It’s Not So Easy: The Apprenticeship Model for Zen Training

During a sesshin dokusan in 1981, after practicing with Katagiri Roshi for three or four years, I asked him if he’d ordain me.

During this period, I’d been living a few blocks from the Minnesota Zen Center and like my fellow committed students, I attended most morning zazen sessions, 5am – 7am (including a short service) and evening zazen, 7:30pm – 9pm.

Roshi gave a talk every Wednesday night on a sutra or a koan, usually as part of a long series, so I didn’t miss many of them. We also had an extended day on Saturdays, beginning as usual at 5am but then including a general talk to the larger community, work, lunch and more work, usually ending about 4pm.

Once a month we had sesshin, usually just the weekend but four times a year we sat for seven days. Twice a year we had 100-day training periods that included a student talk that bumped back the start time to 4:30am, Monday – Saturdays and added a training talk by Roshi on Monday evenings. Sesshin talks and Monday evening practice period talks were almost always about Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

We lived a quasi-monastic life, probably sitting as much or more than many monastics, an extreme sport version of Zen training.

We also got a country monastery going during this period and had practice periods there, starting in 1983, that ranged from six to eight weeks, usually twice a year.

Except for those practice periods and a few trips here and there to train, I worked most of this time as a teacher in a juvenile detention center, forty hours a week. I did this for thirteen years until Roshi’s death in 1990. Some of my peers had trained like this with Roshi for eighteen years.

The spirit of this training is expressed by Katagiri Roshi in this way:

“The experience of enlightenment is important for us, but it is not enough. Again and again that enlightenment must become more profound, until it penetrates our skin, muscle, and bone.”

I mention this not so much to pat myself on the back – my arm got sore a while ago and I mostly quit that – but as an alternate training model to what’s being kicked around in Soto circles these days, let alone in some mindfulness circles where walking in the park, breathing and smiling, is regarded as the be-all and end-all of the buddhadharma.

At best, it looks to me like most Zen training models are directed at producing ministers to lead communities (tertiary in my training). At worst, much of what is offered as mindfulness is an utter trivialization of the subtle truth of the buddhadharma.

The “Why?” for Katagiri Roshi was something like this: “The subtle truth of the buddhadharma is so important for future generations that we’re practicing with our hair on fire to pass it on.”

That’s the mission that I signed on for when Roshi chose me as one of his successors.

Roshi trained us to sit through it all by sitting through it all with us. Sitting with someone who was deeply settled in zazen is really different from sitting on one’s own.

Roshi offered dharma inquiry with Shobogenzo, koan, and sutra as the inspiration and it continues to strike me as really quite extraordinary. Studying the dharma with someone with an eye for dharma is quite a different activity from reading Buddhist books on one’s own.

We used the traditional Soto forms of practice and yet Roshi stressed that the point was not to adopt esoteric mystical stuff, but through our dharma practice to embody birth-and-death deep reflection so that we could offer a path of deep reflection for others, making a contribution to humans in the rough times ahead.

Now, I’m not saying that he succeeded, because that remains to be seen. And I’m not saying he was perfect, because he wasn’t. We’ve all got our issues and he sure had his share – as do I. Years of intensive training left him a flawed human being. Sometimes radiantly so. Sometimes painfully so.

What I am saying is that my study with Katagiri Roshi was an apprenticeship, learned mostly through the body. Body time – sitting, working, living, practicing and studying together – was the single most important factor. Intimacy is the life-blood of this process, whether the teacher is into shikantaza or koan, both or neither. It is an intimacy that begins with the teacher-student relationship and opens to receive the 10,000 things.

I believe that apprenticeship Zen is the best way to learn Zen so it is the apprenticeship model that I offer. This training relies much more on intuitive processes than on a professional check-off system.

A word of caution: there are vulnerabilities for all parties in this way of training. To name just a few, it is difficult for a student to find a teacher with whom they sense affinity. It is difficult for a teacher also to find students who are compatible and capable. A student can put themselves down (or up). A teacher can put themselves up (or down). The whole thing can sometimes get carried way off track into a personality cult. An enormous investment of oneself is necessary and it isn’t a safe thing to do.

