Carl Jung on Richard Wilhelm

By: Carl Jung

From C. G. Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp. 373-377.

I first met Richard Wilhelm at Count Keyserling's during a meeting of the "School of Wisdom" in Darmstadt. That was in the early twenties. In 1923 we invited him to Zurich and he spoke on the I Ching (or Yi Jing) at the Psychology Club.

Even before meeting him I had been interested in Oriental philosophy, and around 1920 had begun experimenting with the I Ching. One summer in Bollingen I resolved to make an all-out attack on the riddle of this book. Instead of traditional stalks of yarrow required by the classical method, I cut myself a bunch of reeds. I would sit for hours on the ground beneath the hundred-year-old pear tree, the I Ching beside me, practicing the technique by referring the resultant oracles to one another in an interplay of questions and answers. All sorts of undeniably remarkable results emerged-meaningful connections with my own thought processes which I could not explain to myself.

The only subjective intervention in this experiment consists in the experimenter's arbitrarily - that is, without counting-dividing up the bundle of forty-nine stalks at a single swoop. He does not know how many stalks are contained in each bundle, and yet the result depends upon their numerical relationship. All other manipulations proceed mechanically and leave no room for interference by the will. If a psychic causal connection is present at all, it can only consist in the chance division of the bundle (or, in the other method, the chance fall of the coins).

During the whole of those summer holidays I was preoccupied with the question: Are the I Ching's answers meaningful or not? If they are, how does the connection between the psychic and the physical sequence of events come about? Time and again I encountered amazing coincidences which seemed to suggest the idea of an acausal parallelism (a synchronicity, as I later called it). So fascinated was I by these experiments that I altogether forgot to take notes, which I afterward greatly regretted. Later, however, when I often used to carry out the experiment with my patients, it became quite clear that a significant number of answers did indeed hit the mark. I remember, for example, the case of a young man with a strong mother complex. He wanted to marry, and had made the acquaintance of a seemingly suitable girl. However, he felt uncertain, fearing that under the influence of his complex he might once more find himself in the power of an overwhelming mother. I conducted the experiment with him. The text of his hexagram read: "The maiden is powerful. One should not marry such a maiden."

In the mid-thirties I met the Chinese philosopher Hu Shi. I asked him his opinion of the I Ching, and received the reply: "Oh, that's nothing but an old collection of magic spells, without significance." He had had no experience with it - or so he said. Only once, he remembered, had the come across it in practice. One day on a walk with a friend, the friend had told him about his unhappy love affair. They were just passing by a Taoist temple. As a joke, he had said to his friend: "Here you can consult the oracle!" No sooner said than done. They went into the temple together and asked the priest for an I Ching oracle. But he had not the slightest faith in this nonsense.

I asked him whether the oracle had been correct. Whereupon he replied reluctantly, "Oh yes, it was, of course..." Remembering the well-known story of the "good friend" who does everything one does not wish to do oneself, I cautiously asked him whether he had not profited by this opportunity. "Yes," he replied, "as a joke I asked a question too."

"And did the oracle give you a sensible answer?" I asked.

He hesitated. "Oh well, yes, if you wish to put it that way." The subject obviously made him uncomfortable.

A few years after my first experiments with the reeds, the I Ching was published with Wilhelm's commentary. I instantly obtained the book, and found to my gratification that Wilhelm took much the same view of the meaningful connections as I had. But he knew the entire literature and could therefore fill in the gaps which had been outside my competence. When Wilhelm came to Zurich, I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with him at length, and we talked a great deal about Chinese philosophy and religion. What he told me, out of his wealth of knowledge of the Chinese mentality, clarified some of the most difficult problems that the European unconscious had posed for me. On the other hand, what I had to tell him about the results of my investigations of the unconscious caused him no little surprise; for he recognized in them things he had considered to be the exclusive possession of the Chinese philosophical tradition.

As a young man Wilhelm had gone to China in the service of a Christian mission, and there the mental world of the Orient had opened its doors wide to him. Wilhelm was a truly religious spirit, with an unclouded and farsighted view of things. He had the gift of being able to listen without bias to the revelations of a foreign mentality, and to accomplish that miracle of empathy which enabled him to make the intellectual treasures of China accessible to Europe. He was deeply influenced by Chinese culture, and once said to me, "It is a great satisfaction to me that I never baptized a single Chinese!" In spite of his Christian background, he could not help recognizing the logic and clarity of Chinese thought. "Influenced" is not quite the word to describe its effect upon him; it had overwhelmed and assimilated him. His Christian views receded into the background, but did not vanish entirely; they formed a kind of mental reservation, a moral proviso that was later to have fateful consequences.

