Zen Road
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Impressing the mind

Discourse on Zen and the Unconscious between Philippe Coupey and disciples

Every volume of the Collected Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru (l’Intégrale) begins with a foreword entitled “What is a Kusen?,” defining the nature and purpose of this oral teaching during seated meditation (zazen) which is particular to our lineage. According to Deshimaru, “sometimes the teaching is simple, sometimes long and developed. But it is neither literature nor lecture. The master must attack and make an impression on the disciples’ minds... The goal of the kusen is not to increase our knowledge or understanding; it should make an impression on the deep brain and cause intuition and the highest wisdom to spring forth.”


Many kusen are forgotten before we’ve even left the dojo. Some remain with us forever. And others mark us in ways that were perhaps not intended by the master. The following texts trace an exchange between Philippe Coupey and some of his disciples, which began with a kusen delivered in spring 2005. While the subject is ostensibly Zen and the unconscious, the teaching, the responses it provoked, and the consequent reactions of the master go far beyond the original theme.



Kusen by Philippe Coupey

Auteuil Dojo, Paris June 3, 2005


[Photo of a microscopic view of pus from the lumen of the appendix]

We shouldn’t let the subconscious, or the unconscious, lead the conscious. And yet this is always the case. That’s why we practice zazen: so that in the end it’s us, it’s our existence here and now, that dominates, and not our subconscious. The subconscious is like a wound in the brain that cannot heal. And the thoughts that come from the subconscious, from the unconscious, are like the pus that comes out of this wound. It has to come out, of course. And through continuous zazen practice, soon there is no more pus, there isn’t even a scar, and in the end there’s no trace at all...


When we have difficulties with each other, it’s not the conscious mind that dominates, but the subconscious. Later we’re sorry. I’m talking about you who are here, since consciousness is conscious for those who practice: nun, monk.


When Master Deshimaru gave me the ordination, he told me, “Now you are a true monk of the patriarchs’ transmission, from me, Sensei, from Kodo Sawaki, Nyojo, Bodhidharma. You don’t need to be certified by any organization in Japan. I’m the one who certifies you. And now that I have given you the monk ordination, you are neither lay nor monastic; you are shukke, he who is no longer attached to anything.”


[...] So when you have difficulties, don’t forget that your ordination is completely authentic. And don’t be dominated by the impulses of the subconscious, by your individual karmas. Of course, awakening is immediate; but an apple on a tree, before it falls, has to ripen. And it is through continuous and automatic practice that we put an end to the subconscious and the unconscious.


Zazen is like pressing on the wound so that all the pus finally comes out, forever. This is how we can free ourselves from our small selves, from our personal concepts and principles, to be able, above all, to practice true samadhi. First in the dojo, and then everywhere, naturally and automatically.


Then there is no more subconscious. The unconscious and the conscious, like subject and object, become one. And this one, as you know, is everything.


Then you are no longer Elaine, or Juliette, or Isabelle, or Guy; you are Taikei, you are Mokudo, you are Sokei. No difference.


Mondo with Philippe Coupey

Paris Dojo, June 5, 2005


Question: Friday morning, in a kusen you gave in the Auteuil Dojo, you compared the subconscious to pus that comes out of a wound in the brain, and you said that we should press on it to make the pus come out. I don’t agree with this image, because I find it pejorative, as if the subconscious were something bad... because pus is an infection... and so I’d like you to clarify your thinking or explain what you meant.


Answer: Not bad, but it exists and it has to come out! We have to be done with it, so that the subconscious no longer constantly leads us and takes the upper hand over the conscious mind. The conscious mind should lead us. Automatically and naturally, it has to come out. And with years of practice, it does come out. But in the beginning, there’s a lot of... instead of saying “pus,” we could say it’s like water leaking from a faucet, drop after drop. Do you like that better?


[Photo of Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki, 1882-1945, standing wearing his rakusu]

Q: Yes.


A: Well then let’s say that.


[The person does gassho and returns to her place.]


