Between Psychotherapy and Spirituality: Buddhist Interaction with Freudian Psychoanalysis

Written by Christopher Harding.

In the West, Sigmund Freud is thought of as one of the greatest critics of religion that has ever lived. In our own times, we are quite familiar with attempts to integrate psychoanalysis and psychotherapy more broadly with religious traditions including Christianity and Buddhism. The rise of a ‘mindfulness’ culture, which encompasses a publications boom, classes, retreats, and media usage of a mixed spiritual and psychological language, is a major example of such integration in the early 21st century.

But for Freud and his generation in Europe there wasn’t so much ‘integration’ of psychoanalysis and religion as reduction – of religious sensibilities, hopes, beliefs, and practices to various kinds of psychological functioning and malfunctioning and from there, ultimately, to our physiology. Religious worldviews, religious habits: these are things out of which the human race must gradually grow, claimed Freud, whose book The Future of an Illusion (1927) became a classic statement of this case.

My interest in the relationship of Buddhism with psychoanalysis came from a sense that there is interesting and important territory to be explored here on three levels. Firstly, there is our contemporary blending of religious and psychotherapeutic cultures, which feels too easy, too superficial, and not always very fulfilling. Secondly, there are the encounters of Freud’s era, where real difficulties were acknowledged in how psychoanalysis and religion might fit together. Finally, it is interesting to consider the divide between Europe and Asia in this argument – and in Japan and India in particular.

To give a flavour of this divide, here is a short exchange between Freud and an Indian academic from Calcutta University, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, who visited Freud in the 1930s and tackled him on his materialism. Chatterjee later recorded the encounter in his diary, as follows:

‘I said to Freud: One of the great doctrines of the philosophy you have built up is, as far as I understand, that libido or the sex impulse is intimately connected with all art and spiritual aspiration. The saints and sages of our country too, some of them, were conscious of this.

[He then read from a short piece of poetry by an Indian mystic]:

‘I adore that Supreme Being Govinda or Vishnu, who because he is the very soul of Bliss, of Knowledge, and of the Highest Joy, takes up the nature of Smara – the sex urge – and in this way manifests himself in the minds of all creatures. And through this sport of His, is forever triumphing in all these worlds.

‘I then asked Freud: What do you say to that? I would like to put a straight question to you. What is the real thing, the permanent or abiding thing in existence? What relationship has man’s life with that reality? What is the final conclusion you have arrived at?

‘Freud laughed at me. He said: You see, from all that I have thought over this matter I have found no connection between man’s life and some permanent or abiding thing about which you speak. Here on this earth, with death, everything pertaining to man has an end. My powers are gradually coming to an end, and finally everything will be finished.

‘This despite being an appreciator of art? I asked.

‘Art, beauty, joy – all these centre round the body. And this is my considered conclusion: nothing exists after death.

‘What of those who say “I have seen, I have known?”

‘All that is self-deception of persons who are emotional, and who have only imagination and nothing else.

‘What I feel is that unless one has some touch of mysticism in life, some sort of feel or glimpse of a realization of this Unseen Reality, he cannot properly live. The fine arts, music, these bring into our minds this glimpse of the mystic being that is behind life.

‘Possibly you are accustomed to think like men of your own people, Freud replied. You are talking just like one of them. All this is [but] the transformation of our emotions.

Here was a radical materialism, combined with an apparent refusal of the kind of cultural relativism that allows people today to accept differing religious and psychotherapeutic cultures as equally valid, even while they may not be clearly compatible. Given Freud’s hard-line position, how could a pioneering psychoanalyst and loyal Freudian like Kosawa Heisaku in Japan, working in the 1930s-1950s, truly be both a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist and a follower of Freud? What did he believe about his own fundamental being, and about the world around him – about where these things come from, where they are going, and what meaning they have? Is Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism a collection of metaphors that reduces, ultimately, to the kind of human psychology Freud described? Or might it be vice versa: Freudian psychology gives us practical, scientific, manageable ways of understanding and coping with the human imperfections that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism describes?

I put this question to a former analysand of Kosawa from back in the 1940s, Dr Nagao, who is celebrating his 90th birthday this year. He taught me two crucially important things – both of them about language.

