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Barbara O'Brien

Another Zen Master Scandal

By February 10, 2011

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This time, it's Dennis Genpo Merzel, Soto Zen teacher and dharma brother to my first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Roshi. Genpo has disrobed and resigned as abbot from the Kanzeon Zen Center of Salt Lake City. He also has resigned from the White Plum Asanga, an organization of Zen teachers in the lineage of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi.

Right now I don't know many details -- I hadn't even heard the pre-resignation gossip, which means I'm way out of the loop on this one -- but what's coming out seems to be eerily close to the Peter Baker Roshi/San Francisco Zen Center episode of several years back. Like Baker Roshi, Genpo, who is married, resigned as abbot after disclosing that he had been carrying on an affair with one of his students.

Genpo will, however, continue teaching his trademarked -- and controversial -- Big Mind process. I never quite "got" what Big Mind is, but I gather that it's a cross between Soto Zen and western psychology. And that sounds fairly innocuous. However ...

What always (to me) made Big Mind sound hinky is that it is marketed as enlightenment on speed dial. By using Genpo's techniques, the pitch said, you could save yourself years of sitting zazen before realizing satori. Big Mind is taught mostly through seminars that charge a hefty enrollment fee, beginning at $150, which I'll come back to in a minute. I understand some people have paid as much as $50,00 for quickie enlightenment.

Soto Zen teacher Brad Warner has been one of Genpo's most outspoken critics for a long time. Way back in 2007 Warner Sensei called Big Mind a scam, and I find the sensei's arguments persuasive. More recently Warner Sensei said,

As usual when a sex scandal hits the news, this one has been accompanied by a whole series of other revelations. A former insider in Genpo's organization stated on Facebook that Genpo's community "has given him (Genpo) enough money to have three houses, two new cars and a Harley Davidson, not to mention a couple hundred thou a year salary and all expenses." Yikes!

Yikes, indeed. But this also parallels the Richard Baker Roshi situation. As described in Michael Downing's book Shoes Outside the Door, Baker abused his role as abbot and teacher to live far more lavishly than he needed to, while the members of the sangha were making significant sacrifices in time and money to realize Baker's plans for himself and SFZC.

Daido Roshi always spoke highly of Genpo, whom I never met personally, but I was Daido's student in the years before Genpo began marketing his Big Mind process. Whether Daido ever expressed an opinion on Big Mind, I do not know. The situation with Genpo saddens me, but even more, I am saddened that someone who has "walked the walk" for so long could so abuse the Soto Zen tradition.

And once again, we Zennies find ourselves asking questions about trust versus blind following, and the management of Zen centers, and the student-teacher relationship.

Here are more comments from our resident curmudgeon, Mumon, and from Kyle the Reformed Buddhist.

Update: I forgot to add what I wanted to say about the enrollment fees. From time to time, I hear people complain about charges for classes or workshops. Christian churches don't usually charge for stuff like that. And the response is that most Buddhist centers and monasteries have to be self-supporting in ways that chuches of major Christian denominations usually aren't. Most Buddhist centers and monasteries in the West depend on member dues and charges for workshops retreats, etc. to keep the lights turned on and the monks fed.

However, reasonable and necessary charging for services are one thing; abusing people's desire to "do good" and practice the dharma to provide luxuries for teachers is something else entirely. These days we don't expect teachers, priests, and monks to live in abject poverty (although some do), but three houses? Please.

Comments
February 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm
(1) Machig says:

hmmm, yeah — not-one & not-two

Perhaps it’s just my perception, but it sure does appear to be the case that it’s almost exclusively male teachers who succumb to this form of “missing the mark.” What’s up with this?! (no pun intended, really)

February 10, 2011 at 4:34 pm
(2) Mumon says:

our resident curmudgeon, Mumon

gassho…(palms together)…

February 10, 2011 at 4:37 pm
(3) David says:

Machig, as a former clergyman (who, I will have you know, never did “miss the mark” in that particular way) I do have to say that male religious leaders can be presented with various temptations when it comes to female students. They are idealistic, young and adoring. It’s a real ego stroke. So you’d think that a Zen teacher of all people would recognize things like lust and ego at work, but it sounds like this particular teacher went off the rails in other ways as well. When a teacher becomes too dominant, people become hesitant to offer friendly warning or earnest rebuke. I think one thing the situation requires is a number of senior people around, other ordained people, to help the leader keep perspective. In any case, this story makes me quite sad.

February 10, 2011 at 4:40 pm
(4) Bruce Williamson says:

Houses and a harley plus a big salary. Hmm maybe he didn’t quite get over/through the clinging/coveting part. Not surprised as it happens in just about every organization where there’s a head figure. Shadesof Jim Bakker.

BTW I haven’t stopped covetign a Harley. :)

February 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm
(5) Scott Knickelbine says:

The price tag on Big Mind (and you don’t have to protect their friggin’ trade mark for them) has always been a red flag for me. It’s appropriate to charge a fee to defray the facilities cost for an event, but Dharma teachers are supposed to rely on dana for their own maintenance. When I compare Genpo’s houses, cars and hogs with, say, Master Shen-Yen sleeping in doorways in NYC and buiding his own furniture, it’s not hard to see who the real Dharma heirs are.

