You can watch the video version of this essay on YouTube.)

Know Thyself

Jung and the Buddha have produced two of the deepest models of the human condition. We stand much to gain from building bridges between them.

Also, the Jungian Self and the Buddhist non-self do not refer to distant, abstract realities. They refer to our very nature. As sentient beings experiencing the present moment, we are in the best position to understand whatever can be understood about our nature.

So, let’s put Jung’s Self and the Buddha’s non-self in dialogue. It is a difficult task requiring the work of many minds over many years. For now, though, you will have to make do with me.

In this article, we will explore what these teachings say about what we are – and what we are not. Let’s hope we are ready for what we’ll discover.


The Ego

When comparing Jung’s Self with the Buddha’s non-self, what are we comparing really? We must define our terms first.

Let’s start with Jung.

Jung does not make a big deal out of our everyday use of the word ‘self’. When you refer to your ‘self’, you are referring to what we all know you are referring to. In Jungian technical terms, you are referring to the ‘ego’. Jung writes:

‘By ego I understand a complex of ideas which constitutes the center of my field of consciousness and appears to possess a high degree of continuity and identity…’

C.G. Jung, Psychological Types

The word ‘ego’ has gotten a lot of bad rep lately, but here it has no negative connotations. Ego is not the enemy. It is simply the bundle of psychic content that makes up what we call ‘I’. Thoughts, emotions, sensations, memories, and other experiences tend to knot together. That psychic knot is the ego.

The ego is flexible enough to allow for continuity through time. This is why your childhood pictures still feel like pictures of you. The ego cares little that there’s not a single cell in common between your body and the body of the kid in the picture.

So, the ego’s flexibility is coupled with enough rigidity to maintain identity. The ego acts as border police between ‘I’ and ‘everything that’s not I’. In disproportionate amounts, this rigidity turns into egocentrism or selfishness. But mostly, it is a healthy adaptation.

You wouldn’t survive long if you couldn’t tell yourself apart from your neighbor or the tree in your backyard. Such boundary dissolution occurs in mental illness and psychedelic intoxication. Also, it appears in mystical experience and deep meditation… Something to think about!

We’ve lingered on the ego just so I can show you this is what most of us mean when we say ‘self’. In Jung’s work, however, the Self is a technical term that means something different. The Self relates to the ego like how the ocean relates to a wave.


Remember, Jung defines the ego as

 ‘a complex of ideas which constitutes the center of my field of consciousness’

C.G. Jung, Psychological Types

‘Complex’ is another technical term. In fact, Jung was so fascinated by complexes he initially called his work ‘complex psychology’.

By a ‘complex’, he means

‘an unconscious focal point of psychic processes

Claudia Nagel, Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Let me give you an example.

Imagine a kid whose dad keeps walking out on him and his mom during arguments. What does the kid feel in these cases? He feels abandoned, unimportant, and unloved. What does he think? He thinks ‘I’m not wanted’, ‘I’m not good enough’.

With time, these thoughts and emotions clump together in the kid’s mind. They form a complex.

When he grows up, the boy develops what we call abandonment issues. Even among friends, he suffers from anxiety attacks and feelings of inferiority and possessiveness. Oftentimes, he feels left behind and misunderstood. The odd one out.

The boy has no clue, of course, of any connection between his anxiety and his childhood experiences. He would much rather blame himself or those around him for his condition. Those immersed in trauma are usually the last to know it.

So, this is how a complex develops under the radar of consciousness. A complex is like a reflex in the psyche. As such, it has certain autonomy. It can act without the ego’s knowledge and against the ego’s interests. This is why Jung calls complexes

‘split-off components of the psyche

C.G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

The goal of Jungian therapy is to make the person whole again. A big part of this is bringing complexes out of the unconscious and into consciousness. This way, we return their energy back into its source. The Self.

Yes, ‘the Self’. We’ve arrived.

