The Freud Museum


Buddhist Objects

Buddhist Lohan, (above cabinet 3)

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This iron Lohan dating from the Ming period (15th - 16th Centuries) has stiff modeling and a naive appearance. In its early stages Buddhism was a creed of monks who had withdrawn from worldly life in the pursuit of spiritual Enlightenment. Only through the rigours of monastic life could Enlightenment be achieved and nirvana reached. In this form of Buddhism the lohan was the being who had achieved Enlightenment and was on the brink of Nirvana, a true follower of Buddha.

The Buddhist path to Enlightenment was the search for spiritual truth within oneself. Enlightenment released a being from the endless cycle of rebirth into Nirvana, the extinction of spirit and consciousness. The ‘Four Noble Truths’ of the Buddha are as follows:

(1) Everything is suffering; birth, old age, sickness and death, contact with what one dislikes, separation from what one desires, not obtaining what one wishes.
(2) The cause of suffering is desire (attachment) for what is devoid of reality - for pleasure, for existence.
(3) The suppression of desire can bring an end to suffering.
(4) The means by which this can be achieved is the “Noble Eightfold Path” - right speech, right livelihood, right action, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right opinion, and right intention.

It could be argued that psychoanalysis too attempts to release a person from an attachment to desires which cause suffering. The theme of repetition and the ‘nirvana principle’ is also central to Freud’s book Beyond the Pleasure Principle in which he propounds his theory of the death drive. The death drive represents the tendency for all organic things to return to an inorganic state, and thus what Freud saw as a fundamental drive towards the extinction of consciousness and pleasure. Within this conception life becomes, as he put it, a ‘detour’ on the way to death - which each creature nevertheless wants to accomplish in its own way. In this way Freud brought together the realms of life and death without resorting to a notion of a supreme being and an afterlife. Most psychoanalysts today would not follow Freud in his more metaphysical speculations, but many still find the concept of the death drive useful within their clinical practice.

Buddhist Lohan, (from the desk)

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This figure may date from the 17th or 18th century. His draperies are sculptured with a marked sense of movement and his face is very individualistic. From its austere beginnings as a monastic movement Buddhism developed more popular doctrines which opened the path to Enlightenment to laymen who could obtain salvation through faith and worship. This extension and expansion of Buddhism came to be known as the Mahayana or ‘great vehicle’ (in contrast to the earlier ‘Hinyana’ or small vehicle). To facilitate believers along the path of Enlightenment, and as objects of worship, a pantheon of benevolent deities evolved. Lohans continue to be depicted but exist more as objects of reverence than worship since their main preoccupation was with their own salvation rather than intervention on behalf of believers.

Head of Bodhisattva (from shelf by the chair)

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Of great significance in the pantheon of Buddhist figures are the benevolent deities who, although they have attained enlightenment, have vowed not to enter nirvana until they have helped all believers to attain it. They are known as Bodhisattvas. So immeasurably great is their charity that they will help all those suffering in the toil of transmigration, and they became the objects of great popular devotion.

The serene expression of this head of a bodhisattva conveys the compassion which encompasses all humanity. The head is cast in iron, from the Ming dynasty (15th - 17th century). The lack of any distinguishing attributes does not enable us to identify which of the many bodhisattvas is here depicted.


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Freud refers to this Indian Buddhist figure in his diary in 1935 as the ‘large Kannon - in front study’. He uses the Japanese form of the name which in Sanskrit is Avalokiteshvara, and Kuan Yin in Chinese. The figure, draped with scarves and jewels like an Indian prince, and wearing a five pointed crown, takes the position known as ‘royal ease’ (maharaja-lilasana). Avalokiteshvara embodies the compassion of Buddha and his name in Sanskrit means ‘the one who looks down’. Bodhisatvas combined the virtues of both male and female, and this sinuous elegant figure has a hermaphroditic quality about it. In China, Kuan Yin bears the epithet ‘the one who hears sounds’, and at some point in the 12th century becomes distinctly more female and metamorphoses into the Goddess of Mercy who takes the form of a draped, cowled female figure. It should be remembered that Freud was also the ‘one who looked down’ and listened to the speech of his patients on the couch. It could be argued that in the development of the technique of psychoanalysis Freud moved away from reliance on a 'masculine' use of sight, to a more 'feminine' and receptive (as he put it) use of hearing. In his everyday life, however, he was said to dislike using the telephone because he could not see who he was talking to.

