Nothing Is Hidden - Introduction

The Psychology of Zen Koans


232 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9781614290827

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ISBN 9781614291022

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Both as a student and a teacher, I have had a complicated relationship to koans, one that perhaps mirrors many of the twists and turns of their use in America. As a Dharma heir of Charlotte Joko Beck, I belong to a Zen lineage that contains elements of both Rinzai and Soto practices, the two primary traditions of Japanese Zen. Rinzai Zen is usually identified with koan practice; the student typically starts with a initial koan like Mu and then moves through a sequence of koans centered on the canonical collections, among which are the Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff Record, which were assembled almost one thousand years ago. Soto Zen is grounded in shikantaza or “just sitting,” a form of practice established in Japan by Eihei Dogen in the thirteenth century. Dogen also used koans—or at least gave numerous talks based on koans—but teachers in the Soto lineages typically did not use them in the systematic, question-and-answer way that characterized the Rinzai lineages as revived by the renowned master Hakuin in eighteenth-century Japan.

Although there are pure Rinzai and Soto lineages in America, the lineage I belong to is a hybrid of the two, as indeed are most Zen lineages in America. This fact is largely due to the influence of a single remarkable teacher, Hakuun Yasutani (1885–1973). Yasutani started off as monk in the Soto Zen tradition, studying under a teacher who was considered one of the greatest Dogen scholars of his day, Nishiari Bokusan. But as a young monk, Yasutani was disillusioned by what he saw as the complacency of his fellow monks.

Their great founder Eihei Dogen (1200–1253) had taught that Zen meditation was not a means to an end, not a technique for achieving enlightenment, but that practice and realization were inseparably one and the same. Dogen wrote, “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the Dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.”

However, Yasutani thought that what he saw around himself in the monastery was neither joyful nor enlightened and that the true spirit of Dogen was missing from Nishiari’s Zen. His condemnation of his teacher was harsh:

Beginning with Nishiari Zenji’s, I have examined closely the commentaries on the Shobogenzo [Dogen’s masterwork] of many modern people, and though it is rude to say it, they have failed badly in their efforts to grasp its main points. . . . It goes without saying that Nishiari Zenji was a priest of great learning and virtue, but even a green priest like me will not affirm his eye of satori [enlightenment]. . . . So it is my earnest wish to correct to some degree the evil [of Nishiari’s theoretical Zen] in order to requite his benevolence, and that of his disciples, which they have extended over many years.

Yasutani left Nishiari’s monastery, married, and became an elementary school teacher. He nonetheless continued his practice with a number of different teachers—until he met Harada Sogaku Roshi.

Harada also had been a Soto priest, whose own search had brought him to study with Toyota Dokutan (1841–1919), abbot of Nanzenji, a Rinzai temple. Harada completed koan study with him and become his Dharma successor, though he formally remained a Soto priest, eventually becoming abbot of Hosshinji, a Soto temple. Yasutani sat his first sesshin with Harada in 1925 and two years later at the age of forty-two was recognized as  having attained kensho, an initial experience of enlightenment. Ten years later, at the age of fifty-eight, he finished his koan study and received Dharma transmission from Harada Roshi on April 8, 1943.

Yasutani first came to the United States in 1962, at the invitation of Philip Kapleau, who had studied with Harada Roshi at Hossinji. Kapleau, whose book The Three Pillars of Zen introduced many of my generation of  Americans to Zen practice, went on to be the founder of the Rochester Zen Center. Other students of Yasutani were Robert Aitken and Taizan Maezumi, each of whom went on to establish flourishing American lineages. Yet  while I would eventually train and receive Dharma transmission in Charlotte Joko Beck’s branch of the Yasutani-Maezumi lineage, my first experience of Zen was with the Rinzai teacher Eido Shimano, whose own mixture of charisma, insight, and sexual misconduct provided a whole generation of American Zen students with their first true koan. In many important ways, this and my previous books have been attempts to keep working on that first  koan: the relationship of realization to personal character and psychology, how the two intersect, or how, all too often, they can instead be like two arrows missing in midair.

When I came to New York City in 1975, after medical school, to begin my residency training in psychiatry, I began looking for an analyst and looking for a place to begin practicing Zen. Eido’s Zen Studies Society appeared to  be the only game in town as far as Zen went; the options for psychoanalytic training were far more diverse and complicated.

In those days, it felt like my psychoanalytic world was divided into two camps, the followers of Heinz Kohut and the followers of Otto Kernberg. The world of psychoanalysis was obviously far more complex than that, with  Freudians, Kleinians, Sullivanians, Horneyans, Jungians, and Winnicottians all competing for attention—not to mention the popular nonanalytic offshoots of Gestalt and Transactional Analysis.

