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Barbara O'Brien

Enlightenment Therapy

By April 25, 2009

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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.

Comments
April 25, 2009 at 1:05 pm
(1) Brad Nickel says:

My only concern about a portrayal like this is if it prevents others from seeing Buddhism for what it is and can be. I find the academic discussions, analysis of, and debates about mindfulness and enlightenment to be completely counter to the “cause”. What is the point? Should we not be focused upon our practice and not upon interpretation? It seems silly, dualistic and a waste.

April 25, 2009 at 10:54 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Brad — what’s intriguing to me about the piece is that it really is about practice, or at least one man’s experience of practice. We’re getting it second hand, and I don’t think author Brown gets the emptiness thing at all, but I’m overlooking that.

April 26, 2009 at 8:55 am
(3) Barbara Joshin O'Hara says:

Barbara,

I think that Lou Nordstrom’s is an elegant and heart-breaking description of a trap very familiar in the zen annals. The image of the monk stuck in the absolute is almost a cliché in zen, and accounts of uncompromising zen masters who spare no tricks in bringing the monk back to his own experience are legion. That it took the skillful interventions of a psychoanalyst, in this case, to cut through the defensive armoring of a lifetime only underscores (and illuminates) the stubbornness of these delusions. That Lou was finally able to see the light is testimony not only to his analyst’s skills but also to Lou’s own years of heartfelt practice.

April 26, 2009 at 8:01 pm
(4) Karen Maezen Miller says:

Yes, astonishing, astonishing and breathtaking. So many Zen masters and so little Zen.

April 27, 2009 at 6:20 pm
(5) Elizabeth Reninger says:

“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.”

To me, this passage reveals a conflation of two different meanings of “self” which are, in this context, best kept distinct.

1. The object of Madhyamika reasoning (what is to be “destroyed” in this process) is our idea or concept of a “self” which, in and of itself, has never nor could ever “exist” in the way that we habitually believe it to. This “self” is nothing but a phantom – and so to speak in terms of choosing to “remember” or “forget” it, is (from a Madhyamika perspective) absurd. It simply is not there. What keeps it “alive” in our experience is our deluded belief in its existence.

2. How the skandhas come together to form the (ever-shifting) experience of a unique human being might also be referred to as a “self.” It is this “personal self” or “social self” that can be an object of psychoanalytic inquiry (and is also the object of certain forms of vipassana practice).

What makes meaningful transformation of the “self” in this second sense actually possible is an authentic “no-self” realization. The places that we often are most “stuck” psychologically are exactly the places where we have a fixed idea of “who we are” eternally i.e. something within us (how the skandhas are currently manifesting) that “will never change.”

April 27, 2009 at 10:44 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Elizabeth — that’s a good point. I found the article frustrating because we’re being told the story through the filter of an author who may have no personal experience with Zen practice. There’s a lot of sloppy conflating going on, I think.

April 28, 2009 at 12:33 pm
(7) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

The article was better than most written by people with little dharma experience. The major mistake was his thinking that practice involves divorcing ones self from emotion when quite the opposite is true. Emotion is everything and all of life. It is what it is to be human or any creature really. This is not just in Zen practice but in all practice. I was moved by the story and Lous’ life and practice very much echoes my own. I see so much false joy and hope (that word again) expressed by popular teachers that it makes me wonder if they have been listening at all.
In short, a flawed article but one we should all examine closely.

April 29, 2009 at 8:11 am
(8) adam fisher says:

Whatever the failings of the article, I liked it very much. I knew Lou briefly at a monastery we both attended, but my knowing him is not what I appreciated. What I did appreciate was the willingness/imperative he acted on. I really don’t care if he is/was a realized master or a four-star faker: Honesty is crucial in Zen practice no matter how that honesty expresses itself. Further, the willingness to shed old clothes — clothes sometimes labeled “Buddhism” or “Buddhist principles” for example — is a crucial ingredient in anything that might adequately be described as a Buddhist — or any other serious spiritual — practice.

Buddhism ain’t psychotherapy. Psychotherapy ain’t Buddhism. But to suggest that psychotherapy may not be useful in Zen practice — that it cannot help to support and enforce the honesty that is necessary … well, this is glib and probably arrogant.

I think the Buddhist community, of whatever stripe, owes a thank-you to Lou’s efforts and to whatever honesty he may inspire in others.

