Practice Discussion and Dokusan
There are two forms of meeting privately with an authorized teacher: practice dicussion, and dokusan.
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 a fully-ordained priest who has received Dharma-Transmission from another fully Dharma-Transmitted teacher. Dokusan is a ritualized formal meeting in which the student offers bows to the teacher before and after the meeting.
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. There is no standard length of meeting but generally fits into a single zazen period. 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. It is also appropriate to ask for a teacher to check your meditation posture.
Neither dokusan nor practice discussion are therapy or coaching, although similar topics may arise. For example, personal issues such as relationships or jobs would come up in terms of how they relate specifically to one’s practice. Thus the explicit focus is on the student’s understanding of Buddhist teachings as they relate to their daily practice, on or off the cushion.
Such meetings provide an opportunity for the teacher to give individualized instruction or to assess the students’ understanding. Words are not the only expressions of such understanding. The intimacy of the interview combined with the formality of the container creates a space where social pretenses may be dropped and an authentic dharma 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 to another.
Practice discussions are offered by Rev. Choro Antonaccio, Rev. Mako Voelkel, and Pat Yingst. Occasionally we have visiting teachers who may also offer dokusan. Both dokusan and practice discussion are available during the weekly zazen schedule and during retreats, and outside the regular schedule by arrangement. Zoom 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 once a month; ask the teacher about her recommendation. 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.
The ceremonial forms for dokusan or practice discussion may vary from teacher to teacher, but usually when you enter the dokusan or practice discussion room, after closing the door you offer one full prostration before the altar, then a standing bow (gassho), and a standing gassho bow to the person you are meeting with. Then take your seat, and reverse the order of bows when you are finished.
To sign up for dokusan or practice discussion you may either speak to the person of your choice, or contact the person directly by email. More information is available in the foyer at AZC.