I love dokusan. But it has taken me some years to get there. I didn’t really understand what it was for, what its purpose or utility was. I feel like I had read somewhere that dokusan gets translated as “an interview with the teacher.” For me, that was immediately frightening. I can’t think of any interview—for a job, or a placement at a university, or for a volunteer position—that didn’t come with a decent amount of anxiety. Then I was supposed to demonstrate my understanding of practice in this interview! So it was easy for me to take it like I was being tested, which was never comfortable.

I used to get so nervous. I worried about what I wanted to say. I felt like I had to come up with some smart observation, or a smart question. I used to preemptively come up with some script that I would rehearse—not necessarily because I thought it was a good plan; it was just so habitual. I hated it when my brain wanted to rehearse scripts, but when that thought train got rolling, it was a hard one to slow down. Then, I felt so phony performing a script, that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything because I would completely forget the script. It happened over and over again. It was torture. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it did feel terrible, and I didn’t see what I was getting out of it.

But I had to keep going. There had to be some reason that people kept going. I just didn’t understand it yet. At some point, shortly after coming on staff, I decided I would go to dokusan once a week, no matter what. If the round I was sitting in felt terrible or fantastic, if I was crying, or if I had nothing to say at all, I was going to go every Thursday night. 

I liked this plan because I was tired of debating in my head if I should go or not. I was going to just commit to the plan and take the debate out. I had known Roshi well enough to know that, if something serious was going on with me, I wanted to be able to talk to him about it. I knew, if I wanted to be able to go to him in a time of need, I needed to get more comfortable with the whole ritual that is dokusan. 

I don’t think it even occurred to me that I could go to him outside of dokusan. Instead, the anxiety started when I realized “it’s Thursday night, there’s dokusan.” To talk myself down, I would remind myself, “I just need to get into the practice. I don’t have to say anything, no need to rehearse. Who’s nervous?” That anxiety would rear up when I got into the dokusan line, then as I moved up the line, and I would dig into the practice even more. My anxiety became something that fueled practice.  

Over time, the whole ritual of going to dokusan transformed. I would use the entire lead-up to walking into that door to motivate work. But that testing anxiety was still coming into my head once I walked in that door. I’m dyslexic, so in my 20 years of experience in schools, I did a lot to manage my teachers’ assumptions about me and my work. I have had this drive to prove myself, both to myself and to my teachers. It’s totally obvious now that this would affect my dokusan experience, and I had been very directly working on some of that anxiety, but it still took me some time before I realized I absolutely projected my baggage with teachers onto Roshi.

Roshi is my teacher. That is super-clear. But when I occasionally do sesshins with teachers that Roshi sanctions, it shakes me out of unconscious expectations that I have for Roshi and the whole experience of working with a teacher. My working relationship with Roshi benefits tremendously.  

One turning point was when I had a sesshin with Gerardo-sensei. Instead of seeing Gerardo-sensei as a traditional schoolteacher, I saw him more as a grandfather figure. With that came an ease and calmness about how I approached him. For those of you who do not know, Gerardo-sensei is from Mexico, where he still lives, so he has a thick Mexican accent. My grandfather was from South Louisiana; he also had a very quiet demeanor. He would sit on the porch of his house for large parts of his day, by himself, smoking cigarettes, watching and studying the birds. His first language was Cajun French, so he had an incredibly thick Cajun accent. It was so thick that my friends from Texas couldn’t understand him at all. So for me, while Sensei’s Mexican accent was not my grandfather’s accent, there was certainly a kinship-ness.

During that sesshin with Sensei, I am sure I had some of those academic associations trailing into the dokusan room, but they ended up getting replaced with associations with my grandfather. Then, when I left sesshin, some of the grandfatherly associations I had with Sensei followed me into the dokusan room with Roshi. It helped to shake me out of some habits I had when I walked into the dokusan room. 

By the time I had sesshins with Amala-sensei, I had new habitual ways of approaching dokusan with Roshi that she didn’t have the language for, making those habits much more visible. Then, because Amala-sensei is a woman, I felt much more comfortable addressing questions that had been coming up that were related to being a woman on the path. I had no idea how much I needed that perspective and how much I had missed it. I found it incredibly valuable to see a woman carry herself, in practice, with such authority. I could see more deeply how I could assert my own power as a woman, simply by having a role model for it.

All of this helped me appreciate Roshi more. Some teachers would feel quite threatened to have their students do sesshin with another teacher; he’s clearly trusting, making it so much easier for me to trust these teachers as well. By having sesshin with other teachers, I have a better appreciation for the personality that Roshi brings to sesshin. There is a way that teachers bring a life to their teachings and to the experience of sesshin. Every teacher is going to bring to life different qualities in different forms, and every student will resonate with that life in different ways. When you only ever have sesshin with Roshi, it’s hard to see what Roshi brings, because you have no way of seeing it. It’s easy to think that the qualities he brings are just the workings of sesshin: “it’s just how sesshin is” instead of “it’s just how sesshin with Roshi is.”  

Just as our relationship to ourselves evolves, so does our relationship with our teachers. It’s not possible to have an intimate relationship if we don’t know how to be intimate with ourselves. They’re such delicate things, intimate relationships. They need time to develop. There have to be some raw moments, when it’s difficult to muster enough trust or vulnerability, but a lot of intimacy development seems mostly boring. It takes time. Not much is happening on the surface. But at the end of the day, going to dokusan reminds me what I’m doing. I walk in the door, take a seat in front of Roshi, do the best I can, to let my thoughts be—like I let my fingers be—and wonder.

—Dené Redding ■