The Self

We can understand easily how having abandonment issues is a complex. But Jung calls the ego itself a complex. We’ve seen that the ego is what we mean when we say ‘I’. This leads to the bizarre conclusion that you yourself are a complex! A reflex in the psyche.

Jung writes:

[T]he ego is only the centre of my field of consciousness, it is not identical with the totality of my psyche, [but] merely one complex among other complexes.’

‘I therefore distinguish between the ego and the self (q.v.), since the ego is only the subject of my consciousness, while the self is the subject of my total psyche, which also includes the unconscious.’

C.G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

Okay, let’s take this slow – it took me 5 years to only begin to understand it.

Think again about the boy from our example. His abandonment complex forms from the emotions, thoughts, memories, and sensations of his childhood. He grows up feeling ‘I am the odd one out,’ ‘I’m not good enough’.

Compare this to what you feel you are – your ego. A lifetime of emotions, thoughts, memories, and sensations clump together. As they accumulate, they create the image of an entity called ‘I’. An entity separate from your neighbor and the tree in your backyard.

This insight is profound, but remember, Jung dropped the name ‘complex psychology’. I think that’s because he discovered something deeper.

The Unconscious

Think of your dreams.

When you dream, you can experience yourself as another person, even several different persons in the course of the same dream. This means the ego dissolves in the dream state. It can no longer maintain identity and continuity.

Since the ego, the center of consciousness, is out, dreams are unconscious experiences. (Lucid dreams aside, that is.)

At the same time, you can dream of events and people from your waking life. You can dream you are your waking self, even though you are unaware you are dreaming. This means dreams can recreate the ego.

A frightening fact reveals itself when we consider this.

You are unaware of your dreams – but your dreams appear to be aware of you. So aware, in fact, sometimes they reveal feelings and thoughts you didn’t even know you had. They can even provide insights the ego did not previously possess.

Here’s a personal story. My late grandfather used to talk to me about this.

Once, he was struggling with a difficult math problem. He worked on it till the small hours, but came nowhere near a solution. Finally, he gave up and went to bed. The next morning, he awoke with the solution clear in his mind. He only had to write it down from memory.

I should add, my grandfather knew nothing about Jung and had no interest in psychology. He used to tell me this story simply as a curious experience from his youth.

All this goes to show that while you, the ego, are experiencing life, something else is experiencing you. You are not conscious of that something, but it is conscious of you. You do not know what it is and Jung too, ultimately, did not know what it is. But to work with it, he gave it a name. He called it the Self.

Ghost In The Machine

We read:

‘As an empirical concept, the self designates the whole range of psychic phenomena in man. It expresses the unity of personality as a whole.’

C.G. Jung, Psychological Types

Jung qualifies the self as ‘an empirical concept’. Like the Buddha, he avoids metaphysical claims. He insists on sticking with what we experience psychologically.

And what do we experience?

Well, our dreams, our fits of anger and bursts of inspiration, our intuitions, our intrusive thoughts and fantasies, our irrational urges, our Freudian slips – through all these, we experience hidden forces at work within us. Forces we can neither control nor understand. This is the unconscious.

But there’s more.

If we investigate seriously these forces, we find that, while irrational, they are not random. They suggest a hidden mental life that responds to and influences our conscious life. They reveal something unknown within and around us that acts with a purpose.

The most meaningful way of describing this ‘something’ is to call it a greater personality. Why? Because that’s how it presents itself – an immeasurably large Self of which our ego is but an imperfect miniature. Jung writes:

[The ego encounters] a supraordinate totality, of which one cannot say that it is “I,” but which is best visualized as a more comprehensive being, though one should of course keep oneself conscious all the time of the anthropomorphism of such a conception…

For close on two thousand years history has been familiar with the figure of the Cosmic Man, the Anthropos, whose image has merged with that of Yahweh and also of Christ…

C.G. Jung, A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity


Here you might think: ‘This big Self sounds suspiciously similar to the Abrahamic God. Is Jung simply smuggling religion into science?’

Well… it’s complicated.

