Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

2020 Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming


  • Paul C. CooperEmail author
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-24348-7_760

I need to repeat that Zen refuses to be explained, but that it is to be lived (Suzuki 1949, p. 310).

Limitations of Explanation

Keeping the limitations of explanation and the value placed on the primacy of experience in mind, the following will provide an outline sketch of Zen Buddhism. Zen is the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit term, dhyana, which means concentration meditation or meditative absorption. However, this linguistic definition is not completely accurate. Dhyana is typically associated with meditation on a specific object, sound, or image and implies a transcendent state. Zazen, the basic generic term for Zen meditation, functions differently depending on the specific sect and understanding of religious realization. For instance, shikantaza (just sitting, nothing but sitting) serves as the central practice of the Soto Zen lineage founded by Eihei Dogen during the thirteenth century in Japan based on teachings that he received in China. This practice is an all-inclusive practice that functions through a choiceless awareness of “being-as-it-is” (Suzuki 1970). In contrast, The Rinzai tradition is centered on kanna-zen (koan concentration). This technique, developed by Ta-hui during the twelfth century in China, requires that the practitioner concentrate on a specific word or phrase of a koan.

It is important to keep in mind that differences of emphasis on particular techniques or religious activities do not define the entire sect. Historically, the inaccurate exaggeration of differences between sects served to fuel disputes. A more accurate approach would be to view these different sects as “equivalence classes” or sets with differences, similarities and identities. Variations between individual groups are often determined by the emphasis, interest and personality of a given Zen teacher.

Zen is also known as C’han (Chinese), Thien (Vietnamese), and Seon (Korean). However, as Zen is not a monolithic structure, it is important to keep in mind that while there is a historical continuity between C’han and Zen, and that the terms are typically used interchangeably, there are many fundamental sociocultural and doctrinal differences between these systems as they developed regionally and that integrated various influences of indigenous religions. For example, C’han incorporates elements of Taoism and Confucianism. Recently, a rapidly expanding “interfaith Zen” movement in the United States has integrated many Christian elements (Johnston 1976; Kennedy 1996).


Historical accounts attribute the Indian monk Bodhidharma with the introduction of C’han into China during the sixth century. Bodhidharma taught what has been described as a mind-to-mind transmission, outside scriptures, that does not rely upon words or letters. His teachings were then transmitted through a series of Chinese patriarchs. Given this emphasis on direct transmission, the role of the teacher is essential and supercedes the study of the scriptures. This direct teacher-to-student “dharma transmission” follows a lineage that can be traced back to preceding generations to the historical Buddha. Thus, not unlike psychotherapy, Zen is interpersonal, experiential, and relies on direct dialog.

Practice and Religious Salvation

The primary experiential activities of Zen are zazen (sitting meditation), dialogues with a teacher, koan study, and moment-to-moment mindfulness during all daily activities and chores. Zen practices engender a liberating awareness of reality through an alteration of perception that includes the derailment of cognitive linear thought, which engenders access of our capacity for prajna (quick knowing, intuition, intimate knowing). From the Zen perspective, this liberating awareness can be known or intuited experientially, but not known in the cognitive sense. This salvational intention, expressed in the notion of satori (enlightenment, literally: “to understand”) and engendered through personal experience, qualifies Zen as a religious endeavor. However, it is not a religion in the sense of the word that religion is typically understood in a Western civilizational context. On this point, Masao Abe writes, “In one sense, Zen may be said to be one of the most difficult religions to understand, for there is no formulated Zen doctrine or theological system by which one may intellectually approach it” (1985, p. 3).

This soteriological intention along with supporting practices defines Zen as a religion. The striving for satori (enlightenment) in the Rinzai tradition reflects this salvational goal and has resulted in an emphasis on the wisdom or insight aspect of meditation. Similarly, in the Soto tradition, practice awakens the student to the reality that practice and realization are one. This emphasis has generated a critique of quietist leanings among certain Buddhist sects. Without an emphasis on the wisdom aspect of zazen, such critics assert that meditation becomes an empty and useless endeavor that can be equated, for example, as “polishing a brick to make a mirror.”

