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Individuation or Institution 


Rob Preece


The evolution of Buddhism in the west reveals a division between those who wish to practice within an organisation and those who attempt to follow a more individual journey. Many people I have met through workshops, meditation courses or therapy express a now familiar question: is it possible to develop a Buddhist practice without taking on the culture, personality and style of one of numerous organisations? This dilemma seems to reflect a need to retain a sense of spiritual individuality whilst learning a system of practice. It echoes a deeper dichotomy that individuality, creativity and the development of organised religion do not always sit comfortable together.


In the world of Jungian psychology there is an archetypal paradigm that may throw light on one of the underlying influences upon this dichotomy. The archetype of the Puer Aeternus or "eternal youth" and its polar opposite Senex are considered to be contrary aspects of the same phenomenon and strongly shape our spiritual life. The Puer/Senex paradigm can effect men or women and wherever one polarity appears, somewhere its opposite will live as a counterpoise.


The archetype of the Puer Aeternus is one of the most potent influences on the expression of spiritual aspiration. The spirit of Puer is uplifting, soaring into realms of divine inspiration and optimism full of visions, ideals, creative ideas and dreams. Puer brings us into contact with the transpersonal numinous side of our nature and can seem like a spark of light that flashes into the world through its visions. Notable prophets, creative geniuses and visionaries throughout history have almost certainly been influenced by this archetype. Often their genius appears when they are very young, like Mozart, but sadly many of them die young. The Puer desire is to transcend the mundanity of worldly life and be free to devote everything to the creative and spiritual vision which is considered life's blood. Puer dominated young people often seem possessed by an almost sublime if somewhat ungrounded and dreamy spiritual quality. They are often very sensitive and artistic but do not easily cope with the demands of the world. They may be drawn to earthy partners in relationship to help ground them or gravitate towards spiritual centres, which are often full of young Puer dominated individuals. Their search is for a safe environment that will parent them and provide a support for their aspirations.


The visionary inspiration of the Puer finds its polar opposite in the earthy pragmatism of the Senex, the "old man". The process under which the ideas, visions and images of Puer begin to crystallise or solidify into form is the realm of Senex. The craftsman (or woman) who has gradually mastered the capacity to bring their creative ideas into reality is the most fundamental expression of Senex. Senex is the archetype of practical structures and systems, which begin to shape and order the world around and within us.


Senex in our society is particularly expressed through systems, laws and institutions that attempt to shape and organise society. Senex seeks to create and maintain organisations and systems, which give a stable, ordered basis for control and authority in matters such as administration and education. In the domain of religion Senex manifests in the creation of ordered spiritual systems and in the organisations that are developed around them. Even the Buddhist tradition has become organised and structured under the aegis of Senex. Through Senex we also enter the rigours of spiritual discipline. This principle is at work in the boundaries and limits of the apprentice or noviciate studying under a master. It brings us into relationship with the demands of commitment and the need to engage in work and endure the hardships of gradual mastery of ourselves into the art, craft or spiritual practice we embark upon. Senex teaches us by experience. It is an aspect of fathering which earths us in a realism that cannot ultimately be ignored.


The vision and idealism of the Puer archetype and the order and realism of the Senex archetype bring us to a significant and uncomfortable dichotomy. Puer and Senex do not easily live along side each other and yet to develop they need each other. Puer's vision is brought into reality through the vehicle of Senex. Usually however the ungrounded idealism of Puer and pragmatic power of Senex come to blows and Senex tends to win. An example of this can be seen in the Tienamen square protests in China. The ideals of the student population fired the imagination of the masses to support their quest for democracy. The council of dogmatic old men that make up the Chinese government epitomised the most negative destructive aspect of Senex, which ruthlessly crushed the uprising.


When Puer and Senex are at their most negative they live as shadows of each other and can be extremely destructive. When Puer spirit is out of relationship to the grounding pragmatic influence of Senex it can lead to spiritual illusion, an idealism that is an avoidance of the necessities of incarnating in normal life. This flight from the rigors of daily life may seem like a form of renunciation but is usually denial and avoidance. The negative Puer type is likely to avoid commitment to work and relationships and consequently are often incapable of bringing their ideas, visions and aspirations into concrete reality. Spirituality remains ungrounded, "heady" and idealistic, which can lead to a kind of unreal, inflated belief that they are special and must not be demeaned by earthly demands. Their spiritual task is too important to be sullied.


Regretfully the polarities of Puer and Senex are often unconscious and at odds with each other. Behind the Puer disposition one can often hear a shadowy Senex that is morally rigid, dogmatic, judgmental and authoritarian. The struggle between the two is however an attempt to reconcile the inevitability that they are part of the same archetypal dilemma. This dilemma is how to bring creative ideas into reality or spirituality into practical earthly life, spirit into matter.


The Puer/Senex archetype is constantly at play in the development of spiritual organisations. Often, as in the case of Buddhism, the seeds of a tradition emerge in the insight of an individual who experiences a new spiritual vision. The Buddha's spiritual insight was like a creative spark initiating what gradually developed into a system and tradition that grounded it in the realm of Senex. Many of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, especially within the Tantras, originated with someone whose personal spiritual insight or vision inspired a new lineage of practice. In time the initial vision becomes shaped into an intricate system of instructions and techniques for practice.


