Jung’s Empty Self: a Buddhist and Postmodern Perspective


Lee Robbins, Ph.D New York university     This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I would like to turn directly to Jung’s 1938 definition of the archetype in preparation for my comments on the empty Self:

It is necessary to point out once more that archetypes are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree…. The archetype itself is empty ….nothing but a possibility of representation which is given a priori.

Jung says clearly ‘the archetype itse lf is empty.’ What precisely does he mean by empty? We may infer that in the context of his def inition, emptiness has something to do with the possibility of imaginal representation as it is filled out by the content of our human experience. The content of the empty archetype, or the im age is not determined. It has infinite variety or a boundl ess quality. In other words it is always changing , as is the form but to a more limited degree. Imp lied in Jung’s statement is the important distinction between t he archetypal image that may be known and the symbol of the archetype that can never be known.

What precedes the image of the empty archetype, is a movement of energy out of what J ung describes as the psychoid character of the collective unconscious. And from this swell of energy emerges the fluid form t hat circumscribes the content of my human experience with all of its delight and anguish.

Now, it is something of a coincidence to point out that Jung penned this definition of the empty archetype in the very same year that he traveled to India to visi t the sight where Buddha delivered his “Fire Sermon.” The message of the sermon is that we try to hold onto the ceaselessly changing nature of mental and physical experience to provide the illusion of security and stability, but it is precisely clinging to the illusion that is the cause of our dis-ease and anguish. The theme of the Fire Sermon moved Jung. In Memories Dreams Reflections Jung describes having been overcome “with strong emotion of the kind that frequently develops in me when I encounter a thing or a person or idea whose significance I am still unconscious….The intens ity of the emotion showed me that he hill of Sanchi (where Buddha gave the Fire Sermon) meant something to me.” And then in the very same paragraph he proclaims, “ I grasped the life of the Buddha as the reality of the self…For Buddha self stands above all gods…Buddha became as it were, the image of the development of the self.” 

Then, in 1950, having assimilated the them es of impermanence and movement from the Fire Sermon and the Golden Flower he declares that: “The self furthermore, is not a stat ic quantity or constant form, but is rather a ‘dynamic process,’ an active force’ whose ess ence is one of continual transformation and rejuvenation.”

This Self, like the general definit ion of the empty archetype, is not stable . It is not a substance but a dynamic process; It has no immutable essence only active force; It cannot be grasped because it is both constantly transforming as it is transformed. This is the self that bears a striking resemblance to the Buddhist notion of emptiness or shunyata .

According to the Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna, who is considered the poet and primary exponent of Buddha’s teaching on shunyata, emptiness is not a bleak and nihilistic void, which is how shunyata has been misrepresented in the west under the infl uence of Shopenhauer and Neit zsche. Neither is it a mystical state, not another priv ileged religious object and not somethi ng sacred to believe in. Rather, emptiness is an experience of the groundless movement of energy, and manifests in the momentary arising and perishing of al l the forms of the phenomenal world. 

The phenomenal world of emptiness is also a contingent world, which means that events are devoid of any intrinsic separate being or of existing in their own right. Whatever is contingent depends on something else for its existence—there are no isolated or permanent objects or subjects. Emptiness, therefore, simply describes an unf athomable matrix of re lationships that are connected in and by a groundless flow of energy that has no discernable beginning and no divine power mysteriously directing it to a preordained end. P oetically rendered as the ‘fasting of the mind,’ emptiness is a fertile absence of the perceived fixed conditions, which denies the mutable nature of life.

As emptiness functions as a symbol to describe the groundless movement of energy out of which the phenomenal world is born and dies; so the transformational self is a symbol that points to an undifferentiated mass of energy perm eating the psychoid realm of psyc he, out of which the particular form and content of our physi cal and mental life emerges.

But this self is not only transformi ng our life from moment to moment on the cellular level; it is itself being modified by the impact of its ow n dynamic activity as it influences our relationship to the world. Self then, is also a contingent phenomenon which means that it is empty—a ceaselessly moving conjunction between person and worl d, that cannot exist apart from the events it permeates and cannot be sought apart from the totality of all forms.