But then life isn’t safe either as it usually ends in a surprisingly untimely death.

Apprenticeships are also not convenient in our contemporary world, given the amount of body time that seems necessary for authentic training. The physical plant that is optimal for this kind of training is hard to come by and the compromises made to support the apprenticeship model may sabotage the heart of it.

Moreover, I’ve learned since then from others who’ve had this kind of training that apprenticeships in general often don’t feel good. Certainly, apprenticing with Roshi often didn’t feel good. A lot of the time, apprenticing with Roshi was boring. He rarely said a kind word to me and I often felt like there was something important that I wasn’t getting or that I should be doing. Sometimes he was bitingly critical of me. Some of that was very helpful.

This is a challenge particularly in our culture that stresses feeling good as the most important thing. I’m with Leonard Cohen on this one: “I don’t trust my inner feelings, inner feelings come and go.”

When I asked Roshi to ordain me, the words I chose were, “I want to be your disciple.”

I didn’t really know what I was saying. I meant that I wanted to be a Zen priest, because that seemed like the best way to study with him, but he probably heard that I wanted to be his successor. In any case, I didn’t know what being a Zen priest would mean. Nothing was spelled out in advance and there were no guarantees. Look, put your body in it and learn was the training method.

Roshi sat silently – and this guy could really really shut up – for what seemed like at least several minutes. Then he gruffly blurted, “It’s not so easy, anyway.”

He said a lot there. I’ve found that “not so easy” is unavoidably important.

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  • Kokyo

    Dosho-san – this is such a beautiful example of very intensive wholehearted practice in a non-residential lay-centered Zen community. I wonder how many people besides you were able to practice in such a way, and were any of them over 40 years old? I wonder what has changed in more recent times that many people would simply not even believe such a practice is possible at the same time as keeping a full-time job or school going, as you did? I wonder what made people want to train in such a situation, and stay with it, rather than just going off to a monastery (which might be an “easier” life) – I imagine it was probably the deep desire to practice with Katagiri Roshi who had chosen to teach in a non-monastic lay Zen Center? With a deep sigh, my heart longs for the “ancient Way” (the 1980′s!)…

    • doshoport

      Thanks for your comment and presence here. I suppose there were 20 or so of us doing this at most. Maybe 1/2 that stuck with it for more than a few years. I think that desperately seeking truth was at the heart of it and Katagiri Roshi fanned the little bodhi spark in some of us. Times were different, of course…deep sigh! Never thought I’d long for the 1980′s!
      I think it is the teacher’s role to show what is possible and open the door for that. Unless you’ve seen people practicing with hair ablaze – like at our Bukkokuji – most of us don’t know that it really is possible – regardless of age, it seems to me. Setting the bar high, I’ve found that people will often step forward – people who are interested and capable of the higher bar. I think it is a mistake to soften practice for older people – accommodate different physical abilities, yes, so that all really work our edge.

  • Bill

    I only recently found your blog and am pleased to have found someone with a lot more experience with me whose general take confirms what seem to be my own instincts.

    I certainly feel your pain with this:

    “let alone in some mindfulness circles where walking in the park, breathing and smiling, is regarded as the be-all and end-all of the buddhadharma.”

    Some might read this as being dismissive, or elitist, but the key is the last bit: that breathing and smiling is the be-all and end-all. My teacher is one of Sheng Yen’s students, and he always has stressed two things: on the one hand, if you practice a bit and feel better, great. However, that feeling better is NOT Ch’an. He’d always when talking to us, practitioners of varying motivation and diligence, talk about the feeling good, and then go to what he sometimes refers to jokingly as “the brass ring.” What is it really that we’re doing? Who is feeling good? And then ultimately he’ll point to the fact that this is a very deep practice and it promises much more than feeling good. Ultimately it promises the resolution of all contradiction. You could put it other ways, too.

    Anyway, what really sets me off is when “the brass ring” isn’t even part of the instruction or training. Limiting talk to “feeling good” is surely a great marketing plan, and I continue to be awed at the creative brand-building that can happen in the name of the Buddha. You work with people where they are, but to not bring the ultimate into the picture really sells a student short, and misrepresents the practice.