April 29, 2009 at 10:15 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

But to suggest that psychotherapy may not be useful in Zen practice — that it cannot help to support and enforce the honesty that is necessary … well, this is glib and probably arrogant.

I hadn’t noticed anyone suggesting any such thing. I’m a big proponent of both. The deeper question is not “whether” they fit together, but “how.”

April 29, 2009 at 10:45 am
(10) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

This is turning into an interesting discussion.

If the dharma teachings are a true reflection of reality then those observations will pop up naturally whether it is in other religions, in psychology, or in literature, wherever. Often these are just little gems and the train of thought goes elsewhere but any valid examination of reality should produce the same or at least very similar results.
The monks like to say that when someone comes to you with their hair on fire, first you must put out the fire in their hair. Freud said something like (can’t remember the exact quote) that analysis is useless when the patient has a toothache.

April 29, 2009 at 10:47 am
(11) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Does anyone have Lous’ email?

April 29, 2009 at 12:03 pm
(12) adam fisher says:

I hadn’t noticed anyone suggesting any such thing. I’m a big proponent of both. The deeper question is not “whether” they fit together, but “how.”

I hadn’t meant to suggest that anyone had suggested it but rather that it is sometimes suggested along the Buddhist circuit.

As to ‘how’ they might ‘fit’ together, I would suggest that honesty is at least one part of the common ground.

And if anyone has Lou’s email, I too would be happy to know it. I searched the net and came up empty.

April 29, 2009 at 12:24 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

As to ‘how’ they might ‘fit’ together, I would suggest that honesty is at least one part of the common ground.

I agree completely, which is one reason the article bothered me. The author seems to be saying that Zen practice is more about avoiding personal pain and issues than confronting them, and I disagree with that very strongly.

April 29, 2009 at 12:47 pm
(14) adam says:

“The author seems to be saying that Zen practice is more about avoiding personal pain and issues than confronting them, and I disagree with that very strongly.”

Perhaps you’re right. I’ll have to go back and reread it. On a first (and only) reading, my impression was that side-stepping or rising above personal pain was one of the misinterpretations open to Zen students … a misinterpretation that is easy to make and can be as inviting as Thorazine to those suffering from deep disquiet.

April 29, 2009 at 1:05 pm
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

my impression was that side-stepping or rising above personal pain was one of the misinterpretations open to Zen students … a misinterpretation that is easy to make and can be as inviting as Thorazine to those suffering from deep disquiet.

I’d say it is a misinterpretation that people engaged in Zen practice do fall into, but it’s a misapplication of Zen. As Joshin O’Hara says in comment #3, it’s a common trap.

April 29, 2009 at 1:15 pm
(16) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Let me throw an idea out there. Psychology seems to project an attitude that the self can be somehow perfected. The Buddha seems to be saying that the self must be understood before it can be put in its’ proper perspective. Freud, I think, would have denied this ‘perfection’ philosophy but this is the sense that I get from the psychological culture as a whole.
I also think that this sense that humans can somehow be perfected leads to the relegation of those deemed mentally ill to another category entirely, that of ‘broken people’. It’s my take that we are all in a sense ‘broken’ to whatever extent and that the Buddha would have agreed with me on that point. Any thoughts?

I found a Zen center in Fla. that lists Lou as one of their teachers but the email is a general one. I’ll contact them and see if they might be willing to give me his personal email.

April 29, 2009 at 1:23 pm
(17) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Just lost a rather long post to the internet genies. Oh well.
Here’s an observation I would like to throw out there for your comment. Psychology seems to posit that the self can somehow be perfected. The Buddha on the other hand seems to be saying that the self is something that must be understood before we can move beyond it. Freud would have disagreed with this perfection of the self model but this is the sense that I get from the culture of Psychology.
I found a website of a Zen center in Fla. that lists Lou as a teacher. I’ll see if I can get them to give me his personal email.

I’ll also remember to copy before I post!

April 29, 2009 at 1:33 pm
(18) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Oops! When Macafee does its automatic updates it brings everything to a halt and this 2 for one post was the result. Sorry…

April 29, 2009 at 5:28 pm
(19) Rachel says:

Hi Barbara–I’m a student of John Daido Loori at the Mountains and Rivers Order and likewise found this article compelling, disturbing and in the end pointing to something that I’ve felt for some time: that there may be a gender divide in the way men and women approach zazen. Many women, myself included, find that unpeeling the onion and dealing with our karmic formation–with what comes up–is extraordinarily rewarding and may constitute a large part of practice. Whereas many men seem to hone in on the practice in such a manner that “stuff” may not come up. So if I were to theorize about where practice might “go wrong” vis a vis gender, I’d say women tend to psychologize the contents of mind whereas men repress it. I know this is a huge generalization, but I’m wondering what others think about it.

