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Cave of Tigers: Modern Zen Encounters

by John Daido Loori
edited by Bonnie Myotai Treace and Konrad Ryushin Marchaj
Weatherhill 2000
256 pp including Glossary
reviewed by Vladimir K., November 2004


Dokusan is the private interview in Zen practice between teacher and student. What is said in dokusan should stay in the dokusan room; therefore very little is written about these interviews and transcriptions of actual dialogue are even rarer. Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen was, as far as I know, the first book in English to contain word-for-word transcriptions of teacher-student encounters from the dokusan room.

book cover imageBut encounter dialogues have a long history in Zen Buddhism (see McRae, pp. 74-100, 2000) and often laid the basis for subsequent koans. Whether these traditional dialogues ever happened as recorded is a contentious point but ultimately irrelevant as they have been used as teaching devices rather than historical records. The soterial function of these dialogues is attested to by the vast literature recounting the dialogues in almost every Zen writing. The ‘Records of the Master’, such as, for example, the Denkoroku (see Cleary, 1990) are often little more than records of the master's encounters with students. Admittedly, it is difficult to know whether these dialogues happened in the dokusan room or not (let alone whether they actually occurred as recorded) but some surely must have been recounted after the private interview. It is also entirely possible that some of these encounter dialogues occurred in 'Dharma combat'.

Dharma encounters (or Dharma combat or Dharma assembly) are public dialogues between master and student. These dialogues happen in the zendo or the assembly hall, in front of the entire group and have a long tradition as well, going back to the days when a monk might encounter another monk or teacher and engage in a dialogue covering a teaching point. Over time this engagement became formalized in the monastery with a fixed structure and became an important part of Zen training that continues today in many Zen centres.

Usually the teacher presents a discourse on a particular teaching point and asks for comments or questions from the students. The degree of formality today varies from centre to centre but the basis is the same: an opportunity to engage with the teacher in public and, for the students, an opportunity to observe and listen to other students raising issues that may help in their own training and understanding of the Buddhadharma. These encounters give senior students an opportunity to test themselves (or to just clarify a point) in public and less experienced students to observe the interaction between teacher and student. Of course, all students, regardless of their state of practice, are encouraged to participate and it is only natural that for some this is a very intimidating public encounter. However, its public nature is a valuable training method and as students become more intimate with the teacher and the sangha, they often open up and participate. These public encounters, I believe, benefit the entire sangha provided they are not used to humiliate the students or as a method of showing off one's knowledge. It is the teacher that is responsible to seeing that this does not occur.

John Daido Loori's "Cave of Tigers" is a collection of these public teacher/student discourses culled from some ten years of Dharma encounters held at his Zen Mountain Monastery at Mount Tremper, New York. As such, it is a unique and fascinating record of the relationship between student, teacher and, of course, the Buddhadharma. Loori presents a short discourse on a teaching point and the students are invited to come forth and offer their understanding on this point or to ask a question. This takes place in the zendo, in front of the other students. Loori has a fixed structure for these encounters. Students rise, wait in line and kneel in front of the teacher who sits on a slightly raised platform. When the encounter finishes, the student thanks the teacher for his answer and Loori replies, "May your life go well." Coming forth is very challenging for many students. As the introduction points out: "Coming forward is itself half the battle; it means moving to the edge of our practice, being willing to step into darkness and face the fear of self-doubt." (p. 7) This is shown when a student begins with, "I wanted to see what it feels like to come up here and face you. So far, so good.” (p. 97) Another student expresses what often happens at these encounters: "When I got on line I had a question that seemed very important. Now I really don't feel like asking my question anymore." (p. 75) Readers who have faced a teacher in dokusan know exactly how this student felt. The honesty, fears and doubts of Loori's students jump off the page and any Zen student who has faced a strict, compelling teacher can empathize with what these students are going through.

John Daido Loori has deep roots in Western Zen. He has studied with many of the early Japanese teachers who were so influential in bringing Zen Buddhism to America, such as Nakagawa Soen, Shimano Eido and Taizan Maezumi. He has studied, therefore, under Rinzai teachers as well as in the Soto tradition and brings forth this knowledge of koan practice and shikantanza, just sitting, in his discourses and Dharma encounters. But he is also a very modern American Zen teacher and is concerned with all the problems facing our societies and the world in this new millennium: pollution, poverty, morality and ethics, the nuclear threat and raising a family in these conditions. How does one's Zen practice relate to these very real concerns? Loori guides his students through the thorny thickets of these concerns but is always pushing or, as he says, "squeezing the head", of the students, to come to some understanding about their own life, their own behaviour and its effect upon not only those around the person, but the effect of one's behaviour upon the whole earth, the whole universe. For example, in the chapter titled "Being Born As The Earth", Loori asks the congregation can we return to, rather than possess, mountains and rivers and the great earth? How can we hear the eighty-four thousand hymns of the valley stream? What does it mean to study the verse, "Mountains flow, the river is still?" How can you find the real meaning of the true form of the spring pine and autumn chrysanthemum?...These are important questions, very important questions. (p. 91)

They are, indeed, important questions, ones that challenge not only Zen students but all who live on this earth. One student comes forth, crying "I don't even know how to ask the question. This is my whole life question."And, as Loori replies, "Those are the only kind of questions---whole life questions." (p. 92) Questions such as these can strike deeply, moving the student towards an understanding of her life. In this encounter, one of the longer ones (most are about half a page), Angie cries out "How do I manifest the sixteen-foot golden Buddha in a pile of shit? Tell me!"Haven't all serious Zen students felt this way at some time in their training? Inevitably we hit a wall with no way to overcome it and nobody can do it for us. Angie's dilemma should be familiar to Zen students and strikes at the core of practice—letting go and just being. But no one else can do this:

No one can save you but yourself...Unfortunately, that's the way it is. You have to trust yourself. Teachers can't do it. Buddhas can't do it. There is only one person in this entire universe who can do it...(p. 93)

And this is the dilemma not only for students, but also for teachers. Often Daido Loori replies to a question with "I don't know,"or "Beats me", pointing out that "This is a tough practice." (p. 194) Tough for the student; tough for the teacher.

This book is a very valuable addition to the literature of Western Zen. It points directly at the struggles Zen students face throughout their training, throughout their life. While not all encounters are as poignant and heartfelt as Angie's, there is much to be gained from these student-teacher encounters for Zen students wherever they train and practice, whatever their level of understanding. Students who have practiced for many years will be reminded of their own struggles in some of these encounters. New students will see how a Zen master points at the mind, points at the Buddhadharma in every situation and how this “tough practice” is relevant to the way we live our lives. This book is an excellent example of what happens in a Zen encounter between teacher and students. Hopefully more sanghas will publish their encounters for the education of others and the advancement of Zen in the West. And, who knows, maybe centuries from now some of these encounters will become part of some future teacher's koan curriculum. But it's not necessary to wait that long; one can get engaged right now, in this very place, at this very time.


Cleary, Thomas (1990) Transmission of Light [Denkoroku] Zen in the Art of Enlightenment By Zen Master Keizan, North Point Press, San Francisco
McRae, John R. (2003) Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, University of California Press; Berkley, Los Angeles, London

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