Everyone who comes to Zen develops his or her own unique relationship with it.  That relationship is affected by a myriad of factors, from one’s native culture, to the culture of the Zen sect one embraces, be it Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. It’s also affected by the practices and philosophies propounded by individual teachers.  When I present thoughts on Zen, it‘s from my own personal experience and the understanding I have come to through those experiences. Although I have spent most of my Zen life as a lone practitioner, I have had instruction from Zen teachers of Japanese, Chinese, and American cultures.   As I write, I propound those practices which have been of value to me, and often speak to troubles commonly encountered by people who have written to me over the years.

Reflecting on my own journey, and the encounters I’ve had with others on parallel journeys, it seems there are two different types of relationships we can have with Zen: one which I’ll call “Imagined Zen” and the other I’ll call “Living Zen”.     

Imagined Zen , the first type of relationship we have with Zen, evolves from stories we hear about Zen, books we read, or from advertisements for tea or toothpaste or bottled water or massage spas.  If we’re interested in learning more about it, we might expand those impressions by reading books about Zen, studying sutras, and learning to sit, breathe, and focus the mind in a special way.  We may join a Zen group, listen to Dharma talks and receive instruction in various meditation techniques.  All of these things serve to develop our ideas of what Zen is, creating a progressively more solid construct of what we imagine Zen to be.  So in its essence, I define Imagined Zen as our own uniquely formed mental image of Zen.  It’s fully constructed of ideas, opinions, beliefs, and images.  

ZenAds-6inOur first impression of what Zen is often comes from advertisements: Zen is healthy, Zen is relaxing, Zen is green, Zen is happy, Zen is cool.

Living Zen , rather than being characterized by mental constructs, I characterize as a mind engaged in direct perception: a mind that seeks to observe the way things are without judgment or bias.  With Living Zen, relationships are, at least ideally, without attachment because the mind does not project:  it recognizes the ephemeral, transient, nature of the phenomenal world from which relationships naturally arise.  It’s a mind that sees itself not as isolated and individual, but as all-encompassing.  It’s compassionate toward others because it creates no distinction, no separation, between self and other.      

Everyone who “does Zen” experiences both Imagined and Living Zen to varying degrees. In the extreme case, if we dominantly participate in Imagined Zen, we might at some point consider our understanding of Zen complete even though we have had little or no experience with Living Zen.  We may act pious rather than being pious, assume an affect of humility, or don titles of status for ourselves such as Master, Roshi, Sensei, Venerable, etc.   The teachings and guidance we offer others will likewise be predominantly those of Imagined Zen.   For most of us who practice Zen, keeping engaged in Living Zen for extended periods of time, continuously, is exceptionally difficult.  More commonly, we find ourselves moving in and out of Imagined and Living Zen, engaging in Zen practice when we become mindful about doing so.   

Learning to implement Living Zen requires different methods from those of Imagined Zen. While Imagined Zen develops from our experiences reading, studying, learning techniques of meditation, and perhaps even learning ceremonies, chanting, etc., Living Zen develops from our experiences from self-inquiry:  it requires that we investigate deeply into the nature of being, itself.  One way to do this is to ask the question “who am I” from all different angles:  “What is this?”  “Who drags this corpse around?” “What was your original face before your parents gave you birth?” The mind must approach such inquiry with ferocity, and without preconceptions and judgments: without wanting to attain anything except understanding itself.  This is the Zen training technique referred to as the Hua Tou[Note 1] which was re-popularized in China during the early 20th century by Hsu Yun.     

For people who live busy lives, have families, jobs, etc., the Hua Tou method of Zen practice is especially effective, for it offers a direct means for helping us detach emotionally from the events of daily life that so often give us grief.  In general, whenever emotions get involved, their root cause is projection. [Note 2]

As I described in an earlier article,  a Hua Tou refers to the nature of the origin or source of a thought, word, or phrase that arises in one’s mind, or, more poetically as Hsu Yun spoke of it, to “the mind before it is stirred”.  We can apply the same technique to emotions, tracing back an emotion to its source; to that moment before the mind was stirred.  To the moment of projection.  

