Daisan for All!

Mar. 10, 2010 - Posted by in: Blog - 38 Comments

Daisan was unknown in T’ang Dynasty China. Instead, students asked their questions publicly, usually following a Dharma talk.

I’m delighted that we’re able to revive this custom, thanks to blogging. Please post your questions, on any and all Zen subjects, in the
comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them here. I’ll also be posting other tidbits of interest.

Our Zendo now is truly boundless. Send me your questions, and we’ll roll the wheel of the Dharma together.

  1. 38 Responses to “Daisan for All!”

  2. Great idea – Daisan for everyone, Sensei Ryotan….I may show up!
    I found this article below on the web…It seemed interesting and
    terse…but is it accurate? If you had a moment I’d appreciate a look over.
    Seeing the Buddha Play raisen my interest in the different approaches…many thanks ZenRai

    The form of Buddhism that could most accurately be called “traditional Buddhism” is Theravada , the Buddhism most commonly practiced in Southeast Asia today. Theravadan Buddhists practice much as the original disciples of the historical Buddha did: meditating; carefully following the many rules of conduct, the Vinaya, that regulated the lives of those early monks; studying the vast canon of Buddhist scripture, the sutras and commentaries; and revering the Buddha. Theirs is an almost exclusively monastic practice; lay people observe certain devotional practices, but aspire to priesthood in this or future lives. 

Zen belongs to a branch of Buddhism which calls itself the Mahayana. Exactly when the division between Theravada and Mahayana occurred is disputed, but appears to be about 600 years after the Buddha. The Mahayana was an attempt to broaden the restrictive framework of Buddhism, making it more accessible and “outward” looking. To this end, the regulations of the Vinaya were greatly relaxed, lay practitioners were welcomed and given almost equal status to monks, and the sutras, while still revered, were subjugated to personal experience of the truth. In keeping with their goal of outreach, they introduced and formalized a “new” level of being in the Buddhist hierarchy, the Bodhisattva. As beings who have fully realized the nature of reality, the Boddhisattvas could choose to enter the total release of Nirvana. But since doing so would make it impossible for them to aid the suffering of others, they forgo their own release and vow to save all beings first. Mahayana Buddhists see this as the ideal model of renunciation (the concept of the Bodhisattva doesn’t really figure in the Theravada, but that certainly does not mean that the Theravada is unconcerned with the welfare of others).

Zen is the product of the encounter of Mahayana Buddhism with Chinese Taoism. What emerged was a practice that drives at direct, intuitive realization of the nature of reality, “enlightenment” or the “Tao”. Its repertoire of practices is small, and centers around zazen (seated meditation). In its emphasis on personal experience, Zen generally eschews reliance on verbal teaching or scripture as a conduit for truth, and takes a sometimes irreverent view of the Buddha and other figures of spiritual authority. It has evolved training methods designed to point the practitioner to an unmediated experience of reality. A uniquely Zen training method is koan practice; a koan is a spiritual conundrum that cannot be resolved by intellectual means. By using the koan as a focus of meditation and allowing it to meld with one’s own living experience, one comes to an understanding of the truth embodied in the koan and, by the same token, in one’s self. No other school of Buddhism uses this method (and it is not universally used in Zen). Zen has acquired different cutural acretions and adaptations as it has migrated from China to Korea, Japan and the Western world, which is quite in keeping with the spirit of the teaching.
    It is risky to make generalizations about the differences among Buddhist traditions, because all share a common concern (the release from suffering), a common path (renunciation, morality, and insight), and a common understanding of the nature of reality. What varies is largely the trappings in which all of that is couched. But the trappings can be important; some practitioners will have a greater affinity for some training methods than for others. I’m a Zen practitioner, but I recognize that this practice isn’t suited to everyone, and that’s fine. There is a place somewhere in the Buddhist path for anyone interested in doing this work.

