Jungian Archetypes and Tantric Deities:
A Comparative Expose

Linda Reid
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

The object of this essay will be to compare certain aspects of Jung's theory of personality with the psychological model of mind found in the Vajrayana system of Tibetan Buddhism. Since each system is vast and multifaceted, I would not presume to offer anything more than a broad-based comparison of certain elements that are present in both models. Specifically, what I hope to illustrate is the similarity between the archetypal images of the "self", and the oppositional forces within the psyche that strive for balance and unity that are central to both models of personality.

In his PSYCHOLOGICAL COMMENTARY TO THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, Jung compares the progression of the soul through the Bardo state between death and rebirth to an initiation into consciousness not unlike that experienced by the individual undergoing psychoanalysis. "The transformation of the unconscious that occurs under analysis makes it the natural analogue of the religious initiation ceremonies" (Jung, in Evans-Wentz, 1960, p. xlix). The visualization of, and identification with archetypal imagery is used in both forms of initiation to facilitate greater consciousness, although the process whereby symbols or archetypal images are produced differs in each system. Central to any understanding of archetypal symbols and their role in the attainment of greater self-realization is a basic outline of how the psyche is structured according to Jungian personality theory, and according to Buddhist psychology. In the broadest sense of what is meant by "personality" both systems offer models of what human existence entails, and both delineate a practical process whereby individuals may progress toward greater psychic wholeness and the alleviation of suffering.

Jungian Structures of Personality

Jung used the term psyche to delineate the whole personality. In modern usage, the term has come to represent mind, although its original Latin meaning was "soul" or "spirit". The psyche embraces all thought, feeling, and behavior, both conscious and unconscious, and functions as a guide which regulates the individual's adaptation to the environment. "Psychology is neither biology nor physiology nor any other science than just this knowledge of the psyche" (Jung, 1959, Vol. 9i, p. 30). Of particular importance for a comparison with Buddhist Psychology is Jung's use of the term psyche to define what he believed to be the original wholeness of the personality. According to Jung, the psyche functions teleologically (i.e. human beings behave intentionally and they create meaning in all that they experience).

Within the psyche there are two major interacting systems, one conscious, the other unconscious, and each of these divisions of mind has both a personal and a collective aspect. The dynamic principle which governs the dialectic communication within and between these structures is that of opposites. This notion of binary opposites and the balancing of energy between them was central to Jung's view of how the personality functions (Jung, 1959 Vol. 16). For example, conscious inflation or one-sidedness sets up an oppositional force in the unconscious thus, if we really love something or someone on a conscious level, a propensity to hate that same something or someone exists in equal proportion in our unconscious.

The personal and collective aspects of consciousness were most often represented in Jung's model by the constructs of the ego and the persona. The ego forms the "center of the field of consciousness; and, in so far as this comprises the empirical personality, the ego is the subject of all personal acts of consciousness" (Jung, 1971, p. 139). Thus, the ego operates primarily at the conscious level and serves an executive function in that it selects from the infinite array of internal and external stimuli (somatic and psychic), that which will be brought to conscious awareness. The ego is formed from our personal experiences of our physical and psychic worlds, both conscious and unconscious contents are included as well as representations of our interpersonal relationships. The ego provides a sense of identity and temporal continuity for the psyche, and is the part of us that feels good when we win, or accomplish a difficult task. According to Jung's principle of oppositional energy which instinctively strives for balance, if the ego starts to feel too good about itself (inflation), the unconscious may feel the need to project some negative behavior onto the ego in order to maintain a balance of opposing tendencies (Jung in Rychlak, 1981). Ideally, through the process of individuation, the ego, along with other psychic structures, becomes increasingly more differentiated and complex as the life of an individual unfolds. It must be noted, however, that in Jung's system the ego is more in the service of the unconscious, than the other way around (Jung, 1959 Vol. 11).

If the ego is representative of our personal conscious selves, the persona may be said to be representative of our collective consciousness. It is composed of the socially, or culturally determined masks that we wear in given situations. These situation- appropriate faces and behaviors are collective in that they apply across the board to all members of the group, and are governed by culturally determined group norms ( Jung, 1959, Vol. 7). The persona is also prone to inflation and compensatory projections from the unconscious, and the ego itself may become over identified with the public persona, and group norms or fads (Rychlak, 1981).

