Dokusan: the Private Interview with a Zen Teacher

Buddist Monk and his Students. Getty

The Japanese word dokusan means "going alone to a respected one." This is the name in Japanese Zen for the private interview between a student and the teacher. Such meetings are important in any branch of Buddhist practice, but especially so in Zen. Over the centuries, the practice has become highly formalized; in retreat settings, dokusan may be offered two or three times each day. 

A dokusan session is highly ritualized, in which the student bows and prostrates to the floor before taking a seat next to the teacher.

The session may last only a few minutes or may go as long as an hour, but typically it is 10 or 15 minutes in length. At the conclusion, the teacher may ring a hand bell to dismiss the student and call the new one in. 

A Zen teacher, sometimes called "Zen master," is one who has been confirmed to be a master teacher by another master teacher. Dokusan is a means for giving his or her students individualized instruction and assessing the students' understanding.

For students, dokusan is an opportunity for a student to discuss his Zen practice with the respected teacher. The student may also ask questions or present his understanding of the dharma. As a rule, however, students are discouraged from going into personal issues such as relationships or jobs unless it relates very specifically to practice. This is not personal therapy, but a serious spiritual discussion. In some instances, the student and teacher may simply sit together in silent zazen (meditation) without speaking at all.

 

Students are discouraged from talking about their dokusan experiences with other students. This is partly because instructions given by a teacher in dokusan are meant only for that student and may not apply to other students. It also frees students from having any particular expectations on what dokusan will offer.

 

Further, when we share experiences with others, even just in re-telling, we have a tendency to "edit" the experience in our minds and sometimes to be less than completely honest. The privacy of the interview creates a space where all social pretenses can be dropped.

In the Rinzai school, in dokusan the student is assigned koans and also presents his understanding of the koan. Some--not all -- Soto lineages have discontinued dokusan, however.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Dokusan: the Private Interview with a Zen Teacher." ThoughtCo, Jul. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/dokusan-449803. O'Brien, Barbara. (2017, July 24). Dokusan: the Private Interview with a Zen Teacher. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dokusan-449803 O'Brien, Barbara. "Dokusan: the Private Interview with a Zen Teacher." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dokusan-449803 (accessed November 18, 2017).