Going to dokusan

 Why the Japanese words?

Our practice has three main supports: zazen, teisho and dokusan.  We use the Japanese names because we do not really have adequate English or French equivalents.  Often we talk about ‘meditation’ instead of zazen, but ‘meditation’ is really an inadequate word.  We say also that it is ‘concentration’ and ‘contemplation,’ but neither of these quite match what the practice is all about.  Our formal practice is almost all of these, but not quite. So we use ‘zazen’ instead.

The same goes for ‘teisho.’  Teisho is, in a way, a talk, although ‘talk’ suggests something very casual.  It is in a way a lecture, although ‘lecture’ is too intellectual a word. One might say that it is a sermon, although most of the sermons that I have heard have always been moralizing, pompous and boring, and I hope that teishos here in Montreal do not fall into that category. 

And what other name could we give to dokusan?  Interview?  But that is when someone is looking to get information out of you, an employer, for example, who is thinking of employing you.  Counseling? Well, yes, this is a very important part of dokusan, particularly if someone has a specific problem, a hang-up, something that they desperately need to talk with someone about, and which is preventing them from being able to practice. However, deeper psychological problems are better dealt with outside of dokusan, and even with a specialist if they are very deep and long lasting..  A confessional?  Again, it is said that confession is good for the soul, and it is good to express one’s remorse, one’s sorrow, one’s guilt. Dokusan, with its complete confidentiality, can be a good opportunity sometimes to unburden oneself in this way. But that by no means is its real purpose.

So it is all of these things, but none of them in particular.  What should we call it other than ‘dokusan?’  The French word rendezvous is not bad, although somehow, in my mind at least, rendezvous always sounds slightly illicit. 


The bewilderment of being
Perhaps we should ask then what actually goes on, why do we have dokusan, what would be lost if we did not have it?  The answer is intimately connected with the broader question, “What is practice about anyway?”  When we are no longer able to take everything in the world for granted, we can only wonder at what “it is all about.” It’s like living with a perpetual culture shock.  Of course practice is not necessarily ‘all about’ anything, and our question is simply an approximation to the feeling of bewilderment, wonder, surprise, puzzlement that we feel when the screen of habitual thoughts and reactions drop away. My body for example: it has its own needs and demands, its pains and its anguish, and its life goes on like some storm driven island in a sea of confusion.  Also, these thoughts that form by themselves, have their day, wreak their havoc, and just as unexpectedly fade away to be replaced by other, totally disconnected thoughts.  All of them take their toll, either in pain or pleasure; none of them, when looked at in the overall, mean a thing. Yet one can be preoccupied and anguished by some of them for days, weeks and even longer.  

And then there are all the other people, all of them like me, all of them whirling around their own center of gravity. Inexplicably, I am involved with some of them, identified with them in some way, either as husband, father, friend, teacher, customer, patient, neighbor or something else.  Mostly, I have the feeling of being in control, or, as one optimist said, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  But my mastery and captaincy are more often in theory rather than practice.  When I come down to it I do not even know how I stand up, let alone how I manage to speak with such ease and fluency. My ‘control’ is so often a matter of rationalization, “it turned out for the best,” “its just bad luck” “people don’t understand me.” “Better, luck next time.”

It is only after we have taken off our spectacles of expectation, habit, inertia and general disinterest that this kind of bewilderment can come in.  Otherwise it is a nine to five life.



Some of us sit down in the midst of it, often more out of sheer exhaustion than anything so exalted as a spiritual need.  We would like to start from the beginning and work forward and get it sorted out, but we are always in the middle, and lost on the way.  Catastrophes rarely have the courage, or decency, to meet us face to face, but so often come as something that starts innocuously as a shadow and then suddenly takes on the specter of a major storm.

And so we “practice.”  This often means that we need some kind of help and we go to someone and ask for it.  It is interesting that although we often need it, we do not as often want it. Few are the people who, initially, really do ask for help.  They come to dokusan because it is part of the process: everyone goes to dokusan so they go too. Furthermore, they react to dokusan in the way they react to the confusion of life.  They try to dominate it, bluster their way through, try to slip through the cracks, evade the issue, argue, lose their temper, seduce, throw tantrums, create dramas and eventually, so often, simply ignore the counsel they are given.  

It is surprising how many people think that the practice has some kind of magical power.  Prayer for the westerner is, in a way, asking for a magical transformation of an impossible situation. People come to dokusan with the same demand for magic. This attitude is encouraged by mondo in which a student goes to a teacher, asks a question, the teacher behaves in a seemingly outlandish way, and the monk comes to awakening.  Some students wait for the teacher also to behave in some outlandish way. Of course they not say so in so many words.  But you can see that they are surprised when they get just a practical response and not an incantational one.