Kohut was famous for advocating an empathic stance by the analyst as an alternative to the classical Freudian “blank screen” neutrality. He thought of people’s struggles in terms of their frustrated, healthy, arrested  developmental strivings for love and attention. Otto Kernberg, on the other hand, stressed the role of primitive aggression and thought that, deep down, patients were trying to destroy the analyst, driven by uncontrollable envy and a need to split their emotional world into competing all-good and all-bad factions. Although I was drawn to Kohut’s picture, I nonetheless found myself enacting the Kerbergian drama by casting Kernberg himself as the psychoanalytic equivalent of Darth Vader to Kohut’s Obi Wan Kenobi. Kohut and Kernberg were, each after his own fashion, pioneers in the treatment of narcissistic and borderline personality disorders, both of which were  characterized by a sense of inner emptiness and depression, an unstable sense of self, often wildly alternating between grandiosity and worthlessness, and chronically difficult personal relationships. The borderline did the narcissist one better by being in a more chronic state of anger and resentment at how others were treating or neglecting him; the narcissist’s grandiosity holding up a slightly more stable, if brittle, shield against the world.

With great reluctance, and not a little anxiety, I had to admit that I saw most of this in the mirror every morning.

Kohut represented some hope for people like me, while Kernberg offered only the grim caveat that individuals with these sorts of personality disorders, while potentially treatable, were clearly unsuited to be therapists  themselves. “What if I am a borderline?” was the question that kept nagging at the back of my mind as I began my career as a psychiatrist and my own analytic training. That conclusion was simultaneously unacceptable and  inescapable. It served as a nexus for all my self-doubt, all my self-hate, all my fears that my professional self was a sham and that deep down I was crazy. Whether, as a beginning psychiatrist, my self-diagnosis was accurate or not is beside the point. (Medical students are notorious for imagining they have contracted every disease they are studying.) The question roiled my guts and made my mind reel with endlessly inconclusive arguments pro and con. Without my realizing it, that question was my first koan.

One day—and I can still remember it some thirty-five years later—as I was walking across Union Square Park, about to catch the subway to go to see my analyst—I suddenly gave up. “Alright, I’m a borderline. That’s it.” Amazingly, instead of being plunged into the despair and hopelessness I always thought this conclusion would entail, to say nothing of the impending collapse of my psychiatric career, I felt an enormous burden had been lifted. I was no longer fighting with myself, I was no longer trying to ward off or deny some part of my self that had me terrified.


The traditional Zen koans offer us the chance to encounter and reengage what we consciously or unconsciously consider “not-me.” Sometimes, as in my case, it will be a part of me that is considered damaged, shameful, or incongruent with the person I am trying to be. But there is a much wider range of self-experience from which we may be cutting ourselves off. We may deny or try to minimize our animal nature, striving to be rational rather than emotional, in control rather than vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life. We may attempt to deny our very mortality and try to make what we call the “spiritual” into a portal into another, perhaps immortal, life, beyond death. We may deny the part of ourselves that is interconnected and dependent on others, seeking autonomy and stoic self-sufficiency. And finally, we may cut ourselves off from our own intrinsic wholeness and perfection, idealizing teachers or buddhas whom we imagine are utterly and qualitatively different from ourselves, beings of another order, whose attainments never can really be fully our own.

The way in which I will use not just “personal” koans like this but traditional ones as well to engage and work through psychological impasses may strike some of those trained in the traditional methods of koan study as illegitimate, superficial, trivializing—or all of the above. When I began my Zen training, reference to what was “psychological” was almost always prefaced by “the merely.” Zen went “deeper” than that. Koans were considered to be Zen’s unique key to breaking through to the “Absolute.” The sitting cushion—the zafu—not the analyst’s couch, was where one would find true liberation from the self. Yet the fruits of those breakthroughs, the promised liberation from the suffering self, proved far more elusive and much less transformative of day-to-day character than advertised.

It turned out that even the seemingly most intense transcendent experiences faded and their afterglow did not so reliably trickle down into the recesses of our unconscious minds. More and bigger realizations were not by themselves the answer. 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.

Although the traditional koan system was touted as being designed precisely to bring one down from the hundred foot pole of pernicious oneness (the use of spiritual experiences of any kind to remain “above it all”) its capacity to engage and work through character disorder in light of and within the crucible of realization turned out to be severely limited. In psychological terms, one would say that though it delivered on the promise of insight, it failed in the process of working through, of integrating realization with our deeply ingrained character styles. It is that failure of working through that I hope to address in this work. My own teacher, Joko Beck, declared that koans simply failed to address emotion in any meaningful and systematic way. She was speaking from experience, and she was no doubt correct in her assessment, given her teacher’s extraordinary proficiency at teaching koans and his equally extraordinary personal failings as a human being. 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.

