What is Zen Mastery?

This question has been up again for me lately because of a couple opposing currents that I’ve noticed in the culture and my work world, namely careful process monitoring vs. the results only work environment.

So here’s a quick bit about these and their relevance for Zen training.

I’ve long felt that the “Zen Master” title gets flung around way too wantonly in the West, btw, so let me confess that prejudice at the outset.

Malcolm Gladwell wrestles with the issue of mastery in his usual entertaining manner in Outliers: The Story of Success. His basic point being, it seems to me, that in order to achieve mastery, or at least success, we need to put in our time hacking away and then be lucky with how all the forces beyond our puny efforts are rolling out.

The Beatles and Bill Gates, for example, did their hours of practice (the hairy four guys in strip clubs in Berlin) and were really fortunate to have a bunch of societal circumstances ripening just when they were.

Malcolm and others note that what lots of folks who have achieved extraordinary accomplishments have in common is that they practiced a lot. Like at least 10,000 hours.

Applied to Zen, 10,000 hours would mean about 600 days in sesshin – if you don’t count sleep. Without sesshin, it would take longer, of course. If you sit for an hour a day, it would take about 27.39 years to log 10,000 hours. If you sit 15 minutes a day, that’d be 109.6 years. Individual cases would get rather complicated weighing both factors. I did the rough math for the first 13 years of my practice while Katagiri Roshi was alive and thanks to the power of rounding up and hind-sight estimating, came up with a rather large number that I won’t share. I’m just too humble.

Like for other things, I think that the 10,000 hours rule is probably a necessary but insufficient condition for mastery in Zen.

Granted, there are problems with the math like how to count hours of “practice,” for example, so I’ve included 18 hours a day in sesshin and the full period of zazen, not subtracting those days that we’re zoned out ninety-some percent of the time! Then too there’s how to count monastic training. And there’s a lot more to a Zen life than the time you log in sesshin or in daily formal practice. But for me the exercise puts mastery in some perspective.

One of the Zen teacher organizations asks the question to applicants about how many days of intensive retreat they’ve done and friend who’s a member of the membership committee thinks that the unspoken minimum is about 300 – a rather long way from the 10,000 hours, no matter how deep the samadhi.

Btw, another friend and member of the membership committee denies that there is any such unspoken number. Hmmm.

The counter-current has a recent expression in ROWE – results only work environment. See Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution by Ressler and Thompson for more. They work for Best Buy and write about how they’ve implemented this approach there. The basic deal is that it doesn’t matter how many hours you log, whether you show up for work or not, whether you log 10,000 hours, etc., it only matters if you achieve your goals.

They write about one guy who is a roadie for a rock band, traveling around the world, doing his techy thing for Best Buy at the same time. He apparently is really happy and a very dedicated worker.

Btw, I’ve sent an application to Lucinda Williams to see if she’ll accept me as a roadie and then I’ll be talking to my boss. Wish me luck.

Anyway … the rub with the results-only approach to Zen practice is the difficulty in identifying the results or at least agreeing on them, as recent posts and comments here indicate. For Soto Zen the process is the result. For koan Zen, there’s passing through the many koans. But both of these also seem like necessary but insufficient conditions.

Then there’s manifesting a tender broken hearted love in daily life, carrying the many beings across, etc., which are hard to measure but you might know them when you see them. This seems to be the orientation of traditional Soto Zen in leaving it up to the community to call someone “Roshi” (old teacher), when the community senses that the person is ready rather than the person him/herself or their teacher laying it on them.

So no conclusion so far.

Katagiri Roshi always denied being a “Zen Master” and didn’t like people to call him that. He said that being a Zen master was like being a master driver of the car. The moment when you say, “I am master of driving the car,” you are not paying attention to your driving and might cause an accident.

That seems like a good thing to keep in mind.

Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
A Goose in a Bottle – How Will You Be Free?
Nothing is Concealed
The Deeply Settled Heart: Home-based Practice Period Invitation
  • Mike Haitch

    But in that 10,000 hours more than one thing is practiced. A violinist learns notes and scaes may practice them forever but will also practice many other things along the way building on the early stuff. 10,000 hours of the same exercise is not the same as 10,000 different exercises.

    Zazen can be 10,000 hours of the same 1 hour exercise. Koans can be a series of different exercises. “Zazen in everything” as Dogen might say or “Attention” as some Koans say or mindfulness can be 10,000 hours of different things building on a core.

    If what Dogen called Zazen is different from Everyday Life then you will not clock the hours. If all you practice is wall-staring then that might be all one learns.