    • doshoport

      Hi Bill,
      Thank you for sharing this from the Sheng Yen lineage perspective. Very helpful.

  • Leann

    Thank you for this! I’m really enjoying your book also. Wish we had something like this near me… can you please send someone my way? ;)

  • angie boissevain

    This was my experience with Kobun Roshi. Apprenticeship allows each teacher and ‘disciple’ flexibility in
    a way rules and regs never do.

  • Jundo Cohen

    Thank you, Dosho, for this beautiful and powerful reminder. This is the very heart of apprenticeship training that we are searching for in our own Sangha, although we are experimenting with new media and the dropping of mental barriers of distance and proximity in order to bring it about. I hope that we are able to write such an essay somewhere down the roadless-road.

    Gassho, Jundo

  • Barry Briggs

    Dosho, thank you for this perceptive post on the respective roles of the teacher and student, and also on the role of the tradition – meaning the lineage of sitting and sitting and sitting. In the Kwan Um School, we have the usual one-day retreats and weekend retreats, and these play an important role in stabilizing practice. But we also have several residential Zen centers where people practice every day in a more intense environment. And we also offer – in Asia, North America, and Europe – three month retreats for those who wish to dive deeply into practice. In fact, monks and nuns spend six months of the year in silent retreat.

    This type of practice is not limited to young people (although Zen Master Seung Sahn said once that Zen was a “young person’s game”) and it’s common to find people in middle and advanced age sitting for three months. If your hair is on fire, what else can you do?

    Thanks again,

  • Mokuin

    Thank you for this heartfelt sharing and reminder.
    Many of the ancient masters practiced in this way, as did some of the more recent teachers in parallel lineages, like Seungh Sahn. To practice in a rigorous and unrelenting manner in each moment, not bound by our own preference for form, is extremely difficult, I think. It is so easy to become addicted to different forms and miss the heart of the matter. Yet without a description of rigorous form, how could we comprehend what is required on this path? After all, it is even more difficult than most people imagine.

    • doshoport

      Hi Mokuin,
      I think you’ve got the wrong blog – Dosho here. James is over at Monkey Mind.
      Thanks for your comment.

  • Bryan

    “desperately seeking truth was at the heart of it”

    Dosho: I think this is the key

  • Jeanne Desy

    This makes me sad, and makes me question. Sad because at 70 I’ve had years of serious health problems that made out-of-town retreats impossible – and we have no Zen teachers resident in Columbus, Ohio, a city of over a million. (I like to keep saying that online, like throwing a fishing line out.) Now that I’ve had a kidney transplant and regained health, I have the serious and unpredictable moodswings of bipolar disorder; a major depression made my last retreat just too miserable. Then there’s physical limitation. Even traveling a couple of hours takes a lot of my energy and sets up pain. These pain problems due to osteoarthritis make attending the evening sits of my local peer-led sangha sometimes difficult. I am so glad I did retreats the years that I could. But this leads me to question myself again – am I doing all I could? Could I attend the one-day retreats the sangha holds? Ouch. Hurts physically to think of it. (I wake up with pain after a good night’s sleep, and that’s the minimum for the day.) I also know this, that we each have to work our own path day by day, minute by minute, and it is not what somebody else thinks we should do. In fact, the teachers I have been able to study with have always refrained from telling me what to do, except for one thing – keep sitting. I’m wondering what you think of all this.

    • doshoport

      Yes, the edge is different for everybody and moment by moment too. Taking responsibility for your path is best – and to hell with the judgements of other. Keep sitting!

      • Jeanne Desy

        Thank you. This goes to my heart.

  • David

    As always, I read your posts with great eagerness and appreciation, particularly the polemical ones. I understand that this post is part of a larger series looking at the implications of the views expressed in the recent Soto teachers’ survey on the topic of priest training.

    Nevertheless, as a lay practitioner, this post produced a rather strong, two-part reaction. On the one hand, I could only admire the dedication and effort of your own training and that of the MZC community during the 1980s. A part of myself wanted to pump my fist and say, yes, that’s what Zen training should be like. On the other hand, I could not help feeling excluded “true” Zen practice on some level. This second reaction will require some time to explain.

