What Makes a Person?

What Makes a Person?


The Buddha’s, Sigmund Freud’s, and Carl Jung’s Understanding of the Person

The Buddha lived during a period of time when mercantilism, much like today, was ruling the economy and he aspired to break away from it. Specifically, in the sixth century B.C., Prince Siddhattha lived in an aristocratic republic in Northern India.1 During his time of social upheaval, individuals were questioning the beliefs that supported the older order and thus searching for alternative forms of knowledge. Within this context, Prince Siddhattha decided to abandon his privileged home life in order to examine uncertainty and to see if there is true happiness beyond the inescapable conditions of aging, illness and death.2 

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, has also explored suffering and the degree of control that individuals have over their mind, relating to the Buddhist practice of meditation. Additionally, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, offers his own interpretation of the mind, proposing a rich inner life and creative expression as enriching ways to engage with life. Throughout the sections of this paper, Freud’s, Jung’s and the Buddha’s understanding of the person and mental suffering will be explored, offering similarities as well as contrasts in their ways of approaching the mind. The Buddha’s identification of suffering and its various forms combined with his search for the end of suffering can be appealing or repulsive to individuals living in today’s materialistic society, because the Buddha’s teaching questions the basis of consumerism and instant gratification while underlining a lack of self-awareness that has been heavily ingrained in culture.

Buddhist Psychology

The Buddha discovered that the most skillful form of attention is to view all experience in terms of the four noble truths: viewing stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path of practice for its cessation.3 But what exactly is stress? In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, the Buddha identified the five clinging-aggregates as stressful.4 In Sutta 111, the Buddha defines these clinging-aggregates as form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness.5 In order to end and calm these stressors, the Buddha advises to let go of these cravings.6. The five clinging aggregates are essentially the five material and mental factors that take part in the rise of craving and clinging. They embody the forces of attachment since we attach ourselves to the form of things, our feelings, the myths we tell ourselves, our creations and more. In Sutta thirty, the Buddha explains in depth that the four frames of reference are the direct path for the ending of stress, the purification of beings and the realization of unbinding.7 Suffering and its various forms can be visualized in the Wheel of Life (or Wheel of Samsara) which depicts the six realms of existence in which individuals cycle endlessly in their round of rebirths.8 These realms include, the Human Realm, the Animal Realm, the Hell Realm, the Realm of the Pretas (Hungry Ghosts), the Realm of the Asuras (Jealous Gods or Titans) and the God Realm.9 As long as individuals continue to suffer—being driven by greed, hate and delusion, and therefore remaining ignorant of the unsatisfactory nature of the world—they will be bound to the wheel.10. Interestingly, it is one’s faulty perception of the realms, not the realm itself, that causes suffering, since one is operating under the forces of attachment, delusion and desire.11 

Taking a psychological view of the Buddha’s teachings, psychiatrist Mark Epstein asserts that each realm can be regarded as a metaphor for a different psychological state, meaning that the entire Wheel of Life represents neurotic suffering.12 Mark Epstein’s approach to psychotherapy is an example of the application of Buddhist ideas across eras, disciplines and cultures since he fuses the teachings in his practice with Sigmund Freud’s approaches to trauma. The Buddhist notion of the six realms is related to the repossession and reclamation of all aspects of the self, since the realms represent the primitive desires and urges that all humans experience.13 One may wonder, How can an individual be released from the Wheel of Life? Epstein explains that, in Buddhism, release from the Wheel of Life is nirvana, which is symbolized by a path leading off of the Human Realm.14 Considered from a psychological standpoint, our primitive desires and urges are destructive emotions, and the Buddha recognizes the need to be free of them, offering the key to such freedom in the form of non-judgmental awareness. It can be intimidating to face one’s emotions, and it can often feel easier to avoid fully experiencing oneself; however, doing so further perpetuates suffering. Sigmund Freud and the Buddha agree that it is our fear of experiencing ourselves directly that creates suffering and thus sustains it.15 One can cling to pleasure because of the temporary comfort it provides, but Epstein emphasizes that pleasure is inherently fleeting; once attained, one returns to where they were before: in a state of unrest, impoverishment, and desire.16 This challenges our society which circulates around desire and material goods, making individuals circle and cycle in efforts to fill a growing void within themselves. Epstein relates how Freud recognized narcissism as the inability to tolerate unpleasant truths about oneself, which the Buddha believes all individuals are subject to.17 Suffering is sustained when one does not want to admit to their lack of substance and instead compensate by projecting an image of completeness, offering no solution to one’s inner emptiness.18

