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Journey Into Emptiness: Dogen, Merton, Jung, And The Quest For Transformation

By Robert Jingen Gunn, New York : Paulist Press, 2000. xiv + 334 pp.
reviewed by Harold Coward
University of Victoria , Canada
Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003)


Written by a New York psychotherapist who also has Zen training, the thesis of this book is that the experience of emptiness is a necessary precondition to spiritual transformation. “Emptiness” is defined as “an experience of being without, of not having, not having answers, not having property, not having love or power or hope” (1). “Transformation” is described as a path that leads to the realization of our rootedness in a transcendent dimension. Three paths of transformation are discussed through three case studies: Buddhism in the experience of Dogen; Christianity through the life of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton; and Depth Psychology as developed in the life experience of Carl Jung. In each case the major obstacle to be overcome is ego and ego attachments. The transformation process, argues Gunn, is often triggered by an initial experience of emptiness such as the early loss of one’s mother, an experience of death, divorce, depression, illness, failure, identity confusion, or loss of community. The traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Depth Psychology view a person’s pivotal experience of emptiness “not as something painful to be avoided, but a door, leading to a larger vision and experience of connection to all of life” (7). Response to the experience of emptiness can be by either engagement or avoidance. Refusing the path of transformation will add to one’s burden of suffering whether understood as karma, sin, or neurosis. Yet this is often the contemporary choice. Afraid to move into the unknown, or to let go of ego control, we hold on to whatever is within our grasp—a house, a marriage, an idea, an identity—and avoid the challenge of realizing our true selves. Choosing to enter the Buddhist Way, to take up one’s cross or to make the unconscious conscious, is to adopt transformation from an initial emptiness to a “way of life that consists in ever-expanding awareness, continual letting-go of attachments and increasing freedom and service to all of life, to being itself ” (9).

book coverThe author suggests that three stages in the experience of emptiness and self- transformation are found in the case studies of Dogen, Merton, and Jung: (1) experienced emptiness in their own lives; (2) used that experience to embark on their own path of transformation; and (3) returned to offer their practical experience as a method for others to use. Although viewed differently by each, emptiness is primary for all, and the self that is let go of remains but is transformed. For Dogen, in emptiness we let go of everything, including self and emptiness itself. What remains is nothing, an insubstantiality that is neither nothing nor something, but leads us back to the Self, which is everything. For Merton, letting go of everything leaves an empty self experienced as poverty, but a poverty that leads to fulfillment, which finds the true Self hidden with Christ in God—free for God, free for others, free for whatever God wills. For Jung, emptiness is the sacrifice of ego to the larger Self, which transcends individual consciousness. While the analyses of the emptiness/transformative experiences of Dogen and Merton are well done, the presentation of Jung lacks depth and completeness. The author’s psychotherapist vocation seemed to artificially force the analysis—as, for example, in Gunn’s attempt to show that in each case the major trigger of the emptiness experience was the early loss of the mother.

I found the presentation of Dogen’s Buddhist experience to be the most fully developed and convincing of the three case studies. Gunn does an excellent job of situating Dogen’s experience within the context of Buddhism by presenting a well-researched and well-written summary of Buddha, Nagarjuna, and Bodhidharma; however, the contribution of the Theravada understanding is completely ignored. The presentation of Nagarjuna is especially well done, but the author’s insistence on trying to demonstrate that the early death of the mother triggered the emptiness experience seems forced, questionable, and unnecessary in the cases of the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and Dogen. Gunn is more convincing when he suggests that the triggering question for Dogen was “Why do I have to be conscious? Why do I have to work at being conscious, rather than being just spontaneous?” (43). Gunn also displays a fine understanding of the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship as it functions on the Buddhist Path (54–55). With his teacher Ju-ching, Dogen’s big question was “Why is practice necessary if all beings inherently have a Buddhanature?” It was resolved by hearing Ju-ching shout, “Drop off body and mind!” which led Dogen to the realization that to drop off body and mind is to let go of all that separates one from everything else, all concern about a separate body, all thought, image, feeling, or idea of an “I” separate from other things. To drop off body and mind, therefore, is to kill ego and to let go of the dominant tendency within the self to see itself as autonomous. Only with the death of ego control will the Buddhanature within be realized, and for that to happen constant practice is necessary. Dogen’s practice, Shikantaza, involves sitting in meditation watching the flow of one’s thoughts and feelings, overcoming the struggle of one’s ego to retain control by shifting attention onto particular thoughts and so avoid going to deeper levels of awareness. The process continues indefinitely as an ongoing process of self-emptying. It is a process of simply sitting, attending, and letting-go through which one faces oneself, including everything that one previously avoided. “One rejects nothing, clings to nothing, and thus the entire universe opens up” (65). For Dogen, anthropocentricism as well as geocentricism must be overcome, which is important for our ethical relationship with nature—a point to which neither Merton nor Jung are sensitive.

