Thinking of Karen Horney and Western Psychology’s Discovery of Zen Buddhism

Thinking of Karen Horney and Western Psychology’s Discovery of Zen Buddhism September 16, 2018





The Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney was born on this day, the 16th of September, in 1885. She was one of a relatively small band of psychoanalysts and psychologists who would take their original inspiration and often direct instruction from Sigmund Freud and then push on. Horney is the founder of a feminist psychology that has been a critical corrective to the domination of psychological theory from a near solely masculine perspective.

And, then, there’s the Zen thing. For me noting her birthday triggers a cascade of thoughts about the meeting of Western psychology and Zen Buddhism.

A lot of this turns on D. T. Suzuki, the person who almost single-handedly brought the West’s attention to Zen. Over the years there has been a lot of criticism of Suzuki, his unacknowledged sectarian biases as well as his focus on an a-historical encounter with enlightenment, and in more recent times noting his alignment with Japanese nationalism during the Second world war. This criticism is sometimes collapsed in the critiques of his popularizer Alan Watts. On the other hand it was precisely his focus on enlightenment that made Zen so tantalizing for my generation and which opened the doors to Zen becoming a part of Western culture.

As it relates to Horney, when she lived in Manhattan she met the scholar and formed a friendship. There is little doubt her interest in Zen was central to her developing ideas of a “real self.” As a small coda shortly before her untimely death from cancer she traveled with D. T. Suzuki to Japan and toured many Zen monasteries.

As Buddhism has traveled from one culture to another it has always engaged in a dialog with indigenous religions and culture. For me the most dramatic of these encounters was the move to China and out of that the birthing of Zen. And so, of course, there is today a rich encounter between Buddhism and Christianity, as well as lesser but important conversations between Buddhism and Judaism and Islam. But here in the modern West the encounter that has captured most imaginations has been between Buddhism and Zen and psychology. Perhaps not so surprising in a largely secular age with its interest in the person separated from the conventions of religion – and then encountering a religion with an ancient and sophisticated psychological model, really models.

Karen Horney is an important part of the beginnings of that conversation. A conversation that continues to broaden and deepen to this day, and we can see as we look around, is very much a continuing thing. The possible depths of this dialog nowhere near plummeted.

So, just a pause on that journey to acknowledge and celebrate one of its founders.

Thank you, Karen!

Endless bows.

(The painting displayed here is by Suzanne Carvallo Schulein and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution)

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