Jung sees many central figures of religion, myth, and art as symbols of the Self. In fact, he singles out Christ and the Buddha as the two most perfect images of psychic wholeness. He says:

[O]ne can never distinguish empirically between a symbol of the self and a God-image, the two ideas, however much we try to differentiate them, always appear blended together … [For example,] the atman appears as the individualized self and at the same time as the animating principle of the cosmos, and Tao as a condition of mind and at the same time as the correct behaviour of cosmic events.

Psychologically speaking, the domain of “gods” begins where consciousness leaves off, for at that point man is already at the mercy of the natural order, whether he thrive or perish. To the symbols of wholeness that come to him from there he attaches names which vary according to time and place.

C.G. Jung, A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity

But Jung avoids overstepping the boundaries of psychology. He never claims the Self is God. He says it would be unscientific to jump to that conclusion.

So, if we shouldn’t equate the Self with deity – what should we define it as?

Remember, the ego is a complex. A bundle of psychic energy in our unconscious. The Self, however, cannot be a complex. It cannot be located within our unconscious as it contains our unconscious, as well as our consciousness.

Moreover, when I say ‘I’ and you say ‘I’, we mean different things. We each have our own personal ego-complexes. But when we say God, or Buddha, or Tao, we mean a single thing which transcends us.

This is how Jung characterizes the Self.

As such, the Self is not a complex in our personal unconscious. It is an archetype in our collective unconscious. A basic, universal pattern of experience.

If your ego is a leaf, and your personal unconscious is the branch on which that leaf grows – the Self is the tree out of which all branches grow. The structure of the leaf is a miniature of the structure of the tree. So too, the ego is a miniature of the Self.

A Psychological Fact

Let me make a crucial point here. Some atheists claim God is simply a projection of human personality onto the Cosmos. This quasi-psychological argument is, however, unconvincing.

The ego, with all its personal flaws and insecurities would never result in wholeness, no matter how much we blow it up. This would be like increasing the size of an 8-bit image, expecting to become 4k. The original lack of detail will only become more obvious.

We can do the reverse, however, by starting with a 4k image and downsizing it to 8-bit.

You see, the Self is not the ego projected big. It is rather the ego that is an imperfect image of the Self.

Much can be said about the metaphysical implications of this. Psychologically speaking, we can only say it is a fact.

I hope all this gives you some idea of the archetype of the Self. If it all seems vague to you, that’s partly my fault. But not only my fault. Jung himself says it is impossible to give a cut-and-dry definition of the Self. He writes:

[I]t transcends our powers of imagination to form a clear picture of what we are as a self, for in this operation the part would have to comprehend the whole… [T]he self will always remain a supraordinate quantity.’

C.G. Jung, Two Essays in Analytical Psychology

So much for introducing Jung’s archetype of the Self. Now for the second great model of the psyche we’ll explore.

The non-self doctrine of the Buddha.


Like Jung, the Buddha too does not mind the everyday use of words such as ‘I’, ‘self’, or ‘person’. When recounting his past lives, he would say:

‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance…’

Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta: The Shorter Elephant Footprint Simile, MN 27

At the same time, the Buddha’s landmark teaching is anattā, the doctrine of non-self.

Walpola Thero writes:

‘According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred…

Walpula Rahula Thero, What the Buddha Taught

Now how can the Buddha use the words ‘I’, ‘self’, and ‘person’, and yet deny their reality? Some have called his teachings inconsistent because of this.

But the Buddha recognizes two kinds of truth. Conventional truth and ultimate truth.

The words ‘self’, ‘person’, ‘individual’, ‘ego’, and so on are perfectly valid conventions. They reduce the infinite complexity of experience to something we can work with.

What the Buddha says with anattā, non-self, is that the useful convention ‘self’ does not refer to any ultimate reality.

This may sound abstract at first – perhaps irrelevant too. But remember, the Buddha is not a philosopher. His aim is not to invent theories for scholars and logicians.

The Buddha is first and foremost a healer – a doctor of the mind. Today we have a new word for this and that is a psychotherapist.

