Behind Closed Doors

Like Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen, I have lots of things I want to write about, but when everyone is talking about a scandal, not talking about it starts to feel like avoidance. Today, to many people such as myself (who have never been privy to the American Zen gossip mill), the news about Joshu Sasaki comes as a surprise. So did the very disturbing details about Eido Shimano not long ago. But the greater surprise, for me at least, is learning that so many people have known so much for so long. I am not mystified by how these things happen — I have seen for myself how students can enable teachers, and how they can look away from actions and “teachings” that bear greater scrutiny. I have also seen how a teacher can become so insulated that there is no real pressure to act like — or be– a mature adult. It’s a trap, one that everyone sets together. The Zen world — all over the world — needs to do some serious housecleaning. But that is painful, and sad, and it gets ugly along the way.

I do not feel that I have much to offer regarding the current scandal. The scope of it is still being defined, and while that’s happening, people have already stepped forward and said much of what needs to be said, at least at this stage (Myoan Schireson’s article at Sweeping Zen, “A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective on Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, and Other Abuses in Zen Centers,” is a good place to start). I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I will say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a Zen teacher desiring sex. That just means he or she is human. For that matter, I’m not concerned with a teacher being attracted to a student — we do not have much control over who or what we desire. But when a teacher, in a practice setting, acts on that attraction (even with just a word, or a gesture, or an unmistakable look), the teacher is elevating that desire to primary importance. He is saying that satisfying his desire or his curiosity is more important than the student, more important than the transmission of the teachings, more important than the practice, more important than the health of the community. That is the mindset of a child, and we don’t need children teaching Zen. But all that’s obvious, and it’s been said better elsewhere.

There is one aspect of this scandal and all the others, however, that seems not to be getting much airtime, so I’d like to try to explore it here. It’s dokusan.

Dokusan (or sanzen in the Rinzai world — even more confusing, sanzen is also a Soto word, but with a completely different meaning), is the formal, private meeting between student and teacher. Some Zen centers offer it year round, others only during sesshin or special practice periods. Generations of Westerners know, from Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen (and other books describing koan-based practice), that dokusan is where the excitement is. It’s where student and teacher tangle eyebrows, where they shout and hit and stare and cry and break through to something new. If you’re a new student, dokusan is where you go to find your most romantic ideas about Zen; if you’re a teacher with a new student, dokusan is where your authenticity is tested, where you do or do not live up to that student’s dreams. It can be intense. (My advice: don’t live up to those dreams.)

But dokusan is also the setting and starting point of almost every sex scandal in the Zen world. Dokusan is where a teacher touches a student’s knee, where a teacher suggests that the student is special and that theirs is an intimacy that goes well beyond the mind, where the teacher cultivates an ambiguous sexual tension to see where it might go. It is where a student and teacher having an affair can be perfectly alone, but in public. In some cases, it is where the teacher assaults the student outright. And it is also where, by the nature of it, the student is most vulnerable, most raw, most receptive to whatever the teacher is offering. It’s the scene of the crime, over and over and over again.

My own experience of dokusan: The first time I entered that room was as a student here in Japan, with a Soto teacher who uses koans. It was not magical or even all that intense, but it was honest, and I was grateful for the encounter (in that one sesshin, I learned a lot about how not to behave in dokusan). My second experience of it was as a teacher, receiving students. That may seem shocking, but in the Soto world, at least for those of us who trained in Japan, that’s normal. In the conventional Soto Zen world (meaning temples and teachers who do not use koans as teaching tools), there is no such thing as dokusan. I’m sure there are some exceptions to that, but in my 12 years in Japan, I have yet to find even one. A student can always meet formally with a teacher — structures exist for that. But even then — even if the meeting opens and closes with prostrations, even if it produces all the intensity we might expect — it is also more likely than not that tea will be served, and that the conversation will stretch on for an hour or more. There will not be a line of students waiting their turns; there will not be an attendant guarding the door.

In the West, due largely to the influence of Philip Kapleau’s book (and some others), Soto Zen practitioners decided decades ago that dokusan is indispensable to Zen practice. The fact that it is employed is not a bad thing — it creates an encounter that is deliberate and formal in ways that are difficult to maintain at other times, perhaps especially in the casual world of the West. In the teaching seat, I have seen how it throws even seasoned practitioners off center to walk into that room, how it makes them open to something new. And that’s good. I have watched people with whom I have only ever had casual conversations bow, sit down, tear open their chests, and hand me their beating hearts. It is a very humbling place to be. I have also had the profound privilege of serving as an interpreter for Japanese teachers visiting the US and conducting dokusan at students’ requests. From my spot in the shadows, I have been able to watch encounters that are not intended for an audience; I have witnessed how skillful teachers can create that open and forgiving space, how they stay so clear and so honest in the face of so many projections and so much transference.