Gilded Bronze Head of the Buddha

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Just as the early austere Buddhism was elaborated and expanded, so the life of the Buddha came to be embroidered and encrusted with a miraculous mythology. This gilded, jewel-like head from Thailand was listed as of National importance in the inventory made after Freud’s death. The exaggerated flame-like form of the unisa emerging from the top of the head is typical of Thai images of the Buddha. The unisa accommodates the superior wisdom obtained through Enlightenment.

Marble Head of the Buddha

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This marble head, Tang, or Tang-style displays the serene expression most favoured in depictions of the Buddha. It could be argued that this expression portrays the ‘evenly hovering attention’ which Freud recommended as the stance of the psychoanalyst when working with patients. He says the psychoanalyst should be in a state of neutrality or ‘indifference’ - in effect having transcended memory and desire - so that he does not pre-judge or anticipate the meaning of what the patient is telling him. This state of ‘indifference’ is predicated on the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis that the patient says everything and anything that comes into his mind, including the seemingly most trivial of things. The ‘evenly hovering attention’ is thus the attempt by the analyst to give equal attention to everything that the patient says. In other words the analyst must abstain from thinking that he knows the answers, and allow the process to unfold of its own accord. At certain moments, however, the analyst himself has to speak, and offer an interpretation. The contemplative stillness is broken temporarily, to be reassembled on another plane. From the accounts left by some of his patients it seems that Freud himself did not entirely follow his own prescriptions when it came to questions of the analytic stance. He appears to have been much more ‘interactive’ in his approach. Psychoanalysts today also take a slightly different approach, by using their own ‘memories and desires’ as clues to the unconscious feelings of the patient. In this way the ‘counter transference’ reactions of the analyst are used as a help to the process rather than an interference. When students come to the museum they will also have thoughts and feelings communicated from…where?

Penitent Buddha from Burma

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A very unusual representation in the iconography of the Buddha is this penitent Buddha shown walking, leaning on a staff. The Buddha is rarely depicted in movement which is the distinguishing feature of this figure. It was acquired with the following piece in May 1934, around the time of Freud’s birthday.

Buddha calling the Earth to Witness

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This second ivory piece represents the most powerful and moving image in Buddhist iconography, and is perhaps the most significant image of all. Here Siddharta Gautama, also called Sakyamuni (the holy one of the Sakyas), after years of wandering in search of Enlightenment, is seated under a Bodhi tree. He vowed not to move until he had achieved Enlightenment. He was tempted by the god of death, Mara, who challenged his claim to enlightenment. Undeterred, Sakyamuni called to the earth to witness that throughout all his rebirths he had acted to deserve it. The earth shook in assent, and at that moment Sakyamuni attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. This fine 16th or 17th century ivory, with simplicity and restrained emotion depicts that great moment. This statue may have reminded Freud of his analysis of the Moses of Michelangelo which represents, as Freud saw it, the moment when Moses is about to rise and smash the tablets of stone, but instead restrains himself and controls his emotional outburst. The statue represented for Freud the transformation of a physical impulse into an emotional achievement.

It might also remind us that Freud began collecting his antiquities at the time of the death of his father, about which he said at the time: “it was like being torn up by the roots”. Perhaps the question of how we maintain contact with some stable, life-affirming and nourishing sense of the ‘mother-earth’ is fundamental to all of us. Or perhaps Freud related the story to his theories of obsessional neurosis. The image of the man surrounding himself with prohibitions, unable to move on pain of being cut off forever from the ultimate prize, is not unlike the theme of immobility in his analysis of the ‘Wolf man’, or of indecision in the case of the ‘Rat man’. (See Freud and Religion for the link between obsessional neurosis and religion). Perhaps Freud smiled at the thought that despite his dedication to achieving a life without desire, even the Buddha lives in a world of psychic conflict which can only be transcended in death.

Daoist immortal

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This figure represents a philosopher-sage who has become immortal through acquiring wisdom. It is said that Freud would greet the figure each day before he sat down to work. If the Boddhisattvas are beings who become immortal because of their great love for mankind, the Daoist figure shows a different rute to the same end. We might say that whether one achieves one's sense of immortality through love or knowledge is perhaps a central dilemma for many of us.

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