    Tennis has many facets, as does life. In Outliers Gladwell makes clear that it’s not just about time-serving, it’s also about directed training.

    I suspect this Zen stuff is not just about hours or direction or luck but other things as well. A koan from Blue Cliff springs to mind “Well, if you are not enlightened in three days you should kill yourself”.

    Today I skimmed a book on Ultra-marathon running. When the author introduced someone to the sport the question asked was “What’s the secret?” The reply was “You start running and don’t stop until you reach the finish line”. I can only run 1Km like that so have a way to go but can see the point.

    Where was my point again? I’ve rambled…

    • doshoport


      Right about the specifics of training … and I was trying just to give a ballpark number, a conservative estimate. It’d take 10,000 hours to figure all the elements!

      As to your point about Zen = daily life … that’d only be real, imv, once mastery was attained. It isn’t a mental trick.

      Thanks for your comment,


  • Mike Haitch


    Not a mental trick maybe, but it is a puzzle as to how Dogen stretches the definition of Zazen from it’s literalist interpretation of “Sitting Dhayana” and is insistent that Zazen is not “sitting meditation”.

    I can stare at a wall and it may or may not be Zazen.

    I don’t think I said that Zen=Daily life. If I sit Burmese and stare at a wall, how is that different from sitting Burmese as I might as a guest in a Japanese house?

    In your monastic training did you learn that there was a ‘Zen’ way to do things in addition to the other ways?

    I see the ROWE book you point to is $12 on Kindle and $6 in paperback. Is the untouchable, ungraspable book of more value than the physical book? The words are the same so what is being bought with that extra $6?

    • doshoport


      The general rule in Dogen study is that he is speaking both literally and metaphorically simultaneously. Zazen purely as a metaphor lacks wisdom and compassion.

      Yes, in monastic training there are many ways to do things in line with the dharma that are different from how things are usually done in lay life.



  • susan zeman

    in order to learn, the brain needs to restructure itself (put together cell assemblies and neural networks), and that takes time and practice, no matter what the task. how much of both will depend, i suppose, on the individual and his or her circumstances. however, even those who have had “sudden” awakenings had accrued many hours of practice both in and out of the zendo (see Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen).

    i had a lifetime of experience before i began meditating in earnest. and although my logged time of practice pales in comparison to everyone on this forum, i have observed real changes in my experience. my brain is learning and rewiring itself in response to my effort.

    and though i admire the beauty and simplicity of its forms (like effortless bowing), i stopped caring about “being zen.” the only thing i wish to master is my mind.

    • doshoport


      Thank you. Interesting point here about how life experience rolls into the Zen life. I started young and think I struggled much more (oh, how I’ve suffered!) than people I know who’ve started later in life, after the tenderizer of the years had it’s way. So there’s certainly no formula or credential in time logged – necessarily.



  • David Clark

    “After the tenderizer of the years had it’s way”, well put! I also am a late comer to Zen, at age 60 I feel okay about forgetting all about becoming some kind of “master”. With my broken down body it is highly unlikely I’ll ever log those kind of hours. But my tenderized life has taught me the essential value of continuing to put one foot in front of another and not getting discouraged by difficulty.

    I keep sitting 1 hour daily as regularly as I can manage. The gradual unfolding of the process and the freedom from old mental structures and views is marvelous in my view, and that just might be enough for this old broke-down bodhisattva.

    By the way, good luck with that Lucinda gig. Still, I’d keep my day job if I were you.



    • doshoport

      Thank you for the comment, David. Beautifully put.

      And I will keep the day job … for now.


  • Al Coleman


    I’m glad you touched on this as I have wondered how “Outliers” would relate to zazen.

    For me what comes to mind is the quote from Blaise Pascal, ““All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”

    If Pascal is right, spending 10,000 hours staring at a wall could be the pivitol bodhisattva act for mankind. In addition the 10,000 hour rule could give one the confidence to surrender to simplicity and tranquility as Katagiri would say.


    • doshoport


      Thanks for this. Cuts to the heart of why this is important. This is what we have to offer in these difficult times … and I’m afraid we’re just heading into it.


  • judy

    During dokusan in a 7-day sesshin back in 1979 I asked Katagiri-roshi why he continued to sit zazen if he was enlightened. He said, “It is depthless. There is always more to learn.”
    I find that it is also very mysterious and unpredictable.
    A person can train intensively for a lifetime, sit for 200,000 hours, and be certified a “master” by someone ‘legitimate’, and still be astonishingly oblivious to the places in their minds and hearts that are protected and defended.
    “There are no guarantees.”
    And then there are people who have never ‘trained’ in any tradition, or meditated, who have a natural loving open-hearted, open-minded way of being-in-the-world with ease and deep wisdom, compassion and awareness.