Some teachers do prey on the gullibility of their students and encourage reverential awe.  They claim to have supernatural power, perhaps a hawk eye with which they are able to track the inner state of the student, from the moment the student rings the bell to the moment that she or he finally leaves the dokusan room.  It is true that a teacher can, in a flash, sum up the state of mind of the student when the student comes into the room.  But it is equally true that the student can, in a flash, sum up the state of mind of the teacher also.  During our life we interact and react with so many people that this “sixth sense” comes naturally.  The difference between a good teacher and a student is that a teacher will trust his or her intuition whereas the student will often tend to overlay what they have intuited with what they expect a teacher to be like. I say a good teacher will be able to do this, because there are some teachers who are more worried about being seen as a teacher than they are about working with their students. 

It has taken us many years and a lot of hard work to get ourselves in the mess that we are in when we come to practice.  We also inherit the mess of society.  The mores and customs of society are often a group reaction to an impossible situation.  War, revolution, terrorism are extreme responses, but, even when these are not occurring, there is always a kind of underground simmering of discontent, resentment and resistance.  And we take all these conflicts on as our own. Yasutani roshi used to say that to be a member of a group is to bear the karma of that group. And there truly is no magic.  That was one of the great insights of Buddha.  In his day the belief in magic was more overt than in ours, although no doubt not more believed in.  This is why the Dharmapadda begins by saying,

By oneself evil is done

By onself one suffres

By oneself evil is undone

No-one can purify another.

There are no leaps of magic or miracles.  The gods are as helpless as we are when it comes to avoiding the results of karma.  This is why I spend comparatively little time in dokusan with peoples’ problems.  Life is a problem, as Zorba the Greek said.  The content of our mind is not important.  From the point of view of practice our life, as the world sees it, may be an utter mess, we can be a total failure in all that we have tried to do, but this does not hinder the practice.  We do not have to have good thoughts to come to awakening.  Good thoughts are as much a burden as bad ones.  In other words it is not what we are that is significant; it is that we are.  It is not what we know; but that we know.  This is the great leap of faith that is required, and it is in this direction that all my efforts in dokusan tend.  How to encourage the student first to see that the content of her or his mind is not important in the context of practice.  Then to encourage the student to question, to be open to the doubt sensation, and then to  see that a leap from the ‘what’ to the ‘that’ is both desirable and possible.  And then I do all that can be done to push someone into making the leap.


Making the leap

Language lets us down more than ever when we talk about “awakening.” As Mumon says in his commentary on the koan” Mu!” “You will know this [awakening], but for yourself only, like a dumb person who has had a dream.” We talk about “making the leap” simply to emphasize that awakening is not a smooth transition within consciousness, as is the case when our thoughts move from one idea to another. This is why practice, to some people, can seem to be so frustrating, and why to others it seems a sheer impossibility.  We are told, indeed, that we must move from the possible to the impossible. Mumon tells us, ”All the delusive and useless knowledge that you have collected up to the present — throw it away.” He says further, “To reach subtle awakening you must cut off ordinary ways of thought.  If you do not pass these barriers, and do not cut off ordinary thought, then you will be like a ghost clinging to the grasses and weeds.” In other words, throw away as well the useless way of thinking that you have used up till now.  


 So, what must we ‘do?’ 

“Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and its eighty four thousand pores; summon up a great mass of doubt and pour it into this question day and night without ceasing.  Question it day and night.”   But then, one might well ask, is this not the opposite of what you have been telling us for some time now?  Do you not emphasize the importance of ‘allowing?’  Does not what Mumon says imply striving, hard work and extreme effort.   ‘Allowing,’ surely, is the direct opposite of that.

 Again we are caught in the snare of language: ‘summoning up a great mass of doubt’ does not involve supreme personal effort, nor does ‘allowing’ mean sitting back waiting for something to happen.


Great Faith and Great Doubt

As you know Hakuin tells us that to practice we need Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Perseverance. The answer to the apparent enigma posed above lies in understanding “Great Faith and the Great Doubt.”

In Zen in the Art of Archery, the author, Herrigal, tells us that archery involves three aspects: drawing the bow, holding the drawn bow and releasing the arrow. The arrow must be released without any intention on the part of the archer. These three aspects are also to be found in working on a koan: entering the doubt, staying within the tension (or great doubt,) and taking the leap.  All this is possible only though Great Faith and Great Perseverance.

