Zen Insight: Sama Review

Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action: Two Arrows Meeting, Seiso Paul Cooper (2019) Routledge, London & New York

Review By: Tai Okoto Sama, Ph.D.  Tokyo, Japan 

Previous offerings on this subject generally have taken Buddhist principles and techniques out of the context of the larger religious system that they are part of. They are typically co-opted into the repertoire of the psychotherapist’s body of technique. Examples abound in the psychoanalytic literature and also in the cognitive behavioural literature. Akihiko Masuda & William O’Donohue (2017) exemplify both in their comprehensive edited collection.

Rev. Seiso Paul Cooper’s book is refreshingly different. Beginning with the title, Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action: Two Arrows Meeting, his new offering turns this approach fully on its head. Psychoanalysis from his vantage point becomes subsumed as one “activity” that Zen insight can be applied to. “Applied to” is not the best word because Cooper argues for and exemplifies his position of “becoming” and “being Zen.” The Zen koan asserts, “When Matsu becomes Matsu, zazen becomes zazen.” That is, he argues that practice and study influence our “mode of being in the world.” He thus criticizes and defeats what he describes as the “colonization of Zen by psychoanalysis” (p. 97). The subtitle, “Two Arrows Meeting,” is a reference to an 8th C. teaching poem “The Identity of the Relative and the Absolute,” that addresses the Zen paradox of the simultaneity of identity and difference by the Chinese Zen monk, Shitou. Cooper thus brilliantly points the reader internally and transcends simplistic discussions of technique, similarities and differences and develops a thesis that emphasizes the internal integration of both Zen and psychoanalysis by a very serious practitioner of both. Only such a deeply committed practitioner, such as Cooper, who holds the title both as senior psychoanalyst and transmitted Zen teacher, would go through the rigorous training and internal work on oneself demanded by both disciplines.

The study of the integration of psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism defines the area of my expertise and I am highly familiar with the literature. Thus, I feel highly confident to say that in my estimation, Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action: Two Arrows Meeting is a very important book and, without exception, one of the very best that I have read on this topic. It is clear, concise and well written. If it receives the attention that it deserves, it will, in my opinion, become a classic. Given the illusive nature of the topic, the integration of Soto Zen Buddhism and Bion influenced psychoanalysis; I have found it to be highly readable and easily translatable into enhanced clinical practice. This has been delightfully surprising considering the rather enigmatic writing style of the major influences on Rev. Seiso Cooper’s writing, Eihei Dogen, the 13th Century founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan and the British psychoanalyst Wilfred R. Bion. Cooper’s writing is well grounded in his grasp of scholarly studies of both literatures and in his obvious decades of experience as a psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic educator coupled with his years of Zen experience culminating in Soto School priest ordination and Transmission as a qualified teacher and member of the highly acknowledged Soto Zen Buddhist Association.

The opening chapter discusses and defines gujin, or total exertion. Consistent with Dogen’s action and relational emphasis, Cooper describes gujin in a highly practice-oriented way:

“When we focus our full energy and attention to the task at hand, whatever that activity might be: washing dishes, sitting in zazen, walking, eating or working, we become experientially and intuitively aware of the lived ongoing total exertion of life. In other words, from the perspective of the individual life becomes fully exerted; we become totally exerted; the situation becomes totally exerted” (p. 13).

Despite the many abstract and philosophical points raised in the book, Cooper maintains this lived, practical and action-oriented stance throughout the book. For example, he offers many vignettes that take the reader off of the couch and out of the consultation room, often conveyed with humor. For instance:


 “One moment of pre-occupation and mindless rushing through some errands and I found myself needing to be picked up off the street after a fall that severely twisted my ankle, fractured the bone which left me incapacitated and restricted my movement for the next several months and which still causes me discomfort and serves as an accurate indicator of coming shifts in the weather. Situations like this occur all of the time. Small mindless actions engender unimaginably magnified consequences” (p. 17).

Cooper grounds his discussion in the Zen notion of gujin, or total exertion, which he provides a detailed definition and use in the first chapter. He concludes the chapter with an exemplifying clinical vignette to demonstrate its use in practice. He then moves on to the actual practice of shikantaza, (sitting meditation) the primary and signature practice in the Soto Zen lineage. In Chapter Two he provides the reader with a highly detailed history and etymology of zazen meditation that sets the stage for Chapter Three where he provides detailed commentary on the uniqueness of Dogen’s shikantaza technique along with parallels to the psychoanalytic listening process. His observations are supported by traditional Zen teaching stories and clinical experiences, which are quite expertly woven together into one seamless narrative. I have not encountered this level of detail on actual meditation practice anywhere in the psychoanalytic literature.

