What Good is Zen for a Student?

What Good is Zen for a Student? April 3, 2018

A few days ago, the prolific James Myoun Ford Rōshi (fyi, “Rōshi,”老師, or “old dog” – see photo) extraordinaire, offered up his considered opinion about “What Makes a Good Zen Student?”  Because I have a few thoughts of my own (well, not really “my own” – mostly that I’ve borrowed from others – including from the likes of Tetsugan and Hakuin), I throw this to the wind.

Although, in this post, as you can tell from the title, “What Good is Zen for a Student?,” I’d like to reframe the question and include how Hakuin might have regarded the issue too, given this is the Wild Fox Zen Blog “Year of Hakuin.”

First and foremost, Zen is good for a student who has touched the tender heart of this swirling world of pain and is devoted to awakening for the benefit of others and the self. From this personal experience of intimacy and urgency, a student arouses the capacity to practice with uncommon diligence and intensity. Zen is good at supporting, encouraging, and fanning this flame of the Way Seeking Heart.

Second and equally important, Zen is good for a student who has a reflective orientation and is driven to see things differently, to turn the light of awareness toward the unwanted, unappreciated, unlikely, and unconventional. In other words, a good Zen student questions and challenges their own assumptions about this life and the answers offered by established thinking, including that of the Zen and Buddhist tradition.

Zen is good for other things too, like revealing how we’re snagged or trapped in arrogance, deprecation, and/or belief.

One of the best things about Zen is that it’s good for these things whoever you are. The many ways we vary don’t change how much good Zen can do you. A person’s gender identification, ethnicity, politics, religious beliefs, family of origin or other psychological issues, introversion, extroversion, sexual orientation, and perceived intelligence – don’t impact the basic goodness of Zen practice awakening.

Four Types of Students

In Complete Poison Blossoms in a Thicket of Thorn, “Gudo’s Lingering Radiance,” Hakuin identifies four types of students, starting with those who Zen is really good” for – “outstanding seeds and buds.” “Such students,” wrote Hakuin, “possess deep discernment and an innate ability that enables them to achieve liberation at a single blow from the iron hammer.”

This type is quite rare. I’ve heard of them but don’t think I’ve actually met any. Well, maybe Dōgen, but we haven’t met. Maybe Harada Tangen Rōshi was such a person. Katagiri Rōshi was not. I am not. James can still speak for himself. In any case, Zen in the West probably hasn’t developed the critical mass necessary to find many/any of this innately gifted type. And from Hakuin’s bio, it doesn’t even sound like he was primarily this type. So perhaps it isn’t necessary.

Next are the “initial penetrators.”

“Next there are students who move forward in their koan practice until they attain a strength that is almost mature. Thanks to a word or phrase of the Buddha-[ancestors] or perhaps some advice from a good friend, they suddenly break through into satori.”

Initial penetrators have some taste of awakening but in the hubbub of daily life, it slips away. And although initial penetrators can handle basic kōan, when meeting a hard-to-pass-through (nantō) kōan, they are dumbfounded. This type, however, are willing to dig in and do the work, only sometimes bitter and resentful about Zen and their teachers. Zen is really good for this type.

Hakuin’s third type is the “believers.” This type “understand[s] without any doubt whatsoever about principles such as the self-nature being apart from birth and death and the true body transcending past and present. But the great and essential matter of the Zen school is beyond them.”

“Believers” have studied the dharma sufficiently to have glimpsed the tracks of self-nature, but haven’t seen the ugly butt of the ox for themselves. Zen is only good for this type of student when they run into the dead end of intellectual understanding.

Finally, there are the “self-deceivers.” These students “… come to believe in a teaching they hear, accepting it as true even though it has no more substance than a shadow, and cling tightly to it until the day they die…. They have been bamboozled by words, yet continue to follow them scrupulously.”

This is the probably the most common type.

Whether Zen is good for you depends more on the teachers and community you work with, in my view, than any type – because type isn’t some static variable.

Last words

So what? Whether you think Zen is good for you or not, my advice is that you follow the advice of Nan-t’ang:

“You must see your self-nature as clearly as if you are looking at it in the palm of your hand, so that each and everything becomes perfectly and unmistakably your own wondrously profound field of Dharma truth.”


Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Osho. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shomei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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