Dokusan, or private instruction, provides an opportunity for Zen students to work directly with a teacher in a confidential, face-to-face setting. In the early days of Buddhism in Asia, interactions between Buddhist masters and their students usually occurred in public gatherings of the monastic community, or in spontaneous interchanges during work and other temple activities.
Over the centuries, particularly in Japanese Zen, such interactions became increasingly private and formalized. In time, these private meetings, known by the Japanese term dokusan, became an integral aspect of Zen training. Today in the West, dokusan has become an essential element of practice for many Western Zen students, and is especially emphasized in the Rinzai tradition. In Zen retreats, or sesshin, dokusan is usually offered 2 or 3 times each day.
During dokusan, students may bring up questions relating to practice, may demonstrate their breath or koan work, or may simply sit quietly with the teacher. Dokusan may be brief or it may last a while, the length of time being no indication of the quality of the encounter. Maintaining clear boundaries and a respectful confidentiality in the teacher-student relationship, both inside and outside of dokusan, helps to establish the trust so essential to working closely and deeply together. This unique relationship, grounded in the fundamental integrity of Mind itself, can be a great help to the student in dealing with inevitable difficulties and doubts that arise, and helps to foster a meaningful involvement with the practice itself.