A: But the image of pus is not mine. Master Sokei-an said it, and I find it a very good, exact image. (1)


(1) “That which flows is klesha — your afflictions, the many vain thoughts and suffering notions that leak out from your mind like pus discharged from a boil. Klesha are the leakages of desire and ignorance.” Zen Pivots (1998: Weatherhill, p. 61)

Kusen by Philippe Coupey

Auteuil Dojo, Paris, September 9, 2005


Don’t lose the opportunity to really look at yourself, really observe yourself.


Buddha analyzed — we could even say scientifically analyzed — the workings of his own mind, to be able to understand the world and touch reality. And while scientists use microscopes to look and observe (psychoanalysts too), to my knowledge they’re not looking at the conscious mind, certainly not their own. They look, for example, at dreams, that mixture of everything that has no root and no deep meaning: we could even say it’s a waste of time.


So really look, really observe, without wasting your time.


Remarks by André Sachet, disciple of Philippe Coupey

October 19, 2005


In these kusen [by Philippe Coupey, from June 3 and September 9, 2005], the presentation of the unconscious, its definition and its place are in contradiction with reality. Psychological approaches and discoveries have permitted us to discover the unconscious, to define it, to understand its functioning and to treat it.


These are decisive discoveries which cannot be called into question, because they correspond to reality.


In other domains, we see many examples of discoveries that have radically changed our understanding: astrophysics, medicine, mathematics, earth sciences, etc.


The research and discoveries relating to the unconscious are not a particular theory concerning psychoanalysis and its practice; they have become universal references used in all domains of psychology, irrespective of schools or masters. Today, no theoretical or clinical endeavor can circumvent that which is quite simply a reality.


Reality and Zen go especially well together.


These two kusens set forth incorrect assertions. Today’s master can draw no conclusions from what Buddha said on the subject of the “the workings of his own mind.” Like everyone in his time, Buddha also thought that the world was flat and the sun revolved around it.


The kusen then turns into an incomprehensible charge which, through psychoanalysts, targets the therapeutic process in general: “Psychoanalysts look, for example, at dreams, that mixture of everything that has no root and no deep meaning: we could even say it’s a waste of time”; “wounds to the brain”; “pus”; “There is no more subconscious... the unconscious and the conscious become one.” It is not possible for the unconscious and the conscious to become one.


Can the spiritual master of 2005 say this? Would it occur to him to recommend bloodletting instead of heart surgery?


The psychotherapeutic approach is intended for people who suffer, and who suffer greatly.


Master Deshimaru was not exempt from unconscious motivations for his mission. It seems he was not very open to these problems, and his scientific work with Chauchard, for example, seems to mainly consist of fairly “mechanical” demonstrations. Master Deshimaru — though he showed a real openness to and understanding of the problems and distress of many followers at the beginning of his mission — was undoubtedly (given his culture) not very open in terms of psychology, the place of women in society, sexuality, etc.


The anti-psychologism which is clearly expressed in these kusens is disconcerting because it promotes the idea that psychology and psychological work (from which the unconscious cannot be removed) are an obstacle to the practice of the Way.


Yet it is completely the opposite.


Discovering one’s true nature means to accept living with one’s unconscious and its manifestations.


Our true human nature is our unconscious, and our unconscious is the foundation of the house, buried in the ground (childhood, construction of the ego), that keeps a guy upright (or sinks him: neurosis, psychosis, phobia, obsessions, delirium).


Discovering our own nature is perhaps, through the practice of zazen, silence, abandoning an excessive interest in ourselves, accepting to look directly at the exterior manifestations of our unconscious (which are ill defined because they are, by definition, unconscious).


The unconscious is at the center of our practice because it is a large part of our mental framework, of our psyche.


The existence of the unconscious gives solidity to the practice. It obliges us to stick to reality and consolidate karma. The unconscious is a basis for our deep faith (truth supplied by Buddha) in the notion of dependence and interdependence.