With this foundation in place, Chapter Four delineates relations between psychoanalytic intuition, reverie and prajna, the Sanskrit term for intuited wisdom or what Cooper, following the Buddhist scholar and translator Evans-Wentz (1954) describes as “quick knowing.”

In Chapter Five he questions the false belief that the practitioner must disregard thinking in order to obtain spiritual realization, a belief that has developed through a misunderstanding of core Buddhist concepts and which has been exacerbated by an over-emphasis on intuition and empathy in contemporary psychoanalytic writing. Drawing from a close reading of Bion’s later works and on source material from Dogen’s writings, this chapter places cognitive and intuitive processes in perspective in relation to both religious practice and the psychoanalytic encounter.

Chapter Six examines implications related to the articulation of what Cooper describes as: “Zen’s salvational intention” with respect to notions of “spiritual” and “material.” Cooper argues that, based on inner conceptions, and on unquestioned assumptions that we might hold, either consciously or unconsciously, when we identify aspects of experience exclusively as “material,” or “spiritual.” From the Zen perspective this false dichotomy, he argues, derives through the discriminating function of mind, which separates and reifies experience and prioritizes particular western philosophical and scientific assumptions. He uses the body-mind issue as an example and offers an alternative view derived from the non-dualistic Zen perspective.

In Chapter Seven, Cooper provides the reader with a fine-tuned reading of Bion’s seminal notions of “O” (The ineffable) and “K” (sense-based knowledge) through the lens of Dogen’s radical non-dualist orientation. He opens the chapter with a thorough review of the psychoanalytic literature on the integration of Buddhism and psychoanalysis. He does an excellent job of placing himself properly within this rapidly growing highly specialized literature. This is unique as most writers on the subject rarely offer attribution to others and speak as if they had a sole and exclusive voice on the subject. Cooper’s presentation in this regard is refreshingly new and highly informative. He makes no attempt to “own the field.” Cooper continues and deepens this discussion in Chapter Eight, which brilliantly refines and details the conversation with a deepened emphasis on Dogen and Bion, their interplay and clinical usefulness. Cooper’s writing with his efforts to articulate what Bion describes as “ineffable,” after a thorough and scholarly review of the literature on Bion’s “O,” he takes an experiential turn that is convincing. The narrative feels lived:

In my experience “O” unfolds at times with clarity; other times ambiguously, hidden from awareness or quite obvious. Sometimes I completely miss the intuition and forget about it, at other times I stumble over it, like stubbing my big toe on a chair leg in the dark; other times its so blindingly obvious that it can be embarrassing. Whether obvious or oblivious to me, “O” circles endlessly like the Zen enzo, a symbol and expression of emptiness and becoming; full and complete, yet translucent, almost transparent, simultaneously opening and closing; opening to new and unforeseen openings; opening to closings that transmute into new openings. All the while turning and being turned between delusion and realization; between somethingness and nothingness; all inclusive everythings, whole being Buddha nature; self, no-self; Big Self, small self; a moment of encounter; the cosmic infinite everythingness; the no-thing (p. 100).

The final two chapters provide the reader with extended case studies that he describes as demonstrating the clinical relevance of the abstract ideas presented in the previous chapters. Both chapters are compelling and effective. In Chapter Nine, “Taste the Strawberries,” Cooper pushes the envelope beyond the standard psychoanalytic models with his creative notion that he describes as “spontaneously arising alternative intuitive models,” he writes:

“I describe them as “spontaneously arising” because they emerge freely, without thought during the course of therapy. They have not been preconceived or imposed upon the treatment. Additionally, I describe them as “alternative” because they do not necessarily fall within the range of standard models such as the Oedipus myth or the myth of Narcissus” (p. 129).

He then argues that preconceived models, despite their usefulness, can “saturate psychic space.” A detailed extended case study seamlessly and creatively interweaves a Zen Buddhist teaching story with a patient’s dream to demonstrate very clearly and with convincing impact, how this formulation informs the treatment. The final chapter offers another case to demonstrate an analytic treatment framed by a graduate theology student’s image of water well. Both cases demonstrate Cooper’s gentle touch and depth understanding of the human psyche. This welcome edition will be highly accessible to both the professional and the casual reader and will be of interest to Buddhist students, practitioners, scholars of Buddhist studies and the general public.

Tai Okoto Sama, Ph.D.

Tokyo, Japan