February 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

When I compare Genpo’s houses, cars and hogs with, say, Master Shen-Yen sleeping in doorways in NYC and buiding his own furniture, it’s not hard to see who the real Dharma heirs are.

I was thinking of Master Shen-Yen too.

February 10, 2011 at 6:33 pm
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

you don’t have to protect their friggin’ trade mark for them

Oh, I like the trademark. I was being snarky with the trademark. :-)

February 11, 2011 at 3:33 am
(8) John Peach says:

At my Buddhist Centre in England, everything is done on a dana basis where ask people to leave what they can afford. Sometimes if visitors are involved we may suggest a donation 10 for a day – seldom more – and again some people give more, others less. Even a 10 day retreat with full borad will sledom come to more than a suggested 350. For someone to charge so highly and live a life of luxury makes a mockery, not only of ideas of clinging and attachment, but also of the people who give time and energies with no recompense, often whilst holding down jobs and supporting families.

February 11, 2011 at 8:12 am
(9) Hein says:

These days we don’t expect teachers, priests, and monks to live in abject poverty

Well obviously we do not want any person to live in any kind of poverty, but why should priests, nuns and monks not be poor? There is a priest in Rome that have a wealthy lifestyle whilst his followers in Africa (and other places) does not have enough to eat. Why should Zen monks be different?

Perhaps the western interpretation of Buddhism (and even Christianity that started off as a religion for slaves and poor people) is a life of fullness in the dharma. That fullness might mean material wealth also. Though Prince Gautama left the palace and riches behind does that mean other people cannot make money from the dharma? In a materialistic society poverty means unsuccessful; so why will one be interested in teachings if its teachers are poor?

Traditional hard-core Zen is for a few and not for the masses.

February 11, 2011 at 10:16 am
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

why should priests, nuns and monks not be poor?

“Poor” is a relative term. To me, “abject poverty” is sleeping on the streets and eating out of garbage cans. It’s not asking too much to provide monastics with whatever they need to maintain their health and functionality, whatever that is. For example, my teacher, who has severe spinal stenosis and needs a cane or a walker to get around, could no longer manage the stairs to her apartment on the second floor of the Zen center. So the sangha had an elevator installed. That would be a “luxury” to some people.

On the other hand, living with “just enough” would be “poor” to a lot of people, but if you have what you need — food, shelter, adequate clothes, means of transportation, health care, and whatever you need to do your job — to me, that’s not “poor.” It’s only “poor” if you think it is.

Though Prince Gautama left the palace and riches behind does that mean other people cannot make money from the dharma? In a materialistic society poverty means unsuccessful; so why will one be interested in teachings if its teachers are poor?

I don’t think anyone who visits the Zen center cares whether it’s profitable; just that it functions. We have a heated — well sort of heated — zendo, and electricity, and bathrooms, and even though everything is very simple, it is not shabby. That’s all that really matters. It’s so common in the U.S. for people to use religion to get rich that lots of people are wary of being “hustled” by religious scams. Some are still not wary enough, obviously. But I think many people looking for a new spiritual path are more likely to be turned off than impressed by displays of wealth.

February 11, 2011 at 9:37 am
(11) Machig says:

@ David:

“as a former clergyman (who, I will have you know, never did miss the mark in that particular way)”

Congratulations!!

“I do have to say that male religious leaders can be presented with various temptations when it comes to female students. They are idealistic, young and adoring.”

And can it not be equally said that “female religious leaders can be presented with various temptations when it comes to male students”? If not, why not? And if so, then why is it that we see so few instances of female teachers engaging in sexual misconduct with their male students?

“Its a real ego stroke.”

Yeah, and as we all know, the ego is the most erectile organ of the body :)

I agree with the points you brought up in the second half of your comment: that this particular teacher seems to have missed, in a large way, the workings of “lust and ego” within himself; and that having senior practitioners around — or some other kinds of “checks and balances” system, by which a powerful teacher can him- or herself receive feedback and guidance, is a really good idea.

February 11, 2011 at 11:42 am
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

And can it not be equally said that female religious leaders can be presented with various temptations when it comes to male students? If not, why not? And if so, then why is it that we see so few instances of female teachers engaging in sexual misconduct with their male students?

Off the top of my head, some speculative answers.

1. Testosterone.

2. The alpha male syndrome. Somewhere deep in our primordial wiring is the idea that the male leader is entitled.

3. Women are more likely to have experienced being sexually exploited and objectified, and knowing what that feels like are perhaps less likely to exploit or objectify others.

4. I hate to say it, but this is the most likely reason teachers and spiritual leaders tend to be mature people in at least their 40s if not older. I suspect young men are less likely to feel sexually attracted to their postmenopausal female teachers than are young women to a 50-something or older male teacher.

And I have to say, the opposite is true also. Speaking as a, um, mature lady, Im not interested in young guys. There are probably multiple reasons for that, also, and we dont need to go into them.

