Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism

Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism

by Erich Fromm

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The renowned psychoanalyst and New York Times–bestselling author of The Art of Loving unites philosophy from the East and West.
 In 1957, social philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm invited Daisetz T. Suzuki, the most famous Zen Buddhist master in the Western world, to a seminar at his new home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Their discussion was one of the highlights of Fromm’s life, and the paper Fromm presented (and later expanded into a book) was a watershed work. Fromm demonstrates his mastery of the philosophy and practice of Zen, perfectly articulating how Zen tenets fit into the ideas of psychoanalysis. In this text, he creates new perspectives on both systems of thought. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erich Fromm including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480402072
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 03/26/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 64
Sales rank: 673,617
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Erich Fromm (1900–1980) was a bestselling psychoanalyst and social philosopher whose views about alienation, love, and sanity in society—discussed in his books such as Escape from Freedom, The Art of Loving, The Sane Society, and To Have or To Be?—helped shape the landscape of psychology in the mid-twentieth century. Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to Jewish parents, and studied at the universities of Frankfurt, Heidelberg (where in 1922 he earned his doctorate in sociology), and Munich. In the 1930s, he was one of the most influential figures at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. In 1934, as the Nazis rose to power, he moved to the United States. He practiced psychoanalysis in both New York and Mexico City before moving to Switzerland in 1974, where he continued his work until his death. 
Erich Fromm (1900–1980) was a bestselling psychoanalyst and social philosopher whose views about alienation, love, and sanity in society—discussed in his books such as Escape from Freedom, The Art of Loving, The Sane Society, and To Have or To Be?—helped shape the landscape of psychology in the mid-twentieth century. Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to Jewish parents, and studied at the universities of Frankfurt, Heidelberg (where in 1922 he earned his doctorate in sociology), and Munich. In the 1930s he was one of the most influential figures at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. In 1934, as the Nazis rose to power, he moved to the United States. He practiced psychoanalysis in both New York and Mexico City before moving to Switzerland in 1974, where he continued his work until his death.

Read an Excerpt

Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism

By Erich Fromm


Copyright © 1996 Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0207-2



As a first approach to our topic, we must consider the spiritual crisis which Western man is undergoing in this crucial historical epoch, and the function of psychoanalysis in this crisis.

While the majority of people living in the West do not consciously feel as if they were living through a crisis of Western culture (probably never have the majority of people in a radically critical situation been aware of the crisis), there is agreement, at least among a number of critical observers, as to the existence and the nature of this crisis. It is the crisis which has been described as "malaise," "ennui," "mal du siècle," the deadening of life, the automatization of man, his alienation from himself, from his fellow man and from nature. Man has followed rationalism to the point where rationalism has transformed itself into utter irrationality. Since Descartes, man has increasingly split thought from affect; thought alone is considered rational—affect, by its very nature, irrational; the person, I, has been split off into an intellect, which constitutes my self, and which is to control me as it is to control nature. Control by the intellect over nature, and the production of more and more things, became the paramount aims of life. In this process man has transformed himself into a thing, life has become subordinated to property, "to be" is dominated by "to have." Where the roots of Western culture, both Greek and Hebrew, considered the aim of life the perfection of man, modern man is concerned with the perfection of things, and the knowledge of how to make them. Western man is in a state of schizoid inability to experience affect, hence he is anxious, depressed, and desperate. He still pays lip service to the aims of happiness, individualism, initiative—but actually he has no aim. Ask him what he is living for, what is the aim of all his strivings—and he will be embarrassed. Some may say they live for the family, others, "to have fun," still others, to make money, but in reality nobody knows what he is living for; he has no goal, except the wish to escape insecurity and aloneness.

It is true, church membership today is higher than ever before, books on religion become best sellers, and more people speak of God than ever before. Yet this kind of religious profession only covers up a profoundly materialistic and irreligious attitude, and is to be understood as an ideological reaction—caused by insecurity and conformism—to the trend of the nineteenth century, which Nietzsche characterized by his famous "God is dead." As a truly religious attitude, it has no reality.

The abandonment of theistic ideas in the nineteenth century was—seen from one angle—no small achievement. Man took a big plunge to objectivity. The earth ceased to be the center of the universe; man lost his central role of the creature destined by God to dominate all other creatures. Studying man's hidden motivations with a new objectivity, Freud recognized that the faith in an all-powerful, omniscient God, had its root in the helplessness of human existence and in man's attempt to cope with his helplessness by means of belief in a helping father and mother represented by God in heaven. He saw that man only can save himself; the teaching of the great teachers, the loving help of parents, friends, and loved ones can help him—but can help him only to dare to accept the challenge of existence and to react to it with all his might and all his heart.