Archetypes of the Unconscious

According to Jung, archetypes - the contents of the collective unconscious - are analogous to instincts. Both are fundamental dynamic forces in the human personality which pursue their inherent goals, in the psychic or physiological organisms respectively. Jung also refers to archetypes as primordial images, "the most ancient and the most universal thought-form of humanity. They are as much feelings as thoughts" ( Jung, 1969, p. 64). Archetypes are not inherited ideas, but the propensity in the human psyche to express itself in specific forms and meaning when activated, or what Jung referred to as "potential forms" waiting to be animated and brought to consciousness.

Dwelling in the upper layers of the personal unconscious and often acting in opposition to the conscious ego, is what Jung referred to as the archetype of the shadow or alter-ego. Being the repository of all that is primitive and unacceptable to the individual ego such as evil thoughts, fears, or uncivilized desires and intentions, the shadow often has an obsessive or negative emotional tone which is frequently projected onto others. The disowned elements of oneself which have been rendered unconscious, or were never present in consciousness, become the projected illusions of one's external reality. There is an echo here of the Buddhist notion that external reality is primarily our own illusory creation. "The more projections are thrust in between the subject and the environment, the harder it is for the ego to see through its illusions" (Jung, 1971, p. 147). The shadow is always of the same gender as the subject.

The shadow archetype is more a manifestation of the personal unconscious whose elements are always projected onto individuals of the same sex, and may be more accessible to conscious awareness. The collective archetypes of the unconscious are the anima in males and the animus in females. The anima and animus are only ever projected onto members of the opposite sex. The anima archetype is the feminine side of the male psyche, the animus archetype is the masculine side of the female personality (Jung, 1959, Vol. 9i). This notion of the polarity within the personality between masculine and feminine energy, and their respective projection bears a striking resemblance to the Tantric yabyum figure so often depicted in the sacred art of India and Tibet. These figures usually depict a male and female deity in ecstatic embrace which is not merely an erotic representation, but acts as a metaphor for the most profound union of opposites and the attainment of wholeness or unitive awareness. The archetypes of anima and animus are primarily unconscious, inherited composites of a "masculine" or "feminine" image based on unconscious ancestral experiences. "Since this image is unconscious, it is always unconsciously projected upon the person of the beloved, and is one of the chief reasons for passionate attraction or aversion" (Jung, 1959, Vol. 17, p. 198). The masculine and feminine archetypes are prone to deflation within the psyche since society seems to prefer conformity to stereotypical notions of what it is to be a man or a woman and to disparage overly feminine elements in a man and vice versa. Consequently, the projections become more pronounced and the need to reintegrate our projections back into our own conscious awareness becomes ever more pressing in our quest for wholeness.

The quintessential archetype in Jung's pantheon is that of the self. As an archetype, the concept of the self represents the potential for unity. It resides in the collective unconscious of everyone's personality and may be an actual identity point in certain fully realized individuals such as Christ and the Buddha (Clarke, 1994). Not to be confused with the ego, the self, according to Jung, is "an unconscious prefiguration of the ego. It is not I who create myself, but rather I happen to myself. The ego stands to the self as the moved to the mover, or as object to subject, because the determining factors which radiate out from the self surround the ego on all sides and are therefore supraordinate to it" (Jung, 1959, Vol.11, p.391).

The self is also a dynamic process encompassing the totality of conscious and unconscious psychic function, all actual and potential forms (Jung, 1959, Vol. 11). The unity of the self archetype is the motivating force behind the quest for harmony and balance between opposing forces within the psyche (Clarke, 1994). Jung used the term individuation to describe the inborn desire to integrate oppositional dynamics within the personality, and this universal archetypal process is represented in various mythologies throughout the world e.g. "the hero's journey", "the alchemical wedding" etc.

