PsychoDynamic Zen and Genjokoans

PsychoDynamic Zen finds its roots in the work of the Genjokoan. Genjo has been translated as presence itself, while koan refers to public document. Genjokoan has been variously translated as: “the case at hand,” “the koan manifesting,” or “life koan;” and refers to the opportunity of working with our life issues and relationships – all as practice. Psychodynamic Zen takes this traditional form of training a step further by joining this focus on life-issues with the recent psychological advances relating to attachment theory, repression, and the unconscious, particularly as they manifest themselves in the Western psyche.

Historically, the term Genjokoan is most often associated with Japanese Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) who used it as the title of the first chapter of his classic text, The Shobogenzo, which includes the following passage:

To study the Buddha way is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas. To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to bring about the dropping away of body and mind of both oneself and others. The traces of enlightenment come to an end, and this traceless enlightenment is continued endlessly.1

From the perspective of Psychodynamic Zen, “studying the self” embraces the potential for working with life-practice issues on both conscious and unconscious levels. In particular, it focuses on the unconscious forces that affect both Realization and Actualization by working with the intrapsychic tension that arises between the forces of repression, and those forces that move us towards the direct experience of feelings. It seems clear that to the extent that unconscious conflicts remain unaddressed, there will be aspects of our understanding that will remain obscured.

What underlies the relevance of this work is the understanding that Western and Asian psyches have significant differences, a fact that has been well documented in numerous studies. A big difference has to do with the fact that Asian cultures are based on shame, while the West has a culture based on guilt; a very recent study strongly suggests that even our fundamental constellation of feelings are not the same2. Familial and social relationships also manifest themselves differently, and of even greater significance is the fact that the very experience of “self” is not the same. With this perspective we can begin to understand how fundamental elements of dharma practice might also be experienced differently, and most importantly, why we so often see a range of issues left painfully unaddressed by traditional approaches.

Zen Master Dogen, quoted above, comes from the same lineage as Chinese Ch’an Master Hongzhi (1091-1157). Hongzhi’s teachings also reflected the value of this life-practice dharma. In the introduction to Cultivating the Empty Field, a book about Hongzhi’s teachings, Taigen Dan Leighton writes:

The importance of purifying or resolving one’s conditioning informs the practice that underlies Hongzhi’s vision of inherent illumination; once the obscurations of conditioning are shed, free functioning is manifested. This process is reflected in the traditional Soto approach to koan practice, which is to see the events or conflicts of our own lives as cases to be penetrated, both in meditation practice and in consultation with a teacher. This approach, called genjokoan (the koan manifesting) in Dogen’s Japanese teaching, may use the traditional koan stories, but only as they apply to our own experience. Hence we may see genjokoan as a technique to work through our own conditioned dusts to the original boundless field and its expression in our lives. It is an aspect of turning the light within to illuminate ourselves, and so, perhaps, allow the dropping off of body-mind.3

Psychodynamic Zen helps transform issues that at first manifest themselves as obstructive states, into doorways leading to fuller and freer practice. The Korean teacher Mu Soeng Sunim quotes Zen Master Chinul as saying, “A person who falls to the ground gets back up by using that ground. To try to get up without relying on that ground would be impossible.” Sunim comments further saying,

Chinul says we have to use our own deluded mind to get out of its delusion, to use our deluded mind to awaken to the fact we are already Buddha. In this way, the deluded mind is not a liability but a necessity. This means we can use our delusions or any bad situation skillfully to understand what the correct situation is.4

Virtually all of us come to practice with our own collection of unresolved issues linked to the past, issues that often are very much part of what brings us to practice in the first place. As part of a process I’ve been calling co-mergence, deepening practice inevitably brings these unconscious issues closer to the surface, stirring up deep levels of anxiety and the characterological structures that fuel our sense of self, but unfortunately leaving the core issues unresolved. Repressed feelings and mindstates often manifest themselves through distancing and shut-down, while repressed anger can be turned inward, revealing itself through a range of self-afflictive patterns. In practice this can lead to a vicious circle where feelings of being ‘stuck’ cycle round with self-judgments, each feeding into the other — practice stagnates, and we are at a loss as to how to proceed.

  1. Zen Master Dogen, in: Yasutani, Hakuun, Flowers Fall. A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan. Boston & London: Shambala, 1996, p.35 []
  2. Facial Expressions of Emotion are not Culturally Universal, by R. E. Jack, O. Garrod, H. Yu, R. Caldara, and P. Schyns; Accessed on 7/30/2012 []
  3. Cultivating the Empty Field,  Taigen Dan Leighton, p.xlii, (emphasis added) []
  4. From the web, Mu Soeng Sunim — From a talk at Providence Zen Center in January, 1987 and first printed in Primary Point volume 6, number 1 (June 1989) and volume 6, number 2 (October 1989). []