Man gave up the illusion of a fatherly God as a parental helper—but he gave up also the true aims of all great humanistic religions: overcoming the limitations of an egotistical self, achieving love, objectivity, and humility and respecting life so that the aim of life is living itself, and man becomes what he potentially is. These were the aims of the great Western religions, as they were the aims of the great Eastern religions. The East, however, was not burdened with the concept of a transcendent father-savior in which the monotheistic religions expressed their longings. Taoism and Buddhism had a rationality and realism superior to that of the Western religions. They could see man realistically and objectively, having nobody but the "awakened" ones to guide him, and being able to be guided because each man has within himself the capacity to awake and be enlightened. This is precisely the reason why Eastern religious thought, Taoism and Buddhism—and their blending in Zen Buddhism—assume such importance for the West today. Zen Buddhism helps man to find an answer to the question of his existence, an answer which is essentially the same as that given in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and yet which does not contradict the rationality, realism, and independence which are modern man's precious achievements. Paradoxically, Eastern religious thought turns out to be more congenial to Western rational thought than does Western religious thought itself.



Psychoanalysis is a characteristic expression of Western man's spiritual crisis, and an attempt to find a solution. This is explicitly so in the more recent developments of psychoanalysis, in "humanist" or "existentialist" analysis. But before I discuss my own "humanist" concept, I want to show that, quite contrary to a widely held assumption Freud's own system transcended the concept of "illness" and "cure" and was concerned with the "salvation" of man, rather than only with a therapy for mentally sick patients. Superficially seen, Freud was the creator of a new therapy for mental illness, and this was the subject matter to which his main interest and all the efforts of his life were devoted. However, if we look more closely, we find that behind this concept of a medical therapy for the cure of neurosis was an entirely different interest, rarely expressed by Freud, and probably rarely conscious even to himself. This hidden or only implicit concept did not primarily deal with the cure of mental illness, but with something which transcended the concept of illness and cure. What was this something? What was the nature of the "psychoanalytic movement" he founded? What was Freud's vision for man's future? What was the dogma on which his movement was founded?

Freud answered this question perhaps most clearly in the sentence: "Where there was Id—there shall be Ego." His aim was the domination of irrational and unconscious passions by reason; the liberation of man from the power of the unconscious, within the possibilities of man. Man had to become aware of the unconscious forces within him, in order to dominate and control them. Freud's aim was the optimum knowledge of truth, and that is the knowledge of reality; this knowledge to him was the only guiding light man had on this earth. These aims were the traditional aims of rationalism, of the Enlightenment philosophy, and of Puritan ethics. But while religion and philosophy had postulated these aims of self-control in, what might be called a utopian way, Freud was—or believed himself to be—the first one to put these aims on a scientific basis (by the exploration of the unconscious) and hence to show the way to their realization. While Freud represents the culmination of Western rationalism, it was his genius to overcome at the same time the false rationalistic and superficially optimistic aspects of rationalism, and to create a synthesis with romanticism, the very movement which during the nineteenth century opposed rationalism by its own interest in and reverence for the irrational, affective side of man.

With regard to the treatment of the individual, Freud was also more concerned with a philosophical and ethical aim than he was generally believed to be. In the Introductory Lectures, he speaks of the attempts certain mystical practices make to produce a basic transformation within the personality. "We have to admit," he continues, "that the therapeutic efforts of psychoanalysis have chosen a similar point of approach. Its intention is to strengthen the Ego, to make it more independent from the Super-Ego, to enlarge its field of observation, so that it can appropriate for itself new parts of Id. Where there was Id there shall be Ego. It is a work of culture like the reclamation of the Zuyder Zee." In the same vein he speaks of psychoanalytic therapy as consisting in "the liberation of the human being from his neurotic symptoms, inhibitions and abnormalities of character." He sees also the role of the analyst in a light which transcends that of the doctor who "cures" the patient. "The analyst," he says, "must be in a superior position in some sense, if he is to serve as a model for the patient in certain analytic situations, and in others to act as his teacher. (Ibid., p. 351. Italics mine—E.F.) "Finally," Freud writes, "we must not forget that the relationship between analyst and patient is based on a lone of truth, that is, on acknowledgement of reality, that it precludes any kind of sham, and deception."

There are other factors in Freud's concept of psychoanalysis which transcend the conventional notion of illness and cure. Those familiar with Eastern thought, and especially with Zen Buddhism, will notice that the factors which I am going to mention are not without relation to concepts and thoughts of the Eastern mind. The principle to be mentioned here first is Freud's concept that knowledge leads to, transformation, that theory and practice must not be separated, that in the very act of knowing oneself, one transforms oneself. It is hardly necessary to emphasize how different this idea is from the concepts of scientific psychology in Freud's or in our time, where knowledge in itself remains theoretical knowledge, and has not a transforming function in the knower.

In still another aspect Freud's method has a close connection with Eastern thought, and especially with Zen Buddhism. Freud did not share the high evaluation of our conscious thought system, so characteristic of modern Western man. On the contrary, he believed that our conscious thought was only a small part of the whole of the psychic process going on in us and, in fact, an insignificant one in comparison with the tremendous power of those sources within ourselves which are dark and irrational and at the same time unconscious. Freud, in his wish to arrive at insight into the real nature of a person, wanted to break through the conscious thought system, by his method of free association. Free association was to by-pass logical, conscious, conventional thought. It was to lead into a new source of our personality, namely, the unconscious. Whatever criticism may be made of the contents of Freud's unconscious, the fact remains that by emphasizing free association as against logical thought, he transcended in an essential point the conventional rationalistic mode of thinking of the Western world, and moved in a direction which had been developed much farther and much more radically in the thought of the East.