    By ZenRai on Apr 3, 2010

  3. Hi ZenKai, thanks for being the first to post a comment on my blog. I’m no Buddhist scholar, but what you posted seems accurate — in an encyclopedia kind of way. For me personally, the theravada/mahayana distinction comes down to this: do I view myself as being on a long, arduous path toward some ultimate perfection? Or can I realize that perfection right here and now, in my life, in this moment, without taking a step? These are two different states of consciousness which, as human beings, we all have access to. And of course we realize, as the teachings tell us, they are both empty and without abiding basis. Hope this helps. Ryo

    By Ryotan Sensei on Apr 4, 2010

  4. It does, Sensei, in a kinda “so that’s it / who-pulled-the-rug-out” way…!


    By ZenRai on Apr 4, 2010

  5. Bows to you Sensei,
    I may have glossed over the heart of my gut in my last response. This attachment to cleverness – very strong.

    Often my life seems like this big pile of hooey. So much talking myself into believing I’m genuine. Like getting used to this whole new work/ marketing thing(new job convincing folks to buy overvalued coffee and food they don’t need) Ugh…I feel like once again I’m living someone else’s vision and value, rather than getting to to root of my own. So there’s this forced dance (which I manage to make remarkably convincing – it’s curiously genuine in a strange, transient , chameleon-like way). If this was what I wanted why haven’t I done it for myself? I certainly could, skill wise. But real meaning? (not another’s – one of my own). As usual the emororer’s new cloths come to mind. I often feel this way about most of the rest….my life-mate, my work in general, even this path I’m floundering on. Hard to call myself a Buddhist – when I do it rings empty. There’s no there there. You often talk about consciousness states being “both empty and without abiding basis “. I find it all lonely and unsatisfying – this not knowing – and yet that seems to be the point. What’s missing? Why does it all not feel right? When will it – if ever? So is this it?

    By zenrai on Apr 13, 2010

  6. Hi ZenRai, that comment seemed to come from the gut. It seemed genuine. It sounded like you. If you can do it once, you can do it again. And again. There is no need to identify with Buddhism or any other “ism”. But it is necessary to realize who it is who feels fake, halfhearted and inauthentic. Who is this person? If you don’t know, please sit devotedly and find out. Phony mind is not separate from Buddha mind.

    By Ryotan Sensei on Apr 13, 2010

  7. Thanks Sensei…


    By zenrai on Apr 14, 2010

  8. I am here again…and I have to say this is great because I am stuck in PA (so far as getting to daisan is concerned). I am glad to be able to come with my questions. And they are still often so basic and I wonder if I’ll ever get the nothing to get that is not there! I still struggle with some basic sitting concerns. I do shikantaza and to follow the breath, sometimes counting the breath. Judgments abound (you were day dreaming! you’ll never get this. What constitutes a thought. What is coming back to the breath? How and to where do I return – what is a thought – a glance? a sound, a sentance, a reverie, an obsession? Where does one thought start and another begin. What if they won’t let go.float away like clouds….that same old breath again…..)
    Very little deep “samhadi”- mostly all this rucus! Not much sanctuary… or mind rest…sitting seen as a chore and unsatisfying. I postpone, I avoid. I get angry and suspicious that this is another lame brained idea of mine…”enlightenment….what a mirage…
    Maybe for all those evolved roshies, senseis and monks…what an ass I am to bray that I want it! Its all hooey! Too much to want! Too noble (narsistic)to deluded…to dual too too tooooooo arrrrgh !

    By zenrai on Apr 23, 2010


    By zenrai on Apr 23, 2010

  10. bows….ZenRai

    By zenrai on Apr 23, 2010

  11. Hi ZenRai, Welcome back. You say that you “do shikantaza and to follow the breath, sometimes counting the breath.” If I were in your shoes, I’d pick one of these practices and stick with it. Which one you pick is not so important, but consistency is really important. Another thing I’d do is to try to sit every day, even if it’s only for a small amount of time. Ten minutes every day can be a really good practice, better than an hour a couple of times a week.

    I think all of us try to peek over our own shoulder and check our mental state during zazen. We want to know, Am I getting it? This doesn’t do any harm, but the answer to that question is always “yes.” The problem is that we don’t realize that we’re “getting it.” To realize that we’re getting it, we have to realize that our mind at this moment — peaceful, blissed out, messed up, anxious, tormented or bored – is the mind of the Buddha. This realization inevitably comes out of consistent, devoted practice. Give it the best try you can to sit consistently every day and to attend retreats as often as you can. People who put in this kind of effort inevitably realize it for themselves.