  • doshoport


    Yes, important aspects I overlooked – blinded, as it were. The 10,000hrs (or 200,000!) can become the blinders. No guarantee indeed. And it takes thousands of hrs for some of us just to approximate normal, let alone naturally loving….


  • http://prajna-institute.org James Myo Gak Foster

    Dosho, how timely a topic! I was just thinking about this the other day as I was filling out an application for “one of the zen teacher organizations,” where the question is about the number of days in intensive retreat prior to any sort of “teacher” role. Interestingly, what caught me was “what counts as a teacher role?”

    It’s a valid distinction, as the experience of a retreat differs depending upon whether one is able to simply attend and practice, or needs to add more administrative responsibilities, and it’s also a very traditional dilemma. Whether Western or Eastern, Dharma Center or Monastery – the “higher up” you go, the less frequent your opportunities for “traditional, formal practice.” I’ve known monks in Korea who’ve declined to be elected “Zen Master” for a retreat season (In Korean Zen, the Zen Master is an elected, time limited position from among those with Inga) – stating that they much prefer to practice during retreats.

    In any case, I was left wondering if the question meant “how many days of retreat practice prior to dharma transmission” or if “teacher” was meant more loosely, more broadly. I chose the latter, and since that would have been ten or so years ago entered a conservative number around the 300 mark. If they meant the former, that number might have doubled, and at the time I was concerned that perhaps this was being used as some sort of verification criteria…

    In the end though, I let go of the hook of trying to apply quantitative analysis to what is inherently qualitative in nature, and assumed if they had questions, they’d just ask. :-)

  • doshoport

    Hi Myo Gak,

    In addition to the number of retreat days when one was not a teacher (I think the question goes like that, not before transmission…there’s another item about years of practice before DT), I think it’d be great for teachers to continue training after dharma transmission, kinda like “professional development” in so many fields. That goes to Judy’s point above that we’re never really “done” training – endless path and all. Sounds like that’s been your path and mine too – really important for me so of course I think everybody should do it!

    Good to hear from you,


  • http://prajna-institute.org James Myo Gak Foster

    Dosho-sama – I couldn’t agree more. Even Shakyamuni continued to sit – how can any of us ever say we’re “done”?

    That’s also a vital role I see peer organizations playing – continuous learning, growing, practice.

    Happy lunar New Year!

    • doshoport

      Myo Gak-Supreme of the Supremes :-)

      Yes, the peer organizations too but the point I was trying to make is to also continue to take the student seat in sesshin/retreat and dokusan/sanzen (or whatever it’s called in your line). For me, that’s been more valuable – or at least differently valuable – than the peer organizations.

      Happy New Year to you and yours too!


  • http://JustThis(bigour.blogspot.com) alan

    I’m going to go wash my bowl.



  • http://prajna-institute.org James Myo Gak Foster

    Wait… did you just call me Diana Ross? ;-)

    Your point is well taken!

  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    Can’t help thinking of some musical ‘masters’ that I know well (certainly ‘masterful’ due in no small way to their 1000s of hours of practice and total immersion in the life musical). Some of them are not in the least bit convinced of their ‘mastery’ and, actually, some particularly masterful ones are still racked with self doubt and performance anxieties… I think ‘mastery’ may be overrated at times to these people, and may actually be a bit of a curse: When you’re that close and involved in the brass tacs, microscopic process maybe it’s hard to think in terms of ‘goal’ or the broader personal/interpersonal aspect of mastery (i.e. ‘being a master’ and living up to what people think it is and involves)… which all reminds me of Dogen’s ‘traceless realisation’ and the idea that mastery is a process, not somewhere that’s arrived at.

    Also, I know people who have been playing and practicing for years and who just seem to keep getting it all wrong: They just practice their mistakes. I’d wonder why they bother sometimes (although they must enjoy it/ get something from it). An hour of realising our mistakes might be more ‘masterful’ that 1000 hours of doggedly making/rehearsing them? (I’ll let you make the connection to Zen practice, if there is one!)

    Besides, ‘master’ is a pretty loaded term in terms of what people expect from you I imagine: One might be a perfectly valid master as a result of knowing his/her own petty foibles, limitations and weaknesses while the expectation might be that a ‘master’ is above such things altogether, for example. Can’t help feeling that a lot of these scandals involving ‘masters’ may be a lot to do with the ‘masters’ becoming intoxicated with the students/ underlings unrealistic notions of what constitutes a ‘master’ and trying to act it out, or use it to their dubious advantage in whatever twisted, self-serving way.