Dr Nagao suggested that language and logic be regarded as human tools: useful in making sense of things around us as long as we don’t confuse their parameters with actual limitations out there in the world. For Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists, to believe that language and logic can do any more than this is to succumb to jiriki: the deluded belief that as humans we possess an advanced ability to know the world, to work out our salvation within it, and shape ourselves to it.

The second thing that I learned from Dr Nagao was how, for Kosawa Heisaku, Buddhism and psychoanalysis were first and foremost ways of living as opposed to grand theories about how the world is. Their shared aim, for Kosawa, was helping people to see: to see as clearly as possible the flaws and deceptions that cloud and mar their lives. One of the biggest of these is the deception that we are truly independent agents. Kosawa thought that we are not, and that what psychoanalysis may achieve for us is a harrowing, embarrassing but inescapable realization that we are very deeply the creation of others. First we are creations of our family, especially in those early life interactions with mothers and fathers about which Freud had so much to say; of friends and society at large; and finally, ultimately, of the workings of ‘Other-power’ (tariki). This is the ‘infinite light of compassion’ that some Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists talk about as a celestial Buddha, Amida (the most famous representation of which is the giant statue located in Kamakura, Japan). The more we know ourselves through psychoanalysis, or indeed through other sorts of therapy, the more that we will come to see Other-power at the very root of our being. Kosawa believed that Shinran, Jōdo Shinshū’s founder, had had this insight many centuries ago, and that in his own time Sigmund Freud was pursuing the very same path – despite his antipathy towards the religious systems of his day.

Two lines from the poet Kai Wariko, a near contemporary of Kosawa Heisaku, express this well:

‘The voice with which I call Amida Buddha
Is the voice with which Amida Buddha calls to me’

In other words, even at the moment ‘I’ call out to Amida for help – a prayer known in Japanese as the nembutsu – I realize that at the deepest root of myself, my subjectivity, there is nothing other than Amida.

It was perhaps for this reason that Kosawa talked as much about ‘living’ psychoanalysis as he did ‘doing’ it: not just practicing a technique as a professional, but living in the light that psychoanalysis was shedding on his experience. For Kosawa, this way of living included engaging in a solo form of ‘free association’. This is the psychoanalytic technique whereby a client allows thoughts to come and go as they please, speaking them out loud, which the therapist then uses as a source of information about his or her client. As a solo undertaking, in Kosawa’s hands, this became almost a kind of mindfulness practice.

As such, it was ahead of its times. Kosawa’s young students, in the 1950s, disliked much about his technique and his worldview. They worried – and perhaps they were right to do so – that what Kosawa insisted was a philosophical insight about our false sense of selfhood (jiriki) might really be more about a very conservative form of cultural politics, in which individualism was regarded as pathological. Having just come out of fifteen years of war (1931 – 1945) for which an ultra-conservative military elite bore much of the responsibility, and during which Japanese people had explicitly been encouraged to set their own desires and interests aside for the sake of something greater, Kosawa’s view of the world looked distinctly suspect.

This is a problem with which contemporary spiritualities, not least mindfulness and the engaged Buddhism movement, must continue to wrestle. We might worry that forms of mindfulness that seem to do no more than contribute to one’s work efficiency, emotional stability, or general attractiveness as a person are superficial, missing something fundamental. But equally, ideas such as ‘going beyond ego’ or rejecting a ‘false self’ are open to abuse as rationalizations for subtle forms of personal or political complacency – a withdrawal from crises around the world, or at least a failure to meet them with a measure of those very things that many forms of spirituality tend to underrate: assertion, passion, anger, and a refusal to delegate to some ‘Other power’ work that can and should be done by ordinary puny old human beings.

Image: John Lodder


Dale, Peter N., The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness (London, 1986).

Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, (London, 1928).

Harding, Christopher, ‘Japanese Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: the Making of a Relationship’, History of Psychiatry 25.2 (2014).

Safran, Jeremy, ed., Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an Unfolding Dialogue (Boston, 2003).

Young-Eisendrath, Polly and Muramoto, Shoji, eds., Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Hove, 2002).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: