Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Zazen and Psychotherapeutic Presence

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Zazen and Psychotherapeutic Presence

Article excerpt

Zen meditation, or zazen, has attracted the interest of many psychotherapists. The teachings and practices of the Soto Zen tradition are understood as encouraging important areas of both psychological and spiritual development. Zen, like the relational psychoanalytic theories, encourages its practitioners to become aware of the fundamentally distorted aspects of an overly individualistic view of human experience. As a spiritual practice, zazen increases the practitioner's tolerance and appreciation of the Wholeness that Buddhists refer to as Emptiness. As a psychological practice, it helps us to be more flexibly and intimately present with our patients. An effective therapeutic process, even of the most secular type, will often contain elements of the meditative process of zazen, and failure to actualize this in psychotherapy can have a negative impact on our ability to understand and help our patients.


It is said that Zen was brought to China in the fifth century C.E. by an Indian monk named Bodhidharma. Buddhism had been practiced in China for over four hundred years, and at that time it existed in a form that emphasized studying the sutras (scriptures), doing good works, and accumulating merit towards a favorable rebirth. Emperor Wu of Liang was eager to meet with the new teacher who came from the West, and he summoned Bodhidharma to the palace.

"What merit have I gained by building all these temples and shrines?" the Emperor asked. Bodhidharma's answer, "None whatsoever," was not exactly what the Emperor expected to hear. One imagines he may have been narcissistically injured by Bodhidharma's lack of courtly flattery. He was certainly confused, since this was not the form of Buddhism he knew. "Then what is the holiest truth?" Emperor Wu demanded.

"Vast emptiness, nothing holy," Bodhidharma replied.

It was dear that each was unimpressed with the other's viewpoint. Bodhidharma retired to the Shaolin Monastery where he sat facing a wall in meditation for nine years. Apparently convinced that the Chinese were not ready for his wisdom, he was unmoved by all requests for instruction until an aspiring student, Hui-k'o, cut off his arm to demonstrate his sincerity. Zen had found its first Chinese home.


It is probably not immediately apparent from this founding story what Bodhidharma's Zen has to offer the American psychotherapist. Certainly, the student-selection procedure of the First Ancestor in China was more stringent than we typically employ in our various disciplines. His failure to espouse a set of principles and theories would make it hard for him to be published in the scholarly journals. Long periods of silence have been abandoned as proper technique even in the most classical analytic schools. And yet, Bodhidharma's Zen is finding an increasingly warm reception among Americans in general, and psychotherapists in particular.

It is usually the practice of sitting meditation (in Japanese, zazen) that initially captures the interest of psychotherapists, but the reality of Zen practice is that it occurs in a larger context of spiritual tradition and personal investment. As Buddhist psychotherapists try to communicate the impact of this practice to our professional colleagues, it becomes difficult to avoid a number of misrepresentations. The two most compelling are the tendency to discuss Buddhist practices as if they were therapeutic techniques to be applied or withheld based on diagnostic or dynamic considerations, and the tendency to present tenets of Buddhism as if they were propositions of psychological theory. Although it is interesting to ask such questions as whether therapists should recommend meditation as part of a treatment plan for specific disorders, or whether ancient teachings about suffering and its cessation can add to our psychological theories, it is important to remember that zazen is nothing like a technique and Buddhist beliefs are not a theory of personality. …

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