MEANING OF DOKUSAN
The word 'dokusan' has a literal connotation of 'going alone to the high one.' In Soto Zen, we do not stress 'high and low,' or a hard and fast hierarchy. We do, however, recognize a form of seniority, based generally on one's precept dates and intensity of practice. One example of this is that only transmitted Zen priests are authorized to offer what is called dokusan.
Senior students may be given permission to speak and to teach, under the guidance of their teacher, and so may offer dialogs and interviews that are much like dokusan in form — one-on-one and private. But they are not formally considered dokusan. And dokusan was not always strictly private; this may be a Western interpretation. And this interpretation may distort the intent, that dokusan is privileged communication, like that with a lawyer or religious priest. This may be an issue for some.
According to the history, for example of Master Dogen's teacher, Nyojo, dokusan was not necessarily private. Nyojo, or Rujing, gave exchanges with individuals that were overheard by other students. Explicitly public practices such as mondo and hossen ('dharma combat') are other examples of intentional dialog formats, not at all private.
When the abbot/abbess, or other senior teacher offers dokusan, the focus is, or should be, different from a general practice discussion. It is directed toward 'this great matter,' or buddhadharma. This can be characterized as the three groupings of the Eightfold Path, namely 'right conduct'; 'right discipline'; and 'right wisdom'; roughly correlating to community practice, dharma study, and meditation experience.
ETIQUETTE & PROTOCOL
Needless to say, one is not required to attend dokusan. But if you do, exit and enter the zendo and dokusan room quietly. In some centers, one signs up for dokusan in advance; in others, one is tapped on the shoulder as an invitation. If you have any confusion as to protocol, clarify it with the teacher or zendo monitor (Ino) beforehand, or in sotto voce when zazen is in session.
One sits in the waiting area (or zendo) until hearing the double bell, and responds by ringing the smaller bell in the same way if one is provided. Rising from the waiting place, one enters the dokusan room quietly but quickly, bowing to the teacher either formally, in prostration, or informally, standing. The degree of formality is up to the teacher (when visiting, one should ask). After the greeting bow, one sits on the cushion or chair provided, making greetings and composing oneself, and a second bow with the teacher. This second bow marks the beginning of dokusan.
Usually the student brings up whatever is on his/her mind, and the dialog begins. It is polite to wait until prompted by the teacher. If something is unclear, it is fine to ask for further clarification. When satisfied with the teacher's response, it is polite to say 'Thank you,' more polite to say 'Thank you for your teaching,' and the teacher will say 'May you be well,' or words to that effect. At this point, one rises and bows before leaving, as well as at the door, to be extra polite.
Though insight is the focus, complete understanding is not likely in a given dokusan. Repetition over time may lead to the deepest kind of accord with a teacher, progressing incrementally. So it is best to keep it simple, and singularly focused. One or two issues, but not three or four, is appropriate. And don't give up — keep coming back.
DOKUSAN & THE THREE JEWELS
Oftentimes a person's concern will be in the area of relationships — family, colleagues, other members of the Zen sangha, and so forth. A broad interpretation of this area of community, both at the Zen center and in daily life, is termed 'sangha practice,' the object of which is harmony. A second area of concern and sometimes confusion, is that of the teachings of Buddhism. This area, broadly defined, may be called 'dharma practice' or study. The object here is understanding, or clarity, especially as to how the teachings are manifested in reality. The third area of experience that comes up is that of meditation, or zazen. This area we may term 'buddha practice' or direct realization. The object is insight, also the main focus of dokusan.
The buddha area is like the bull's-eye of a target; dharma the next ring out; and sangha the outer ring; with the world of samsara, or daily life, surrounding as the outermost ring. Initial issues brought up in dokusan usually have to do with sangha and its extension to the larger daily life community of family, work, et cetera.
As a person's practice-experience deepens, his or her individual focus will often shift to the center ring of dharma, and ultimately to the bull's-eye, experience on the cushion, or direct buddha level of experience. These latter two are the focus of dokusan, most especially buddha practice.
