brewing the dregs – a review of Nothing is Hidden by Barry Magid

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The practice of Zen is a beautiful, transformative, profound, imperfect, corruptible, culturally conditioned tradition and way of life of which I am part and which I am responsible for maintaining and passing on. The medium is the message: there is no Zen apart from Zen teachers and Zen students, doing what they do, devising ever new recipes for brewing the dregs we all need to live and practice.

Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans by Barry Magid is a refreshing exploration of koans and the process of how they work on us. Magid, one of the dharma heirs of Joko Beck, describes his own journey with koans as a “complicated relationship.” Trained in both the Rinzai and Soto traditions. Magid also brings his incisive thinking as a psychoanalyst to the practice of seeing what is “cutting us off from life as it is.” Chapter by chapter, Nothing is Hidden takes us through familiar koans (and some new to me) with a steady pace, shining a new light on each and drawing out sweet juice from the dregs Magid brews. More than just teaching, Magid is surprisingly human and vulnerable in his connection; he speaks of his own journey with Joko Beck in loving terms and holds her insights firmly close. He is fearless in pointing out the lack in modern Zen teachers and students to be themselves fearless while never descending into finger-pointing. In fact, in this search of our true nature, he advises like Master Tou-shuai in the chapter Hui-neng and the Original Face:

Pointedly Tou-shuai asks, where will we look for this true nature? This is a case in which, instead of trying to turn our gaze to follow the pointing finger up into the sky, all the way  to the moon, we should stop and look directly at the finger itself and forget all about the moon.

Caught in the intellectual seduction of “solving” koans, we forget that ultimately this is the workings of a koan: to point us back to ourselves, to return us to just who we are in the process of becoming. At every turning away from this, Magid meets us and blocks the automatic sloppiness of our practice. He flips concepts neatly away from the catch phrases we’ve acquired from hanging around Zen types and Zen gatherings. Starting with Mu (but do we ever end?), he flips the koan by pointing out that the gatelessness is not the absence of a gate for us to get through the obstacle of the koan. It is “wide open just as it is”; it gateless because there is no gate, no wall in which to house the gate, no form, no structure to tear down. It’s exactly this illusion of a separation from our inner self and others that keeps us searching for a gate when none is necessary, Magid teaches in page after page. And the practice is in not becoming obsessed about the knots which bind us but in “re-owning both our perfection and our failures.” However, given our innate tendencies to fool ourselves and get stuck in our desiring mind, the desire to transcend can become a trap in itself. On this Magid is forthright:

Rather than conceal our true motivation behind a veil of high-minded aspirations, we should use practice to honestly explore what has brought us to practice in the first place… (w)e inevitably will discover that we all have a “secret practice,” a personal psychological agenda and fantasy about how practice will relieve our suffering by eliminating those parts of ourselves that are the root of our problems or by actualizing some superhuman ideal.

Guilty as charged. As are most of us, including Zen teachers and their students. Magid is unrelenting in pointing out over and over, the frailties and vulnerabilities of teachers. He takes a pragmatic view (quoting Kant) that we can’t make anything that is straight out of “the crooked timber of humanity.” And he remains equanimous without offering license to their transgressions.

With this and all aspects of our practice, Magid offers a practice of “seeing the grasses by moonlight,” seeing the purloined life hidden in plain sight.  He draws generously from his work as a psychoanalyst, explaining our drives, self-states, and giving the koan work a slant towards the psychological. In this arena, Magid bring some important lessons to Zen; that Zen teachers have much to learn about teacher-student relationships from the growth (and growing) pains of psychotherapists, particularly in the areas of preventing harmful re-enactments of old patterns of attachment and rejection. Ironically, riffing on the theme of harm and the only chapter I felt disappointment about was his exploration of Ch’ien and Her Soul (Are Separated) as parental neglect to the point of (metaphoric?) trauma. This particular fable-cum-koan is rich with teachings about not-one-not-two, denying our true nature, narcissistically following our desires, regret, restitution, grace and forgiveness. But that’s just my hobby-horse.

This is a book in which we need to brew the dregs of our mind; sweet tea seeps from almost every page. I’d advise buying the book and embracing the art of writing large in the margins. It will amount to writing your own life, large and unrestrained.

2 thoughts on “brewing the dregs – a review of Nothing is Hidden by Barry Magid

    • Thanks, David! It’s fascinating how Magid teaches/guides on the koans without giving away the “punch line” and leaving space for the student’s own experience of the Mystery.

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