 During the seventeenth century Europe passed though what has famously been called the Age of Reason, or Enlightenment.  For several centuries it was believed that this was an unmitigated good.  More recently this belief has been questioned by what is called Post Modernism, a hodge-podge of challenges to the ideas spread by the Age of Reason.  One of the principle ideas of the Age of Reason is that ambiguity is taboo, anathema, evidence of shoddy thinking.   But, by saying that we closed the door to the creative alive, consciousness that is rich with meaning and significance, and have banished it to the darkness of a murky unconscious. For example an author, Anthony Flew, of a popular book on thinking tells us, “To tolerate contradiction [or ambiguity] is to be indifferent to truth. For the person who, whether directly or by implication, knowingly both asserts and denies one and the same proposition, shows by that behavior that he does not care whether he asserts what is false and not true, or whether he denies what is true and not false…………….for whenever and wherever I tolerate self-contradiction, then and there I make it evident, either that I do not care at all about truth, or that at any rate I do care about something else more”

So, what is ambiguity? A short answer is “the self seeing the self seeing the self.” The ancients saw it as a snake swallowing its own tail.  The Sufis call is a unoambus: a one (uno) that is two (ambus.)  In psychology I was taught that awareness of awareness is the precursor of consciousness. But my teacher was quite oblivious to the implication of awareness of awareness. ‘Awareness of awareness as a precursor to consciousness’ means that underlying what we call consciousness is the self seeing the self seeing the self.  It is like holding a mirror up to the mirror; the reflections spin away to infinity. Awareness of awareness is a mirror held up to a mirror. 

 Few people are willing to face the implications of ambiguity, but most of us are forced by life and circumstances to face it anyway. As I have shown in a number of my books, ambiguity is at the basis of all our suffering.  The philosopher Descartes described very graphically what it feels like to be caught up in ambiguity.  “[I am] filled . . . with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power to forget them.   And yet I do not see in what manner I can resolve them; and, just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface.”  

We often know this feeling that Descartes is describing as worry, anxiety or anguish.  Some of us know it as panic.  Descartes answer was to find certainty, an answer that we all resort to. Certainty, security , peace  and comfort: they are all on the altar of what Gurdjieff called “the evil inner God self calming.”  The certainty that we seek is a stable and secure point of reference. The stability of this point of reference is made possible by language, because language fixes what is otherwise fleeting and transient.  

Zen master Shibayama, talking about koans tells us, “Suppose here is a completely blind man who trudges along leaning on his stick and depending on his intuition.   The role of the koan is to mercilessly take the stick away from him and to push him down after turning him around.  Now the blind man has lost his sole support and intuition and will not know where to go or how to proceed.   He will be thrown into the abyss of despair.   In this same way, the nanto koan will mercilessly take away all our intellect and knowledge.  In short, the role of the koan is not to lead us to satori easily , but on the contrary to make us lose our way and drive us to despair.”

The stick is our point of reference, our dynamic center. It is like a life buoy that we cling to in the midst of the raging ocean of life.  To allow the stick to be taken away from us, to let go our grip on the lifebuoy, requires great faith. When we let go we enter into Great Doubt, that could also be called, Great Anguish or Great Despair. Instead of fighting against this despair, instead of doing all that we can to resolve the issue, we allow ourselves to sink more deeply into it.

Normally, we react to doubt and anguish by searching for some certainty, something we can hold onto, some reassurance: that is to say we search for a dynamic Center, the stick of the blind man.  This is quite opposite to allowing.  But it shows that allowing is not a passive, resigned attitude.  On the contrary it is a very vigilant, attentive, alert state. If you were voluntarily walking through the jungle in the darkness of night you would not be in a passive, resigned state of mind!  Thus there is no contradiction between arousing the great ball of doubt and allowing: on the contrary they complement each other.



Going to dokusan

Going to dokusan is so often a painful business, we look for reasons for not wanting to go.  “It is obvious that a lot of people want to have dokusan, perhaps I should hang back and give them first chance?”   In particular people ask,   “Should I go only when I have something to say?”  or, “Should I try to prove that I am working well or improving in the practice?”  The answer is that one should trust the teacher.  One can never go to too many dokusans.  There is, it is true, a logistical problem, particularly now that I am getting old, but that is for the teacher to solve.  Also you must remember that you are not there for the teacher; the teacher is there for you.  In other words, you do not have to keep the teacher happy by showing him/her that you are working hard.  All of us realize that we are not working as fully as we might.  Indeed complacency with our practice is the end of our practice.  We, therefore, feel some guilt, we see others and the teacher working very hard, and we feel sometimes that we are letting them down.  Stay with the guilt; do not try to get rid of it by strategies or by shifting it on to the teacher.  

 Although the teacher says that we must go to dokusan open without a thought other than the involvement with our practice, in our minds we still wonder whether we have to have a question, or a real problem before we go. “What if I have absolutely nothing to say? Do I take the time of others if I go in spite of that?” It’s the same with the questions the teacher is going to ask.  “Should I have some answer ready?”  All of this, of course, comes from our confusion of that we know with what we know. 