    By Ryotan Sensei on Apr 24, 2010

  12. What is the difference between \daisan\ and \dokusan\ — I had thought when I had interview with a teacher is was \dokusan.\

    By Mark de Solla Price on Apr 27, 2010

  13. Hi Mark, in our sangha, we reserve the term “dokusan” for interview with the senior teacher — Roshi — and use “daisan” to refer to interview with the other teachers. The significance of these terms seems to vary from sangha to sangha. Some use them interchangably. Others place restrictions on what teachers can do with students in daisan. We do not place such restrictions but, like many sanghas, we use the term “dokusan” to refer to interview with the most senior teacher. Hope this helps. Ryo

    By Ryotan Sensei on Apr 28, 2010

  14. Bows to you Sensei Ryotan….

    Thanks for your help so far..I am being consistent (following the breath) and daily with practice. I still wonder about the letting thoughts go, sometimes it feels like I’m trying to force them out, often as a reaction to this kind of knee jerk critic that doesn’t just notice that I’ve left the breath or day dreamed, or closed my eyes, but both blames me for having strayed and doubts that I will ever realize buddha mind. Lesser forms of inner critic include worry about the exact details of zazen (noticing, bidy, or mnd or surrounding) eg…where should I look, should I pay attention to that sound, what should I attend to and for how long…it’s endless..sorry to repeat this kind of question…but as we used to sing in chuch…”just as I am I come…


    By ZenRai on May 2, 2010

  15. Hi ZenRai, the only thing that works is this: each time a thought comes up, let it go and return to your practice. If a thought comes up in the next moment, let it go and return to your practice. If you wonder whether you should pay attention to a sound, let go of your wondering and return to your practice. If thoughts of blame come up, notice them, then let them go and return to your practice. It takes a lot of courage, patience and persistence. Just keep going. Hope this helps. Ryo

    By Ryotan Sensei on May 2, 2010

  16. It does sensei, I’ll keep at it…



    By ZenRai on May 3, 2010

  17. Sensei-

    In your talk yesterday you mentioned the significance of the term “cold moon” in Zen, but cannot recall fully what you said. Do you mind giving the definition here? I often take night walks with my dog, and found myself gazing at the “Cold Hudson” and wishing I could remember what you explained.


    By Navah on May 5, 2010

  18. or is it “hard moon”? can’t recall….

    By Navah on May 5, 2010

  19. Hi Navah, in Zen literature, the “full moon” is often used to symbolize the absolute side of reality — reality as it is, right now, prior to thought or judgment. “Things as it is,” in Suzuki Roshi’s phrase. The adjective “cold” also refers to this side of things. To be comfortable in the house of our human life, says the poem, “sit on the verandah and face the cold moon.”. How does your life manifest, right now,at this moment, prior to thought or judgment? Walking the dog in the middle of the night by the cold river. Ryo

    By Ryotan Sensei on May 6, 2010

  20. This is beautifully put. Thank you.
    I will sit with this.



    By Navah on May 6, 2010

  21. Motherhood in 62 loops:

    We all need reminders of our own death.

    Vita eats my food; I eat Vita’s food; in the end there is nothing.

    How do you practice when you’re hungry?


    My life is the question and answer: sometimes the hunger makes me angry. is that practice? it is if I can transform it into wisdom. when I can’t, I have to eat. or yell. eat or yell? eat or judge? eat or create harm? but when I eat I seem to create harm. When is eating her food stingy and when is it a teaching? Does it have to be a matter of survival?–Buddha a skeleton until the maiden brings him a bowl of milk?

    To be concrete: of course food is a stand-in for all my needs, the most elusive one being the time to play, to wander. Easy enough to demand space for zazen or paying work, but where do I draw the line when all I want is to play? Perhaps the drawing of the line makes it impossible to play?