April 29, 2009 at 8:20 pm
(20) adam says:

Hi Rachel — As a matter of casual discussion, I might agree with your assessment. But I think that peeling the onion can be a profoundly spooky exercise irrespective of sex. To paraphrase Martin Luther King badly, it’s not what’s wrong with the world that really scares people; what really scares them is that things are all right.

I have heard such fears expressed by both men and women who practice Zen seriously. Though the words may reflect some gender leanings, still the fear seems to be the same.

FWIW.

April 30, 2009 at 12:36 am
(21) Joan Relke says:

Could Lou’s experience be an example of zen sickness? If you read Suzanne Segal’s book, Collision with the Infinite, you might find some startling parallels.
After her “enlightenment” she spent 12 years going from one psychologist to the next to find out what was wrong with her. She had no self. In the end, she found relief in a Buddhist intepretation, but towards the end of her life, as a brain tumour took her, she began to experience memories of childhood abuse. Perhaps it is possible to escape one’s torment by slipping into an “enlightened” state and thereby bypassing one’s painful past, for a while, at least.

Just a thought.

Joan

April 30, 2009 at 9:33 am
(22) adam says:

Dear Joan — I have always liked the story (names and time frame forgotten … sorry) about the monk whose Zen master confirmed his enlightenment. News of this good fortune spread through the monastery like wildfire and all the monks gathered around to congratulate their fortunate brother. One of the monks asked the lucky fellow, “So, have all your problems been wiped away?” And the fortunate monk replied, “Nope. Same old problems.”

April 30, 2009 at 3:59 pm
(23) Karen Maezen Miller says:

“Same trouble, it’s just not a problem.”

April 30, 2009 at 4:47 pm
(24) David says:

I am grateful to Barbara and all you experienced Zen practitioners for your comments. I too read the Times Magazine article and found it both interesting and disturbing. I felt that something was missing from it, and agree with Barbara that the author did not seem to grasp the Zen approach to self. Unlike the others who have offered comments I am a raw beginner to Zen, having just begun to study at a Rinzai Zen center. As someone who has had religious training in other traditions than Buddhist ones, I would like to observe that Nordstrom’s dilemma might be a universal problem in the following of any religion or life philosophy–getting stuck in one place, but being so knowledgeable of the tradition in general that one does not know one is stuck. In Jewish talmudic tradition there is the phrase “asses loaded with books”, namely practitioners of the faith who have memorized vast tomes, yet do not have the flexibility to digest meanings and make the meanings their own. In any case, my heart goes out to Louis Nordstrom and I wish him well. I am glad that therapy helped him.

April 30, 2009 at 5:08 pm
(25) AC says:

It might be helpful to look at Barry Magid’s ‘Ending the Pursuit of Happiness’ (2008) which takes apart the conflict between the psychological & the spiritual ‘self’ – for ‘me’ this tension is all part of the process towards wholeness & acceptance

April 30, 2009 at 8:09 pm
(26) MC says:

“Same trouble, it’s just not a problem.”
Karen’s quote has deep experiential meaning for me. So too, does Adam’s recount of a the Zen monk.

May 1, 2009 at 6:03 am
(27) adam says:

I would like to observe that Nordstrom’s dilemma might be a universal problem in the following of any religion or life philosophy–getting stuck in one place …

I agree with you, David. And wish you well in your practice. In Japan, there is a saying that seems to go to the heart of things: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Buddhism is not built for people who are so damned happy or who never make a mistake. If they were happy and never make a mistake, why would they bother with Buddhism in the first place?

Practice means making mistakes and then correcting them … over and over again. The mistakes may be (so to speak) gross — reading a lot of books and imagining that this constitutes some sort of meaningful understanding — or they may be more wily and subtle. But whatever the gross or subtle nature of the difficulties, still I think they relate to what you point to … stopping in a particular place; finding solace but no release; “nesting,” as the old guys used to say; finding an ‘answer’ that merely constitutes a new set of often-upsetting questions.

None of this is somehow naughty or bad. It’s simply human. Its resolution is found in the determination — the courage and patience and doubt — exercised by individual students.