Therefore, the empty se lf betrays the western idea of a theological first cause because in the Buddhist interdependent universe there are no metaphysical hierarchies. Nor, can the empty self be sequestered into the solitude of our interior reverie, or it’s opposite flights of activity, which bolst er our value in the eyes of a society that worships material success. Although, both expe riences surely belong to the province of the empty self because they are intrinsic to human existence; it is only at the point where all the faculties of body, heart and mind converge to awaken us to the mo mentary sufficiency of life—just as it is – that we feel the empty self transforming and cleansing our perception of the ephemeral nature of all experience.

 Roger Brooke has said it very beautifully when he ex plains that, “the self’s unfolding is the world’s disclosure,” and Jung writes, “psyche is simply world.”

This is also the meaning of the opening lines of Heart Sutra; ”Form is empti ness and emptiness is form” and bears a striking similarity to Jung’s 1950 definition of self as a dynamic process.


But if in fact the empty self’s revelation is sha ped by a reciprocity of transforming action, it is incumbent upon us to see this empty self by its very dependence on a world of change as characterized by limitation. Transformation implie s impermanence, what Buddhist philosophy identifies as one of the three characteristics of existence.

Therefore, limitation must be intrinsic to self’s changing nature that circumscribes the durati on of every conditioned pleasure and pain. These reflections may offer insight into is why Jung has wr itten, ”[that] the greatest limitation for man is the self; it is manifested in the exper ience I am only that. Only consciou sness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious.”

 And yet, it is precisely the limitation or imperm anent nature of the transforma tional self as it is experienced in the groundless flow of events, that opens a life to e ndless permutations of loving and working and engaging the world. If I am able to feel t he finitude of desire for the subject of my delight and for that matter, what also repels me, as they empty into their ending; then perhaps I may be present to this very moment in a display of infinite possibility.

The empty self contrasts radically with the Freudian Id that is o ften conceived as a warehouse of frozen imagery from the personal past. The power of our belief in the fiction that I am locked into an image from a slice of history may be greater and more restricting to my individuation than the actual event, and may still the dynamic of an empty self t hat would restore our life to the current of the impersonal and groundless flow. According to Buddhist p sychology, If I am insecure it is not because of faulty up bringing; rather, insecurity is the ground of my being because I belong to a contingent world that by its very nature is unstable.

 But Jung offers a different story that is more in t andem with the empty self. Fo r does he not insist that “the psyche creates imaginal reality every day?”

If psyche is creating reality everyday, then the image itself is an empty phenome non and is dependent upon the way I perceive the influence of the unconscious on the daily events of my life. True imagination would be a constant releasing, letting go, shedding and refining of one image as it turns into another. Therefore, the images through which psychological life are structured and empowered are de-litera lized. What this mean s is that the empty self finally offers freedom from t he host of memory that previously haunted us. Personal history is no longer isolated but is part of a continuum—a flow betw een past, present and future that is all mixed, all the time. The relativity of time is one of Jung’s unique contributions to penetrating into the mystery of psychological life. This perspective belongs to hi s understanding of the transper sonal transference, his synthetic method of psychotherap y rooted in the healing power of the symbol, and perhaps most powerfully, in his idea of synchronicity which conf irms that events may be tr ansformed when meaning breaks into history from a timeless world.

When Jung declares in his visit to India, that he grasped the life of the Buddha as the reality of the Self perhaps he had an experiential knowing into the emptiness of the phenomenal world. It is what we in these post-modern times mi ght recognize as an experience of the sublime —a mixture of terror and fascination which stills the rational mind. However, the origin of the Buddhi st sense of sublime is not in nature but in the impermanenc e or emptiness of human life that led Buddha to see anguish and its origins, cessation and its path.