There is one further point in which Freud differs radically from the contemporary Western attitude. I refer here to the fact that he was willing to analyze a person for one, two, three, four, five, or even more years. This procedure has, in fact, been the reason for a great deal of criticism against Freud. Needless to say, one should attempt to make analysis as efficient as possible, but the point I mean to stress here is that Freud had the courage to say that one could meaningfully spend years with one person, just to help this person to understand himself. From a standpoint of utility, from a standpoint of loss and profit, this does not make too much sense. One would rather say that the time spent in such a prolonged analysis is not worthwhile, if one considers the social effect of a change in one person. Freud's method makes sense only if one transcends the modern concept of "value," of the proper relationship between means and ends, of the balance sheet, as it were; if one takes the position that one human being is not commensurable with any thing, that his emancipation, his well-being, his enlightenment, or whatever term we might want to use, is a matter of "ultimate concern" in itself, then no amount of time and money can be related to this aim in quantitative terms. To have had the vision and the courage to devise a method which implied this extended concern with one person was a manifestation of an attitude which transcended Western conventional thought in an important aspect.

The foregoing remarks are not meant to imply that Freud, in his conscious intentions, was close to Eastern thought or specifically to the thought of Zen Buddhism. Many of the elements which I mentioned before were more implicit than explicit, and more unconscious than conscious, in Freud's own mind. Freud was much too much of a son of Western civilization, and especially of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century thought, to be close to Eastern thought as expressed in Zen Buddhism, even if he had been familiar with it. Freud's picture of man was in essential features the picture which the economists and philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had developed. They saw man as essentially competitive, isolated, and related to others only by the necessity of exchanging the satisfaction of economic and instinctual needs. For Freud, man is a machine, driven by the libido, and regulated by the principle of keeping libido excitation to a minimum. He saw man as fundamentally egotistical, and related to others only by the mutual necessity of satisfying instinctual desires. Pleasure, for Freud, was relief of tension, not the experience of joy. Man was seen split between his intellect and his affects; man was not the whole man, but the intellect-self of the Enlightenment philosophers. Brotherly love was an unreasonable demand, contrary to reality; mystical experience a regression to infantile narcissism.

What I have tried to show is that in spite of these obvious contradictions to Zen Buddhism, there were nevertheless elements in Freud's system which transcended the conventional concepts of illness and cure, and the traditional rationalistic concepts of consciousness, elements which led to a further development of psychoanalysis which has a more direct and positive affinity with Zen Buddhist thought.

However, before we come to the discussion of the connection between this "humanistic" psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism, I want to point to a change which is fundamental for the understanding of the further development of psychoanalysis: the change in the kinds of patients who come for analysis, and the problems they present.

At the beginning of this century the people who came to the psychiatrist were mainly people who suffered from symptoms. They had a paralyzed arm, or an obsessional symptom like a washing compulsion, or they suffered from obsessional thoughts which they could not get rid of. In other words, they were sick in the sense in which the word "sickness" is used in medicine; something prevented them from functioning socially as the so-called normal person functions. If this was what they suffered from, their concept of cure corresponded to the concept of sickness. They wanted to get rid of the symptoms, and their concept of "wellness" was—not to be sick. They wanted to be as well as the average person or, as we also might put it, they wanted to be not more unhappy and disturbed than the average person in our society is.

These people still come to the psychoanalyst to seek help, and for them psychoanalysis is still a therapy which aims at the removal of their symptoms, and at enabling them to function socially. But while they once formed the majority of a psychoanalyst's clientele, they are the minority today—perhaps not because their absolute number is smaller today than then, but because their number is relatively smaller in comparison with the many new "patients" who function socially, who are not sick in the conventional sense, but who do suffer from the "maladie du siècle," the malaise, the inner deadness I have been discussing above. These new "patients" come to the psychoanalyst without knowing what they really suffer from. They complain about being depressed, having insomnia, being unhappy in their marriages, not enjoying their work, and any number of similar troubles. They usually believe that this or that particular symptom is their problem and that if they could get rid of this particular trouble they would be well. However, these patients usually do not see that their problem is not that of depression, of insomnia, of their marriages, or of their jobs. These various complaints are only the conscious form in which our culture permits them to express something which lies much deeper, and which is common to the various people who consciously believe that they suffer from this or that particular symptom. The common suffering is the alienation from oneself, from one's fellow man, and from nature; the awareness that life runs out of one's hand like sand, and that one will die without having lived; that one lives in the midst of plenty and yet is joyless.

What is the help which psychoanalysis can offer those who suffer from the "maladie du siècle"? This help is—and must be—different from the "cure" which consists in removing symptoms, offered to those who cannot function socially. For those who suffer from alienation, cure does not consist in the absence of illness, but in the presence of well-being.


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