All Buddhist doctrines should be seen first in this light. The non-self too is only secondarily a philosophical idea. First and foremost, it is a cure for the mind.


There are different translations of anattā into English. ‘No-self’, ‘not-self’, and ‘non-self’ are common ones. Each brings out a different nuance. However, for Westerners, the odd-sounding translation ‘no-soul’ is quite useful.

Anattā is the Pali word for the Sanskrit anātman, meaning no-ātman. If you know a bit about Indian religion, you will know the ātman denotes the inner essence of man. We’ve seen Jung himself mentions this as a symbol of the Self.

Well, it is this inner essence the Buddha is denying.

Malalasekera defines what the Buddha is denying thus:

[The ātman] is the abiding, separate, constantly existing and indestructible entity which is generally believed to be found in man…

‘[I]t is the thinker of all his thoughts, the doer of his deeds and the director of the organism generally.’


The logical question here is ‘If I am not thinking my thoughts and making my choices, then… who or what is?’

How would the Buddha answer?

Well, he would say your question is a wrong kind of thinking. As such, it presupposes a wrong kind of answer.

It’s like asking ‘Where is time?’. This is not a question that can be answered. Rather, it must first be reformulated.

In the same way, the Buddha says ‘What am I?’ is a wrong question. It must be reformulated as ‘How do I appear to be?’

The ‘what’ must be replaced by ‘how’.

Let me show you how profound this shift of thinking is. I will use you as an example.

You Are A How, Not A What

You’re reading this article.

You might ask the Buddha ‘If I’m not reading this article, then who or what is?’

Here is how he would (probably) answer:

There is the experience ‘I am reading an article’.

What are the components or aggregates of the experience?

First, there is form. This includes the visual appearance of the article as perceived from the location of the eyes. It includes also the tactile sense of holding the phone or tablet if you’re reading on mobile. The thoughts this article causes in the mind are also forms.

Second, there is feeling. The overall experience of reading this article is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This applies also to each detail of the experience.

Third, there is perception. This is the recognition and labeling of experience. What is seen is labeled as an article.

Fourth, there are mental formations: desires and intentions. These include the desire to keep reading the article or to stop reading it. The intention to become enlightened or get rich. These mental formations are conditioned by karma. They are consequences of choices made in this life and lives lived before.

Finally, there is consciousness. This is the awareness of all other aggregates. It is the bare knowing of experience.

These, then, are the five aggregates of the experience ‘I am reading this article’. There is nothing about this experience that is not either form, feeling, perception, mental formation, or consciousness. These five combine like the five notes of a single chord. This chord appears as one single ‘thing’. We call that thing ‘I’ or ‘self’.

But the aggregates are simply automatic phenomena. They appear, disappear, and reappear according to causes and conditions. Within them we find no soul, no self, no individual, no person, no ego. Nor do we find any such thing outside them.

The dance of the aggregates is difficult to comprehend. So, in short-hand, we say there is ‘self’ having an experience, living a life, thinking thoughts, making choices. In their slumber, men grasp at this label as if it refers to some real entity. The awakened ones, however, see the soul, the self, the individual, the person, the I as what they are.

A fiction.


This is a summary of the Buddha’s position. He sees no problem with using the words ‘self’, ‘I’, ‘person’, and so on… As long as we understand they are a fiction.

But pay attention.

‘Fiction’ is not always a derogative term. It can denote a category of truth.

For example, money is a fiction. It is something we value, because we all act as if it has value. The whole world revolves around this fiction. We’ve covered this before.

Novels too are fiction, obviously. They speak of things we all know haven’t happened. And yet reading Crime and Punishment changed the course of my life.

Corporations too are a fiction. You cannot see or touch Google, and yet you probably depend on their services daily.

All these are, yes, fictions, but they are also useful and meaningful – and impact the world.

One school of Buddhism insisted on the importance of the person as a fiction. A fiction that unifies our actions and provides meaning, direction, and continuity to experience.

