© Dora Handel
© Dora Handel

After he sits zazen on Tuesday evenings, Gordon MacKenzie of Kettering, Ohio, gets up from his zafu cushion, dials California, and dons a headset connected to his phone. He then returns to his cushion, resumes a cross-legged position, and speaks with his teacher in a ritual that has become modern America’s variation on an ancient Zen tradition: dokuphone.

That is the name some practitioners give to long-distance forms of dokusan, the teacher-student interview session. MacKenzie spends fifteen to thirty minutes speaking with Sensei Daniel Terragno (a teacher at Rocks and Clouds Zendo in Sebastopol, California) in much the same way Zen teachers and students have for centuries. The only difference is that MacKenzie cannot see his teacher, and the bows, bells, and other accoutrements of a formal dokusan session are absent. “I’ve told him I need a cardboard cutout of him to put in front of me,” he joked.

For practitioners like MacKenzie, who belong to sanghas without resident teachers, receiving guidance isn’t as simple as consulting a teacher in the next room during a sitting period. In addition to dokuphone, it sometimes involves making long trips to Zen centers, or meeting with teachers during retreats. These options are not ideal for practitioners who crave the immediate teacher-student contact that brought awakening to ancient Zen masters and still brings confidence, clarity, challenge, and encouragement to Zen students today. But these practitioners have adapted to counter a modern-day situation that is the consequence of a transient society and an insufficient number of dharma teachers to serve it.

Although many options for teacher-led practice exist on the West and East coasts, where American Buddhism has flourished, many practitioners in Middle America must make do with a teacherless practice.

Every Sunday at the Buddhist Dharma Center of Cincinnati, the wisdom of a great Zen master is channeled through the voice of an ordinary practitioner reading a classic Zen text. The center is unaffiliated with a teacher and proud of it. It lays no claim, either, to a particular Zen tradition, simply offering basic Zen “services” such as weekly sittings, a lending library, and a beginners’ instruction night.

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