    By Yuuka on May 15, 2010

  22. Just hunger, Yuuka, just hunger. Be the koan. Be hunger.

    By Ryotan Sensei on May 15, 2010

  23. Bows to you, Sensei Ryotan

    Your advice to return to my practice (following the breath) has been helpful, The simplicity helps. I’m sorry to belabor the point but I need clarification on the form of this. I take it to mean that I return focus to the physical sensations of the breath, how it feels coming and going, the body expansion…deepening into the hara when that happens, noticing the exhale…and so on. sometimes in a 30-35 minute or more sitting I can barley do this. Even thought I kind of say internally, how does it feel in your nostrils or filing your lungs, or the belly expanding and contracting with the out breath and trying to notice all of what happened in the body…It can feel detached – as I am reminding myself to attend to these things the are far away – feeling wise. Weird. Even though I keep reminding myself to attend to the sensations. This detachment is not bliss or in-between-ness, its the clutter of thoughts and noise. Your encouragements ” courage, patience and persistence” have been really helpful when doubts and discouragement surface. And they do. It’s tough. Sometimes it sucks. And I have a pile of anger that it’s still seems so elusive after years of trying my best, whatever that is. Kensho, smencho..I’d just like a little serenity and respite. Is that too much to hope for? I’d be lying if I said this is to save all sentient beings…(though I’d to hope I’d reach that state) I do this to be improved…compassionzed, spaciously-heart-opened….de-frenzied. I can’t pretend otherwise and the dearth of that causes doubt. This doubt feels lousy and takes a lot to just get thorough and get back to the cushion each day . So far I have..

    again, bows…Zenrai

    By ZenRai on May 20, 2010

  24. Hi Zenrai. Sorry for the delay getting back to you. Please put down “serenity” and “respite”. These have nothing to do with Zen practice. The mind that you have right now is the Buddha mind. If busy and distracted, it is the Buddha mind manifesting as business and distraction. If serene and calm, it is the Buddha mind manifesting as calmness and serenity. All these mind states are empty and without abiding basis. All are equally the Buddha mind. There is therefore nothing to attain. But the direct realization of this fact is transformative. It sounds to me like 30 minutes is too long a period for your daily Zen practice. I would suggest 15 minutes every day. Master Sheng Yen said one should practice Zen “with a very relaxed attitude.”. Please be a relaxed Zen student. Try to sit for 15 minutes every day and just be curious about the various mental states that appear and disappear. No biggie. Enjoy your practice and appreciate your life. Hope this helps. Ryo

    By Ryotan Sensei on May 31, 2010

  25. this week, i just want to run away from it all. don’t want to go to the zendo, sit, sew the rokusu, listen to talks, be mindful of what is coming up for me….how do you practice when you have a overwhelming desire to avoid everything?

    By whatever on Jun 23, 2010

  26. Hi Navah, when we begin to study Zen, or undertake jukai, we do it with an intention. When we have an intention we are setting a course for ourselves. As we move along our course, as a ship does, we sometimes run into good weather and sometimes into squalls. A squall does not indicate that we are on the wrong course and fair weather does not show we’re going in the right direction. The real questions are: are we moiving in the direction of our intention and is that intention still right for us? We can’t answer these questions by consulting the emotional weather of the moment, but only by consulting our own deep internal compass over a period of time. In Zen, our response to the emotional weather of the moment is simply to study it. So study these difficult feeling states, then come back to your intention. Hope this helps. Ryo

    By Ryotan Sensei on Jun 23, 2010

  27. was it that obvious that it was me ? ;)

    thank you Ryo. this answer was beyond helpful.
    i love the boat/sea images: emotional weather, internal compass, the ship moving on the course of our intention. of course, mildly challenging weather is easier to study- sometimes however, sometimes the storm feels like it is going to sink the whole ship. it is difficult then to accept that sometimes our course is beneath sea level.

    bows and gassho.

    By whatever on Jun 25, 2010

  28. I’m glad you found my reply helpful, Navah. It’s true that sometimes, in severe emotional weather, we are hit too hard to remember to study the self. But we can keep increasing our batting average, no?

    By Ryotan Sensei on Jun 25, 2010

  29. i guess that’s true.

    thank you for your answer.

