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When Enlightenment Doesn't Fix You

Review of Nothing Is Hidden by Barry Magid


Nothing Is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans by Barry Magid takes an approach to Zen that usually doesn't "work" for me. Usually articles and books that mix psychology and Buddhism are by people with a background in psychology but not so much in Buddhism. The result usually strikes me as superficial. But Barry Magid is both a psychoanalyst and a Zen lineage holder, and Nothing Is Hidden speaks deeply to both practice and the state of Zen in the West today.

And I must add that, although the book is about Zen, much of what it says applies to most schools of Buddhism.

The overriding theme is the relationship of realization/awakening to personal character and psychology. Magid argues that our character and psychological issues too often are shoved aside, rather than dealt with, in Zen practice. He writes (Chapter 1),

"Buddhism foregrounds the realization of perfection, reaching down into that deep well of no-self, to a place beyond loss and gain. This approach, especially as it developed in twentieth-century America, runs the risk of emotional bypass, of imagining that deep-seated emotional problems and character pathology can be washed away solely by sufficiently deep realization without ever having to engage psychological problems directly."

I'm reminded of a New York Times article from 2009 about the Zen teacher Louis Nordstrom. Nordstrom had been subjected to extreme abuse as a child, and he appears to have approached practice as a kind of escape from that. As a result, he continued to sabotage himself in countless ways even after his deep realization was recognized. Eventually he knew he needed psychological help.

Getting "stuck in the absolute" and not dealing honestly with the relative (see the "Two Truths") is something we're warned about, but it happens. The result is someone who has not honestly confronted his own defensive agendas; he may know sunyata, but he doesn't know himself.

Magid writes that liberation from the self can be "less transformative of day-to-day character than advertised."

"Not only did realization fail to heal the deep divisions in our character, more and more it looked as if for many people, and in particular for many Zen teachers, practice opened up bigger and bigger splits between an idealized compassionate self and a shadow self, where split off and denied sexual, competitive, and narcissistic fantasies held sway."

This explains a lot, including the several episodes of realized dharma teachers who sexually exploited their students. It is possible to have a deep realization of emptiness and interconnectedness that leaves personal psychological issues untouched.

What does this mean for those of us who are struggling students? This is where the koans come in. Magid takes up classic Zen koans and uses them to explore areas of psychology. His commentary often departs from standard interpretation, but I found it to be fascinating. For me, this book sheds light on some of the "dark corners" of practice, where things may not be what they seem.

For example, we are encouraged to completely trust, and surrender to, the teachings and the practice, and sometimes to a teacher. But when is surrender genuine, and when is it simply submission to authority? In one chapter, Magid explores deeply the difference between surrender and submission. One can look an awful lot like the other, you know. And what is the difference between compliance and unselfishness? When is a teacher-student relationship healthy, and when is it co-dependency? These are questions a lot of us are struggling with these days.

Why koans? Magid writes,

"I do not use koans in the traditional manner of dokusan presentation. Instead, I have tried to open up their imagery the way I would with a dream and make that imagery emotionally evocative and illuminating of the underlying psychological splits that need to be engaged if realization is to actually penetrate all facets of our personality. "

This explanation may come across as a tad soft and touchy-feely to someone grounded in traditional Zen. But even in the West some Zen centers still encourage a Code-of-Bushido toughness, which in my view is part of the problem. Are we surrendering, or are we submitting?

Zen, or any other form of dharma practice, is not psychotherapy. Let us be clear on that. Practice with the goal of feeling better about ourselves, or enjoying better relationships, or getting over bad habits, is not dharma practice. Some of those things may work out for you if you practice, but they may not. On the other hand, the two disciplines have a lot to teach each other, and we'd be foolish to ignore this.

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