ZEN 6: Individual Instruction


Reference: Lectures on Zen

These are Yasutani-Roshi’s introductory lectures on Zen training from THE THREE PILLARS OF ZEN by Philip Kapleau.

There is little to comment here. Any comment is to empasize a point. The comments are in color.


Lecture 6—Individual Instruction

Continue to practice the exercise I gave you last time, namely, concentrate on your incoming and outgoing breaths and endeavor to see each breath clearly.

This lecture will deal with dokusan (individual instruction), which is the time allotted for bringing all problems pertaining to practice before the roshi in private. This tradition of individual teaching started with the honored Shakyamuni himself and has continued unbroken until today. We know this because one of the great masters of Tendai, Chisha-daishi, in his systematization of all the sutras under Eight Teachings and Five Periods, lists the Secret Teaching, which corresponds to dokusan.

Without this individual guidance we cannot say that our practice of zazen is authentic. Unfortunately, since the Meiji period, nearly a hundred years ago, dokusan has virtually died out in the Soto sect, continuing only in the Rinzai tradition. If we compare zazen to a journey on which some start rapidly and then slow down, others begin slowly and later accelerate their pace, some find one phase of the journey more hazardous than another, and all carry different burdens of luggage (i.e., preconceived ideas), we can begin to understand why individual guidance in dokusan cannot be dispensed with.

It may be asked why it is necessary to keep dokusan secret. Since nothing immoral is involved, why can it not be open and in public? First of all, since we are ordinary people, with ego, in the presence of others we are inclined to make ourselves out to be better than we are. We cannot bare our souls and stand naked, as it were. Likewise we hesitate to speak the whole truth for fear of being laughed at. Or if the roshi scolds us, using harsh language, we become more concerned with the effect of this on others than in listening to him open-mindedly.

There is yet another reason for privacy in dokusan. After your first experience of kensho you move from koan to koan as your understanding deepens, and were others to be present when you demonstrated these koans, listening to the roshi’s replies, they might think, “Oh, so that’s the answer!” without fully understanding the import of the koan. Obviously this would hurt their practice, for instead of coming to their own realization and presenting it to the roshi, they would remember that this was an acceptable answer but that was not, and thus, to their own detriment, their koan practice would degenerate to mere intellection. For these reasons you should remain silent when asked about a koan which the questioner has not yet passed. Irresponsible talk may lead to other harmful consequences. Rumors may spread that one is savagely beaten in dokusan, for example, giving Zen an undeservedly bad name. Therefore do not discuss your koans with anybody, not even your best friends or members of your family.

It is precisely this violation of the secrecy which formerly surrounded the koan system that has brought about a steady deterioration in Rinzai teaching. What I am about to say does not apply to laymen, who are generally serious in their practice. But in the monasteries, where there are monks who resent the entire training, being there in the first place only to serve the period required to inherit the resident priesthood of a temple, this problem becomes serious. In monasteries where the discipline is faulty an older monk will often say to a younger one: “What koan are you working on?” When told, the older one will say: “Do you understand it?” “No.” “All right, I will tell you the answer,” the older monk says, “and you buy me some cakes in return.” The roshi can tell whether the answer is authentic or not, but if for some reason he himself becomes lukewarm, he may accept an answer which is not the monk’s own. This practice may not be particularly harmful if such a monk spends only two or three years at a monastery before becoming the resident priest of a temple, as his duties there will not require his evaluating another’s satori. But it can happen that there is no opening when he completes this minimal training so that he may remain at the monastery for perhaps eight or ten years, going through the entire koan system with answers which are not his own. Finally, as is the custom in the Rinzai sect when one completes all the koans, he receives the title of teacher. In this way one with no real understanding becomes “qualified” to guide others. This insidious practice is undermining Zen teaching. Soto scholars studying Zen academically justifiably attack the koan system on just these grounds.

The next point concerns what questions are appropriate during dokusan. All questions should relate to problems growing directly out of your practice. This naturally excludes personal problems. You may feel that the privacy of dokusan offers an excellent opportunity for the discussion of personal matters, but you must bear in mind that there are others waiting and that if you take up problems other than those of your practice, you are hindering them. Properly, you may ask about your stomach, for instance, if it is growling, or about your teeth hurting so that you cannot eat, or about visions you may be experiencing. You should not, however, ask about Buddhist doctrine or comparative philosophy or the difference between one sutra and another. You may ask anything so long as it arises directly out of your practice.

The procedure for a new student is to present money for incense to the roshi before taking dokusan. Why, it may be asked, all this formality? Dokusan, it cannot be emphasized too strongly, is not a frivolous matter. While everyone is free to practice zazen and to listen to the roshi’s commentary at sesshin, the essential character of dokusan is the forming of a karmic bond between teacher and disciple, the significance of which is deep in Buddhism. Dokusan therefore is not to be taken lightly. Moreover, since what passes between the roshi and the student in dokusan concerns problems of a deep and ultimate nature, only the truth must be spoken between them. Very often in public meetings one hesitates to say things which might offend others, but this is not so in dokusan, where the absolute truth must always prevail. For these reasons the proprieties which establish this relationship are not to be slighted.

It is proper to wear ceremonial dress to dokusan, but as this is not insisted upon nowadays you may wear anything which is presentable. When dokusan is announced take a position in line behind the bell outside the zazen hall. When your turn comes and you hear my handbell, strike the bell in front of you twice and come to this room. You should not come dashing in, as that would cause confusion and you would not be in a frame of mind to benefit from dokusan. Neither should you saunter in, for there are others waiting. It was the custom originally to make three prostrations at the threshold, three in front of the roshi, and then three more at the doorway when you left, but this has now been abbreviated to three prostrations altogether, one at each of the places mentioned.

In making your prostrations you should touch the tatami mat with your forehead, with your hands extended in front of your head, palms upward. Then, bending your arms at the elbows, raise your hands, palms upward, several inches above your head. This gesture of receiving the feet, the lowliest members of the Buddha’s body, symbolizes humility and the grateful acceptance into your life of the Way of the Buddha. Unless you have submerged your ego, you cannot do this. Bear in mind that the roshi is not simply a deputy of the Buddha but actually stands in his place. In making these prostrations you are in fact paying respect to the Buddha just as though he himself were sitting there, and to the Dharma.

Next take a position about a foot in front of me and announce the nature of your practice. Simply say, “I am counting my breath,” “I am doing Mu,” or “I am practicing shikan-taza.” Make any questions you have brief and to the point. Should I have anything to say to you, I will say it after you have finished. But do not come in and waste time wondering what to talk about; remember, others are waiting to see me. My ringing of this bell is your signal to bow down and leave. After that if you should remember something, you will have to bring it up at the following dokusan, because the next person will already be coming in.

This concludes the sixth lecture.


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