Saturday, August 20, 2011

Face to Face

Tourist Want A Cracker?
Tourist Want A Cracker? Sydney, 2010

One of the most enduring features of Buddhist training is the face-to-face encounter with a teacher. This is especially strongly emphasized in Zen, with its founding myth of special transmission outside the scriptures, from Mahakasyapa's smile on down through the centuries. In the group where I practice, there are two flavors of face-to-face encounter: dokusan and daisan. Dokusan is an encounter with a teacher, and daisan is with a senior student; someone who's not a teacher but has been authorized by one to do that.

These encounters have been immensely helpful to me. Indeed, if there is any one thing that makes me feel part of a tradition, it has to be dokusan. It's a simple, strange, and ancient ritual, and there is a real feel of continuity there. That teachers and students have been facing each other through the centuries. That even if the chain of Dharma transmission has broken here and there, the chain of sitting face-to-face has not. There might be the odd incompletely credentialed ancestor here and there, but even they have surely sat face to face with a teacher, and while some of the names chanted in the line of ancestors might be entirely mythological, someone has been there, right down to December nights in northern India.

Perhaps the most precious thing about dokusan for me is that it is the ultimate permission to speak freely. There are things about this practice that are significant but very difficult to talk about. There's a lot of baggage hanging from those things too. There's the big E, of course, which is such a hot potato that there's a lot of weirdness about it, from the caricatured Rinzai attitude of going all Leroy Jenkins at it, to the caricatured Theravadin attitude of breaking it down to attainments and paths and racking them up like XBox achievements, to the caricatured Soto attitude of angrily denying that such a thing is worth even talking about. And lesser things in the same category; little unfoldings that change things. Moments of seeing the world in a different light. And, naturally, the immense capacity for self-delusion that most of us have; conjuring up insights that are really just phantoms.

That face-to-face encounter is the only space I've experienced where it's possible to speak freely of such things. It is sacred space. What passes there, stays there. Even if nothing is said in words, the silence is eloquent. Even if there is nothing there but surface thoughts and words and confusion, that is eloquent too. There may be words of reassurance, words of guidance, even a word that stings, to deflate a delusion. Or just silence.

There is fear too. Fear of being exposed. Of looking foolish. Of not measuring up. I think a big part of it is facing that fear. I've noticed that lots of newcomers to our zendo are very nervous about going to daisan, let alone dokusan, and seem to put it off, sometimes indefinitely. I was dreadfully nervous the first time I took dokusan, and that wasn't a very long time ago. I'm still nervous. But if it happens that someone's reading this who has the opportunity to take it, but hasn't done so because of nerves or any other reason, please, do it. It's probably not going to be what you think (it never is for me anyway), and if you decide it's not for you, nobody says you have to go again. But if you're wondering whether you ought to go, just do it. It doesn't matter who you are or at what level you imagine yourself to be or how full of shit you think you are, just go. It'll sort itself out. Or not.

The significance of these encounters goes far beyond the actual encounter. A while ago, I felt that more was better; I would have liked more frequent access to my teacher. Now I'm starting to think that the relative rarity of these encounters may be useful in and of itself. Just the knowledge that the possibility is there, that there will likely be one, ground the practice in and of itself.

Tomorrow is a zazenkai. No teacher there, but daisan is offered. I don't know if I'll go. I'll decide when I'm there.


  1. This one is worth bookmarking; very nice, Petteri.

  2. I haven't read it yet. But very nice picture :)

  3. Interesting read. I find it somewhat strange that you have embraced the whole Buddhist spirituality side of the world. I had never pegged you for it in the past.

    It seems to have done you some good. So all the best with it.

  4. I have? I certainly haven't intended to, and don't really think of it as spirituality. If so, it's snuck up on me, as it were. Not that I've resisted it.

    It's certainly true that Zen has opened up a dimension of experience that I wasn't aware of before, but whatever that dimension is, it's not really what I would have associated with 'spirituality'. It's very much in the here-and-now, not some transcendent thing 'out there.'

    But I do think that Siddhartha guy may have been onto something. Yes.

    And thanks.