Anthony Molino ed., The Couch and the Tree: Dialogues in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism Edited by Anthony Molino

Anthony Molino’s book is a collection of articles and representative works on the relationship between psychoanalysis and Buddhism written throughout the 20th century. To set up the conditions for a possible dialogue between these two heterogeneous discourses, Molino includes papers on Buddhism and on Buddhist psychology proper, as well as on authors lying somewhat outside a broadly conceived psychoanalytic field. The book is divided into two parts: “Foundations” and “Contemporary Researches.” The first section contains both early and classical contributions, while the second is divided into themes such as biography, critical perspectives and practice. Some of these thematic sections actually include interviews with psychoanalysts and Buddhist leaders as well as conversations between psychoanalysts and Buddhist teachers. Finally, “The couch and the tree” features Jungian perspectives without attempting to address or redress the complex relations and contradictions between Jungian and Freudian theory and practice. In this, Molino’s work provides a contextual fertile ground in order to stimulate future research rather than to present a definite and/or closed framework.

Had Freud been familiar with Buddhism, he might have written something similar to Alexander’s “Buddhist Training as an Artificial Catatonia.” This title seems to suggest that the author thought Buddhist meditation was equivalent to one of the worst pathological states of mind. However, there is more in Alexander’s paper than a reader could be lead to believe by its title. Such disparity between appearance and content or reality is something that both parties to the dialogue need to keep firmly in mind. The prevailing contemporary view of those sympathetic and familiar with both psychoanalysis and Buddhism is that Alexander’s views, as reflected in the title, reveal the colonialist prejudice and/or ignorance with which Western psychiatry and psychoanalysis approached the wisdom of the East. Thus, the paper could be dismissed before it is even read. However, under more careful inspection the paper is not as narrow as the title would suggest. Alexander’s analysis of Buddhism is restricted to Hineyana, ascetic or small vehicle versions of Buddhism. Hineyana Buddhism emphasizes a withdrawal from the world of desire and a desire for the world conceived in a negative and dualistic way. Freudian psychoanalysis in general has tended either to mistake religion with theism or neglected to consider Mahayana forms of Buddhism or spirituality in general.

This secular form of prejudice is widely known as a rational or scientific form of fundamentalism found throughout modernity or the Western Enlightenment. In contrast, Jung was able to remain relatively free of this particular form of prejudice and therefore able to outlive Freud’s mistaken prediction that Jungian psychology and religion in general were bound to disappear in one, two or three generations. In his classical work on psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism included in this selection, Fromm argued that had Freud known about Zen Buddhism in more detail, he would not have been opposed to what Lacan later comes to call the religion of the subject. Thanks to its emphasis on understanding, nontheism, reality and independence of mind, Zen Buddhism can be quite compatible with secular mentality. Accordingly, Alexander correctly understands and recognizes the positive therapeutic function of regression or retrospective reflection as a vehicle for the production of knowledge and the recovery of forgotten memories. Both psychoanalysis and Buddhism facilitate a conscious kind of absorption in the larger mind for the purpose of tapping into unconscious forms of knowledge and memory.

A conscious absorption in the unconscious is needed to move the mind beyond fixed, defensive and pathological thought formations. In the Foundations section of the book, for the Zen scholar D. T. Zusuki the un-conscious is equivalent to the non-conscious and to what Zen calls no-mind. In this sense, mind refers to the conditioned mind as defined by the thinking function. The unconscious is the non-conceptual unknown mind beyond thought and emotion. Here the unconscious is the mind that lacks thought, conceptual or otherwise, and does not know. Such a definition of the unconscious is similar to the later Lacanian concept of a lack within thought and the Symbolic. Thought is never all and is not identical with the object or the subject. The lack of a concept and the concept of a lack sets the mind to search beyond established patterns of thought.

According to Zusuki, thought=mind=consciousness. However, the unconscious in both traditions covers not only the unknown mind beyond thinking but also the mind of unconscious thinking, knowledge and memory. Preconscious thought is something abiding, detained and retained in the form of representation and memory, which Freud called the secondary process. The search for a beyond thought within thought has been brought to rest in a stable aggregate of signifiers/representations. But the secondary process also gives pause for reflection in-between-thoughts. In contrast to consciousness, awareness, or what Buddhism calls “consciousness beyond consciousness”(1) pauses not only on thoughts and memories but also in the gaps between thoughts and memories. It is within the gap in preconscious thought, the no-mind within mind, that the nature of unconscious thinking is revealed.