Freudian Psychology

Freud and the Buddha agree that it is an individual’s fear of fully embracing the many parts that make up a person that creates suffering and that ultimate happiness cannot be derived from the temporary solutions of sensual pleasures.19 Epstein connects psychoanalysis to Buddhism by explaining that Freud and his followers focused on exposing the animalistic nature of passions, the hell-like nature of paranoia aggressive and anxious states, and the hungry-ghost longing of oral craving associated with feelings of emptiness and a compulsion to consume while digesting little.20 Much like the non-judgmental approach to desires and primitive urges within Buddhism, psychoanalysis encourages individuals to be less fearful of egotistical states of mind and to gain control through understanding their roots and recovering what has been lost due to the rejection of such desires.21 Similar to Buddhism, psychoanalysis follows a path of reclaiming and recollecting parts of oneself rather than engaging in repression. Freud explains in “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through” that psychoanalysis, descriptively speaking, involves filling gaps of memory while, dynamically speaking, it involves overcoming resistances due to repression.22 

To understand the context of Freud’s ideas, The Freud Reader provides a good background. Freud was an outsider in Austrian life due to antisemitism, an outsider in his Jewish faith and also an outsider for his medical ideas.23 Later in his career, from 1906 to 1913, Freud and Carl Jung worked together, but Jung was dismissed from the atheist Freudian psychoanalytic movement mainly due to conflicting psychological ideas.24 Specifically, as discussed in The Jung Reader, Freud viewed Jung’s interest in spirituality as “mysticism” or “occultism.”25 Jung explains that, interestingly, Freud demonstrated his own occult beliefs in his papers “Psychoanalysis and Telepathy” and “The Uncanny.”26 Freud also examined dreams and specifically believed that a dream is a continuation of preconscious activity of the day or an intention, warning, reflection or fulfillment of a wish.27 Jung pointed out in “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” that Freud, unlike Jung and the Buddha, suggested that a dogma be made about his sexual theory, and Jung criticized this as connected to a personal power drive.28 

In “Dissection of the Physical Personality,” Freud explains that there are three realms or regions dividing an individual’s mental apparatus: the super-ego, the ego, and the id.29 Freud defines the ego as having the ability to take itself as an object, treat itself like other objects, and observe and criticize itself.30 In contrast, Freud defines the super-ego as enjoying a certain degree of autonomy, following its intentions, being independent of the ego for its supply of energy, and having cruel and changing relations with the ego.31 Freud unpacks the development of the super-ego as beginning with an external power, such as parental authority, which creates realistic anxiety that turns into moral anxiety and is later taken on by the super-ego.32 Freud continues with the child internalizing the  realistic anxiety that the parent created and the super-ego replacing parental authority by observing, directing, and threatening the ego in the same manner that the parents had with the child.33 Freud asserts that the super-ego is a result of the Oedipus complex emotional attachment, which he identifies as of great importance for childhood.34 The child’s super-ego is influenced by the super-ego of their parents, causing past lives and a collective history to be passed on.35 Freud’s notion of collective history resembles Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Since the super-ego echoes the voices of parental authority and related anxieties, it can be representative of every moral restriction and the strive towards perfection, or parental approval and acceptance.36 In contrast to the ego, Freud viewed the id as a dark, inaccessible part of the personality which contains instincts, has no organization or collective will, with a drive to bring about the satisfaction of primitive needs and desires.37 In comparison, the ego can be seen as containing reason and good sense, while the id represents untamed passions.38 Freud explains their functions in relation to one another as the ego being driven by the id, which is confined by the super-ego.39 According to Freud, a person is shaped by the ego’s attempts to bring harmony to the forces of the super-ego and the id.40 The resulting anxiety of the imbalance causes the ego to break out in anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety in relation to the super-ego and neurotic anxiety concerning the strength of the untamed passions of the id.41 

Jungian Psychology

As included in The Jung Reader, Freud and his followers view the psyche as “inside us,” while Jung contrastingly argued that we are inside the psyche.42 Jung was interested in symbolic content, such as the dreams and fantasies of patients and the rituals and myths of religion.43 In “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” Jung explores his earliest childhood dream which he regards as his initiation into his intellectual life, or his unconscious beginning. This early dream was from when he was either three or four years old and included a ritual phallus which haunted him for years.44 In his youth, Jung experienced intense sensitivity, vulnerability and loneliness, similar to the isolation of the Buddha and Freud.45 In his career, Jung had a unique dual role as a psychologist of neurosis and a philosopher of religion.46 Jung argues through the fusion of spirituality and emotion in his practice, that the treatment of neuroses is incomplete if the values and directions of the collective unconscious are not taken into account.47 Jung also argues that a lack of symbolic or spiritual life can make an individual mentally and physically ill.48 The Jung Reader specifies that in Jung’s psychology, the spirit and sex are complementary, and one must attempt to integrate the contents of the unconscious to achieve a proper assimilation of the personality.49 

To Jung, coming to selfhood and self-realization is defined as the point to individuation, which involves the development and maintenance of a dialogue between the ego and the unconscious, leading to an understanding of the contents in the psyche.50 The opposite of individuation can be the persona, which Jung defines as a mask worn to be accepted into the collective, a compromise between oneself and society.51 As included in the essay, “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious,” individuation is a fulfilment of the collective qualities of a person, taking into consideration the peculiarity of an individual.52 Jung views the acknowledgement of the peculiarity of an individual as contributing to a better social performance since one is not neglecting or suppressing a part of oneself to fit in.53 Jung clarifies that the individuated person is not selfish and is completely different from egotism or individualism.54 He views the self as an archetype of wholeness, with the self-realization of individuation being the acceptance of oneself. As the Buddha and Freud would agree, individuation is overcoming an individual’s fear of fully experiencing oneself and the suffering that results from such fear. Jung explains that from this self-realization arises a consciousness that is no longer “imprisoned in the overly petty, oversensitive personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests,” which can be interpreted as one being free from suffering and being no longer bound to the Wheel of Life.55 

In the essay “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious,” Jung states that he views the dream as a self-representation of the psychic life processes.56 To Jung, the personal unconscious is an integral part of the personality, which is an accumulation of experiences from an individual’s life and psychological factors.57 On the other hand, the unconscious contains personal and impersonal collective components that Jung separates into inherited categories or archetypes.58 In its deeper levels, Jung views the unconscious as possessing collective contents in an active state.59 To put it simply, in Jung’s psychology, one’s personal psyche has the same relation to the collective psyche as an individual does to society.60 The collective unconscious processes are concerned with the individual’s relation to society and the human community, which is much like the Buddha’s concern for an individual’s contributions to the collective and kamma (or “karma”).61 Jung expands in “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious,” stating that “every man in a certain sense is unconsciously a worse man when he is in society than when acting alone; he is carried by society and to that extent, relieved of his individual responsibility.”62 Similar to the importance of skillfulness in Buddhism and the necessary awareness of one’s actions and reactions personally and collectively, Jung emphasizes that consciousness of one’s individual responsibility can be cultivated through self-knowledge.63 Specifically, the more that one becomes conscious through self-knowledge by acting accordingly, “the more the layer of the personal unconscious that is superimposed on the collective unconscious will be diminished,” serving as a parallel to the ending of suffering and the liberation from kamma in Buddhism.64 As a result, one experiences widened consciousness, which brings an individual into “absolute binding and indissoluble communion with the world at large,” which can be seen as unbinding in Buddhist terms, as Jungian archetypal wholeness and as a Freudian overcoming of resistances due to repression.65  


In this time of social change and destruction, I have been working to overcome desire and suffering within myself, with the spiritual aid of the Buddha and Jung’s approach, and with the psychological aid of Freud. It deeply resonated with me when Jung writes in “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” about how he felt a sense of clarity when he connected with his inner child through the stone building game and how it released a stream of fantasies.66 Jung reflected on this experience and stated that he felt calm and reassured when he translated his emotions into images and when he found concealed images.67 I notice that I feel a similar way when I connect with my inner child through writing about my childhood, examining drawings from my youth, and coming into contact with transitional objects. Transitional objects, as coined by D.W. Winnicott, are, in simple terms, self-chosen by a child and provide comfort and a stable and predictable world. These objects have had a strong impact in my healing from codependent tendencies and childhood trauma since they are grounding while evoking powerful memories. The stuffed animals and characters that I adored in my youth deeply shaped how I was able to cope with difficulties as a child, and within these objects are buried memories that I have repressed, and which slowly come to my consciousness upon interacting with my inner child. I see transitional objects as a way to heal from trauma, since they are crucial in the development of the self and represent the authentic and spontaneous spirit of an individual, which can at times be lost through the process of becoming an adult in a less normative childhood experience. 

Exploring the Freudian concept of repression both academically and in therapy has been very insightful into my own experience and in my dreams. I have a recurring dream of myself floating as a ghost through the hallways and classrooms of my empty elementary school, P.S.3, which I attended during the most difficult moments of my childhood. Each time I have this dream, I relive the memories associated with certain areas in the school and particular moments of my life. It seems that I am no longer haunting the school but that my memories associated with my experience there are haunting me. The Realm of the Pretas (Hungry Ghosts) resonated with me and my own suffering. Epstein describes these hungry ghosts as representing a fusion of rage and desire, searching for gratification for unfulfilled needs whose time has passed and are beings who have uncovered a terrible emptiness within themselves.68 He continues by stating that their ghostlike state is representative of their attachment to the past.69 In my dream and in my life, I feel like a hungry ghost since I feel attached to the past of my childhood and for a long time, I was unaware of my own destructive search for gratification for unfulfilled needs and an escape from pain. Quarantine has brought to my attention my emptiness and the fear of fully experiencing myself, which has been a difficult but very rewarding reality for me to face so that I can cultivate my anxieties and uncertainties into strengths to combat suffering with the aid of the Buddha. 

  1. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology from the Pali Canon. 4th ed., Dhamma Dana Publications, 2004), 3.
  2. Bhikkhu, The Wings to Awakening, 3.
  3. Bhikkhu, The Wings to Awakening, 24.
  4. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11),Dhammatalks..
  5. Bhikkhu, The Wings to Awakening, 185.
  6. Bhikkhu, “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11).
  7. Bhikkhu, The Wings to Awakening, 90.
  8. Mark Epstein, Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, second edition (Basic Books, 2013,) 15.
  9. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 15.
  10. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker,  16
  11. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 16.
  12. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 17.
  13. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 18.
  14. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 18.
  15. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 24.
  16. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 26.
  17. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 48.
  18. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 48.
  19. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 17-25.
  20. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 18.
  21. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 24.
  22. Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” translated by Joan Riviere, Collected Papers, vol. II, standard edition (1950), 148.
  23. Peter Gay, Introdution to The Freud Reader, 2nd edition (W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), .xv-xvi.
  24. David Tacey,  General Introduction to The Jung Reader (Routledge, 2012),  6.
  25. Tacey, General Introduction to The Jung Reader, 5.
  26. Tacey, General Introduction to The Jung Reader, 13.
  27. Freud, The Freud Reader, 29.
  28. Carl Jung, Introduction to Part II, The Jung Reader, 150.
  29. Freud, The Freud Reader, 71.
  30. Freud, The Freud Reader, 57.
  31. Freud, The Freud Reader, 59.
  32. Freud, The Freud Reader, 61.
  33. Freud, The Freud Reader, 61.
  34. Freud, The Freud Reader, 63.
  35. Freud, The Freud Reader, 61.
  36. Freud, The Freud Reader, 65-66.
  37. Freud, The Freud Reader, 72.
  38. Freud, The Freud Reader, 75.
  39. Freud, The Freud Reader, 77.
  40. Freud, The Freud Reader, 77.
  41. Freud, The Freud Reader, 77.
  42. Tacey, General Introduction to The Jung Reader, 3.
  43. Tacey, General Introduction to The Jung Reader, 1.
  44. Tacey, General Introduction to The Jung Reader, 13-15.
  45. Tacey, General Introduction to The Jung Reader, 17.
  46. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 41.
  47. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 40.
  48. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 40.
  49. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 43.
  50. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 45.
  51. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 113.
  52. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 123.
  53. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 123.
  54. Tacey, Introduction to Part I, The Jung Reader, 45.
  55. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 126.
  56. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 96.
  57. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 99.
  58. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 100-101.
  59. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 100-101.
  60. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 106.
  61. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 127.
  62. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 110.
  63. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 126.
  64. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 126.
  65. Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, The Jung Reader, 126.
  66. Jung, The Jung Reader, 175.
  67. Jung, The Jung Reader, 177.
  68. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 28.
  69. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker, 29-30.
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