    Unlike other “less demanding” spiritual traditions, people who stick with Zen practice over the long term have fire in them. This fire can take different forms. Many practitioners, myself included, tend to be extremely hard on themselves. Indeed, the Dalai Lama has commented that this is a common feature of Westerners in general and people who hang out at Zen centers in particular tend to have a healthy dose of masochism. For the type-A personality, this is often one of the initial attractions of Zen: here’s a path that takes hard work and plays rough with the ego, as James Ford likes to say. It’s “the real deal.”

    However, the downside of this image of Zen and its attraction for certain kinds of practitioners is that we’re extremely susceptible to arguments of the kind that we’re not putting in enough time, effort, work, etc. It can fuel the kinds of self-flagellation that are not conducive to Zen practice or general well being.

    This post puts great rhetorical emphasis on hours. Indeed, the image of authentic training herein comes across as the sum total of hours spent in training as a physical manifestation of inner fire and effort. Hours in training are also a significant difference between lay and monastic practice. Now, one could say that the practice at MZC was still lay focused despite the number of hours the truly dedicated put in. I greatly admire how 1980s Dosho even managed to work a 40-hour a week job and still do the whole the grueling schedule!

    However, I would suggest that if there is any nostalgia to be had for the 1980s, it is for the concept of a 40-hour a week job that leaves nights and weekends free. Most young people I know today are being worked to the bone while still trying (and often failing) to have it all—family, work, spiritual life, infrequent exercise, and maybe the occasional hour or two per week to loaf and stare at the ceiling.

    We now live in a world of iPhones, flex time, on-call hours, wireless Internet, salaried instead of hourly compensation, and threats of layoffs if we’re not working hard enough and proving that we add value to the company. Those of us younger people lucky enough to have jobs at all are finding that there are no longer clear borders between work and leisure time that would allow us to commit said “leisure time” to Zen practice. Though the 1980s probably saw some form of this new scale of American time, it was nowhere near as pronounced as it is today.

    If there is so much anxiety about where all the young people have gone in the Zen world, perhaps we need to rethink that 1960s, Boomer, counter-cultural, heroic archetype of the young person leaving home and going off to find truth at all costs, even if that leaving home is really just going to the Zen center down the street twice daily.

    It’s not that young people today don’t have the drive or the desire to practice. It’s that we need to think about innovating new ways to integrate them into busy Western (American) lives. We need to consider how to help young people integrate Zen practice into their everyday lives as opposed to further solidify the already well-ingrained notion that they should be spending ever more time practicing at brick-and-mortar Zen centers.

    Now by even raising these questions, I leave myself open to all manner of accusations of bad faith. One could argue that my post smacks of thinking of Zen practice as a quest to get something—the brass ring, awakening, whatever—exactly that which Zen practice seeks to undo. One could opine that if young people’s hair were really on fire, they’d find a way to train more. Or one could assert that each student is different and requires a different time scale and training regimen.

    However, let me come back to the real worry of my second reaction to this post. I wonder if the call for a certain, heroic vision of what it takes to be a priest, i.e. a quasi-monastic notion of it, will not further create a divide between lay and priest practitioners. If anything has defined Zen in the West, it is an emphasis on strong lay practice. I would hate to see us in the Zen world end up back at that tired old caricature of Hinayana practice in which all a lay practitioner can hope for is to accumulate enough merit in this life in order to be reborn into circumstances where she or her can become a monk. That, it would seem to me, would spell doom for Zen in the West far more than anything else debated here in recent weeks.

    • doshoport

      Thanks, David, for your thought full comment. Some of it I’d like to come back to later – the lay/priest point for one. However, I think the comments on younger people practicing as we did in the ’80′s is a fresh perspective that I appreciate. So as I mentioned above, to hell with what others might opine.
      I’ll give consideration to your points and see what comes of that – maybe a post down the road.

    • Jeanne Desy

      David – I appreciate your comment, putting the question in the context of these times. This helped me position my own previous comment about finding my best practice within the context of the limitations of aging

  • Nine Lives as a Fox

    Katagiri’s wife must have been very lonely.

    • doshoport

      There were a lot of lonely partners. Such practice doesn’t come without consequences.
      Just nine lives?