    By less whatever today on Jun 25, 2010

  30. Hi

    I just moved to the city and I landed I job that I thought would make me really happy… But he harsh realities of the fashion industry and moving to NYC has taugth me a really rough lesson about happiness. I’m really confused and I really want to find peace. Ive studied buddhist philosophy for 2 years but never practiced meditation and I know having a healthy body is just not enough to reach enlightenment. What do you suggest I should do? Where should I go? is there a temple I can check out? I checked out a SGI temple and it really scared me when members where putting down zen Buddhism and his holiness the dalai lama. It didn’t feel right to be in their presence.

    Im sorry to ask so many questions but I really need help.

    Thank you

    By Charlie on Oct 3, 2010

  31. Hi Charlie, if you think that Buddhism has something to offer you, it is important for you to check out various centers and see what speaks to you. If you would like to check out Zen as it is practiced at our center, please stop by the Village Zendo on any Monday night at 6:30, which is our Beginners Night. You will receive a complete orientation. But whether you come to see us or not, please don’t let one bad experience get in the way of exploring your interest in Buddhism. I’m sure you can find a group that meets your needs. Best, Ryo

    By Ryotan Sensei on Oct 4, 2010

  32. Dear Sensei,

    How do I develop the strength to endure the suffering of human life without making others suffer?


    By anonymous on Dec 12, 2010

  33. An excellent question. Perhaps it would help to add three words to the end of it — “at this moment”. How do I develop the strength to endure the suffering of human life without making others suffer — at this moment? See what comes up for you. You may surprise yourself!

    By Ryotan Sensei on Dec 14, 2010

  34. Dear Sensei,

    I do my best to be positive as much as I can. I have pretty intimately realized the self-destructive nature of hatred and anger…and yet its all around me. I have even recently surprised myself because I thought I had the self-control (or at least the common sense) to avoid thinking, speaking or acting in an angry or hateful way. However, when it strikes, its strikes like lightening. Its over in a flash, but it does damage to me, my self-confidence and (I am sure) the person to whom the hatred or anger is directed.

    Do you think this painful time will pass? In your experience does feeling the destructive nature of anger and hatred cause one to naturally avoid it? or, perhaps, what kind of effort can I make within myself to train myself toward that goal besides just avoiding every situation that could possibly result in anger or hatred?


    By anonymous on Dec 14, 2010

  35. Anger is a manifestation of the Buddha Mind. Our way is to study this Mind. Therefore we study our anger, without giving into it and without pushing it away. Without fear. Without avoidance. Where does this anger arise in my body? What thoughts accompany this anger as it arises in my body ? We notice these thoughts and sensations without judgment. We just notice. We just study. Anger is not our adversary. It is a pure dharma gate. Please appreciate your anger and study the Way.

    By Ryotan Sensei on Dec 16, 2010

  36. Thank you, I’ll do my best to use that gate of nonjudgement when anger arises.

    By anonymous on Dec 16, 2010

  37. Dear Sensei,

    Would you please speak about the nature of a student/teacher relationship in the “study of the way” typified by Zen buddhism? How have you found it?

    Thank you

    By ws on Jan 5, 2011

  38. The Zen teacher/student relationship is unique. The teacher is not a guru and has no answers for you. But the teacher can provide guidance, advice, and encouragement as you go through the difficult process of finding your own answers.

    As a practical matter, the teacher guides your meditation practice. One way this happens is in a private interview, known as daisan or dokusan. During the interview, you have a chance to bring up any questions you may have and the teacher has an opportunity to check your understanding.

    You should choose a teacher who seems trustworthy, whose practice seems sound and, most importantly, one with whom you feel a sense of connection. In the course of years of practice, a deep bond arises, one that often lasts a lifetime.

    By Ryotan Sensei on Jan 6, 2011

  39. Dear Sensei,

    Thank you for the explanation, it was illuminating. What I want more than anything from a community is the opportunity to be the best I can be. Having had a very difficult childhood and young adulthood I am familiar with the feeling of losing faith in oneself and the value having someone as you’ve described be there to care for your progress through life. Personally, I’ve never put any stock in the idea of someone with answers but more with that sense of connection and trust; that comradeship wherein its less important what the “answer” is and more the feeling of sharing the struggle, and helping each other.

    Anyway, again, thanks

    By ws on Jan 7, 2011

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