Zen Buddhism

Louis Nordstrom was a Zen master and is now an instructor at Hunter College. Nevertheless, childhood abuse, neglect, and abandonment that led him into psychotherapy, through which he finally realized that,


He sought to protect himself against the trauma of further abandonment by pre-emptively abandoning himself [to Zen “selflessness”]. If he wasn’t there [as a distinct person] in the first place, he wasn’t in a position to be cast away. The Zen concept of no-self was like a powerful form of immunity. (Chip Brown, “How a Zen Mater Found the Light (Again),” New York Times Magazine, April 26, 2009, 38.)


Nordstrom came to realize that instead of engaging reality, Zen offered him one of many means of denying reality and his feelings. His “conversion” was a matter of re-discovering his rejected self, however uncomfortable this might be. In his autobiography, Nordstrom wrote:


I’ve come to a point in my life where survival requires that I reclaim my narrative by refusing any longer to dismiss experience that was profoundly painful… (38).


His conversion involved acknowledging his self-deceptions:


His new insights were mostly a matter of intellectually understanding the way he used Zen to assuage the pain of the past, hiding the pathological aspects of self-abandonment and neglect in the rapture of Zen vacancy; how he hid from his own neediness, anger and grief…(38) 

What positive benefits had he derived from Zen? A sense of being special! Nordstrom now sees that by giving up his university tenure in order to become a Buddhist monk represented the embrace of an “aggrandized narrative” and the acknowledgment of a “special destiny.” In psychotherapy, he learned  that, 


Forgetting the self is not a constructive approach. What one needs to do from a psychoanalytic perspective is remember the self. (38)


Psychotherapy might have helped Nordstrom regain himself, but it seems to have also left him raw and aching. It’s like the cartoon where the patient reclining on the psychiatrist’s couch longingly moans, “And I used to think that I was Napoleon!” As a Zen master, Nordstrom had thought himself “entitled” and “special.” He states, “I didn’t want to be like everyone else, running around like chickens with their heads cut off (39).”


These are painful and sobering realizations. Years of psychotherapy failed to pierce my self-delusions. It was only through the love of Christ and encouragement of His Gospel that I was able to face my buried psycho-manipulations and schemes of self-aggrandizement.


I respect Nordstrom’s painful steps into the light of self-awareness. However, without the Gospel, I fear that Nordstrom, having discarded his garment of self-deception, has left himself naked and vulnerable, like the patient who had surrendered his Napoleonic identity only to find that he had nothing to take its place. What happens in such a case? We find that we can’t endure the intensity of the light, which has stripped away our significance.


We all need to feel that we’re worthy and important. Where will this conviction come from now that he is no longer the Zen master? Will Nordstrom be compelled to replace that crutch for another? He had regarded himself as special and superior because he had the character to renounce the world. His new crutch might look like this—“I am worthy and superior because I can now face the ugly truth about myself?”


We can’t merely substitute one drug for another, one form of self-esteem for another. Instead, we need a relationship with the God who will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and the truth that has set us free from sin and all the ways we justify and promote ourselves (John 8:31-32). When I feel raw, I remind myself that my God loves me with a love that goes beyond anything I can understand (Eph. 3:17-20) and is powerful enough to protect me against all threats (Psalm 23). Only in Him can I find rest for my weary soul (Mat. 11:28-30).  

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