Generally speaking we have a social self and a personal self.  We spend a great deal of energy ensuring that only the social self is shown to others.  This same energy is expended in the dokusan room as well.  We can become afraid of being impolite if we let ourselves be too spontaneous. Or else we might behave in some unaesthetic way. Or, worst of all, we might lose control and so, we fear, do some unforgivable thing. ‘That I know’ is utterly spontaneous, it has no cause or reason for being, no beginning or end.  It is a light that shines by itself; it is, as Mumon says somewhere,  “Spring, but not of the four seasons.”   It is this spontaneity that, given the chance, dokusan will call up. If only one can get a glimpse of what this means.  Probably, it is mainly in dokusan that the circumstances are just right for this flash.  However, if you go to dokusan with your ready-made questions and ready-made answers, spontaneity will not have a chance to burst through.  Let me be clear, I am not saying that you should not have questions.  By all means come with them if they arise by themselves. However, do not fabricate questions.  Above all do not fabricate responses.

When it is said that we must be involved with our practice, it means as involved as possible.  We are not seeking perfection, some absolute state of being. Nor are we seeking to be good, a good person or a good student.  In other words each of us is, as Yasutani used to say, “a complete meal” To be oneself is a rare opportunity.

Sometimes, the teacher pushes the student away, wrings the bell, expresses disgust, cuts the student off before she can even open her mouth. Astonishingly, some people will go away and smolder with resentment about this.  Instead of working with the very humiliation that the teacher so wants the student to work with, she comes back with an argument all prepared, of the “you said I said you said variety.” The creativity that we are, can only really express itself initially in stress situations; this is why we are told to work in the midst of the difficulties.  An analogy is the generation of electricity when the armature crosses the magnetic field generated by the two poles of a magnet.  The stronger the magnetic field the greater power that is generated.

Dokusan is not a social encounter, nor a therapeutic one.  It could be looked upon as a teaching encounter, although again it is not quite this either, because, particularly in our society, teaching involves passing information from one person to another   It is in being willing to stay within the stress, the ambiguity of the encounter, not trying to classify the ambiguity, or to use one’s habitual reactions, that one can find the most value in dokusan.  This may well be very difficult, but in the end this is where its rewards will be found.

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6 Responses to Going to dokusan

  1. Gordon Carson says:

    In writing ” One can never go to too many dokusans” the explanation is given that “one should trust the teacher” . Looking beyond this “trust” is it accurate/fair to say that based on the original Hung-chou doctrine of direct “mind to mind transmission” that with training and receptivity, the character of the teachers mind was itself to be transmitted directly to the student? Which if accurate would necessitate a long term and constant interaction between Teacher and student.

    • Albert Low says:

      We must be careful when thinking about “mind to mind transmission.” There is no mind as such. Or perhaps it would be better to say that mind is potential. Thoughts images, ideas, actualize that potential. Most people are fascinated by the actualization of mind and ignore the potential. With transmission the potential is restored.

  2. Albert I have recently been watching 3 DVD’s made in 1976 by John Barton, Royal Shakespeare Company, tilted “Playing Shakespeare”. He assembled many fine young actors such as Judy Dench and David Suchet. Together they tackled playing ambiguity, irony, sarcasm in ways which honoured the text and brought the characters alive. At one point John asked the actor to show the character to be ‘inside and outside’ of the self simultaneously!

  3. André Martel says:

    Again thank you for posting this teisho Albert.
    Sitting in the middle of a vortex.

  4. Dokusan, Zazen and koan practice; a borderless, multi dimensional dynamic puzzle which we could also call life. The puzzle contains an infinite number of pieces out of which we seek to find some meaningful whole.
    It is like trying to figure out what this puzzles is all about. But this puzzle is the puzzle of our life and our death. Our puzzle has no border, meaning that it has no fix boundaries, and that whatever you see as your actual horizon (or situation) will eventually change as you walk along. The key point here is walking, moving. If one never changes his or her viewpoint then the resulting view will forever remain the same. Seeing the walls of our jails collapse are always very painful. No solid and compact ground on which to rest, but then one is the path itself.
    The puzzle of life and death is dynamic, meaning that all those infinite pieces are also subject to life and death, they appear, fade away, melt, changes, were and were not, dust and gold. No single part of this puzzle needs to be left out, good and bad, the shining light and the dark pit without an end, all must be examine, experience.
    The puzzle has many dimensions, all of which is a single aspect of the forever changing puzzle. Some dimensions are completely contradictory with others. Some have beginning and ends, some never ends or begins. Where it begins, where one is, or how far one has arrived to and where one is going is simply irrelevant. What is important is an encounter, an encounter beyond the possible, beyond concept, right into the unknowable, right into the impossible. What is real? What is, here and now?
    In that small room we fall short to find a permanent meaningful whole; the vast sky above, the mud, what more do you want.

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