The Beautiful Trap

Three simple questions form the basis of an increasingly popular practice: What have you recieved? What have you given? How have you harmed?

John Kain

In Japan Naikan moved quickly away from its religious roots as its memory-dredging effect and deep reflection proved it to be a successful therapy technique in prisons, hospitals, psychiatric wards, and addiction clinics. Although Naikan was still practiced in Buddhist temples, for lay practitioners the traditional weeklong intensive retreat was more popularly supplemented or replaced by outpatient Naikan practices such as journal writing, daily reflections, and counseling sessions.

Naikan was introduced to America through a man named David Reynolds, an American schooled in cultural anthropology. Reynolds began studying Naikan and Morita techniques in the 1960s (developed in the early 1900s, Morita therapy is a Zen-based awareness practice focused on changing behavior by acknowledging and accepting emotions). In 1981 Reynolds conducted the first weeklong Naikan intensive in America at a Jodo Shinshu Temple in San Luis Obispo, California. Eventually Reynolds de-emphasized the religious aspects of both practices and placed them under one umbrella that he called Constructive Living. The ToDo Institute in Middlebury, Vermont, run by Gregg Krech and his wife, Linda Anderson Krech, is the only center in the country that offers traditional Naikan. Krech was introduced to Naikan through Reynolds, yet he also practiced with a number of Japanese Naikan teachers and was a student of Pure Land Buddhism for over ten years. To Krech, Naikan’s religious lineage seemed entirely compatible with its use as a therapy. This holistic perspective was one of the primary reasons Naikan appealed to me as a Zen practitioner. I wanted to be able to explore the “blind spots” in my spiritual practice as I gained a more secular insight into my personal relationships. When you’re in the midst of intense self-examination, however, the question of whether Naikan is closer to a religious practice or psychotherapy seems irrelevant.

Yet a concern for that distinction still hovers around Naikan’s proponents and practitioners. Krech tells me that he doesn’t consider the Naikan retreat to be “religious,” per se. “Some people attend Naikan retreats solely because they have psychological or emotional problems,” he explains. “Others come for spiritual practice. And still others just because they are seeking something to help them move forward with their life in a very practical way. Naikan will accommodate you at any, or all, of these levels.”

Back on my cushion after a short walk, I hear a tapping sound and see, through the crack in my shoji screen, a cardinal pecking at the windowpane. The red is like a flame against the frozen landscape that stretches beyond the frost-laced glass. I imagine it must be tapping at its own reflection, perhaps frightened of it, and I empathize. In the face of all the self-deprecation the morning has unearthed, I find myself wanting to answer a conspicuously absent fourth question: How about all the troubles my mother and father caused me?

But Naikan is a beautiful trap; it leaves little room for the ego to wriggle. No matter what happened in the past, the practice tells us, we are now solely responsible for our own freedom—or our own bondage. Blame can find no purchase.

When a Naikan guide arrives to hear my reflection, my words feel forced and phony as I try to summon feelings of gratefulness to compensate for the raw guilt that gnaws at my center. I confess this to Krech later, and he advises me to focus on remembering as much detail as possible—the colors, the smells, the textures of things—and, most of all, to stop analyzing. “That’s not a part of Naikan,” he reminds me. His guidance helps, yet I continue to swing back and forth between what I feel is “real” and what I feel is forced by my desire to be a “good” Naikan student, filled with newfound humility. A couple of times I actually invent memories, telling them to the guide to complete some requirement I’ve made up in my head: “Be good, be humble.”

Over the course of the week, I reflect on my father, my brother, my ex-wife, my best friend, and my girlfriend, Kathryn . . . it’s like seeing myself from countless vantage points. The key is just to watch the memories, the emotions, and the body sensations. It is not punishment and it is not an attempt to heal. As in Zen, at its core is the persistent probing into the nature of self. But instead of returning to the breath or to a koan or to “just sitting,” the Naikan participant continually returns to one of the three questions and the reflections it gives rise to, asking, Where in all of this enmeshed exchange of giving and taking do I stop and others begin? Miso soup, salad, and two slices of homemade bread with melted cheese are brought to my “cave”—and, surprisingly, it is this simple offering that finally causes me to break down and weep. I walk outside and look at the Green Mountains, to the south. I see bobcat prints in the snow. Confronted by the presence of the still white landscape, a chill wind flushing my cheeks, I find the momentum of the morning’s practice penetrates even here, that somehow it has broken into my mind, limned my thoughts. I remember that my sister once paid for my flight home for Christmas when I was broke. I remember screaming at my mother, calling her terrible names. I remember helping to pay for and organize my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I remember how little affection I’ve given to Kathryn over the last month. Later that day, a gift arrives from a friend and another from a Naikan participant whom I’ve never met (a not-uncommon occurrence at these retreats), and I experience a flood of emotions, from unworthiness to tender gratitude to a more open awareness of how I’m supported every day by ten thousand different acts of giving.

I think of how different this process is from Zen meditation—one looking inward, one looking outward—yet how they both ultimately point to the emptiness of self. I find that Naikan repopulates my Zen practice, which has a tendency to drift into abstraction, with the specificity of my personal relationships. The treasure of sangha (one of the more difficult—because least controllable—aspects of my Buddhist practice) is revealed. Community nourishes humility, a trait that I tend to forget in my recurring myopic vision of enlightenment. Which is to say, Naikan makes me a better Zen student. Most importantly it helps me (as does Zen) to forget myself by shifting focus onto others. This makes me more aware of how I treat the people I love, and more aware of how much grace is involved in my existence. On my return I express my newfound appreciation to my mother, and it opens a door that had been shut for years. We still have our usual problems, but there’s more trust involved, more honesty. I also tell Kathryn how bad I’ve felt about being so distant. She smiles and says I should go on more of these retreats.

Driving home at the end of the retreat, I take the route through Middlebury and stop at a pottery shop to buy Kathryn a gift, but I find nothing she’d like. I decide to get her some flowers at the florist closer to home. On the road, I admire the late-winter sun’s glow against the fading snow banks. Large patches of dark earth, a red silo, and a string of horses slip by the car window. Suddenly, a strange thought enters my mind: “Naikan has nothing to do with me.” I say it out loud: “Naikan has nothing to do with me.” Tears well up in my eyes, and the landscape blurs. It makes no sense. When I get to the florist near home, it is closed. At first I think I’m returning empty-handed. But then it hits me.

John Kain is a freelance writer and poet living in the Catskill Mountains. His articles and poems have been published in such magazines and journals as the Rocky Mountain News, Terra Nova, and the Mountain Record.

Image: Lance Letscher/McMurtry Gallery

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.