Or anyway that’s my take.

May 1, 2009 at 9:54 am
(28) Elizabeth says:

“It’s my take that we are all in a sense ‘broken’ to whatever extent and that the Buddha would have agreed with me on that point. Any thoughts?”

Tom – The view of Buddha Dharma, as I understand it, is that we all are inherently “perfect” in the sense of Buddha Nature being our essence. (This in contrast, say, to the Christian notion of “original sin.”)

To the extent that we’re still cycling in samsara (dualistic perception), we are deluded – which is the source of our suffering.

Tai Situ Rinpoche is fond of saying: “We’re all perfect … and, until we’re Buddhas (i.e. have fully realized and are expressing, in every thought, word and action, our Buddha Nature) there’s always room for improvement!”

Somehow that helped me — and maybe it will be useful to you also :)

May 1, 2009 at 12:19 pm
(29) JoeBuddha says:

“We’re all perfect … and, until we’re Buddhas … there’s always room for improvement!”
Not sure about this; I don’t think of enlightenment as a goal, any more than I think of exercise as a goal. Being inherently enlightened, we’re inherently perfect. Being actually human, we’re actually always evolving. Even the Buddha makes mistakes, and there is always room for improvement. I don’t think I could handle the end of the process: Getting there isn’t HALF the fun, it’s ALL of it!

May 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm
(30) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Thanks, Elizabeth. In a dualistic world though, ‘broken’ still seems apt.

Yes, JoeBuddha, most of the time getting there is fun. Other times though, not so much. I think that is the point of Lous story.
The Buddhas viewpoint was perfect. Whether his actions while he was here always appeared perfect, I don’t know. Gets a bit dicey to discuss. Situations, circumstances…life is difficult like that.

May 1, 2009 at 4:36 pm
(31) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Adam says this very well and I think it should be repeated.
“Practice means making mistakes and then correcting them … over and over again. The mistakes may be (so to speak) gross — reading a lot of books and imagining that this constitutes some sort of meaningful understanding — or they may be more wily and subtle. But whatever the gross or subtle nature of the difficulties, still I think they relate to what you point to … stopping in a particular place; finding solace but no release; “nesting,” as the old guys used to say; finding an ‘answer’ that merely constitutes a new set of often-upsetting questions.
None of this is somehow naughty or bad. It’s simply human.”

May 1, 2009 at 5:19 pm
(32) JoeBuddha says:

To me, enlightenment means to enjoy the journey at some level, regardless of whether the current situation involves suffering or enjoyment. Suffering becomes challenge and enjoyment becomes reward. Haven’t made it there yet, but am well on my way. I figure another few hundred years or so and I’ll be all set!

May 1, 2009 at 6:27 pm
(33) Tom Fitzsimmons says:

Well said, Joe.

May 1, 2009 at 8:43 pm
(34) DWHayes says:

Hi Barbara. By saying that “forgetting the self is not a constructive approach” Jeffery was likely trying to guide Louis towards abandoning his significant intellectualized misinterpretation of selflessness which (in Jeffery’s eyes) had been reinforcing his historic “self-abandonment” psychopathology and fueling his ongoing suffering. Given that context, what Jeffery then probably meant by “remembering the self” is very likely what you yourself suggested Barbara in your comment, “My understanding is that studying the self, boldly wading into the mucky depths of the self, is essential to “forgetting” the self.” Your quote from Dogen underscores that very point.

May 4, 2009 at 12:09 pm
(35) AK says:

We need to be aware that Lou Nordstrom was one of the pioneer practitioners of Zen and that in those early days some of the Zen teachers gave out very harsh advice–such as ‘the self must be surgically removed’–Lou quoted one of his early teachers as saying that.

Rather than dump on Chip Brown for not himself being a Zen practitioner and for not understanding emptiness (maybe Mr Brown does, and he chose to keep quiet and let Lou and Jeffrey bear witness)…we might want to examine whether this teaching ‘The self must be surgically removed’ was itself flawed.

It seems a very harsh and dualistic approach to see self as something that must be eradicated, as if it were a wart.

And the very early Zen teachers who arrived from Japan did not understand the cultural divide between Westerners and Asians.

In Japan, everyone is already very, very connected. You are part of a family, a clan, and there is little privacy.