Gunn’s study of Merton lacks the careful contextualization demonstrated in his presentation of Dogen. For Merton, Gunn relies mainly on a textual analysis of Merton’s writings. Here there is evidence of an early and powerful experience of emptiness triggered by his mother’s early death when Merton was only six, followed by his father’s death when he was sixteen. The experience of emptiness and loss on the family side prepared Merton for conversion to Christianity and entrance to the monastery, where he found a practice through which emptiness became transformative (126). Merton’s example emphasizes the need for a space or “container” within which to battle ego on both the psychological and spiritual levels. This need was met for Merton by Christianity, and especially in the Trappist Monastery. The Christian nature of Merton’s experience is revealed in the nine different ways he understood emptiness: (1) Emptiness as loss, loneliness, and impermanence; (2) Emptiness as moral and spiritual vacuity; (3) Emptiness as not having, as poverty; (4) Emptiness as kenosis along the spiritual path; (5) Emptiness as nothingness and helplessness; (6) Emptiness as dread; (7) Emptiness as union with God; (8) Emptiness as Anima/Animus failure; and (9) Emptiness as constituent in all reality as the basis of compassion. Gunn concludes for Merton, “the experience of emptiness was a multi-colored thread that led him from the deepest pains, wounds and loneliness of life to an understanding of the vacuity and shallowness of much of human striving to an inner meeting where the true self is hidden with Christ in God, and the self encounters the God who cannot be named. This is the self relieved of the burden of having to determine its own fate . . . free for whatever God wills” (180). However, argues Gunn, Merton could never escape from being the observer—and realize “the emptiness of emptiness” of Buddhism (172).

The final case study on Carl Jung is disappointing. Rather than exploring the role played by emptiness in the individuation process of Jung’s experience and Analytical Psychology, Gunn allows himself to be sidetracked into a psychological analysis of Jung’s early interaction with his mother and father, his extramarital relations with Sabina Spielbrein and Toni Wolff, and how these factored into Jung’s emptiness experience. Freud’s role as a substitute father figure is given much attention as is Jung’s mental breakdown following 1913. All of this led Jung to respond to these various experiences of emptiness by remaining psychologically open for the rest of his life (267). In this case study we are not informed about Jung’s psychological theory in the way that we were about Dogen’s Buddhism or Merton’s Christianity. Nor does the analysis exegete Jung’s own writing to the depth and completeness offered for the writings of Dogen and Merton. This is unfortunate, for it results in a major distinction regarding Jung’s response to emptiness and self-transformation being ignored. It has to do with the role and place of ego in the process and is highlighted in Jung’s many commentaries on Buddhist texts that Gunn completely ignores—which is strange in a book comparing Jung with Dogen! For example, there is no analysis of Jung’s commentaries on “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” or the “Amitayur Dhyana Sutra.” These are well studied in an earlier Paulist Press volume, Self and Liberation: The Jung /Buddhism Dialogue, edited by Daniel Meckel and Robert Moore. A study of Jung’s writings on these texts reveals that Jung draws a very definite line as to the point beyond which he will not go in following the Buddhist analysis of emptiness and self-transformation. In his reading of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” for example, Jung dismisses its highest goal (the realization of the pure light of the dharmakaya ) as Eastern intuition overreaching itself. For Jung, complete letting go of the ego (complete emptying) and the resulting possibility of a direct experience of the dharmakaya is simply not possible! In Jung’s view, if ego has been transcended, then, to the extent that one is still alive, one is unconscious and a direct experience of the divine impossible. Like Merton, Jung is not able to let go of the necessity of having an “observer.” What the Buddhist proposal of the giving up or “killing of ego,” to use Dogen’s words, would amount to, says Jung, is the end of all conscious, rational, morally responsible conduct of life ( Jung’s “Psychological Commentary on the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead,’” Jung’s Collected Works, vol. 11, p. 519). We see here what appears as a major disagreement over the degree to which one overcomes ego in the process of emptying and spiritual transformation. The result of Gunn’s failure to include Jung’s writings—especially those on Buddhism—in this study makes for a weak finish to an otherwise interesting book.

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