The gradual shift from Puer's initiating vision towards Senex structure and system is natural, archetypal and present in all creative processes. It has resulted in a great diversity of approaches within Buddhism, many of which are still living traditions and lineages, preserved and passed on from teacher to disciple. To be able to study and practice within the structure and discipline of one of these traditions can be a profound and vital part of the spiritual journey. At a certain point on the path it may be important to commit to a process of transformation that needs structure, discipline and boundaries. A spiritual organisation may offer this kind of environment until an individual is able to provide it in themselves.


The influence of the Senex archetype over the maintenance of systems and organisations unfortunately has a dark unconscious shadow. At its most shadowy Senex becomes rigid, dogmatic and ruthless tending to disenfranchise and control any who question its authority. When Senex forms and structures begin to ossify they become dry and stale, blind to the potential for change and flexibility. In religious organisations and systems this leads to doctrinal rigidity and dogmatism and an increasing tendency to control and constrict disciples. When organisations become increasingly patriarchal and authoritarian they are seldom able to recognise the degree to which they disempower and deny individual freedom of self-expression. When a system or form becomes too solid it can gradually destroy the essential vision that gives it life and inspiration. 


While the establishment of orthodoxy comes under the aegis of Senex, reformation and regeneration come under the aegis of Puer. Individual creative expression also comes into being through the Puer archetype and in organisation this can often threaten established order. Teachers may resist questioning or developing established orthodox practices and thereby unconsciously prevent students from developing their own experience and autonomy. Paradoxically the vision that originated most spiritual traditions was an individuals creative experience and yet organised established religion can become resistant to that same creative process. Those who chose to follow their own inner truth can often find themselves in conflict with a tradition that is trying to preserve the authority of a lineage. 


As Buddhism becomes integrated in the west we must consider that westerners have grown up in a culture that emphasises individuality and creative innovation. Established religion does not comfortably accept personal innovation. In Tibetan Buddhism for example great emphasis is placed upon retaining the purity of the traditional teachings and innovation is often frowned upon. In Tibetan the word for innovation Rang So Wa is used as a derogatory term for someone who is straying from the accepted path. Some eastern teachers and their western disciples are extremely protective of the sanctity of tradition, which may be vital in preserving the purity of a system. It may not, however, allow objective assessment as to its effectiveness or relevance particularly for westerners. Fear of questioning or evaluating a religion's principles however leads to dogmatism of a fundamentalist nature and can be as present in Buddhism as any other religion. 


How therefore do we balance the necessity of systematic Buddhist teachings and organisations, with the growing recognition that westerners are extremely individualistic in their spiritual needs? If we are to be true to our inner spiritual potential in a creative way, how compatible is this with organisations that have formulated ways in which this is to be expressed?


Developing spiritual practice within an organisation can give an important foundation of understanding. As an "apprentice" it can provide a structured, disciplined and contained environment in which to learn and practice. As we become more in touch with, listen to and trust our own inner truth as to our spiritual path, it may deviate from or become incompatible with the organisation we have grown up in. For some this is naturally a great cause for concern. Feelings of conflict, guilt and fear arise when people find their personal journey begins to conflict with the authority of a teacher or the prescriptions of an organisation. When people then try to leave they will often find themselves subject of hostility and pressure from those who seek to maintain the security of their system.


For some leaving the security of systems and organisations and going out into the world alone is a time of growing up and being true to an inner wisdom, an inner Guru. The Buddha remained true to an inner voice and repeatedly moved on to pursue his journey alone. Historically most of the great teachers were individuals who discovered their own inner experience and then expressed it in a fresh creative way. Often these individuals found it necessary to free themselves of the constraints of an organised system. Many of the Mahasiddhas of India for example were notoriously individualistic, often being expelled from their monastic life because of their non-conformity.


This more individual journey however is no easy task; it is not a return to the ungrounded idealism of the Puer to escape the rigours of Senex, but a genuine integration of the two. This enables vision and insight to be grounded within a pragmatic, ethical, self-disciplined lifestyle, then like the master-craftsman it is possible to be truly creative.

Increasingly there is a shift towards "Buddhist individuation" in those who have passed through a tradition and then pursue their journey individually. This creates a new kind of spiritual community of individuals who's meeting point is that they respect each others individual journey and do not cling to prescriptions or judgements as to how to practice. Our spiritual journey is personal and individual. As we awaken our innate Buddha potential it is for each of us to take responsibility for how this may be expressed creatively in the world for the welfare of others. The Bodhisattva is perhaps the perfect example of one whose determination in life is not to avoid incarnation but takes responsibility through compassion to individuate and become a vehicle for ultimate wisdom to be brought into the world. 



Individuation or Institution is taken from The Wisdom of Imperfection by Rob Preece published by Snowlion Publications. For further information or comments contact:


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