The unconscious elements of the psyche embodied in the archetypes of the shadow, anima and animus figures are brought to consciousness through what Jung described as active imagination, and through the interpretation of dreams (Jung, 1959, Vol. 7). Jung likened the process of active imagination to an alchemical operation whereby the raw material of the unconscious is refined through a constant dialogue with conscious awareness into the greater realization of the Self archetype ( 1959, Vol. 12). First a meditative state of mind is induced in the client undergoing psychoanalysis, then the contents of the mind are neutrally observed. The unconscious contents and fantasy fragments which spontaneously emerge are recorded through some method of symbolic representation, e.g. writing, drawing, dance, which provides the basis for a dialogue to begin between the conscious mind and the archetypal images that arise from the unconscious. Jung describes psychotherapy as a process that "transcends its medical origins and ceases to be merely a method for treating the sick. It now treats the healthy or such as have a moral right to psychic health, whose sickness is at the most the suffering that torments us all" (Jung, 1966, p. 75). It is in this respect that he viewed his therapeutic work as the "cure of souls" (Jung, 1961)

Tantric Buddhism -Vajrayana

In Buddhist psychology or "Abhidhamma", the notion of personality is most closely related to the concept of self or atta. The concept of self in the Buddhist model is used in two quite distinct ways. In a conventional sense, and for the purpose of dealing with everyday reality, the self may be defined as a set of ideas and feelings that arise from our personal experience. It performs an organizing function that protects us and imposes order and meaning on the potential chaos of our lives (Fontana, 1994). "By fixing the limits between self and not-self, the individual defends himself against the world. If we wish to survive, then certainly, we must accord the self 'reality' status" (Govinda, 1969, p.44).

This conventional conception of self functions more like Jung's mental construct of the ego, than the unitive archetype of the self. A clearly defined sense of self is necessary for an individual to have an autonomous sense of identity and personal worth, and the self-management that go with self-assertion (Fontana, 1994). These qualities must be present if the individual wishes to attain a higher sense of Self (unitive awareness) or self-transcendence. Once a healthy sense of self-assertion is attained, there is a danger of inflation, that the individual becomes overidentified with the desires and plans of the asserted self and mistakes the ego's reality for ultimate reality. "Essential as self-assertion is, once it has become fully realized it can quickly develop into a threat, not only to the individual's relationship with others but to his own psychological and spiritual progress" (Fontana, 1994, p. 46)

At this point the concept of anatta or no-self enters into an understanding of Buddhist psychology. This idea is subject to great confusion and misunderstanding, therefore it is important to understand that the notion that this concept renders Buddhist personality theory nihilistic is mistaken. What is meant by anatta is one's true nature which is not conceivable by the human mind. The mind must have objects relative to its own subjectivity in order to comprehend or know reality. The conventional self consists of objects or what in Buddhism are referred to as the five 'tendencies', which are form, habit, emotions, perceptions and discriminations. This self then, cannot be one's true nature because "we cannot conceptualize the true nature in words, since words are objects. We can only experience it" (Fontana, 1994, p. 47). Anatta is best described as pure awareness, wherein there is no distinction between the subject who is aware and the object of awareness. The resultant experienced state is one of complete unity or bliss. Thus the Buddhist terms Anatta and Atta may be meaningfully compared to the Jungian concepts of the Self archetype and the ego.

An example from modern physics helps illuminate the distinction between the dual understanding or conceptions of self. A simple house brick may be viewed as a hard, solid object which, if thrown in our direction, is capable of causing quite "real" damage. To a physicist, however, the solidity of the brick is an illusion, the real nature of the brick is that it is composed of "empty space and violent subatomic motion" (Fontana, 1994, . 48). In the realm of subatomic articles there is no distinction made between bricks and other seemingly solid objects, since all are composed of the same energy merely vibrating at different frequencies. If the physicist wishes to progress in the practice of physics, a belief in the brick as solid entity will have to be temporarily suspended (Capra, 1975, 1982). Similarly, an attachment to the notion of self as a solid, separate entity is an obstacle to psychological and spiritual development. What is required in Buddhist practice is to transcend this exclusive identification with a limited concept. "The self is analogous to a concept rather than to a fact, and self-negation is simply the outgrowing of this concept" (Fontana, 1994, p.49)