As Zen students we can indeed achieve moments in which our everyday dualistic boundaries between the self and the world would seem to dramatically dissolve—and yet it turns out that the dualisms that matter most in our lives are more persistent, more elusive, and more unconsciously engrained.


Ordinary Mind used Heinz Kohut’s self psychology as its psychoanalytic organizing theory. This book will expand on that conceptual base by including a broader relational analytic perspective, particularly Philip Bromberg’s work on dissociation, as well as Jessica Benjamin on intersubjectivity, Emmanuel Ghent on submission and surrender, and attachment theory as grounded in the work of John Bowl by and Mary Ainsworth.

Graham Greene, in the epigraph to his first novel, Brighton Rock, illustrates one aspect of the phenomena this expanded perspective attempts to address: “There’s another man within me, and he’s angry with me.” The other man within—simultaneously someone who is both my self and not me; someone who is judging me by a set of standards that are not quite my own, not quite available to my own scrutiny, but which I also cannot escape. Note how different Greene’s declaration is from the simple statement “I am angry with myself.” Being angry with one’s self reflects a more ordinary sense of conflict, of, say, not having done what one knows would have been the right thing to do. But to have “another man within” reflects the more mysterious phenomenon of dissociation, of having one part of one’s self being other to another part. Dissociation, being cut off emotionally from aspects of ourselves that feel like “not-me,” whether our vulnerability, our sexuality, our aggression, our need for love, our sense of inner damage or inner wholeness, are the dualisms of everyday life that create the suffering that practice is meant to relieve.

As I have discussed in my previous books, these splits within our self are the most painful manifestation of dualism in our lives. In Buddhist jargon, dualism too easily becomes a metaphysical abstraction, a philosophical whipping boy that we can all agree represents a false dichotomization of reality, a delusional perspective that we pay lip service to disavowing.

This all-too-glib dismissal of dualism ignores both its tenacious unconscious roots as well as its ubiquitous place in organizing our everyday experience.

Thus, on the one hand, we remain unaware of how the dissociative aspects of dualism split off our emotional from our spiritual lives, and on the other, we maintain a guilty relationship to all the complex ways we individually, culturally, and politically organize our experience using dualistic frames of reference, such as male and female, self and other, family and strangers, likes and dislikes, enlivening work and soul-killing drudgery, and so on. We should also bear in mind the insight of Simone de Beauvoir that all the famous dualisms of Western history could be seen as arising out of the opposition of male and female, and that all the masculine sides of the polarity (authority, strength, agency) were valued, while all those seen as feminine (dependency, vulnerability, passivity) were devalued. Inequalities of gender, income, and power are not dichotomies that exist only in our imagination and that can be dissolved in a personal spiritual experience on the cushion. These inequalities have been culturally grafted onto Buddhism over many centuries in Asia and are only now being questioned as it is being transplanted in America.

My primary concern in this book, however, will be how our individual meditation practice can be distorted by unexamined psychological processes that enlist traditional concepts like dualism into the service of our unconscious defensive agendas. For example, I have seen Buddhist practitioners exert great efforts to eliminate any trace of preference for comfort over discomfort in their lives, while ignoring a pervasive unconscious underlying belief that others, but not they themselves, are entitled to love, care, or happiness.

In the chapters that follow, I will explore the psychological mechanisms of denial, dissociation, and idealization that foster these kinds of splits. I will do so from the theoretical and clinical perspective of a psychoanalyst, which, in tandem with Zen, is how I’ve worked and practiced all my professional life. I realize that for some readers, psychoanalysis may represent a seemingly interminable old-fashioned therapeutic approach that is rapidly being overtaken by short-term cognitive-behavioral techniques. It is not my intention to debate the relative merits of different therapeutic approaches here—rather, I hope to illustrate what a psychoanalytic understanding can bring to the intersection of Zen practice and personal psychology and let that presentation stand or fall on its own merits.

I will try to show how the vivid imagery of koans can offer us a metaphorical way to engage the splits in our psyche and how they point to a reengagement with the whole of ourselves, a wholeness far greater and more encompassing than we ever imagined. My choices do not follow any standard sequence, nor are they meant to be in any way a comprehensive guide to traditional koan study. With the exception of Mu, I have tried to choose koans that I did not discuss in my previous books. If my interpretations sometimes stray from the traditional path, so be it. Given the choice, I prefer to “make it new” (in Ezra Pound’s words) rather than to follow along well-worn paths, where many other, more traditional guides are available.

How to cite this document:
© Barry Magid, Nothing Is Hidden (Wisdom Publications, 2013)

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