    • doshoport


      Yes, like

      “When our body mind is not yet fully permeated by the Dharma, we feel that the Dharma is already sufficient. If the Dharma fills our body mind, we feel that something is missing.”

      Thanks again,


      • Desiree

        I was recently talking to a friend of mine about Blaise Pascal, Pensees 161-164.


        I am currently reading this.
        And, though, there are empirical differences between the two; and, amongst what transforms a Co.(entity) from good to great, I see no essential difference in striving for goodness or greatness. My, currently pious, friend sees a fundamental difference between the two and believes my feelings to be based on colloquial use of the terms.

        The author of this book differs from me in the he (and his research team of 20+) believe that settling for goodness is often what prevents an individual or a group not to embark on a journey towards greatness. I am not sure about this supposition.

        I’ve been eyeing this book:

        and am now wondering how thinking slow and fast line up with careful process monitoring vs. ROWE, respectively.

        Cheers to 100 days of Right Effort to kick off the new year. 109.6 years…are you sure we can’t cash in CEU’s?

        • doshoport


          You are way beyond me here.

          And I think it’d be BEU’s (Buddha Ed Units)!



  • Bryan

    Hmmm…the post inspired me to do some calculating and I find that I’ve spent somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 hrs doing formal zazen over the past 20+ yrs (includes sesshin mainly of 7 days duration). I practice koan zen…one koan for 20+ years.

    I’m continually reminded of my lack of anything remotely approaching so-called ‘mastery’.

    And yet what I have found is the delightful surprise when something has fallen away that I’ve held onto for many, many years.



  • Oreb

    Zen as trainable skill and even mastery in it? The air we beathe is free and it doesnt really matter how many breaths you take. Someone seeing the ocean for the first time will be awestruck, and will want to come back and look at it many times. It might even tranform him over the years. “Im a master ocean viewer and Ive logged 20000 hours!” would be met with a bit of amusement though. Or zen seen as medicine: “Ive taken about 10000 days worth of betablockers, so my heart is healthy at mastery level!”. Interesting how all the “no gain”, “zazen is useless”, “selling water by the riverside” and so on get waved away as just being from the absolute perspective. Of course, it would be difficult to establish hierarchies otherwise and people get nervous when you can’t do that.

    Though measurable things with a dose-response relationship seem to happen in the brains of meditator (would be strange otherwise). I think samadhi is probably trainable as a skill, and measurable. So it might boil down to whether you see zen as a window to reality or training yourself in samadhi states (obvious comeback is they’re connected but Im dubious).

    I have feeling this is in a sense the koan discussion in a different guise …

    Again, really appreciate that you dare bring things like this up!

    • doshoport

      Hi Oreb,

      Yes, we train in the untrainable and transmit the untransmittable. A fool’s errand.



  • Lawrence Anderson

    Hi Dosho,

    I’d love to be a part of Lucinda’s band too, as her lead guitar player, but I’m afraid Doug Pettibone, her lead guitarist, is the perfect fit for that spot. His playing on her Live at the Fillmore album is superb and compliments and enhances the mood and feel of her songs. He’s pretty well mastered a number of different genres of music (blues, rock, country) and plays them all and mixes them up deliciously. Sometimes sassy, or gritty, or funky, or sweet, or defiant or crying, as the song calls for. Good stuff!!!

    But speaking of mastery, there was another true and great guitar maestro who would not have listened to or even recognized Pettibone’s playing as guitar music. Segovia despised the electric guitar, declaring that it wasn’t even a musical instrument! Now for sure, Pettibone is no Segovia, but Segovia was no Pettibone either. Even the masters have their limitations, as well as different and not always universal tastes. I can’t help but think of all the great guitarists that snobby old Segovia would never allow himself to enjoy or be inspired by: Clapton, Hendrix, Vai, Satriani, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Gilmour, Prince, Jimmy Page, Al DiMeola, Zappa on and on………… Although rumor has it that the “old coot” gave the nod of approval to Chet Atkins in spite of his Gretsch Country Gentleman electric. The odd part about this is that probably all the pickers I listed probably have listened to and been inspired by Segovia! Go figure!!! And also, most of them, in spite of their mastery and virtuosity, will say they are still students of the guitar!!! Probably even old Segovia………..

    Keep on Pickin’!!!


  • Carl Evans

    Reminds me of a quote attributed to Pablo Casals when asked why he still practiced hours each day at the age of ninety, “I think I see some improvement.”