But in the US, there are wide open spaces, a huge emphasis on independence, and a lack of connection, both inside oneself as well as a fragility of relationships–parent child relatonships are easily disrupted, so are friendships. Look how hard it is to stay in touch with friends.

So for a non Japanese person who is already from an alienating culture, where it is hard to forge and then maintain personal relationships to be told ‘detach’ and ‘self must be surgically extirpated’–that teaching which might work very well in Japan, could only increase the malaise the some American students bring with them to practice.

Thirty years later, it is entirely appropriate for us to look back and take stock, and I am very grateful that Lou Nordstorm was willing to do this and that Mr Brown was able to assist him to bear witness.

May 4, 2009 at 4:33 pm
(36) adam says:

Hi AK — Lou as a Zen “pioneer” … boy do I feel old! Except to the extent that every student is a pioneer, perhaps that is a bit much. I imagine Zen practice had been around a while by the time — what? late ’60′s, early ’70′s — Lou got around to it.

Was the teaching of the time unduly stringent or in some way inappropriate to an American sensibility? I honestly don’t know. But I do imagine there were Japanese and Chinese people who gave it a whirl and went screaming into the night: What the heck — spiritual endeavor is not an easy thing…it’s not just tea and cookies and self-congratulatory sensitivities and who’s wearing designer clothes.

I do agree that Lou’s efforts to get things straight is a great service to any of us who are involved in practice. Really … a wonderful gift.

May 5, 2009 at 11:18 am
(37) Phil Kyosei Sengetsu Kolman says:

I am a product of Zen Mountain Monastery, named by Daido Roshi as Kyosei. Kyosei means “Mirror of Truth”. In my Jukai cerimony Roshi said in his explanation of my name that to know truth is to be enlightened and to be enlightened is to sit Zazen, to sit Zazen is to forget mind and body, to forget mind and body is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things, to be enlightened by the 10,000 things is to know true. I’ve been in practice 15 years and never once did I ever attempt to bury or hide my mind. My effort is to open and explore my mind and with the able teaching of Daido Roshi and Myotai sensei I think I’ve done well. It’s the hiden thinks we tuck away that stand in the way of reaching understanding. I’ve just moved on and I’m studying with Bill Jikai Greenberg Sensei who is a Zen Mentor and a Psychotherapist, do you think we are “forgetting the mind”?

In Gassho, Sengetsu

May 6, 2009 at 6:32 am
(38) adam says:

Kyosei-san — With respect, don’t hiding and not-hiding amount to the same thing, the same difficulty?

May 6, 2009 at 7:51 pm
(39) Kyosei says:

Adam, please explain your statement.

In GAssho,

Kyosei

May 7, 2009 at 6:01 am
(40) adam says:

Hi K — If there is something to reveal or something to hide, still there is something, don’t you think? True, we are currently in the world of words, but even so I think the question that wants to be asked is, is it true? Assuming anyone were willing to ask the question, then any ‘answer’ would fall short. But that’s not to say that understanding would be lacking.

FWIW.

March 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm
(41) adam says:

A March 10, 2010 article sheds some light on one of the teachers with whom Nordstrom studied … and also on some of the transgressions which Zen centers are sometimes burdened: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2010/03/the-aitken-shimano-letters/

Sorry if this is not the appropriate venue.

March 1, 2011 at 1:23 pm
(42) Kalita says:

This is my first time partaking of the wisdom on this site, and it’s very encouraging. I have been trying to balance the “recovery” from XXXrated severe abuse with a spiritual practice, and have fallen in love with Hinduism, as it appears to me to have a “God/dess” with multiple personalities.
I have pbserved, in 40 years of spiritual practice of all kinds, that it can be very easy to spiritualize life experiences to the point that it can be labelled “denial”. And it doesn’t seem to work. The unconscious/past is still there until we lay it out on the table and sort through the debris.
Our practice can give us a framework in which to do this.

July 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm
(43) BuddhiHermit says:

Indeed Kalita, I find Acceptance to be the most powerful path, however, it too has Indulgence lying in wait as a trap.

The Hermetic axiom “Know Thyself” is mirrored in every spiritual tradition I know, including all versions of Buddhism, but I have also met many who. like Lou, are predisposed to interpret literally. Fortunately, sincere desire for progress ALWAYS breaks through.

Desire, and Persistence are key, even if you have nothing else; although Persistence really needs to be supported by the belief that you will/must succeed.

In that case, success is always guaranteed.

Namaste

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