Barry Magid’s new book is a light through the fog for Western Zen practitioners, especially those having doubt about koan practice. Magid shows the transformative effect of koan study and implies approaches to it. He does this in Western psychological and philosophical terms—a feat blending years of Zen and psychoanalytic practice, intellectual breadth and a talent for straight, simple writing.
The book holds analyses of a total of twenty two classic koans. Some show how the student’s struggles with each is work toward fundamental Zen states, including Immediacy, Identity, Impermanence, Attachment, Transcending dualism, and Change within unity. Other analyses illuminate additional struggles in Zen, such as appearance and reality, objectifying reality, falling into idealization, surrender vs. submission, self-sacrifice vs. compassion, constant striving vs. self-acceptance and “Uselessness “as Zen uses it.
Throughout all, Magid emphasizes the importance for a life’s practice of experiencing emotional clarity, healthy relatedness to others, and awareness of one’s own unconscious distortions. These concepts are absent from traditional Zen. Magid argues that their absences have made Zen practice less than it could and should be for Western student and their teachers. Strict traditionalists may dismiss Magid, seeing the addition of psychology to Zen as putting “a head on a head.” Very strict traditionalist may say that practice affects the whole person, taking care of all psychological development. Magid counters this by citing the pathological behavior of long-practiced masters who were great teachers in the Zendo and yet abused students outside of it. He also departs from traditional Zen by making it explicit that self-acceptance-here-and-now is a fruit of practice and needed for continued practice. He argues that literal acceptance of idealized enlightenment—or just constant prodding by teachers—can undermine such self-acceptance.
Magid is committed to making Zen practice effective for the average Western student today. He boldly takes on what he sees as blocks to this in traditional approaches and in behaviors of some teachers. And he holds out a welcoming hand to students who may have sensed such problems but did not know how to see them and continue practicing with confidence.