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Shoken – Committing to a teacher

Shoken is a private ceremony in which a practitioner formally asks a teacher if they may become their student. The ceremony is short and normally takes place in the interview room. It marks a mutual commitment between the two. The student will not always be accepted and may have to ask more than once. It is important to reflect on why you want shoken and what, for you, it implies both for yourself and the teacher.

The request for shoken is always left to the student to initiate. The teacher’s job is to allow the student to develop and mature along the Buddhist path and to provide a vehicle for spiritual and psychological development. Basically the teacher ‘holds the seat’ for the student. The student commits to walking their own path, step by step, and accepting full responsibility for their own actions.

‘Entering the Way’ intrinsically involves, for all of us, change and especially personal change. This will for most people, at some point, lead to resistance to that change and a possible, potentially difficult relationship between student and teacher. Shoken carries with it the agreement on both sides to allow this process, if it arises, to happen and to clarify it without (or before) walking away.

On a personal level, if somebody asks me for shoken and I agree then there are certain general expectations I will have of that person. I would want them to support the sangha and to occasionally do some physical work e.g. in maintaining the zendo, preparing equipment for sesshin, helping in the making of mats and cushions. Or I would want them to support the sangha in other ways, such as administrative work, helping with the website, accounts, charity status etc. I would expect them to attend the zendo at least once a week ( if they live in Liverpool), to see me in interview at least once a month, preferably more, to do an absolute minimum of one sesshin a year and one retreat at the Lake District zendo. I may also ask a practitioner in an explicit or implicit way to take on a task or change their behaviour towards a particular situation in some way and part of the practice is to pick up on that without it being spelled out.

(Note: Many folk in StoneWater Sangha have trained with me for a number of years and the need to ask formally for shoken has in a way passed. Our relationship is now understood through the reality of our shared practice, however, if you are in this position and would like to formalise our relationship then I would encourage you to ask.)

OK, that’s shoken – incidentally, in the Zen tradition in the West there’s a move away from using these Japanese words, so you can think of it as a “personal commitment” to me, as opposed to shoken. Does anyone have any comments or questions?

Keizan SenseiQ: So it’s formalising what we do already?

It’s formalising what you do already, yes. And I think the formalising is important.

Q: There’s a much greater depth than I previously appreciated.

OK, this is why I want to say it, because it’s not normally said. It’s one of those things that you’re supposed to absorb, the awareness of what these things mean, which is the way I learned! But I like it that you know what it’s all about, I prefer it.

Q: So why don’t we do this, generally?

Because you haven’t asked! [Laughter] That’s all it is! To be fair, I haven’t asked you to ask, and I haven’t clarified what it means, but traditionally there’s always been a kind of obliqueness, and ‘hazy moon’-ness to this whole practice. It’s not a conscious obscurity, there’s a sense that you find out what you feel you need to know.

Q: Over the years, people have talked about shoken, and I’ve asked, “What is it?” and I’ve learned about it that way.

Right, you learned from asking other folk. It’s a bit like when you’re 12 and you ask about sex from your mates! [Laughter.] You cannot always be sure you got the right info.

Q: Does shoken necessarily come first in the order of say shoken, jukai, shukke tokudo etc

It doesn’t necessarily come first. As a person who’s received shiho, I have a certain obligation to give jukai to people if they ask me. I don’t always – didn’t we have someone who wrote in via the website and insisted I gave them jukai? Alasdair wrote to them and said it might be nice if you at least came and met him! So there are sometimes that I will say ‘no’, to jukai. Shoken is personal and private and between only me and the person who asks.

Q: So have we missed the opportunity [if we’ve already done jukai]?

No, not at all. They’re two different things. You can do jukai, and traditionally – well, not traditionally but by practice, when folk have done jukai, they have usually considered themselves as a student of the person from who they’ve received the precepts. But that’s only by habit and practice, traditionally, jukai doesn’t bind you or tie you to a particular teacher. It’s just that you’ve chosen to enter the Way. You’ve chosen to say in public, “I am entering the Way.”

Q: Does that mean, regardless of whether we’ve taken tokudo or jukai or whatever, at any stage you could ask for shoken?

In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t do tokudo with somebody unless they’d asked me to do shoken. However, my situation is slightly different because we’ve had an established sangha here even before I received hoshi and became a dharma holder. After receiving Shiho would be the usual place to start. (Incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve noticed that shoken is the opposite of kensho, it’s the other way around to kensho. Kensho is seeing into your own nature, and shoken is to see into one another’s nature, there’s a flip). So, in a way, what’s happened with StoneWater Zen Sangha vis-à-vis these various ceremonies is an outcome of the sangha’s history , rather than conscious decisions that we’ve made, it’s just fallen out that way.