When the rational mind fails to penetrate into the mystery of the ground less flow, which I am suggesting may be compared to the psychoid unconscious , it may respond either with despair or relax into a state of quietude. The plenum of conceptual prolifer ation and the linguistic gods into which we have encapsulated the empty self may dissolve, as the constant change of all physical and mental phenomenon is felt and experienced. Then, perhaps all we are left with to hold on to is what Joseph Campbell poignantly calls the “sym bol without meaning” – a fitting metaphor for Jung’s empty self. The anesthetic comfort of metaphysics and the protecti on of a supreme being l oose their allure and we know the sublime wordless depth, antecedent to symbol, to which Jung’s Empty Self points the way. I sense this is what Jung is referring to when he writes, “ for Buddha self stands above all gods.”

So what remains to orient our life with value after the empty self take s away the traditional protection of the symbol? I suggest there may arise a sense of concern for a world fr om which one is not

separate, and care for humans who would replace the impersonal rea lity of the empty self with the personal illusion of the essentialist self

The notion of care and concern ar e central to Buddhist psychology. Buddha himself chose the Pali word ‘metta’ to describe cultivating an intent ion of kindness, protection and well-being for all creatures.


CW 9.1 para


for a discussion of the phenomenal and noum inal archetype see Walter Shelburne, Mythos and Logos in the Thought of Carl Jung p.55


see “On the Nature of the Psyche” CW 8 for Jung’s explanation of the psychoid


Another important reference to th e influence of Eastern thought on the self comes just a year before Jung’s visit to India. In 1937, at the Yale Terry Lec tures he declares, “ I have c hosen the term self in accordance with Eastern Philosophy.”


This remark refers, in part, to the important influence Richard Wilhem had on Jung as they collaborated on the Chinese alchemical text, The Secret of the Golden Flower. For Jung himself exclaims: “It was only after I had collaborated with Wilhelm and reached the central point in my researches, nam ely the concept of self, that I onc e more found my way back to the world.”


Here, Jung is alluding to the confusio n he experienced after his break with Freud. The Secret of the Golden Flower unfolds around the princi ple of Tao or movement along the line of least resistance, and profoundly influenced his evolving understanding of self as “the goal of psychic


Memories Dreams Reflections p.278f



development….” and paradoxica lly, as a “circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.”


The phenomenal world of emptiness is also a contingent world, which means that events are devoid of any intrinsic separate being or of existing in their own right. Whatever is contingent depends on


Memories p.208


Jung CW 9.ii para 411


Mu Soeng, Trust in Mind


Stephen Batchelor, Verses from the Center , quoting Chuang Tzu p.12


Mu Soeng, The Heart Sutra p. 34


Roger Brooke, Jung and Phenomenology p. and Jung CW 9.1 para.291


Buddhist psychology postulates that ex perience is characterized by stress, inconstancy and selflessness. For a complete discussion of the three characteristics see What the Buddha Taught


Memories p.325



Jung CW 6 p.


The Heart Sutra fosters the ideal of the Bodhisattva, one who is reborn into this fragile world out of compassion for all sentient being. T he eighth-century Indian monk Shantiveda, author of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life , describes an explosion of feel ing as the heart abruptly opens to the anguish of others. Shantiveda makes clear, emptiness does not eliminate this ‘me,’ but transforms it. Contrary to ex pectation, an empty self turns out to be a relational self.



In our time the philosopher Emanuel Levinas speaks of the radical call from the ‘other’ expressing the imperative not to hurt. Heidegge r insists that care is the only re sponse we can have towards the inevitable limitations that beset dasein or existence in the world. Here , Heidegger is not referring to the care of a sympathetic nurse but to care as presence. “It is the call of the self as care which awakens one to the manifold and pregnant presence of beings.”


And finally, Jung echoes the theme in his statement that “Individuati on [which is the goal of the empty se lf], does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to itself.”




Samyutta Nikaya, 22


Bachelor p.33


Brooke p.106


CW 8 para. 432

The empty self may turn out to be a self infused with love. But not love as desire, or hunger or lack; rather love as kindness, care and presence. This may offer a novel meaning to Jung’s familiar injunction that an “experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.”