In China he had the good fortune to meet a sage of the old school whom the revolution had driven out of the interior. This sage, Lau Nai Suan, introduced him to Chinese yoga philosophy and the psychology of the I Ching. To the collaboration of these two men we owe the edition of the I Ching with its excellent commentary. For the first time this profoundest work of the Orient was introduced to the West in a living and comprehensible fashion. I consider this publication Wilhelm's most important work. Clear and unmistakably Western as his mentality was, in his I Ching commentary he manifested a degree of adaptation to Chinese psychology which is altogether unmatched.

When the last page of the translation was finished and the first printer's proofs were coming in, the old master Lau Nai Suan died. It was as if his work were completed and he had delivered the last message of the old, dying China to Europe. And Wilhelm had been the perfect disciple, a fulfillment of the wish-dream of the sage.

Wilhelm, when I met him, seemed completely Chinese, in outward manner as much as in his way of writing and speaking. The Oriental point of view and ancient Chinese culture had penetrated him through and though. Upon his arrival in Europe, he entered the faculty of the China Institute in Frankfurt am Main. Both in his teaching work and in his lectures to laymen, however, he seemed to feel the pressure of the European spirit. Christian views and forms of thought moved steadily into the foreground. I went to hear some lectures of his and they turned out to be scarcely any different from conventional sermons.

This reversion to the past seemed tome somewhat unreflective and therefore dangerous. I saw it as a reassimilation to the West, and felt that as a result of it Wilhelm must come into conflict with himself. Since it was, so I thought, a passive assimilation, that is to say, a succumbing to the influence of the environment, there was the danger of a relatively unconscious conflict, a clash between his Western and Eastern psyche. If, as I assumed, the Christian attitude had originally given way to the influence of China, the reverse might well be talking place now: the European element might be gaining the upper hand over the Orient once again. If such a process takes place without a strong, conscious attempt to come to terms with it, the unconscious conflict can seriously affect the physical state of health.

After attending the lectures, I attempted to call his attention to the danger threatening him. My words to him were: "My dear Wilhelm, please do not take this amiss, but I have the feeling that the West is taking possession of you again, and that you are becoming unfaithful to your mission of transmitting the East to the West."

He replied, "I think you are right - something here is overpowering me. But what can be done?"

A few years later Wilhelm was staying as a guest in my house, and came down with an attack of amoebic dysentery. It was a disease he had had twenty years before. His condition grew worse during the following months, and then I heard that Wilhelm was in the hospital. I went to Frankfurt to visit him, and found a very sick man. The doctors had not yet given up hope, and Wilhelm, too, spoke of plans he wished to carry out when he got well. I shared his hopes, but had my forebodings. What he confided to me at the time confirmed my conjectures. In his dreams, he revisited the endless stretches of desolate Asiatic steppes - the China he had left behind. He was groping his way back to the problem which China had set before him, the answer to which had been blocked for him by the West. By now he was conscious of this question, but had been unable to find a solution. His illness dragged on for months.

A few weeks before his death, when I had had no news from his for a considerable time, I was awakened, just as I was on the point of falling asleep, by a vision. At my bed stood a Chinese in a dark blue gown, hands crossed in the sleeves. He bowed low before me, as if he wished to give me a message. I knew what it signified. The vision was extraordinarily vivid. Not only did I see every wrinkle in the man's face, but every thread in the fabric of his gown.

Wilhelm's problem might also be regarded as a conflict between consciousness and the unconscious, which in his case took the form of a clash between West and East. I believed I understood his situation, since I myself had the same problem as he and knew what it meant to be involved in this conflict. It is true that even at our last meeting Wilhelm did not speak plainly. Though he was intensely interested when I introduced the psychological point of view, his interest lasted only so long as my remarks concerned objective matters such as meditation or questions posed by the psychology of religion. So far, so good. But whenever I attempted to touch the actual problem of his inner conflict, I immediately sensed a drawing back, an inward shutting himself off - because such matters went straight to the bone. This is a phenomenon I have observed in many men of importance. There is, as Goethe puts it in Faust, an "untrodden, untreadable" region whose precincts cannot and should not be entered by force; a destiny which will brook no human intervention.

From C. G. Jung Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp. 373-377.

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