Nothing Is Hidden - Selections

The Psychology of Zen Koans


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From: Chapter Twenty:
Self–sacrifice vs Compassion:

Torei Enji’s Bodhisattva’s Vow

The corollary to an unhealthy submission to others is an unhealthy devotion to others at the expense of one’s own legitimate emotional and physical needs—a parody of compassion that I have called vowing to save all being minus one. As I have discussed earlier, we may enlist our practice and our attempts at being compassionate in the service of a curative fantasy of eliminating our own neediness and vulnerability. Unable to face need in ourselves, we project it out into the world. We attribute it to all those others who are in need of our love, service and compassion, all the while denying that we ourselves might be in exactly the same condition. Love and caregiving are one-directional. We forego expecting anything in return (that would be self-centered!) and end up of seeing the world as a bottomless pit of need, an image that more honestly applies to our own neglected and repudiated inner state. Is it any wonder that such compassionate caregivers so often end up depressed and burnt out?

What, then, is a psychological healthier version of compassion?

The Bodhisattva’s Vow, composed by one of Hakuin’s disciples, Torei Enji (1721-1792), offers an entirely different vantage point from which to approach the whole idea of compassion. The overarching theme of the vow is one of appreciation and gratitude for the way the world already is: “When I a student of the Way, look at the real form of the Universe, all is the never failing manifestation of the mysterious truth of the Awakened life.”

Our vow is to strive to see the world in this way, as complete and always manifesting the Way. The bodhisattva’s compassion is not defined by giving or sacrifice; it is first and foremost, a way of seeing. It is only from the proper vantage point that right action can emerge, and that vantage is one that sees the intrinsic wholeness and interconnection of the world, not one that emphasizes what it lacks.

Even though ours is a lay practice center and I am not a priest, I always insist that our zazen is a religious practice. For me, this means it is grounded in a sense of reverence and awe for life as it is. Our zazen is not a means to an end, not even a charitable end. Like life, it is complete in and of itself, and it is this perspective we vow to uphold, manifest and transmit. From this vantage point spontaneously flows “tender care?with respectful hearts,?Even to such beings as birds and beasts.” Care goes hand in hand with respect, with treating everyone and everything as worthy of our respect.

I remember once when the poet and Zen teacher Philip Whalen came to New York City to give a reading at St Mark’s Church. In the courtyard was a statue of Peter Stuyvesant. Whalen stopped in front of the statue and bowed. “Why are you bowing to that old scoundrel,” I asked. “I bow to everything,” he replied.

In the imagery of the “Bodhisattva’s Vow,” the Awakened One, the Buddha, is trying to awaken all beings to the reality of non-separation, of our intrinsic inter-connectedness. He sees that we are sometimes capable of beginning to understand this truth under benign, non-threatening circumstances. We may feel harmony and oneness within our own community or in relation to nature. But this nascent understanding has its boundaries, and these are typically marked out by and reinforced in the face of suffering. Something is required to push us past our inertial limits, and so the old master suggests Buddha “uses devices” to further awaken us.

Although this language was perhaps taken literally at the level of religious folklore, in the same way in the Judeo-Christian tradition one might speak of God’s plan extending down into the particulars of our everyday life, there is a deeper, non-theistic, non-literal sense to these words as well. At the purely psychological level, we are being told that we can use the experience of being mistreated to remind ourselves of the artificial boundaries we set up in the creation of an Other. Suffering may be the precipitant, but also the reminder to attend to our reflexive tendency to split off as not-me that aspect of our common humanity which is now fragmenting into doer and done to. It is precisely in situations of “abuse and persecution,” that we are inclined to reflexively to devolve into complementarity, to see the world, not as manifesting the harmony of the Awakened life, but in the black and white opposition of self and other.

If ethics may be said to consist, in very large part, learning to behave well when we are treated badly, both Buddhism and relational psychoanalysis offer perspectives on how to move beyond doer and done to, beyond the endless the perpetuation of the cycle of injury, retaliation and re-injury that characterizes so many of conflicts at both the personal and international level. Breaking out of reactive cycles may be a better way of understanding compassion than a picture of endless one-directional giving.

The “Bodhisattva’s Vow” is a vivid exhortation to move beyond doer and done to. Within the language of psychoanalysis, we speak of the Third as way of representing a perspective that goes beyond these dichotomies. This may be especially challenging when dealing with cases of trauma, or of abuse and persecution, as the verse puts it. Trauma almost inevitably invites us to see the world divided into victims and perpetrators. The traumatized person is defined by what has been done to them. Often, such individuals feel a sense of passivity and helplessness in the aftermath of trauma.

Furthermore, the world itself is experienced as a passive, unresponsive bystander to their suffering, much the way a child feels when say, the mother fails to notice or act, when the father has been an abuser. The child ends up losing both parents; the father as the abuser, but also the mother, as the failed witness, one who knew but did not act. The goal is restore a sense of agency without resorting to simply changing sides, not succumbing to equating justice with revenge or retribution, The Third, rather, embodies the restoration of a lawful world, one in which suffering is recognized and acknowledged.

As therapists, we cannot undo what has been done. But we can allow the unspeakable to become speakable, and to call what has been done by its true name. Sadly, there has too often been a repetition of the scenario of the failed witness in Buddhist communities where abuse has taken place. Whether in the name of preserving the Sangha or the Dharma, or simply protecting the teacher, the truth remains unspoken, the pain never acknowledged, real action never taken. Too often, the wider community of Buddhist teachers has also remained silent, again, failing in its broader responsibility to bear witness.

From both the Buddhist perspective and the perspective of relational analysis, our well-being can never be ours alone and the end of our personal suffering can only be achieved in tandem with resolving our conflicts with others. Like Vimalakirti whose illness cannot be cured until the suffering of all beings is cured, the bodhisattva’s vow is as much a description of the non-separate state as it is an aspiration to it. Compassion has at its core the aspiration to help others awaken. What we awaken to is non-separation. The bodhisattva recognizes she is non-separate from all fellow beings; to the extent they are caught in delusive dichotomies, she is as well and her own full liberation cannot take place apart from theirs. We fulfill the vow by over and over affirming our common humanity, our common buddha-nature, not by attempting to efface ourselves in the name of a spiritual ideal.

To be ethically meaningful as well as therapeutic, both Buddhism and psychoanalysis must extend their reach beyond the confines of the analytic couch and the meditation cushion. But that move into the world is primarily a move of sharing a vision of that world with others. We are not drained by that sharing and its depth is not measured in terms of our own sacrifice or pain. The joy of realization is the wellspring of compassion and if we lose touch with that joy in the midst of our seemingly “selfless” giving, we will be a poor impetus indeed for the awakening of anyone else.

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

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