Dokusan With Dogen: Timeless Lesson In Negotiating The Way

Dokusan is the private encounter between a Zen master and a student. Dōgen was a preeminent Zen Master who lived in 13th century Japan. Dokusan with Dōgen is a collection of reflections by a contemporary Zen practitioner on the transformative influence the master had on her life.

Each of the ten essays of Dokusan with Dogen skillfully employs an aspect of Master Dōgen’s teaching to clarify oftentimes misunderstood tenets of Zen philosophy, such as non-attachment, selflessness, emptiness, and requisites for authentic practice.

 U.S. Review of Books

“Spiritual practice in the Buddhist sense means taking all the experiences in our life–– good times and difficult times–– and learning to use each of them as an instrument of our awakening.”

As an ardent student of Zen, Barbara Verkuilen often felt drawn to the ancient, prolific writings of Dogen, a renowned thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master. Throughout the years she received guidance and instruction from a variety of contemporary teachers, was ordained as a Zen priest, and ultimately co-founded the Midwest Soto Zen Community, based in Wisconsin. Yet, Verkuilen always returned to Dogen’s poetic words in an effort to see how to “Negotiate the Way.”

 In the ten essays of Dokusan with Dogen, the author artfully discerns her favorite master’s teachings in an attempt to demystify various elements of Zen thought and philosophy. From the mindful practice of “just sitting” to the concepts of non-attachment, selflessness, and distinguishing greater and lesser miracles, Verkuilen guides us with a gentle literary voice and hand along an old, but relevant spiritual path.

 While Dogen’s influence is clearly at the center of her writing, Verkuilen generously references several other Zen masters, and creatively infuses her work with Zen lore, metaphors, and charming “mondos,” the recorded exchanges between a master and student in Zen literature.

 A short glossary of Buddhist terms also helps readers navigate the writings and lessons. Verkuilen’s book is not a scholarly work about Dogen, but rather a personal reflection of the master’s influence on her own Zen life path.

 Zen Master Dogen once wrote that “The study of the way does not rely on knowledge and genius or cleverness and brilliance. It is an easy thing.” Herein, Verkuilen’s invaluable reflective musing, will perhaps make our own journey that much easier.



From Chapter 1 - The Secret in Our Hearts - Many years ago when I first encountered the Buddha’s teaching I happened on the following Zen depiction of life. Picture, if you will, a person in the act of climbing a huge mountain. The climber is about halfway up and exhausted. At this moment he or she is dangling off the edge of the mountain, just managing to cling to a small vine. On each side of the vine there is a tiny mouse – one white and one black – and both are chewing through the vine. The climber notices a wild strawberry growing out of a crevice. It is picked and eaten. And, it’s delicious.

My relationship to this metaphor has changed many times in the years since first reading it. But I still remember that my initial response was one of intense intrigue. I resonated with the struggle to climb a mountain. There was great familiarity with how it felt to be hanging there, exhausted, and the two mice chewing through the vine was as good an explanation as any for all the anxiety I’d experienced. The part that escaped me though was “It is delicious.” That indeed seemed like a well-kept secret.

Since then I’ve learned that the secret is not separate from the mountain, the vine, the mice, the strawberry or even the anxiety. In fact, the anxiety is the secret trying to get our attention.

Zen Master Dogen said, “When you first seek dharma you imagine you are far away from its environs.”

For our purposes we can substitute the words “truth,” “answers,” or “secret,” for dharma. When you first seek truth, when you first seek answers, when you first seek the secret in your heart, you imagine you are far away from “its environs.”

But what causes our seeking is already intimate with the secret. The cause might be loneliness, anxiety, confusion, or doubt. Or it may be deep dissatisfaction, a dull nagging feeling that something is missing.

Whatever it is that causes us trouble is the gift that begins the search. In the beginning, we don’t see it as a gift. We experience it more as a burden, something we’d rather not have to deal with. But the problem drives us to seek an answer, and that is the secret calling to us.