I have also seen where it can become complicated. A woman I had just recently met once came to me in dokusan and told me that she felt like she might have a crush on me. She described this as a feeling that was confusing to her, but her presentation was giggly and a little flirtatious. I don’t believe she wanted anything to happen between us. She was considerably older than I was; it didn’t feel like a proposition. But she was also inviting me to respond. She was testing me a little, and maybe also seeking out some sort of affirmation. I told her this: those feelings are natural, even normal. I, too, have felt something like a crush on teachers, male and female — that initial attraction, that desire to be close to the teacher or even to be considered special is probably only rarely a romantic one, but since those feelings are so analogous to romantic feelings (we don’t even have multiple words for “crush,” though they are obviously needed), it is easy for either party to be confused. She and I shared a laugh about it, and we went on to talk about other things. But in that moment between what she said and how I responded, what if she had reached out and touched me on the hand? Or what if I had touched her hand, just to be reassuring or friendly? It could have happened, easily. One of us would have been left wondering what on earth it all meant.  She could have told that story to the rest of the sangha any way she wanted; I could have done the same. Or we could have held that moment as a secret between us — this little thing, that should have meant nothing, could have transformed into something that needed to be resolved, or hidden, or somehow followed up on. A small gesture like that, when two people are so exposed, can tear the world down the middle. It can terrify or excite the student — maybe both. And it can embolden a teacher — making others uncomfortable or afraid can be an intoxicating kind of power, whether it’s about sex or not.

I don’t know if any of the horrible stories we hear about teachers molesting and assaulting and generally manipulating students start out in that small way. But I think I see how easy it is for that dynamic to fall away from what it should be. We sometimes describe Zen in dangerous terms, and rightly so — zazen is not a safe activity. Walking into a room and exposing your heart to someone is not a safe thing to do. Nor should it be. But even recognizing and honoring that, we can agree that the dokusan room, in more conventional terms, must be a safe space. There must be rules. There must be guidelines that are public — not only so that teachers can be held accountable, but so that students can know, without any question, that what just happened was a transgression and not a teaching to be unraveled.

I do not want to dissuade anyone from walking into that room. There is a beautiful, honest, uncomfortable encounter to be had there, and Zen is all of those things. I encourage anyone who wants that confrontation to seek it out. But given the problems that continue to occur there, I also want to offer two thoughts, for what they’re worth:

The first is that Zen teachers do not need to touch students. Ever. As someone who teaches at a university, I am not allowed to close the door when a female student visits my office. This is for her protection and mine. In dokusan, the door will be closed, so there needs to be transparency before it closes about what can and cannot happen there. I don’t know what other teachers do; I don’t want to suggest all sorts of arbitrary limits. But I cannot imagine how a teacher is hindered by not physically touching the student. Teachers, just don’t do it. Students, don’t press the issue. If the student really wants to hug the teacher, that should be done later, and it should happen in front of other people. But even better, let’s bow to each other. When I visit American Zen centers, I find that bowing is being traded in for handshakes and hugs, but what is lacking in a bow? I used to visit a women’s prison where I was expressly forbidden from touching anyone in the prison population. Every time as I left, the woman we visited there most often would say she wished she could hug me, then we would bow instead. But that bow contained that hug. It contained more than a hug. I loved that bow.

The second thing I want to say is that dokusan is not at the center of the practice — let’s be careful not to put it there. I’m not sure that can be said of the koan tradition — there, it may be difficult to move forward without it. But in Soto Zen, there is nothing your teacher can offer you in that room that is more special than what she offers outside of it. And if you try to bring more to that room than you do to the way you sit or walk or stand or lie down, then you are missing what actually is at the center. If you go into dokusan, then really show up, really be there. But then, after the bell rings, open the door with that same presence, and walk away withholding nothing, offering that action and the next and the next. Be careful about anything special happening in that room. I don’t just mean sex — I mean anything.

There is no room more special than the one you’re in right now. There is no encounter more important than the one you’re having in this moment.

Dokusan is just another room, just another encounter. Let’s try not to forget.

8 comments on “Behind Closed Doors

  1. Karen Laing says:

    Thank you for this post, Koun. For me, this hits the mark! Jikun

  2. Jodo says:

    Very good, I’ve been meaning to make the same point about no touching. Which is a bit strange in some ways in that I come from a “hippie culture” where hugging was the norm. So my principle is no touching, but here is a slight exception: sometimes if a female student really expects a quick, friendly, goodbye hug, hopefully in public; I may go along, with the same sort of awkward, sideways hug that I sometimes share with my grown daughter. Occasionally I sense that one of my male students needs a hug, and I initiate that on rare occasions.

  3. Michael says:

    I’ve read a lot lately about this since the Sasaki allegations have broken through. Your piece is one that finally illuminates the issue in a way that offers positive ideas and advice on how the zen community can make adjustments to prevent some potentials for inappropriate relationships and abuse. Your voice is one that quietly cuts through the cacophony.

    • Koun says:


      Thank you. I appreciate the word “cacophony” here — it has been nearly deafening. In watching the discussion around something like this, it occurs to me that outsiders may be more surprised by the level of discourse among Zen practitioners than by the scandals themselves (which happen in some form or other across traditions). I think we’ll never completely outgrow these kinds of teacher-student dilemmas — each generation will have to wrestle with them in some form or another. But I would like to think that we can, as a community, explore more mature ways of talking about differences. We’ll see.


  4. Raj says:

    Thank you for your most articulate Zen voice. Teachers have to discern what is sacred and what is profane. When he falls, it is not a one man’s fall. Avalanches are falling. Love has its own wild flows and caverns. But never, never a bad intention. And that is grand scale. Thank you.

  5. Tim says:

    Thank you, Koun.

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