  • Michael

    This is a very important article written by Dosho Port, and in some ways we’re lucky that he is willing to share these experiences with Katagiri Roshi. Because there really in no central authority in Zen, no pope to issue edicts regarding training, and qualifications for Zen priests and monastics, it falls to experienced priests and monks in the traditions to advise as to what the standards should be for the future of a Zen ordained sangha. I don’t accept the idea that by elevating the bar for ordination, we create unhealthy separation between the lay practitioners and the priests. The Buddha articulated a sangha of monks and lay practitioners that would ensure the health and long term vitality of the Dharma; there’s no reason to feel that by setting a high bar for the training and qualification of priests there will be an estrangement with the lay sangha. The ordained and lay sangha exist to support and enrich each other; this is the intended way.

    Lessening the standards for the ordained sangha might seem to be a way to ensure that younger people will find fewer paths of resistance into the ordained sangha. As many others have pointed out, in choosing a doctor or surgeon, you would normally choose the man or woman with the best training, the most solid experience, and the strongest apprenticeship. The same should be true of the ordained community that leads the Western Sangha forward. A competent apprenticeship should be just one element in the formation of the ordained sangha in the future.

    • David


      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Let me reiterate my main point, in case I was unclear. As I said in the beginning of my response to Dosho’s post, I do support “higher” standards for ordained priest training. I was only trying to think through its long-term and perhaps unintended consequences on lay practice. For financial reasons (among others), priest and lay training takes place together in most American Zen communities with which I have practiced.

      The “best surgeon” analogy is often invoked in different contexts to justify higher standards and training, but I don’t think it fully maps onto what is happening in Zen centers. To push the analogy to its limits, in medical school, you don’t have “non-professional” students learning and practicing surgery without the intention to eventually be full-time, board-certified surgeons. In Zen centers, by contrast, you do have lay people trying to realize awakening and manifest the buddhadharma in their everyday lives.

      As for the Buddha’s plan for lay communities, in my limited understanding, this gets back to the merit accumulation model I evoked in my response. While it isn’t often discussed, I’m not convinced that most lay practitioners would find it an inspiring reason to practice especially given that many Westerns have trouble with a literalist interpretation of rebirth.

  • Michael

    David, thanks for your comment. I certainly wasn’t focusing on your earlier, important comments in my blurb. I do agree that Zen in the west has evolved into, for better or worse, an urban center lay/ordained hybrid, which as many will attest, allowed them to practice with high level teachers like Katagiri Roshi. I do worry that Zen, as it navigates its way through western cultures, is becoming diluted with a lessening of standards for ordination. I appreciate that not every practitioner has a residential monastic setting (ie Ryumonji) in their area.

    My sense of the Buddha’s instructions for the laity, stemmed in part from his desire to embark on a strongly deviant path from the Brahmanic/Vedic culture and traditions, and establish the laity, without regard to caste, as worthy of membership in his sangha, and open to enlightenment as the monastics would be. The Buddha ordained women in his Sangha, a strtling deviation from Vedic tradition. Yet, within his sangha were the monastics; men and women ordained into a vinaya tradition, with whom the laity might learn and develop and support.

    It’s my theory that more of the laity in the west will be inspired to practice to the extent that the ordained sangha practices what the Buddha, Dogen, Myoan Eisai et al espoused…a traditional, disciplined, well trained (Japan trained?) ordained sangha to set an example of the Way and provide this strong support to the lay community while the laity supports them.

  • mike h

    You wrote: “And I’m not saying he was perfect, because he wasn’t. We’ve all got our issues and he sure had his share – as do I. Years of intensive training left him a flawed human being. Sometimes radiantly so. Sometimes painfully so.” I appreciate this bit of transparency. I follow a different Master. One who was a Jewish carpenter long ago. In our tradition there is little talk of dualism and the inner/outer conflicts that arise. However, we, too, try to take an apprentice/mentor approach to discipleship. At least, that was the practice of Jesus. And, we train in our Way and most of the time end up flawed humans. But, we keep on practicing and training trusting that the fruit of our labor will affect others, and ourselves, in a positive and wise way.