This means that some subjects are somewhat less appropriate to dokusan, but okay as a starting point. The task of the one offering dokusan is to shift the focus to the meaning of the situation in terms of Zen or buddhadharma, toward the bull's-eye. This is up to the skillful means of the teacher, but should be understood by the student as the real point of the exchange.
MISUSE OF DOKUSAN
Dokusan is related to, but not the same as, practice discussion, and should be brief and to the point. It is not necessary to attend dokusan; it is entirely voluntary. So one's issue or question should not be artificial, contrived, or trivial. It should come directly out of one's zazen and daily life practice as a natural extension of it, and should be oriented toward serious issues.
Dokusan is not therapy. If one becomes bogged down in lengthy discussions of life situations, philosophy, advice, or analysis of psychological issues, for instance, it is not dokusan. Though the language sometimes sounds like that of psychology, the objectives are not the same as therapy. Even informal practice discussion should generally strive to stay focused on the issue of the meaning of Zen practice to one's daily life, and not devolve into a form of amateur therapy or counseling. All the more so for dokusan.
Dokusan is not dharma combat. One is sparring with the teacher. It is not usually a good idea, unless this is the teacher's style, to expound one's own understanding of dharma, for the purpose of having it confirmed by the teacher. This is very common today, as many people have read a great deal about Zen and practiced with other teachers and sanghas. It was also common in Master Dogen's time, interestingly enough.
Dokusan is not a right, but a privilege. It is intentionally held to a brief exchange, for the above reasons, and for another, more important one. It is mindfulness training. If dokusan stretches beyond ten or fifteen minutes, it usually signals an unwitting or insensitive inattention to the needs of others who may be waiting their turn. This is like lingering too long in the only restroom or shower available. Timing is primarily the responsibility of the senior offering dokusan, who may cut it off at any moment by bowing, or ringing the bell. But the attendee should be sensitive to timing as well. How one handles this is a clear indication of one's sangha etiquette, and attention to the needs of others promotes genuine compassion.
Dokusan is not for the aggrandizement of the teacher. In Soto Zen, we do not stress high and low. The attitude is that when and if two people take the time to address 'this great matter,' the opportunity is there for the truth to come out. This 'horizontal' aspect of the relationship, 'equality before the buddha,' does not, however, supplant the 'vertical' aspect of the relationship. The teacher is, in a real sense, an agent of Buddhism, and so is accorded the respect warranted. Please follow the teacher's lead and make yourself — and your mind — supple, to get the most out of dokusan.
Practice discussion is focused on the practice path of the person requesting the interview. The outer ring is where practice discussion is usually focused, on daily life and practice path issues of livelihood, Zen life, and the conflicts that inevitably arise.
It is done in a more casual setting than dokusan, often with refreshments served by the senior's assistant (jissha or benji), and will typically last for an hour or so. The jissha coordinates and makes appointments on request, serving tea and cleaning up afterwards. It is a very gracious tradition and allows an opportunity for any sangha member to get to know the seniors better, and for the teachers to have better insight into personalities of the members. A visiting guest teacher or head student (shuso) will sometimes be invited to offer practice discussion, or to offer dokusan. Some are not comfortable offering the latter to other than their own students.
When the briefer interview during zazen is offered by a teacher other than the Abbot/Abbess, it is not exactly 'practice discussion' in this sense, and it is not really important what it is called. It is a dialog about 'this great matter,' and should be approached with the same gravity as dokusan. As Matsuoka Roshi often said, "We teach each other Buddhism."
Many of the exchanges from history that have been codified as anecdotes of enlightened masters, and often offered as koan, were between 'dharma bothers,' not teachers and their students. The dialogs of Seppo and Gensha, as quoted by Master Dogen, are exemplary, as is the exchange between Hui-neng and brother monks recorded in the Gateless Gate (from Wikipedia):
Case 29: Huineng's flagTwo monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving."Huineng overheard this. He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving."
Some say that Huineng said too much; but as Katagiri Roshi said, "You have to say something." Please approach dokusan, or interview, with this kind of open mind.