Regarding salvation, the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki notes: “As I have repeatedly illustrated, Buddhism, whether primitive or developed, is a religion of freedom and emancipation, and the ultimate aim of its discipline is to release the spirit from its possible bondage so that it can act freely in accordance with its own principles” (1949, p. 74).

Zen and Psychoanalysis

The influence of Zen has run through psychoanalysis for over a half of century as a result of D. T. Suzuki’s involvement with Eric Fromm (1950, 1956), Fromm et al. (1960), Karen Horney (1945), Harold Kelman (1960), and others. This group of psychoanalysts approached Buddhist religious experience and associated meditation practices with the true spirit of open-minded inquiry distinctive of the psychoanalytic dialog that Freud fathered and began to look eastward in a search for expanding their psychoanalytic vision. Karen Horney, for example (1945, p. 163) discusses the “impoverishment of the personality” and refers to the Buddhist notion of “wholeheartedness” or “sincerity of spirit.” Susan Quinn (1987), Karen Horney’s biographer, chronicles a close association between Horney and D. T. Suzuki.

Harold Kelman, a close colleague of Horney, argued in his paper “Psychoanalytic Thought and Eastern Wisdom” (1960) that psychoanalysis is experientially “eastern.” While deriving from fundamentally different theoretical assumptions, Kelman observed that Buddhist thought and technique can deeply enhance psychoanalytic technique, particularly regarding the analyst’s attentional stance.

Erich Fromm, who was deeply interested in Zen Buddhism, also shared a close association with D. T. Suzuki. He included detailed meditation instructions in his very popular book, The Art of Loving (1956). Fromm believed that meditative experience can expand the psychoanalytic process through a positive conceptualization of human potential that goes beyond addressing symptoms. When asked about the benefits of Zen meditation in relation to mental health, Fromm reportedly responded that “It’s (Zen) the only way to enduring mental health” (quoted in Kapleau 1989, p. 14). He viewed both systems as potentially mutually enhancing. A thirst for expanding their vision and looking eastward to do so forms a common thread that ties together the above representative psychoanalysts. They thus paved the way for contemporary contributions, which has expanded to include a wide range of applications from a Zen-influenced short-term crisis intervention (Rosenbaum 1998), a depth psychoanalytic approach that integrates basic Zen principles with contemporary Intersubjectivity theory and Self-Psychology (Magid 2000), and more recently, to in-depth studies of Zen influenced by Wilfred Bion’s ideas (Cooper 2010), and Zen and Lacanian psychoanalysis (Moncayo 2012).

An examination of the “foundational” (Nagao 1989) Buddhist principles of emptiness and dependent-arising reveal parallels to the “totalistic” (Kernberg 1976) understanding of countertransference and can serve as a link between classical and totalistic models. This means that all experience, including the psychotherapeutic encounter, emerges contextually, subject to causes and conditions.

Eihei Dogen’s notion of gujin or “total exertion” holds important treatment implications for the psychotherapist who is informed by Zen practice (Cooper 2011). That is, as the philosopher Joan Stambaugh writes, “Looked at from the standpoint of the situation itself, the situation is totally manifested or exerted without obstruction or contamination” (1999, p. 6). With regard to the psychoanalytic situation, the notion of goal or a stance of removed passivity both contaminate the situation and interfere with presence. Stambaugh asserts that “The person experiencing the situation totally becomes it. He is not thinking about it; he is it. When he does this, the situation is completely revealed and manifested” (1999, p. 6). Thus, total exertion refers to an opening that calls for a response that “… is never anything passive but can be quite strenuous” (Stambaugh 1999, p. 7). From this perspective, the psychotherapist’s activity becomes decisive, clean, clear, and precise, not encumbered by guilt, anxiety, convention, or goals.

In recent years, the conversation between Zen and psychotherapy has been continuously expanding and holds promise for a mutually beneficial cross-fertilization through the open-minded spirit of inquiry that characterizes present studies.

See Also


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Psychological Association for PsychoanalysisTwo Rivers Zen CommunityNew YorkUSA