In another Foundations section paper entitled “The Fertile Void in Psychotherapy,” Van Husen had an intuitive insight into the holes within experience that Lacan later will come to view as the holes and lack within the Symbolic order. When we lift and use the symbolic net, then all of its holes also become immediately apparent. Within the Symbolic we both know and do not know. The imaginary ego builds its bubbles of knowledge and self-reflection within the holes of the Symbolic. In “Zen, Lacan, and the Alien Ego,” Molino follows de Martino when he observes the ego’s tendency to reify its own processes of self-reflection. Self-reflection as a rational or analytical ego function is tainted with the imaginary project of being or becoming something. Here, in my opinion, the ego-ideal and the identifications with the imaginary father are interwoven with the structure of phantasy. In addition, phantasies have the dual function of sustaining desire but also of blocking access to symbolic understanding. Ego-ideals are still ways to attempt to suture rather than open up the emptiness at the core of being. By such ideas/ideals, the ego looses contact with the knowing contained within the symbolic net of the subject of the unconscious. As Lacan pointed out, following Lao tse, within the Symbolic the subject knows without knowing that it knows. Bobrow also makes a similar point in his paper on “The Fertile Mind:” “it is as if there was an actual web: touch here and the message gets across there, instantaneously. Though we often can’t decode it, we experience its effects” (p.311).

The unknown in Buddhism represents a realization of emptiness or the voidness of self-nature that cannot be known within language or the Symbolic. The unknown is a knowing or savoir beyond ego knowledge and ignorance, a knowing of the mind beyond self-consciousness. In this regard not-knowing as true knowing within Buddhism is closer to Lacan’s notion of unconscious savoir than to the unknowability of Jung’s Self concept. In the collection, Masao Abe uses “The Jung-Hisamatsu Conversation” to distinguish between knowing and not-knowing in Zen and analytical psychology.
However, specific differences between Lacan and Buddhism still remain, because savoir in Lacanian psychoanalysis refers to the Real of the sexual drive. For Freud religion was the illness contracted by the repression of sexuality, and the cure resided in a rational or romantic understanding and apprehension of sexuality. This was the reverse of the traditional view wherein desire was the illness and the repression of desire the cure. For psychoanalysis the way out-the other shore or nirvana-is found within desire or within what Buddhism calls Samsara. Precisely because religion represses desire and sexuality, Freud also finds concealed Samsara within Nirvana or wish fulfillment or wishful thinking within religion. But the reverse may also be true: because psychoanalysis represses Nirvana or Buddhism, Nirvana can be found implicit within psychoanalysis and the subjective position of the analyst.

Nirvana within desire is neither the deadly pursuit of an impossible sexual jouissance (as in perversion) nor a purely rational or romantic interest in sexuality. From both a Mahayana Buddhism and a Lacanian perspective, desire can be interpreted as the emptiness or lack-of-being. Such desire longs not only for objects of being, whether secular or religious, but also for desire itself as the core emptiness of being. Moreover, to address the impurity of the sacred and go beyond not only the wine of the object of desire but also the wine of religion (the attachment to purity and to detachment), Zen Buddhism emphasizes that desire and emptiness must be returned to the ordinariness of form and the esthetics of everyday life. The jouissance of being and of the body is both recovered and established on the basis of Nirvana as emptiness and the emptiness of Nirvana. When desire is returned to the void, out of the void or emptiness returns the esthetics of form and the laws of form.

Finally, Elder’s piece on the “Psychological Observations on the Life of Gautama Buddha” provides a Jungian interpretation on how Buddha’s family story and Oedipal structure may have provided a foundation for the discovery of Buddhism. The view of the family as an aspect of the mythical structure of the mind has been an important contribution of psychoanalysis not found within Buddhism. In this respect, in “The Emperor of Enlightenment May Have No Clothes,” Rubin notes the absence of a psycho-historical principle within Buddhism and an unnecessary rejection of psychoanalytic insights, which he calls Orientocentrism.
Elder interprets the death and loss (seven days after his birth) of the “outer personal mother” of his childhood as propelling Gautama to find the “mother within” as the spiritual principle beneath the tree of enlightenment. For all the merits that this perspective may have, it seems to reinforce Freud’s view of spirituality as striving to return to a primitive oceanic feeling of union with the mother whether personal or archetypal. This perspective seems to miss the perspective of the father and the paternal function. Lacan distinguished between the imaginary and symbolic in both mother and father. The absent mother points to the symbolic mother and to the father in their function of separating and severing the attachment to the mother as the root of desire and the first selfobject (ideal ego). Furthermore, Freud’s explanation of religion in terms of a desire for protection and longing for a father refers to what Lacan called the imaginary father. The imaginary father is the father that is both idealized and hated, constituting the ideal father without faults and lacks while at the same time hated for representing what the boy and girl do not have (imaginary castration). The idealized father is the all-good God of fundamentalism that requires its split-off opposite in the figure of the great Satan. But Gautama the Buddha moves beyond the imaginary father (represented by the figure of his father, the king) whom he renounces and abandons. Such renunciation yields a subjective destitution that led him to the discovery of the symbolic father and mother as a lack and emptiness undergirding the symbolic structure of reality.

Anyone interested in the growing relationship between psychoanalysis and Buddhism will find in this book an invaluable map. The “Couch and the Tree” is an important guide in the exploration of the contours as well as the key elements and configurations of elements within the field.


(1) Raul Moncayo, “True subject is no-subject: the real, imaginary, and symbolic in psychoanalysis and zen buddhism”, Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, Fall, 1998.

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis