Book Bits

Psychology and Satori – Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was a humanistic philosopher who was primarily interested in man’s relationship to culture and society. In his work he always stressed that understanding our basic needs as humans was paramount in this investigation and in moving towards a better state of collective sanity. From within this discussion, Fromm was interested in religion and published a series of lectures on Zen and psychoanalysis, from which the following excerpt is taken. In this passage he considers the subtleties of the experience of satori and what kinds of pitfalls looking at it through the lens of psychoanalysis might throw up.


The final aim of Zen is the experience of enlightenment, called satori. Dr. Suzuki has given, in these lectures, and in his other writings, as much of a description as can be given at all. In these remarks I would like to stress some aspects which are of special importance for the Western reader, and especially for the psychologist. Satori is not an abnormal state of mind; it is not a trance in which reality disappears. It is not a narcissistic state of mind, as it can be seen in some religious manifestations. “If anything, it is a perfectly normal state of mind…” As Jöshü declared, “Zen is your everyday thought, it all depends on the adjustment of the hinge, whether the door opens in or opens out.” Satori has a peculiar effect on the person who experiences it. “All your mental activities will now be working in a different key, which will be more satisfying, more peaceful, more full of joy than anything you ever experienced before. The tone of life will be altered. There is something rejuvenating in the possession of Zen. The spring flower will look prettier, and the mountain stream runs cooler and more transparent.” (DT Suzuki)

It is quite clear that satori is the true fulfillment of the state of well-being which Dr. Suzuki described in the passage quoted above. If we would try to express enlightenment in psychological terms, I would say that it is a state in which the person is completely tuned to the reality outside and inside of him, a state in which he is fully aware of it and fully grasps it. He is aware of it—that is, not his brain, nor any other part of his organism, but he, the whole man. He is aware of it; not as of an object over there which he grasps with his thought, but it, the flower, the dog, the man, in its, or his, full reality. He who awakes is open and responsive to the world, and he can be open and responsive because he has given up holding on to himself as a thing, and thus has become empty and ready to receive. To be enlightened means “the full awakening of the total personality to reality.”

It is very important to understand that the state of enlightenment is not a state of dissociation or of a trance in which one believes oneself to be awakened, when one is actually deeply asleep. The Western psychologist, of course, will be prone to believe that satori is just a subjective state, an auto-induced sort of trance, and even a psychologist as sympathetic to Zen as Dr. Jung cannot avoid the same error. Jung writes: “The imagination itself is a psychic occurrence, and therefore, whether an enlightenment is called real or imaginary is quite immaterial. The man who has enlightenment, or alleges that he has it, thinks in any case that he is enlightened… Even if he were to lie, his lie would be a spiritual fact.” This is, of course, part of Jung’s general relativistic position with regard to the “truth” of religious experience. Contrary to him, I believe that a lie is never “a spiritual fact,” nor any other fact, for that matter, except that of being a lie. But whatever the merits of the case, Jung’s position is certainly not shared by Zen Buddhists. On the contrary, it is of crucial importance for them to differentiate between genuine satori experience, in which the acquisition of a new viewpoint is real, and hence true, and a pseudo-experience which can be of a hysterical or psychotic nature, in which the Zen student is convinced of having obtained satori, while the Zen-master has to make it clear that he has not. It is precisely one of the functions of the Zen master to be on guard against his student’s confusion of real and imaginary enlightenment.

The full awakening to reality means, again speaking in psychological terms, to have attained a fully “productive orientation.” That means not to relate oneself to the world receptively; exploitatively, hoardingly, or in the marketing fashion, but creatively, actively (in Spinoza’s sense). In the state of full productiveness there are no veils which separate me from the “not me.” The object is not an object any more; it does not stand against me, but is with me. The rose I see is not an object for my thought, in the manner that when I say “l see a rose” I only state that the object, a rose, falls under the category “rose,” but in the manner that “a rose is a rose is a rose.” The state of productiveness is at the same time the state of highest objectivity; I see the object without distortions by my greed and fear. I see it as it or he is, not as I wish it or him to be or not to be. In this mode of perception there are no parataxic distortions. There is complete aliveness, and the synthesis is of subjectivity-objec-tiv-ity. I experience intensely—yet the object is left to be what it is. I bring it to life—and it brings me to life. Satori appears mysterious only to the person who is not aware to what degree his perception of the world is purely mental, or parataxical. If one is aware of this, one is also aware of a different awareness, that which one can also call a fully realistic one. One may have only experienced glimpses of it—yet one can imagine what it is. A little boy studying the piano does not play like a great master. Yet the master’s playing is nothing mysterious; it is only the perfection of the rudimentary experience the boy has.


Erich Fromm (1900-1980)
From: Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism

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