"Tantra" is a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is thread or continuity (Yeshe, 1987). It relates to the concept of weaving and gives the sense of activity, interdependence and interrelatedness. Tantric Buddhism is based on the Madhyamika, meaning middle way, system of analysis founded by Nagarjuna. The Madhyamika path is based on the perfection of wisdom sutras of Shakyamuni Buddha, which are thought to be the supreme presentation of the wisdom of emptiness (Yeshe, 1987). What the middle way teaches is that "all phenomenon are dependent arisings, thereby avoiding the mistaken extremes of self-existence and non-existence, or eternalism and nihilism" (Yeshe, 1987, p. 164). Theoretical and metaphysical speculations are irrelevant to the ongoing practice of Tantric yoga, it is primarily concerned with the marriage of method and wisdom which is attained by direct experience through the use of meditation techniques. "Method is aspiration to highest enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, induced by love and compassion. Wisdom is the cognition of emptiness" (Hopkins, 1984, p.75). The ongoing purpose of meditation is the purification of the body- mind through the transformation of physiological and psychological processes. All obstacles, negativities and passions are harnessed and transmuted into vehicles on the path to enlightenment. The ultimate goal of undergoing this process of transformation is to alleviate the personal and collective suffering of all human beings (Yeshe, 1987). "It could be said that the aim of Buddhist Tantra is to penetrate into, harness, and transform the dynamic forces of the universe, which are no different from the psychological forces and archetypal constellations of our own psyche" (Moacanin, 1986, p.17)

A basic principle and goal of all Tantric practice is the union of opposites. This is most often represented through the union of male and female in ecstatic embrace, and experiencing great bliss. Through the union of opposites all duality is transcended and unitive awareness is attained. Bliss, nirvana, enlightenment become synonymous in Tantric Buddhism. "The total immersion of the ultimate nature of the self and the not-self in the oneness of the perfect bliss" (Govinda, 1959, p. 146)

Buddhist Tantra maintains that the human body is the microcosm that embodies the truth of the macrocosm. Absolute reality contains all dualities and polarities: noumenon and phenomenon, poteniality and manifestation, nirvana and samsara, prajna (wisdom - female principle) and upaya (method to attain wisdom - the male principle), sunya (void) and Karuna (Compassion) (Moacanin, 1986). Practitioners of Tantric yoga use visualization to achieve the union of polarities. Visualization is often centered on the archetypal image of the father-mother, the yabyum or ultimate unity, and the practitioner identifies with this archetypal image in meditation (Govinda, 1959).

Each deity corresponds to a vital force within the depth of the individual, and by uniting with various deities, the meditator makes contact with both positive and negative forces within them, and utilizes, or rather transmutes them, to achieve higher states of consciousness. Unlike the archetypes which spontaneously arise from the personal and collective unconscious of an individual undergoing a Jungian analysis, particular Tantric deities are given to the meditator by their teacher, and according to their specific needs and spiritual capacities (Moacanin, 1986). The entire pantheon of deities, however, evolved over centuries of meditative confrontations with the unconscious during the practice of yogic masters.

The Tantric symbol of the dakinis (female embodiment of knowledge) are viewed as spiritual helpers who are capable of awakening the dormant forces hidden in the unconscious mind of the practitioner. The dakini symbol has been compared to Jung's concept of the anima archetype and seems to function in a similar way. Moacanin (1986) explains that the anima does not apply exclusively to a man's psyche, but may be more broadly compared to the yin (feminine) principle found in Chinese culture. Anima can also be employed as a bridge to the Self. As such, she has definite correspondence to the dakini, the ethereal being who is both the essence and the carrier of wisdom. However, all Tantric deities act as catalysts in the process of integration. "They are numinous personalities, embodiments of archetypes expressing different attributes of the Self" (Moacanin, 1986, p. 63)

Similarly, Jung discovered in his therapeutic practice that the spontaneously produced archetypal images produced by his clients derived from mythologies of remote places and ancient times, and that these images had a profound and powerful effect. In the act of contact with these symbols, they could be renewed and their psychic energy transformed (Jung, 1959, Vol. 9i).

It seems fairly obvious that, at the very least, there was a natural affinity between Jung's concept of Self, and that of Tibetan Buddhism, what I have tried to illustrate are some direct parallels between the two. The emphasis in Jung's writing on the primacy of inner experience and the reality of the psychic world corresponds to the Buddhist provision that we can only ever come to know "reality" by direct experience. Jung's understanding of the innate quest for an amplified or unitive notion of selfhood which surpasses the narrow confines of the conscious ego mirrors the Buddhist striving to unite the concepts of atta (self) and anatta (not self) in a unitive understanding of "true reality". Both systems advocate the possibility of transformation of consciousness, and the attainment of wisdom through one's own efforts, rather than through received knowledge or imitative practice. Most importantly, both systems acknowledge the quest for wholeness based on the creative interaction of complementary opposites within the psyche.

About the Author

Linda Reid is about the graduate from SFU and will soon be enrolled in a leading art therapy program. After completing her Master's degree Linda plan on practicing art therapy on a full time basis.


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