We are completely dependent on our unconscious (even for writing these lines to a master) and it is impossible to live and awaken without it. The unconscious is life.


Remarks by François Costi, disciple of Philippe Coupey

November 11, 2005


The unconscious cannot be the exclusive domain of a theory which, even when called “scientific,” is by definition destined to be challenged from one century to the next (and these days, sometimes even more quickly!)


For example: for more than half a century, mothers of autistic and schizophrenic children were made to feel guilty because of the Freudian theory of the unconscious; today, we “know” that the answers lie more on the biological level, especially for schizophrenics, with therapeutics which are particularly effective in-depth, beyond a symptomatic effect (a criticism leveled against old molecular and “allopathic” drug treatments in general).


Moreover, even if we put aside this debate between psychotherapies and chemotherapies — which, after all, shows that “reality” is not necessarily the same for everyone — the psychotherapies themselves do not agree on a definition of the unconscious.


Freud’s sexualized interpretation, Jung’s mythological vision and Milton Erickson’s pragmatic eye, to name only a few, each with its own effect on different, even opposite methods of treatment, illustrate the absence of a definitive dimension in these approaches.


What’s surprising about this? Isn’t attachment the source of error? Psychoanalysis, systems analysis, brain biology: what does it matter? They are merely analytical perspectives, probably effective in a given context, but having no universal value.


In any case, it seems to me that a Zen master has no need to take the latest theories into account; his discourse is, by nature, metaphorical. If the “pus” metaphor enables some people to better understand the notion of non-duality in going beyond all separation, and therefore the conscious/unconscious separation, what difference does it make which unconscious we’re talking about? Why be attached to one (partial and, what’s more, prejudiced) meaning of a word over another?


Theories come and go (like the clouds in the sky); Zen remains … (which may be debatable; but that’s another debate!).


Kusen by Philippe Coupey

Paris Dojo, December 10, 2005


Compassion does not come from something external; it comes from an understanding of the nature of our existence. But not our small existence.


We always say that we have to observe ourselves. Of course you have to observe yourself. But you shouldn’t spend too much time on it. Also, you shouldn’t waste your time observing your small self. Observing your small self is observing phenomena. Phenomena, even the phenomena of thinking, are empty, ku, they don’t really exist. So don’t waste your time observing phenomena: external ones, obviously, but internal ones as well.


There’s no need to psychoanalyze yourself; it’s completely useless for those who practice the Buddha-Way, or for those who are balanced. Otherwise, psychoanalysis may be necessary. But don’t waste your time on self-examination. There’s no point, and it’s not the practice. For those who are beginning, this is not easy. (Or maybe it is — I don’t remember anymore.) Because when we begin, and even when we end, in our coffin, there’s no need to have a great understanding of Zen: just beginning mind. Beginning mind is often the mind of faith and trust.


Because it is so, we must always be beginners. But for this: be rootless. Which means, for example, don’t be attached to your six senses, thinking that what you see, what you hear or what you think is the truth or is a lie. It is neither one nor the other. That, in the end, is compassion, as Chögyam Trungpa says, “the clarity that contains primordial heat.” And this heat has nothing to do with what you hear, what you see, or, obviously, what you think.


Excerpt from an article, “The Illusion of Gravity”

by Juan Maldacena, November 2005


Juan Maldacena is professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ; published in Scientific American , November issue 2005

[Reproduction of an etching “Circle Limit III” by M.C. Escher showing intertwined universes in two dimensions]


[...] Some new theories of physics predict that one of the three dimensions of space could be a kind of an illusion — that in actuality all the particles and fields that make up reality are moving about in a two-dimensional realm. [...] More precisely, the theories predict that the number of dimensions in reality could be a matter of perspective: physicists could choose to describe reality as obeying one set of laws in three dimensions or, equivalently, as obeying a different set of laws that operates in two dimensions. Despite the radically different descriptions, both theories would describe everything that we see and all the data we could gather about how the universe works. We would have no way to determine which theory was “really” true.