Chip Brown's "Enlightenment Therapy" in this weekend's New York Times magazine is about a Soto Zen teacher, Louis Nordstrom, and his struggles with Zen and his own inner narrative. I don't know if Brown has any personal experience with Zen practice or how accurately Louis Nordstrom is quoted, but there are several points in the article I find astonishing. I hope some Zen teachers and senior students will read the article and discuss it.
Brown describes how Nordstrom, a dharma heir of Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, faced a psychological crisis in 2006 and entered psychoanalysis. I can appreciate that a Zen teacher might discover unpeeled layers even after many years of practice, and I don't intend this post to be a criticism of Louis Nordstrom. Rather, I'd like to call attention to some things said about Zen practice in the article.
For example, Brown writes,
In pursuit of mystic illumination, “the vast ocean of dazzling light,” Zen is cheerfully unconcerned with the manufacture and distribution of personal meaning. It tends to discount the authority of the unconscious and to ignore the significance of dreams. Students are discouraged from delving into the content of emotions.
It seems to me that Zen is very much concerned with the manufacture and distribution of personal meaning. As with all practices of Buddhism, it is fundamentally a practice of understanding how the "self" is manufactured so that we can thoroughly realize the emptiness of it. As Eihei Dogen said,
To study the buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.
Later in the article, Brown quotes Louis Nordstrom,
"What Jeffrey [the psychoanalyst] has done is indicate that forgetting the self is not a constructive approach. What one needs to do from a psychoanalytic perspective is remember the self."
I would love to ask the roshi exactly what he meant by that. My understanding is that studying the self, boldly wading into the mucky depths of the self, is essential to "forgetting" the self. Otherwise "forgetting" the self becomes just one more form of psychological repression.
My initial Zen training was with Tetsugen Roshi's dharma brother, John Daido Loori, and Daido encouraged us not to deny or run away from anything. Whatever breaks loose from the depths and floats into our conscious view is to be fully acknowledged and even embraced, no matter how painful and ugly the thing is.
There's a great deal more in the article worthy of comment, but it's a long article, and I believe I will stop for now. I welcome comments from anyone, but I'm most interested in hearing from those of you with some experience with Zen practice.