A Reply to Chip Brown’s “Enlightenment Therapy”

Mitra Bishop-sensei, responds to the suggestion that Zen practice discourages people from facing their emotional and psychological problems.

Mitra Bishop
13 May 2009
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer

Here’s her reply to Chip Brown:

Author Chip Brown wrote an article for the New York Times last month and titled it “Enlightenment Therapy.”  Perhaps some of you have seen it and wondered about it.  It told the story of a man, Louis Mitsunen Nordstrom, who at the age of 63 sought the help of a psychoanalyst after descending into depression, anxiety, and a feeling of being invisible.  Mitsunen is his Buddhist name, and yes, he seriously practiced Zen.  In fact, he was ordained in both Soto and Rinzai sects, and was even sanctioned to teach.  As Mr. Brown describes the situation: “If he hadn’t been so distraught, he might have laughed at the absurdity of it: a Zen master in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst.”

Mr. Brown appears surprised: What?  “a Zen master in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst”?

The article continues,“But that afternoon in July 2006, driving from his home in Brewster, N.Y., to the shrink’s office in Bedford Hills, he was frantic with anxiety…. How could he have spent his life cultivating unity of body and mind, oneness with all beings and the ability to apprehend reality directly, unmediated by thoughts or concepts or what Zen considered the arch delusion of “the self” — only to be haunted by the feeling that he lacked the most basic unity of all?”

As we read further into the article, however, we find some clues—as well as some misinformation about the nature of Zen practice and what it asks of us.  Lou Nordstrom, it appears, excelled in his Zen practice, which he gave up a tenured position as a professor to engage in.  Why “appeared to”?  Because, although he had suffered extreme abuse as a child (the article tells us that his mother used to stub out cigarettes on his skin—until she abandoned him and his father when he was three, and it didn’t get much better after that when he was sent to live with his senile grandmother and his remote grandfather), his Zen teachers apparently told him to ignore his emotions and just do his practice.  To quote the article once more:

“…the injunction ‘know thyself,’ the ultimate chocolate-cherry in the candy box of Western wisdom, was brushed off by Zen adherents as a delusion. What’s to know about a conceit that has no fixed reality and more often than not is an impediment to experiencing Buddha nature? The self, as one Rinzai teacher put it bluntly, ‘is a malignant growth which is to be surgically removed.’”

Actually, Zen practice is exactly about knowing oneself—intimately.  All the warts, all the repressed stuff, all the attachments, all the investment in a self-image.  And that self-image is not “a malignant growth which is to be surgically removed.”

Unfortunately, it is easy to use one’s practice to ignore all our baggage, to blast it away (at least temporarily), to shove it under the carpet (where it still remains operative).  Traditionally we are urged to ignore everything except the koan—”Only MU!”  we were taught.  True enough—but that “Only MU!” is grossly misunderstood.  We don’t use Mu—or the outbreath or Who Am I or the Face Before My Parents Were Born or the Sound of One Hand—to get rid of anything. Recently someone wrote that they were “shouting MU! MU! MU!” to quell their raging thoughts.  This is a complete misunderstanding of how to work on that koan.  In the very midst of our everyday life, emotions and all, we use that Mu or that Who or that outbreath to search for the truth in that moment—not to deny anything, not to shut anything up, not to turn anything off.  If we are deeply curious about the truth of the moment—a truth that is not sought through thought, but rather opened to beyond/beneath the level of the discursive intellect—and we persist, we will open to it.

And that means seeing through whatever delusion seems to be operative in that moment, not getting rid of it.  When we do the outbreath, that physical experience of breathing out is the central focus, but accompanying it is an increasing opening to the full range of perception—without entertaining it.  And if strong emotions come up or we feel blocked in our practice, then it might be appropriate—and very helpful—to seek professional help from a trained therapist.  Zen practice, properly practiced, will reveal our issues.  Sometimes they are minor enough that we can simply turn the light of our awareness on the moment, stay utterly present with it, and it will resolve.  This is an ancient Buddhist teaching that has been discovered by modern therapists—because it works.  Here is how the great Tibetan Buddhist master from centuries ago, Longchenpa, put it, as translated by Kennard Lipman and Merrill Peterson:

“Though attachment, aversion, dullness, pride, and envy may arise, fully understand their inner energy; recognize them in the very first moment, before karma has been accumulated. In the second moment look nakedly at this state and relax in its presence.  Then whichever of the five passions [lust, anger, stupidity, arrogance, and jealousy] arise becomes a pure presence, freed in its own place, without being eliminated. It emerges as the pristine awareness that is pure, pleasurable, and not conditioned by thought.”

—from You Are the Eyes of the World,
a translation and commentary of a profound teaching given by the 14th century
Tibetan Buddhist master Longchenpa

“…freed in its own place, without being eliminated”—this is key.  Longchenpa did not teach the denial of these emotions nor did he teach that we should get rid of them.  “Look nakedly at this state,” he teaches, “and relax in its presence.”  Often we can do this work ourselves, with the help of our Zen teacher’s encouragement.  Other times it is best to get in touch with an understanding therapist, particularly if one’s issues or one’s history is intense.  This is particularly true of anyone who has suffered abuse, especially as a child.  Sometimes we don’t remember that it has happened, all the more so if it was especially traumatic.  It is also not easy to recognize abuse if it was psychological and if we didn’t experience interactions with non-abusing people.

Zen practice with an experienced Zen teacher who can recognize when we need to pay that extra attention to our “stuff” in order to proceed in a healthy way with our practice, and therapy with an empathetic therapist who doesn’t discount spiritual practice can be a deeply healing combination.  And what is Zen about but profound healing?  The Buddha himself was called “The Great Physician,” and the practice is the medicine.  But like all medicines, it needs to be properly used or it can poison.  Part of our work with our teacher is to discern when it’s healing and when it’s hurting.  And a true Zen teacher—one who has gone through deep and intensive training him- or herself—should be able to know the difference and guide the student in appropriate directions so that True Liberation can be realized, not an imitation liberation that comes from not being aware of our stuff.