Vine of Obstacles Update: What Would the Old Guys Say?

Online Zen training? What would the old guys say about that?

I don’t know.

The “Zen Center” model, though, is less than sixty years old, so I hope the innovators of that model – especially the guys in the front row (priests left to right, Katagiri, not sure who, Suzuki, Maezumi, and  probably Chino) – would see online Zen as a natural extension of what they were trying to do, making Zen accessible to those interested and capable.

The Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training is about six weeks old (click here for the previous update) and as we’ve gone along, the brave trail-blazing practitioners that jumped on board (the early adopters, as they say) have come up with great ideas for developing what is available and have helped me clarify the work.

This post is another update in our meandering efforts.

Zazen, study, and engagement continue, of course, to be the three focal points of Vine of Obstacles training. Study is particularly (and perhaps unusually) important in how I teach Zen, following Katagiri Roshi’s style of being a scholar-monk.

Study gives the heartmind something to chew on as we do our sitting and engagement, putting, pushing, prodding, and pulling the whole process more and more in line with the buddhadharma.

Luckily, one of the virtues of the cyber world is the possibilities it offers for study. So we’ve launched a Vine Moodle site that has become the living room of our practice place. It is the Vine Moodle that I’ll be discussing in the rest of this post.

In the Vine Moodle, we have several courses and a forum. I’ll describe the forum first.

“Engaging the Way through the World” is a place where practitioners can post practice-enlightenment success stories, engage with other practitioners about the Vine process, and also ask me dharma questions. For ethically navigating our relationships together, we have a “What is said in the Moodle, stays in the Moodle” guideline.

“Zazen Workshop: Getting Started Where You Are” is a resource for zazen and includes a range of materials from basic instructions to more advanced topics like translations of the classic zazen manuals, and some short essays on the more subtle considerations in shikantaza and koan work. We’ve also started a “Zazen Workshop” where practitioners can send in photos of their zazen and ask for an online posture adjustment.

“Guidelines for Studying the Way” is a ten topic course based on the Dogen text of the same name that serves as the in-depth orientation. I encourage practitioners to work through the entire course at their own pace and to make one at least one Vine Moodle contribution each week. In this course, students have the opportunity to clarify their intention for practice, wrestle with Dogen’s opinions about the teacher-student relationship, and develop a solid basis for either koan or shikantaza. And establish a working relationship with me.

“Genjokoan: What is Realized in the Issue at Hand?” is almost ready for roll-out. I’m excited and even enthusiastic about the possibilities for this course. I’ve integrated koan work with the text and used the best of my educational training for an outcome-based learning experience.

In terms of dharma pedagogy, the online method of learning may well prove to be more effective than the one-way lecture style because it requires active engagement from students, allows for more detailed and precise feedback, and promotes more frequent multiple-way communication than is possible in the old model (going to a Zen Center once a week or so and listening to a dharma talk, enjoying some private feelings about it, then moving on).

Next up is to develop a “Buddha Nature” course and to include more in-the-flesh students in the nonsegmentation of cyber and noncyber worlds. In my view, presenting dharma offerings that erase the gap between those two worlds, seamlessly integrating the possibilities of online learning and practice enlightenment, is an exciting and challenging new frontier for teaching and practicing Zen.

Your thoughts welcome.

Oh, also there are a few more student spaces available in the Vine of Obstacles, so if you’re interested in getting more information, let me know at

The Deeply Settled Heart: Home-based Practice Period Invitation
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • Janith Hatch

    I’m starting farther in the hole than most of the rest of you, having suffered a massive Pontine stroke a year ago (I know, poor me, poor me!) and there are many things I simply don’t understanf (What is a Moodle? Will I know one if I see one?); How do I, impaired as I am, make use of what the rest of you seem to take for granted (Moodles)? More importantly, how do I participate without holding the rest of you back? Isn’t the technology which is beyond the weakest of you too advanced for the weakest anong you? Dosho? Because make no mistake, I AM among you even though I rarely say anything, just as I was among Katagiri’s students although I rarely said anything. And doesn’t it all come back on me? Dosho? Nonin? You probably know me better than anyone but Teijo and Tomoe-san, and they’re not here. Do I ramble? This stuff crosses my mind like a pheasant crossing the road, or a wild turkey, every time I try to stick my head above the crowd of adept Moodlers and remember, “You have to say something!” So here I am like Katagiri, awash in unfamiliar technology (though not much like him in any other ways, I hasten to add).

    What to do? Am I making a fool (Foodle) of myself? I throw all these words at you in the hope that some will stick on the ceiling of your thought like so much undercooked spaghetti.


    Jakumyo the Shy, Peaceful One

    • doshoport

      Dear Janith,
      Not to worry. If you want to woodle with the moodle, I’ll help.

