"Cave of Tigers" is a collection of edited transcriptions of actual "dharma combat," or "dharma encounters," between students at Zen Mountain Monastery and Abbot John Daido Loori. Excerpted with permission from Weatherhill.

Dharma encounter is a longstanding tradition in Zen. It dates back to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha and to the exchanges that took place between teachers and students as Buddhism migrated out of India. Today we study these exchanges in the form of koans recorded in the collections widely used in Zen practice.

Dharma encounter is a kind of public dokusan--interview with the teacher--and it is one of the five ways in which a teacher and student interact in the context of Zen training. The other kind of interactions are teisho or dharma discourse; dokusan; mondo, a question-and-answer session; and finally, informal interaction.

At one time these encounters used to happen quite accidentally. Monastics wandered around the countryside without a fixed abode, and if they happened to meet another monastic or a teacher along the road, they would engage them in dialogues covering some point of the teachings. After a while, monasteries appeared and monastics congregated there, and little by little dharma encounters became a more formalized kind of interaction. This form continued through China and Japan and later to America, and here at Zen Mountain Monastery we have adopted it as a very important training tool.

Dharma encounter is completely unrehearsed, so the students don't know what subject the teacher will present, and the teacher does not know the questions the students will ask. It is a powerful way of sharpening one's understanding, of taking one's practice to the edge. It provides a way for junior students to receive the teachings, as well as to see how senior students handle the questions presented, and for senior students to test their understanding. It is with senior students that a bit of what we call "head squeezing" tends to happen: a kind of pushing by the teacher to get the student to see beyond what they're already seeing.

Part of the reason that Zen training takes so long--15, 20 years--is that it is pretty thorough. It is not enough to understand the words and ideas that describe reality; we must realize reality directly, just as Shakyamuni [Buddha] realized it, just as each of the ancestors realized it for themselves. This realization is what we call mind-to-mind transmission, and it has been handed down from person to person through our lineage for the past 2,500 years. The words used in dharma encounter are part of this transmission. They are live words, turning words, words that reveal the truth rather than obscure it, and that always respond to the student in accord with the place in which they stand.

The most important thing in dharma encounter is to participate. It is not necessary to have answers, since 90 percent of the time the questions are resolved by themselves, simply from the tension of coming forward and having to wait on line. Moving to the edge of our practice causes our mind to work in a different way; it creates a space for the teachings to occur; it allows for a different kind of communication.


The following dharma encounters were selected from "Cave of Tigers."

Student: When my son was born it was obvious that he was perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Now he's four and a half, and it's getting so complicated that the only time he's perfect and complete, lacking nothing, is when he's sleeping. During the day I get very angry and frustrated with him. This is the peril. How do I deal with it?

Teacher: Are you perfect and complete, lacking nothing?

Student: Oh, no.

Teacher: That's why he's not.

Student: I have to start with me?

Teacher: No, you have to realize that you're perfect and complete, lacking nothing, and then you'll see the perfection and completeness that encompass everything.

Student: But I feel that I have to teach him things, like, "Don't hurt people's feelings."

Teacher: Yes. Perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

Student: Even when he's hitting his aunt?

Teacher: DON'T HIT!

Student: Well, how about anger then?

Teacher: What anger?

Student: In me.

Teacher: What anger?

Student: [Laughs.]

Teacher: Why are you laughing? Is that anger?

Student: No.

Teacher: Where is it? Where does it come from? Where does it go? Who is the master? May your life go well.

Student: Thank you for your answer.

Student: "Hello, Mr. Fenni, this is Jane Hayes from the Monastery. Could you tell me what our balance is today?

Teacher: What's that?

Student: All is one; all is not one.

Teacher: You were doing that before you came here.

Student: Yes.

Teacher: What have you learned from Wumen? [The Chinese Zen master who compiled ancient koans into a collection called "The Gateless Gate."] What have you learned from your zazen?

Student: "Oh, these bills! God, they're just piling up and I can't seem to pay them!"

Teacher: That's one side. What's the other side?

Student: "They make me miserable!"

Teacher: That's the same thing. You didn't have to come here to learn how to be miserable. How do you deal with it? How do you realize it? How do you transcend the reality of bills and no bills?

Student: [Screams at the top of her lungs.]

Teacher: That's one side. How do you avoid falling into either side?

Student: [Falls over to the left.]

Teacher: That's a cop-out.

Student: [Falls over to the right side.]

Teacher: That's two cop-outs.

Student: [Spits out something distasteful.]

Teacher: Three strikes; you're out.

Student: Yup.

Teacher: Find out how to avoid those two extremes. May your life go well.

Student: Thank you for your answer.


Student: A rock is a rock, and sentient beings are complicated and messy. How do I move toward being more like a rock?

Teacher: You want to be a rock?

Student: Well, yes. There are many fine qualities in a rock which I envy.

Teacher: [Laughs] I wonder what your husband thinks about that.

Student: Just leave him aside for now. Let's think of the rock-like qualities: strong, quiet, safe, dependable.

Teacher: They can't dance, though. What makes you think you don't have those qualities?

Student: Because...

Teacher: Because you've identified with this bag of skin as being who you are. When you realize that this bag of skin is not what contains you, then you're free of it. That's what Dogen [13th century Zen master] calls, " to be enlightened by the ten thousand things." The ten thousand things are that rock, the rain, the great ocean, these mountains. Once you realize emptiness, all of the possibilities are there. To be the rock with the whole body and mind is to forget the self. There are no limits. May your life go well.

Student: Thank you for your answer.

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