Introduction to Awakening Zen

A new vision of Zen and the Unconscious

Even as a teenager I felt a strong calling to Zen, but for the past several years now I’ve been going through a time of soul-searching about the ways in which Buddhist teachings and practices are being transformed in and by the West. Many questions have emerged about how this practice works for us, what it actually has to offer Western culture and beyond, and particularly what’s happening with Zen as this great and ancient tradition has been struggling to find a greater measure of authenticity and relevance in the 21st century.

Some of these shifts have grown out of the ways we have put such a western spin on some of the fundamental teachings, and in part it has emerged from my belief that Westerners, who take such pride in our “independent” sense of self, actually experience aspects of the practice differently. Most significant, though, has been a growing awareness of the unique intrapsychic dynamics that can arise for westerners, especially as practice touches into deeper and deeper realms. It has been a richly complicated and unsettling journey, but one which has brought me an even greater appreciation of the depths and significance of what the Dharma actually has to offer.

As some background, I began my meditation practice in 1969, and for close to 20 years felt that if I just practiced diligently the issues of my life would be resolved. Much of this more recent questioning, though, has grown out of my experience as a Zen teacher, and as a psychotherapist who, for close to 25 years, has been working intensively with many others involved with Zen. It’s also directly connected to the profoundly unethical actions of far too many so-called teachers, and what I perceive as our apparent inability to see these people for who and what they are.

Admittedly, it’s been difficult not to simply demonize those individuals who have preyed emotionally and sexually on their students, but also others who have cast their own dark shadows over the Dharma. There are personal experiences I’ve been through related to this as well, which have helped fuel the many layers of disappointment and anger related to (questioning about) what’s really going on. The central question here is, how is it that people who have been practicing for so many years, supposedly had deep and transformative experiences, act in ways that anyone would know are immoral; that clinically speaking, are sociopathic, predatory, and even criminal? How can these supposedly ethically evolved individuals be so narcissistically blind and uncaring in terms of the consequences of their actions? And even if we could, why would we ever want to distinguish ethical imperatives from genuine awakening? A secondary level of questioning has to do with wondering why these people would still be looked up to, and even honored, as exemplary figures of the Dharma, and what is revealed by the fact that a number of these people have attracted such a large number of students? These are not easy questions to comfortably resolve; for me they simply don’t fit with my earlier appreciation/understanding of the dharma.

A similar level of questioning, in some ways perhaps even harder to come to terms with, relates to the substantial number of practitioners who have suffered long-term disruption to their lives which can, at least in part, be attributable to their meditation practices. This is an area Dr. Willoughby Britton, and others, have been researching for some years now. Aside from the pain and sorrow that comes up about all this, can we come to a clearer understanding of what’s going on here, and look into the question of whether certain practices are somehow “causing” these problems? In other words, is meditation driving some people over the edge? Obviously, neither the narcissistically or the depressively dysfunctional extremes fit into a healing vision of dharma practice, so is there anything we can learn from these extremes? Further, is there possibly some underlying dynamic that ties them together? I’ve recently come to believe that this is unquestionably so.

There have been a number of other concerns that have slipped in as well, which have to do with other ways Western Zen has been painting itself into a corner. In the 60’s and 70’s I think it’s fair to say that many people felt that Zen was the pre-eminent form of Buddhism – the most accessible, the most direct, the most penetrating. In earlier times there seemed to be the consensus that Zen practice was like the ocean, the further out you went, the deeper it got. Perhaps because of this ethos, it was also found to be one of the most marketable. These days, much of what’s written about Zen, and taught, have created a situation where it has come to seem more like a shadow of itself; more intellectualized and psychologized, more focused on stress reduction, and more content to simply wade through the upper levels of human consciousness rather than plunging into it’s depths. How did it become so tepid, and why this singular fascination with Mindfulness, which often has come to be seen as almost synonymous with Zen?

Perhaps even more to the point, why has the central issue of genuine awakening so often been misrepresented, minimized, or ignored? Why have we seen such a proliferation of teachings that might collectively be called “Snake Oil Zen;” concoctions of Western/Asian teachings that profess to offer weekend awakenings and other such miraculous cures?  Certainly dedicated practice isn’t easy, and the process of seeing through deep layers of conditioning presents a daunting challenge – but does that mean those depths should be dismissed? From the beginning, some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha’s awakening has been the absolute touchstone for all Dharmic teachings, and has served to reveal and clarify the experiential depths of the Dharma.  These days, if awakening is mentioned at all, much of the time it’s transformed into something eminently describable, impossibly remote, or else simply dismissed by viewing it through the eyes of spiritual materialism. Some years ago a young ordained man, yet another who had become disillusioned by the manipulations of a teacher, came through our center. Because of what he had been through he told us that he wasn’t particularly interested in Awakening, he just wanted to learn how to follow the Precepts. His story has stayed with me because it seems both so unfortunate and so misinformed. Personally I’m completely unclear how Buddhist ethics and any kind of thorough-going awakening can be separated.

So this inner exploration I’ve been going through has stripped away of all kinds of fundamental assumptions, and in doing so, has significantly altered my whole understanding of practice. Here in the west we’ve taken on many of the Asian forms, but implicitly given many of them a western spin – because something looks the same, doesn’t mean it is the same, or that it is experienced in the same way. And as nice as it would be to believe that practice is unconditionally healing, it’s no longer possible to hold this idea as being necessarily true, the whole picture is simply much, much more complicated. I do believe that sustained dharma practice offers us a doorway to the most powerful transformational process possible, and can help lead to the truest form of freedom. But what’s also true is that for most of us it’s a process moves us through all kinds of twists and turns. Intensified dharma practice can bring to the surface the deepest layers of the psyche, mobilizing and empowering them, but that even awakening experiences, in and by themselves, don’t get to the roots of these deeply ingrained unconscious patterns. This is especially true for what has been referred to as the locked zone of the western repressive unconscious.