This school was known as the Pudgalavada, meaning the Personalists. Many attacked them for their view, but I think they brought some much-needed nuance to Buddhist psychology.

Neither The Same Nor Different

The Pudgalavada view was that there is a self and it is neither the same nor different from the five aggregates.

It is easy to be cynical about this. ‘Neither the same nor different’ sounds like mystical gibberish.

But I don’t think that’s the case here.

Think of a concert.

A concert has these basic components: the performer, the musical instrument, the music, the audience, and the concert venue. We may call these the five aggregates of a concert. We don’t imagine the concert as something separate from these five. And yet we know a concert is so much more.

For example, I got serious about SEEKER TO SEEKER after seeing Kendrick Lamar perform live. This effect came not from any of the individual components of the show, but from the experience as a whole.

My point is, we understand a concert is not just the sum of its parts. At the same time, we know it is not separate from the sum of its parts.

The expression ‘neither the same nor different’ is the most accurate and succinct way to express this.

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Now, I hope you liked this concert analogy. The cool thing is, it was inspired by a dream I had while working on this video.

This returns us to Jungian territory.

Like any other experience, dreaming too can be analyzed down to the five aggregates. That our sense of self changes and dissolves in dreams supports the Buddha’s non-self. It suggests the sense of individuality is not fundamental to experience.

However, our dreams sometimes follow an elaborate structure. Any good therapist can point out hidden symbols in our most unassuming dreams. And, as we’ve seen, dreams react to our conscious experiences.

All this suggests that, again, while we are not creating our dreams, something is. This something also appears to be wiser and more creative than we would assume. What would the Buddha say about this?

Well, we’re finally ready to discuss what we’re here for. We have our overview of both the Jungian and the Buddhist model of the self. Now let’s introduce them to each other.


In the Bible, Jesus says:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.

Matthew 6:24

We must remember this warning now. Building bridges between Buddhism and Jungian psychology is delicate work and involves many dangers.

One danger is picking a favorite and reducing the other system to the one we prefer. We must be mindful of our biases or they will take the better of us.

Another danger comes from the fact that, as John Keenan says, ‘there are too many Buddhisms, and just one Jung’.

Remember, Jung died in 1961. For comparison, the first time Buddhist scripture was written down was over 4 centuries after the death of the Buddha. And the tradition would branch out both geographically and philosophically in many surprising directions.

Imagine where Jungian thought will be in 2000 years!

My point is, we must be specific about what we’re comparing.

This is why the non-self teaching I presented is limited to the earliest teachings attributed to the Buddha. My description of the Self archetype also follows only Jung’s original writings.

A Process – Not A Thing

So here we are faced with an apparent polarity. Self vs non-self.

I say ‘apparent’, because we’ve already seen some similarities under the hood.

First, the Buddha’s aggregates and Jung’s complexes express the same central insight. That is, that a person is a construct. An interplay of causes and conditions.

The aggregate of mental formations may in fact be what Jung calls ‘complexes’, but this is a minor point. Far more important is that both the aggregates and complexes tell us you and I are a process, not a thing.

Heraclitus has given us a happy analogy here between a person and a river. A river has a certain shape and goes through predictable changes. This is its individuality. This is why we always call the Danube river ‘the Danube’. At the same time, there are no two moments where a river is exactly the same. This is its non-self.  

In this same way, the ego is a flow of causes and conditions. It is neither the same, nor different from these causes and conditions.

Jung and the Buddha agree this flow of experience we call ‘I’ is but a tiny current in a whole ocean of psychic activity.

The Buddha’s term for this ocean is Dependent Origination.

I know, ‘What’s that?’, you ask.

We will have a separate piece on Dependent Origination. For now, know this is a Buddhist term for the whole cycle of causes and conditions that generates existence.

For Jung, the totality of psychic activity is impossible to define or even talk about. What we can talk about is how it appears to us. Its appearance Jung calls the Self.