Projections have to do with archetypes, or ideal forms: those internal, imagined, mental images of perfection we have about people or things. [Note 3] Everything we encounter in life we unconsciously compare to its “ideal form”.  From these comparisons, decisions are made, emotions are felt, and it’s all without our conscious knowledge or control.  We think we are acting consciously, but we’re not. [Note 4]  For example, we are buying apples at the grocery store.  We look through the pile of apples, seeking the most perfect looking apples to put in the cart.  How do we know which are the most perfect?  We might observe that the best ones don’t have bruises, scrapes, or insect holes in them.  But in most stores these days, all the apples look pretty good.  Some may have more color than others; some may have a red blush to them.  Yet we have to choose the best among all the great looking apples, and, with a feeling of satisfaction, and with some decision making, we do. We have an image of what a perfect apple should look like because of an unconscious model we use as comparison, and we seek out those that most closely match that model.   We are invoking the “apple archetype”, or apple ideal form.  Similarly, when we choose a partner, male or female, selection is based, at least in part, on a direct comparison with our ideal form for a man or woman.  Using Jungian terminology, a heterosexual man will invoke and project the anima archetype, and a heterosexual woman will invoke and project the animus archetype.  The act of “falling in love”, a highly emotional state, is the consequence of projecting the anima or animus upon another person.  We invoke other projections for our children, our friends, our work colleagues … even our car, TV and iPhone; that is, we engage in emotional relationships with them all.  

The brain works by identifying things and making comparisons.  All ideal forms are self-created and exist only as manifestations of our mental processing.  Archetypes don’t represent a reality, only an ideal reality for us.  That is, I think we can all acknowledge that a person devoid of all “flaws” does not exist, just as an apple devoid of all “imperfections” cannot exist, at least not in a world where we apply judgments and comparisons.   

According to the Jungian model, and from my own experience with this process, simply becoming aware of ideal forms and how they affect us and manipulate us lessens or destroys their ability to do so.  Our actions become less based on unconscious forces, and more upon conscious ones. Instead of seeing an apple and judging it against its ideal form, we simply see the apple as it is, seeing its nature as perfect as it is, however it is.  In essence, the object of observation becomes its own ideal form.  Now, when we go to the store and visit the apple stand, selection will be a more conscious one.      

This is a very useful practice for people engaged in group Zen, or what I sometimes refer to as institutionalized Zen, where group dynamics play a significant role, sometimes serving to obfuscate the purpose of practice for which one joined the group in the first place. [Note 5] Religious figureheads are prime targets for some of the most powerful archetypal projections.  

The question arises when we’re learning Zen, what are we supposed do?  We learn to sit and be silent.  We read things and learn the history, and the philosophical, cultural, and religious background.  But how do we act?  How do we convince ourselves and others that we are in fact doing Zen? After all, we want to be accepted by the group as well as convince ourselves that we aren’t wasting our time. One way we solve the problem is to invoke and project the sage archetype upon the Zen teacher. This gives us firm ground to stand on, an ideal that we can mimic.  We then can use the Zen teacher as the perfect guide and perfect example for how to act because we recognize him as the de facto perfect person of Zen, a holy person, one who completely comprehends all the mysteries of life, who’s actions are beyond and above our ability to comprehend, etc. [Note 6] Once this psychological device is in play, we put our lives in his hands, ready to do whatever he says, mimic his actions, believe whatever he tells us, and accept whatever behaviors he displays--for in our mind's eye he can do no wrong.  