Working with these Dharmic complications has at times felt like wrestling a nine-headed dragon, and at others like trying to deal with a house full of cats. As soon as you think you’ve gotten ahold of one or two, another seven seem to slip into view, (and then another and another). So it’s not simply a matter of re-clarifying certain fundamental Asian teachings and practices, as important as that would be, but we’re really dealing with a phenomenally process that entails seeing into the mutual conditionings of two cultures. As these complex cultural, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual systems come together, some aspects resonate deeply, while others couldn’t be more antithetical to each other. And like a dog chasing it’s own tail, it’s often hard to turn around fast enough to really see what’s going on.

Again and again this questioning has brought me back to what people are actually experiencing in practice. For over two decades now I’ve been working with a good many practitioners in both very intense retreat and psychodynamic contexts, and have been through several life-changing experiences myself. All of these things have helped strip back my own implicit assumptions, revealing things I never could have imagined might be true. Originally it seemed that what we refer to as dharma practice and psychotherapy could be meaningfully distinguished from each other, but now that line has become significantly blurred, if present at all. Some might look down on this as being a softening and psychologizing of Zen, but in truth practice has always been evolving. This evolution has many levels to it, but my sense is that here in the West unless we’re willing to deal with the many manifestations of the western unconscious, we’ll be limited in the ways we take to the essential teachings of Buddhism, and we will limit our ability to savor the depths of the Bodhisattvic ideal.


Backing up a bit, going through this re-examination with fresh eyes has really helped me come to appreciate the fact that Buddhism actually does function as a remarkably complex system, or perhaps more accurately as a number of inter-related, multi-dimensional systems. It has its own rich collection of stories, myths and astonishingly profound teachings and practices that establish the context and backdrop for the experiential side of the Dharma. This experiential side of the written and oral teachings comes to life through the numerous practices, and the unfolding of our understanding as these practices deepen. Ultimately we could say that the teachings and practice become unified, and further that with genuine Awakening, all such distinctions fall away. One of the koans in the Mumonkan asks, “Is there a teaching that has never been taught?” What a great question. When Zen Master Dogen returned home to Japan, he was asked about what he had learned from his studies in China. He replied,

My eyes are horizontal,

My nose is vertical,

I will not be deceived by others,

The Buddhadharma does not exist in the least. 

Dogen’s last sentence here really points to the radical depths of the teachingless teaching of Buddhism that leads us into new realms. When we focus on just a few, select elements of the Buddha’s teaching, we easily distort the process and miss the wholeness. Buddhism is not about mindfulness, or clarity; it’s about our whole being through and through.

The Buddha’s first teaching called The Four Noble Truths put forth that, from the beginningless-beginning we and all existence are whole and inseparable, but that by living out of this false sense of disconnection and alienation we inevitably wind up doing violence both to ourselves and to the whole. Ultimately, all Dharma practices are about seeing through and uprooting this illusory sense of an isolated self, something which might be considered to be a universal spiritual truth. The fundamental nature of this non-duality is revealed in Einstein’s words: “The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self,” which is in turn echoed Sri Nisargadatta’s understanding that our true liberation is not about “freedom of the self, but from the self.” To the extent that this conditioned belief in a fixed and separate self falls away, the more we open ourselves to the realm of the interdependence of all existence.  This is the teaching and realization of Shunyata, commonly (and misleadingly) translated as Emptiness. This sense of connectedness is not some dry abstraction, but rather manifests itself as caring and compassion, and finds it’s highest selfless expression in the Bodhisattvic ideal.

This mutually-conditioned interdependence, and the selflessness that it reveals, is not an easy thing for Westerners to grasp.  As a contemporary Zen Master, Kyozo Yamada, wrote: “In comparing the spirit of the East with that of the West, one characteristic readily comes [to] mind, namely, the proclivity in the East to be able to see and understand readily that the world is one. As I have often said, the fact that the world is one cannot be grasped unless it is through the world of Emptiness (Shunyata). For some reason, of which I am not sure, the Eastern peoples have an affinity for the world of emptiness and because of that they see the world is one... For this reason, when I say that there must be a change from Western thought, I think that the only possible substitute is the Eastern approach.”

(Kyosho 212 [July/August 1988], pp. 4-5, 40-41 ???)

So a core issue in these writings has to do with the fact that the West has it’s own set of assumptions and beliefs about the nature of the self and the world, many of which are not only different, but in some instances antithetical to the teachings of Buddhism. It’s no secret that we are a singularly self-centered culture, and that to a large extent our dominant position in the world has come at the very real expense of others. Our compelling individualism has lead to mind-blowing discoveries and accomplishments, but also has left in its wake a great legacy of suffering. This is no small topic, and its implications permeate virtually every aspect of our lives and consciousness. Further, this self-serving view skews our understanding of the Buddhist teachings, and in profound ways shapes our experience of the practice.

It seems to me, both interestingly and paradoxically, that the parched aloneness of the western psyche is a significant piece of what underlies the thirst for a certain kind of spiritual revival in this country – it is what in so many ways defines us, drives us, and defeats us. As Camus has written, “Our reason has driven all away.  Alone at last, we end up ruling over a desert.”