On The Nature Of Totality

Here we may find a major disagreement between Jung’s Self and the idea of totality in early Buddhism.

Buddhist totality is impersonal, almost mathematical in nature. You produce dark karma – you get painful consequences. You produce bright karma – you get joyful consequences. The five aggregates come together at birth, fall apart at death, and recombine at rebirth – all according to karma. This cycle goes on and on, like a computer algorithm.

Jungian totality appears to be different. It speaks to us in dreams and fantasies, fills us with irrational urges, and puts us in our place when act unauthentically. Like the Biblical God, Jung’s Self appears to take personal interest in the life of the ego.

But let’s look deeper.

Jung sees the unconscious as compensatory. If our conscious behavior tilts too much in one direction, the unconscious pushes it in the other. It compensates. We’ve already covered this. It is why, for example, sexual perversion is so common among celibate clergy. When the ego does violence to the impulses, the unconscious rises up to strengthen them.

Now think about the Buddha’s law of karma. That law states any violent action comes back in an equally violent reaction. In the same way, all the good you do, you will receive in the future.

Notice the hidden assumption here.

Playing The Middle Against Both Sides

Both the unconscious and the law of karma balance our conscious actions… Well, any act of balancing needs a pivot point. A center.   

Both Jung and the Buddha suggest the existence of a Middle Way against which our thoughts, words, and actions are measured. It is the deviation from that Middle Way that produces either positive or negative consequences.

Jung and the Buddha speak of a cosmic law of wholeness which generates experience and keeps it in orbit around a center. I believe this center is where the Noble Eightfold Path leads to. I believe it is what the Buddha calls nirvana.

Jung, in turn, calls the image of this center the Self, and the path leading to it individuation. We will explore this in the future.

What Is A Person?

But let’s now leave the transpersonal domain and return to the person, the ‘I’.

Jung and the Buddha slice up the person in different cross-sections. The Buddha sees subjective experience as the intermingling of five aggregates. Jung speaks of consciousness, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious.

That we find different frameworks here does not necessarily point to disagreement. Reality is too complex to surrender all its secrets to a single perspective.

Let’s explore how the Jungian and the Buddhist model can complement each other.


Say you’re watching a movie and you become obsessed with the main character. Your attachment grows so strong, you begin to feel they are a living, breathing person you love.

But say something truly terrible happens to that character. Some great loss or betrayal – a tragedy. What insight would then liberate you from suffering?

Well, you must realize this character is a fiction. They’ve been created by a team of scriptwriters and performed by an actor. The whole experience is designed by a director and produced by a large team of professionals. It is then projected for your entertainment on a screen.

It’s all make-believe.

This is what the Buddha teaches. That the self is a performance we get convinced by far too easily.

Of course, his insight transcends our example. In the example, you understand the fictional character is not a real person in the way you are a real person. The Buddha tells us you yourself are only as real as a fictional character.

There is only the karmic ocean of causes and conditions. The self is but a motion picture written, performed, designed, produced, and projected by that ocean on that ocean – for that ocean.

My self, your self, the Buddha’s self – we are all different motion pictures in the Hollywood that is the conditioned world. To step out of the motion picture into reality, into nirvana, means to wake up to the fact it’s all make-believe.

When you reach that point, life’s tragedies affect you as little as the plot twists of soap opera.

This is liberation from suffering.

But Jung, I think, has something to contribute here.


Imagine someone goes to see a great film like Lord of the Rings. Imagine they then walk out of the theatre and say ‘It’s all make-believe! The magic, the locations, the characters… how can you take this seriously?!’

This person would be quite correct in pointing out the movie is, well, a movie. Their judgement would be sober. And yet, we cannot help but pity such sobriety. Gandalf’s wisdom, Sam’s loyalty, Arwen’s love, the archetypal struggle between light and darkness… All this would be lost on our sober friend.

To see the artifice in art is good – unless it robs you of the meaning contained therein. I think it is the same with life.

