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I Am Ken

“I am Ken, and my practice is counting my breath.”

For years, I said these words when I entered the dokusan room, first with Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi at the Soho Zendo, and then after I found my way to the Zen Community of New York in Yonkers with Roshis Bernie Glassman and Jishu Holmes, and finally doing koan study with Roshi Bob Kennedy.

I remember thinking during my years with Jishu that introducing myself every time I sat facing her was ridiculous. “Jishu knows who I am. What is the point of this ritual?”

Jishu probably knew who I was, but in the great Chinese monasteries of old, where the fabled teachers taught, I imagined hundreds of monks filing through the dokusan room. How could the teacher be expected to remember all those names?

In introducing myself each time I sat down in dokusan, I was honoring that tradition. It was more than that. It was part of my practice of learning humility. I could feel the pride which swelled when I thought, “Oh, of course, Jishu knows who I am. I am an unforgettable Zen student.” I could feel myself reeking of pride, so I do my bows and I introduced myself.

“I am Ken, and my practice is counting my breath.”

Jishu did manage to teach me a lot about humility, probably as much as anything by her example, but the dokusan practice was important. Each time I introduced myself, I let go of a tiny piece of my pride.

Sitting now in dokusan, on the other cushion, as students bow and introduce themselves and their practice, I am aware of another layer of meaning in the practice. I see now in the student’s formal introduction, a marker of an important difference between Zen and psychotherapy, between dokusan and the psychoanalytic hour.

The analyst remembers everything, or at least appears to. Part of one’s training as a therapist is to learn to take notes. Immediately, at the end of each session, make your notes. This is crucial in Freud’s world. No one can possibly remember another person dream without his own unconscious intruding. Review your notes before each session. You can’t possibly remember. One patient follows another through the therapist’s day.

Part of the therapist’s job is to point out possible connections which the patient doesn’t see. Nothing is “forgotten.”

My iconic experience with the analytic memory occurred in my early 20’s, in my analysis with Erika Mohr. Erika had been my mother’s analyst, and Mom had taken me to Erika when I was still in elementary school, the first time because I was stammering, and the second time when I was 7 and came home from sleep-away camp with nightmares. I’d seen Erika once during college but began my own analysis when a crisis in graduate school threatened to upend my life.

In one session, I was talking about my relationship with my father when Erika interrupted me. “That’s not the way I remember it.” Erika quoted something I’d told her when I was 7.


My experience was unusual. Few people work with an analyst who actually remembers their childhood, but the experience is paradigmatic. Patients are accountable for everything they say and do in their sessions.  Everything. Period. It’s all grist for the therapeutic mill.

Dokusan is different. The Zen teacher remembers nothing, not even your name and certainly not what koan you’re working on. Well, it my case as a teacher, that’s not exactly true. I have only a few students and I have been working with them for years. I remember their names, but I don’t remember what koan each student is working on.

Often a student wants to come back to something which I said in dokusan a couple of weeks earlier. “Do you remember when you said…” this or that? Of course, I don’t. The student will try to remind me. Sometimes, it sounds like something I might have said. Sometimes I have no idea why I would have said that.

I wondered when I first started doing dokusan if I was being a lazy Zen teacher. After all, I had been trained as a therapist. I knew about taking notes. But I have come to appreciate this difference between Zen and psychotherapy. Dokusan and therapy look so much alike. The difference between the memory of the Zen teacher and the memory of the therapist often goes unnoticed. The analyst remembers everything. The Zen teacher remembers nothing. In therapy, you, the patient, are accountable for everything you do or say, and that accountability goes on forever. There is no statute of limitations on the slip of the tongue which you made 5 years ago.

In Zen, every encounter with the teacher is a fresh moment. The student may be carrying the past around with him, but the teacher has put it down.

There is a famous koan. Two monks come to a shallow river. They will wade across. A beautiful courtesan waits on the bank, trying to figure a way across without ruining her dress. One monk carries her to the other side, and then the monks continue on their way.

A few hours later, the second monk can no longer contain himself. “How could you do that? You have violated your vows, touching a woman.”

The first monk only smiles. “I put her down hours ago. You’re still carrying her around.”

The Zen teacher is not carrying around your past. Dokusan offers a fresh moment every time until the student is ready to grasp it.

“I am Ken.”

So, who is Ken?

In psychoanalysis, finding Ken is an adventure in archeology. Buried under all the neurotic stories is the true Ken. We dig up the past and examine the artefacts. In Zen, the past is gone, if only we could let it go. It’s all there in koan practice. The teacher says, koan after koan, “Don’t tell me what you think about the koan. Show me the koan. Right here. Now.” Don’t tell me your Ken stories. Show me Ken.

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