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Dokusan and Daisan



The Japanese have two words for the interview with the teacher, daisan and dokusan. In many traditions, “dokusan” is reserved for interviews with the Roshi while “daisan” is used for other interviews, for instance with dharma holders.


When I arrived at ZCNY, the words seemed to be used differently, not to distinguish interviews with Bernie from interviews with Jishu, who was then still a dharma holder. We could all have interviews with Bernie on Saturday mornings (assuming he was in town), if time permitted, but “dokusan” students went first. “Dokusan” students were those who had been formally accepted as students by Bernie. 


I hated the distinction. It was one of Bernie’s practices that rubbed my egalitarian conditioning the wrong way, but I knew I wanted to study with Bernie from my first day at ZCNY. It took me more than a year to find the courage to make the request. The formality of asking Bernie to become my teacher was a very big deal. I asked to meet with him. We would meet at his house. 


Dusk was approaching as I drove from Staten Island to Yonkers for my appointment. What if Bernie said, “No”? What would I do? Would I be able to show my face in the ZCNY zendo again? Where would I go next to find a teacher? 


By the time I got to Yonkers, I knew the answer. Bernie was my teacher. If he said, “No,” then that was the teaching. That would be my koan. I would just have to sit with it. I had found my teacher, but I didn’t yet know the importance of that commitment.


That evening, as I sat with Bernie on the couch in his darkening living room and asked him to be my teacher, I knew that Bernie was shedding students, shifting the center of his life away from Yonkers. He had already detached significantly from the zendo. For years, his focus had been on other aspects of the Greyston Mandala, but now he was being drawn beyond Yonkers. A friend of mine had cried as she told me that Bernie had just informed her that he would no longer be her teacher. I was asking anyway. 


“Yes,” he said, and although there were periods in which I was working primarily with Roshis Jishu Holmes and Bob Kennedy, Bernie was my teacher until he died. He continues to be my teacher. I am studying with him every day. Bernie was a difficult teacher for me. He could be frustrating and angering. 


My frustration came to a head as I watched some of Roshi Kennedy’s students proceed rapidly to transmission. Had Bernie made a mistake in making me a dharma holder? Maybe he’d done it in a moment of grief over Jishu’s passing. I’d already offered to let him off the hook once. Maybe I just wasn’t turning out to be the dharma student he’d thought I’d be. Again, I asked Bernie if he regretted making me a Dharma Holder. 


“No,” he said again. “No regrets.”


In a pique of frustration, I asked Bob, “Why don’t I switch and get transmission from you?” 

“No,” he said. “Bernie’s a very important teacher. He’s worth waiting for.”


I waited. Would I ever get transmission? Perhaps not. I would just be a Dharma Holder, carrying forward Bernie’s Zen of social entrepreneurship. I would just keep putting one foot in front of the other as we moved toward the opening of our first charter school. Hsiang-yen became my hero.


It’s one of my favorite koans. Hsiang-yen frustrated by his failure to gain the approval of his teacher, Kuei-shan, dropped all ambition, taking up the care of an abandoned temple. Carrying on Bernie’s social entrepreneurship dharma was my abandoned temple. 


Each day, Hsiang-yen meticulously swept the temple grounds, tended to the altar. I wrote and rewrote our first charter application. I didn’t need the rest of the koan.  I just kept sweeping. Our first charter was approved. 


One day, Hsiang-yen swept a stone into the air, striking a bamboo, thwock! That thwock awakened Hsiang-yen. 


I heard a thwock too. Bernie wasn’t perfect. Bernie was my imperfect teacher. With all my imperfections, I too could become a teacher. I never discussed this with Bernie, never told him about it, but not too much later he scheduled my transmission. Somehow, he knew that I had passed my hardest to pass koan. Without the commitment to Bernie as my teacher, I might never have heard the thwock. Without the distinction between dokusan and daisan, I might never have made the commitment.


And yet as a teacher, I have never used the dokusan and daisan distinction. It never seemed necessary. We were always a small group. I treated everyone who came into an interview in the same way. My “egalitarian” conditioning is still very strong. But I am thinking now that I may have left an important Upaya on the table. Although it was never made explicit and never explained to me, it looks as if there was an important teaching buried in the formality of becoming a dokusan student, something far more important than jumping to the head of the interview line. In taking the discipleship practice off the table, I failed to share what was a central aspect of my training, the commitment to a teacher, to stay the course, to struggle with the teachings that are hard to swallow, and in particular to work with the aspects of the teacher which rattled my expectations.


Is it too late? I talked about the dokusan formality last night with our Tuesday Zen group. Two members of the group have been sitting with me since the days at Mt. Manresa. They traveled to Montague to be present for my transmission. We have a core group, all of whom have been studying with me for years, all without the formality of dokusan. I have been their teacher for years. Do I want them to go through the formality of asking me to be their teacher? 


As we talked last night, we saw the Upaya that I’d left unused. Had they been picking and choosing the teachings that “worked” for them? Do they want the surrender of dokusan? Do they want to give up the picking and choosing? Do they want that relationship with me?

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