The Buddha teaches us to see through the fantasy world we perceive. This is his cure for suffering. Jung teaches us to spot patterns in that fantasy world. This is his method for finding meaning in our suffering.

Jung delves into the content of experience – the Buddha into its context.

We may each find one or the other approach more ‘profound’, ‘meaningful’, or ‘true’. But I suspect both are equally valid – and necessary.

And their effects on people are not too different.

Jung & Buddha As Doctors

The non-self teaching shifts our center of experience from the small self to the conditioned world as a whole. The boundaries separating ‘I’ from ‘everything that’s not I’ gradually dissolve until they no longer make sense. At this point, saying there is a self or no self is equally misleading.

One’s concerns and identity are caged no longer by the skin-encapsulated ego. Look up Thich Nhat Hanh to see this in action.

This is what the Buddha’s non-self does to a person. Let’s now compare it to the effects of Jungian individuation.

Remember, Jung calls the ego a complex. He also says complexes should be made conscious so that we may reclaim the energy trapped inside. Indeed, it is our very identity trapped inside them – especially in the ego.

So, what would reclaiming that energy and identity look like?

Jung writes:

[As] we become conscious of ourselves through self-knowledge, and act accordingly … there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests…

The complications arising at this stage are no longer egotistic wish-conflicts, but difficulties that concern others as much as oneself…

We can now see that the unconscious produces contents which are valid not only for the person concerned, but for others as well, in fact for a great many people and possibly for all.

C.G. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious

The Buddha helps us see our subjective self as an objective process in a sea of causality. Jung helps us see it as a process in a sea of psychic currents. Early Buddhism calls that sea Dependent Origination. Later Buddhism calls it Emptiness. Jung calls it the Self.

Of course, differences and nuances mater. But a man dying of thirst should care little whether he receives water or H2O.

We too should care little. And both Jung and the Buddha remind us that we are, in fact – dying of thirst.


Christ warns us:

No man can serve two masters…

Matthew 6:24

When reconciling Jungian and Buddhist models of the self, we must see neither Jung, nor the Buddha as ‘the master’. The Buddha claimed to be teaching the eternal Dhamma, a truth he discovered, not one he invented. And here is what Jung wrote near the end of his life:

When people say I am wise, or a sage, I cannot accept it. A man once dipped a hatful of water from a stream. What did that amount to? I am not that stream.

C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

It is the Dhamma, the stream, that must always be the master. Buddhist and Jungian psychology are but different hatfuls drawn from that stream.

The Buddha was the first to warn people against becoming attached to his doctrines. So did Jung. Indeed, there’s been some good criticism of both.

Some Criticism

For example, Jung’s ambiguous descriptions of the Self lead to confusion. In some places, he denotes the whole psyche as the Self. In others, he treats the Self as the central archetype in the psyche. But how can the whole and its center be the same thing? Is the Self the psyche or an image of the psyche? If it is the latter, then – what is that which transcends and contains the Self?

The Buddha’s non-self too has been criticized. A good recent example is Evan Thompson’s book Why I Am Not a Buddhist. There he writes:

[T]he self that Buddhism targets as the object of self-grasping—the self as a personal essence—isn’t the only way to understand the self, especially in the context of cognitive science and philosophy today.

So, denying that there is this kind of self doesn’t entail that there is no self whatsoever…

Evan Thompson, Why I Am Not A Buddhist

This article might leave you with more questions than answers – but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Here we’re rubbing against the limits of what the human mind can conceive of and communicate. It is a tall task to even discuss these issues, let alone reach a conclusion.

Draw Water

I hope this piece fuels your own exploration of the world’s collective wisdom. Today it is getting increasingly costly to divide ourselves into religions and schools of thought. The questions facing us are collective and so too must be our answers.

We have inherited profound insights from generations past. Our task, should we live up to it, is to breathe new life into this inheritance.

May we all draw hatfuls from the stream. And may we dig wells which may keep our children from thirst.

Watch the film version of this essay.

Ways Of Supporting SEEKER TO SEEKER

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