Dokusan is the Japanese term for “going alone to a respected one;” a formal and private face-to-face meeting with a Dharma-Transmitted Zen teacher. A Zen teacher or “master” is one who has received Dharma-Transmission from another fully Dharma-Transmitted teacher. In Zen Buddhism, the spiritual ancestry (or bloodline) is considered an unbroken lineage of succession between teacher and disciple that theoretically reaches back to the historical Buddha.Dokusan sessions are ritualized formal meetings in which the student offers prostrations to the teacher before and after sitting down. A practice discussion is a less formal meeting with a dharma mentor. Those who have served as shusho (head monk) for a practice period may be invited by the Head Teacher to offer practice discussion within the year following their shuso ceremony. A shusho may be an ordained priest or a lay practitioner. Although there is no standard length of meeting- it could run anywhere from a few minutes up to an hour- typically a meeting is between a quarter to half an hour during which time a student may bring up practice-related questions, present their understanding of the Dharma, and more generally engage in a discussion of their experience in zazen and its intersection with daily life. Neither dokusan nor practice discussion are to be confused with therapy or coaching, although similar topics may arise. For example, personal issues such as relationships or jobs would come up only in terms of how they relate specifically to one’s practice. Thus the explicit focus is on the students’ understanding of Buddhist teachings as they relate to their daily practice.
While such meetings are considered important in any branch of Buddhist practice, they are especially relevant in Zen training as it can be easy to get caught up in weeds of discursive thought without guidance and practice-verification from a teacher. It provides a time for the teacher to give individualized instruction or to assess the students’ understanding. Other times the student and teacher may simply sit together in silent zazen without speaking at all. In either case, the privacy of the interview combined with the formality of the container creates a space where social pretences may be dropped and an authentic dharmic encounter can take place.
Dokusan and practice discussion are private and confidential within certain limits: 1) when the individual expresses intention to harm self or other, 2) when a teacher seeks peer consultation from another teacher. Teachers and practice leaders do consult each other from time to time, and may consult their own teacher in order to best support sangha members. This is standard practice in major Zen centers. When an individual requests complete confidentiality, that will be respected as long as there is no risk to that person or another.
At the Austin Zen Center we have a number of teachers who offer both one-time and regular practice discussion with AZC members. Occasionally we have visiting authorized (i.e. Dharma-transmitted) teachers who may also offer dokusan. Practice discussions are offered by Rev. Mako Voelkel, Pat Yingst, and Tim Kroll. Both dokusan and practice discussion are offered during the weekly zazen schedule and during retreats, and outside the regular schedule by request. Phone discussions may be available for those who are out of town or can’t come to the zendo.
If you are practicing regularly at the Austin Zen Center, it is recommended to have practice discussion at least once a month, perhaps more often for beginning students. It may also be helpful to develop a connection with more than one teacher or practice leader. Although becoming a student of a particular teacher is something that evolves over time through practicing together, it is good to bring up and discuss your commitment to practice with whomever you speak.
Whereas the form for dokusan or practice discussion may vary, usually when you enter the dokusan or practice discussion room you offer one to three full prostrations before the altar, then a standing bow (gassho) before taking your seat, and the reverse when you are finished.
To sign up for dokusan or practice discussion you may either speak directly to the person of your choice, or you may leave your name and email address on the Sign-up sheet in the foyer at AZC.