The act of blindly following a spiritual authority figure is the consequence of projecting the sage archetype. This is a normal stage of development in Zen for many people, and a natural psychological event that unfolds. There are no problems as long as the person being projected upon is of high moral integrity, understands the dynamic and is not influenced personally by it, that is, does not engage in counter-transference.  An adept Zen teacher understands intuitively, and from personal experience, the nature of this fundamental psychological dynamic, and knows how to help practitioners get through it until they are no longer projecting.  Often though, this is not the case and Zen teachers fall into the role of playing the sage, of acting out the archetype which is projected upon them by their students/disciples.  Stuart Lachs is an outspoken voice on this subject and gives numerous examples of such situations in his writings, [Note 7] and I have written about it previously as it relates to cults. [Note 8]  

When we project onto another person, our psyche attaches itself as a string to a tethered balloon.   In such a state our Self remains unseen, unknown.  Only once we have seen our Self fully does the need to project an aspect of our identity upon another diminish or evaporate all together. [Note 9]   Living Zen requires a mind that seeks to see into the nature of things, not one that is content with conditioned, automated responses, or easily influenced by unconscious forces. We can’t gain an understanding of Living Zen from the expression of other people’s understanding – it must be an immediate discovery with our own mind.  To get there requires that we replace belief with unknowing, that we strive to see things as they are, not as we would like them to be.  Zen is a tool we use to expand our understanding, to illuminate our mind and our heart. It requires that we attend to our lives, that we look into the nature of our thoughts, our actions, our speech, without judgment or bias.  It requires that we strive to be fully awake at all moments.  

We always know the effects of projecting but rarely the cause--that remains hidden and mysterious.  So the next time we feel insulted, slighted, angry, irritated, depressed, infatuated, in-love, sad, joyful, disgusted--invoke the Hua Tou method, look back to its origin, and ask, Who is projecting?


Related articles


Hua-t’ou: A Method of Zen Meditation, by Stuart Lachs

The Hua Tou Practice, by Chuan Zhi

The Hua-Tou practice: perspectives and examples of an ancient and potent Chinese Chan practice, by Stuart Lachs

The Intrinsic nature of meditation , by Fa Dao

Sidetracked by Institutionalized Zen, by Chuan Zhi

Remembering Jonestown: a Homage to the Dead, a Prayer for the Living by Chuan Zhi



End Notes

Note 1] – c.f., The Hua Tou Practice by Chuan Zhi, The Hua-Tou practice: perspectives and examples of an ancient and potent Chinese Chan practice by Stuart Lachs, and Hua-t’ou: A Method of Zen Meditation by Stuart Lachs.

Note 2] – Consider the word “e-motion” … the Latin prefix “e” means out from.

Note 3] While Carl G. Jung is most often attributed as the originator of the concept of archetypes, the term and concept originates from ancient Greece and was first found in western literature in 1540.  Plato, circa 450 BC, was apparently the first to develop the concept which can be clearly identified in The Republic, Phaedo, and Phaedrus.  Earlier seeds of the concept were evident in the works of Homer (circa 1100 BC to 850 BC).  It’s interesting to note that other ancient civilizations have words for the same general concept: Islam gives us al-Lawhu 'l-Mahfuz, Sanskrit gives us vAstunara, a nd Chinese gives us yuán xíng ().

Note 4] Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences recently performed experiments using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to correlate response times with brain activity and decision making.  It was found that people’s decisions are consistently made at least 7 seconds prior to our knowing consciously what the decision is.  That is, the unconscious mind is at work, working faster than our conscious minds, as we go about our lives making decisions. 

Note 5] c.f., Sidetracked by Institutionalized Zen by Chuan Zhi

Note 6] The sage archetype need not be projected upon a real person, but can be projected upon an image of a person, such as the Buddha.  The Buddha is both an historical person and an ideal for attainment of perfection-of-being.  It is not uncommon for a practitioner to attribute Buddha qualities to their revered Zen teacher – another instance of projecting the sage archetype. 

Note 7] c.f., When the Saints Go Marching In: Modern Day Zen Hagiography and Dressing the Donkey , both by Stuart Lachs.

Note 8] c.f., Remembering Jonestown: a Homage to the Dead, a Prayer for the Living by Chuan Zhi.

Note 9] Without continued cultivation, one may again lose sight of the Self and projections onto people may manifest again.