      One foodle to another (no offense intended),

      • Janith Hatch

        I’m happy to share Foodlishness with you, Dosho, Seriously. I’ll participate as I can, until someone (that’d be you, Dosho) tells me to go away.

        • doshoport

          I will never tell you to go away and if someone else does, they’ll have to deal with me. Grrr.

    • Phil Martin

      Greetings from another person who sat in the back at Katagiri’s lectures and didn’t say much. I’m not sure what has changed, but I find I’m speaking up more on the Moodle. Perhaps i’m just ready now. But once I got used to it, I find it’s very conducive to being able to speak up, and also to having more interaction with other students and with the teacher.

      As for the concern of holding anyone back, I thought of an occasion years ago at my son’s inner-city school. A number of the 4th and 5th graders applied and were chosen for a group trip to Space Camp. We had a very diverse group of students, and not everyone could begin to afford the expense. What they had done in past years, and did again with this group, was to gather all the parents, and tell us what the cost per student was. They asked each parent to write on a piece of paper what they could reasonably contribute. They then added up all the amounts each parent had put down, and came up with the difference between that and what was necessary to send the whole group. Their motto was, “Everyone goes, or no one goes.” We then all proceeded to have a garage sale, a candy sale, and anything else they could think of to raise the remaining amount. And in the end all the kids got to go to Space Camp.

      I’d put forth that as a motto for our Moodle. “Everyone enlightened, or no one enlightened!” Sort of a modern charge for the modern bodhisattva.

  • Hanrei B

    If I were an Old Guy I would probably ask ‘what the avici hell is an internet?’

    The next question might be ‘what does it do?’ which I reckon is a good
    question as it seems to be accepted somewhat unconsciously as a facet
    of, or extension of, human consciousness these days… which it is in a
    sense; but I for one could do with dropping off body-mind-and-internet
    from time to time to clarify the pivot point where a mush of
    zeros-and-ones become meaningful (or fails to be taken meaningfully) in
    the many right or wrong/ useful or harmful, or neutral, ways.

    And that indistinct zone where written text becomes (and/or is mistaken
    for) our real lives seems to have changed so much in this digital text
    era; I wonder if we are becoming desensitized to the written word? (I
    know it had that effect on me until I consciously addressed the issue by
    beginning to learn to read poetry). On the plus side, everything is
    certainly more available… but is it as meaningful?

    It might be like the difference between principled democracy and what is often
    mistaken for it these days: i.e. mob rule, and X-Factor style populist
    media coercion.

    Now, that’s an internet rant if ever I saw one!

    Continued good luck with the explorations and questions, Dosho et al.



    • doshoport

      You raise important issues and imv the internet is a tool. How we use it and make meaning, is up to us. Btw, was that you in the back behind Katagiri?

      • Hanrei B

        Dosho, yeah, I’m the guy in the back with the big fat empty head like a drum!

  • Jisen Coghlan

    I feel grateful to be moodle-ing with Dosho and the group from afar. Being a newly transmitted teacher, I realize how important it is to continue my studies and work with a teacher. Not long ago I saw a picture of Acariya Pema Chodron seated by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche; she stated that this is with “whom I’m studying”. This really inspired me! (My first Buddhist teacher was Ani Palmo Tsultrim, teacher, co-abbess at Gampo Abbey; died 10/19/2010)
    When I left Shasta Abbey in 2010, the former abbot strongly recommended that I study koans and go to Dharma Drum in New York. Not knowing how I might make that happen, Dosho arrived at Deep Spring Temple within a few months and offered koan introspection. With the permission of my teacher, I began a new and utterly invaluable practice. When he suggested a few months back that he was considering an online course, I immediately said, “I’m in…” Writing is difficult and this pushes me to express myself in words….I often spend hours writing a simple paragraph. Thanks Harry for bringing up the challenge of writing……
    Thank you moodlers and Dosho, the teacher “with whom I’m studying”.
    With countless bows,

    • doshoport

      Thank you for this, Jisen. I’m really happy to have you on board!


  • Stephen Slottow

    Well, one old timer, Fukushima Roshi, probably wouldn’t approve. Somewhere on the web is his tirade against dokuphone. Although his main objection seems to have been that the student couldn’t see the teacher’s demonstration and how much better it was than the student’s I bet he wouldn’t like Skype much better.

    • doshoport

      Yes or Sanzenaphone or Dokuhangout. Anyway, for me, there’s less and less a difference between in the flesh and cyber meeting. There’s strengths and weaknesses … and some koan, of course, are very hard to do when not in person … but that might be a limit of the creativity of the practitioner and/or teacher….
      Thanks Stephen.