There are exceptions to everything, of course.

So, anyway, in the case of a younger male student older female teacher, I postulate the sexual tension that leads to affairs is less likely to develop.

February 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm
(13) Machig says:

Yes, indeed — and how many of these reasons, Im now wondering, are simply a byproduct of samsaric delusion?

Just for fun, lets imagine that we could rewind the Big Mind & His Mistresses movie, to the point, say, just before the very first instance of attraction/interest between our main character and the woman who became his first affair. But with one minor revision, namely that all the characters involved are, from the start, enlightened beings. How would this then effect the subsequent scenes? Specifically:

(1) would there still be an arising of feelings of interest, appreciation, affection, joy, delight, etc. when in the presence of the other?
(2) would these feelings then translate, at some point, into an impulse to express them physically/sexually? (Or is the arising of such an impulse incongruent with enlightened mind?)
(3) would this impulse to engage physically/sexually be acted upon?
(4) would the choice to act upon this impulse be kept hidden from public view? Or hidden from his wife?
(5) would his wife (who in this scenario is also an enlightened being) be upset by this all?

Theres so much talk about letting our Dharma practice influence every aspect of our lives, and yet — often also the assumption that certain areas of life (specifically those related to what the Hindu yoga system associates with the first and second chakras, viz. personal power/security and sexuality) are somehow exempt from this. Everything is impermanent, open to transformation, except for such-and-such hard-wiring or the effects of such-and-such hormones. Seems really incongruent, to me.

February 11, 2011 at 10:43 am
(14) David says:

Its not asking too much to provide monastics with whatever they need to maintain their health and functionality, whatever that is.

–And isn’t that, indeed, the middle way that the Buddha himself taught? I am reminded of the tale of the archbishop, the bishop and the deacon, who all went up in turn to the altar and loudly proclaimed to God that they were nothing. But when the lowly deacon took his turn, the archbiship nudged the bishop and said, ‘Hey, look who has the nerve to go up there and say he’s nothing!’ In other words, there is a point in which self-abnegation is an assertion of and glorification of self. I do admit that one thing confuses me a bit–when is Buddhist art an assertion of wealth, e.g. a very expensive image or statue? But that’s another topic, I guess.

February 11, 2011 at 10:45 am
(15) Yeshe says:

As a simple-living monk who attends a temple which has a ‘suggested donation’ policy for most events, I must say that I sort of feel sorry for someone who so abuses the Dharma to be stuck with three houses, cars/motorcycle, and “babes”. Does he even know what he’s missing? I think of the Zen monks of old, wandering the mountains and forests, meditating, and writing beautiful, simple poems about nature and realisation. They’re the ones who had it good! By the way, even Buddha didn’t teach “speed-dial” realisation. Even Tantra, which is a quick path, requires long-term dedication. What does this guy know that Buddha didn’t?

February 11, 2011 at 11:12 am
(16) Mila says:

When my connection to the practice feels deep and authentic, what I notice is that there is both

(1) a sense of satisfaction/contentment — nothing is lacking & therefore nothing really needs to change; and

(2) feelings of inner wealth/abundance/fullness — a kind of energy which then quite naturally seeks to express itself, within the “historical dimension,” as kindness, play, beauty, creativity & celebration.

So I see no problem with a practitioner or teacher having a beautiful home (if this is how their creativity expresses), or a sangha collectively creating a beautifully uplifting and inspiring practice-space.

But this feels quite different from someone feeling the need to own not one but three houses!

February 12, 2011 at 5:30 am
(17) Jessica says:

I have done Big Mind with Genpo, Diane Hamilton, and others. It is an extremely powerful technique for providing experiences that normally take years on the meditation cushion to achieve. The technique is so new that what it takes to assimilate those experiences into permanent change is an open question. From what I have seen, having a lot of meditation experience helps a great deal in that respect.
The external “style” of Big Mind is so different from Zen that many Zen students find it unappealing.
I have seen video’s of Brad Warner’s concerning Genpo and Bid Mind. They were funny and I think Brad did catch some of what was going wrong, but I also saw nothing to indicate that he had any understanding of what actually goes on in a Big Mind session.

My own view was that as powerful as Big Mind can be, it was still developing further and showed signs of developing a new style of collegial practice that I think will some day be a profound step forward. A step that will allow us to maintain the strengths of classic practices but go beyond constrictions caused by their medieval hierarchy.
As I saw it, Roshi short-circuited those promising developments by returning to a more autocratic style. Also, when outreach to newcomers replaced sustained work with experienced practitioners that did help spread Big Mind but largely ended it larger development.
To me, that was the worse scandal, even worse making one’s secret lover a Sensei.
Big Mind is not for everyone. No teaching is. But Big Mind at its best, with Genpo just gently holding space and allowing a room full of veteran meditators to go where they would, had the capacity to create new teachings. It combined the capacity for fresh innovation with a solid grounding in the classics. I have not witnessed that anywhere else and I miss it enormously.

February 12, 2011 at 11:25 am
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

My own view was that as powerful as Big Mind can be, it was still developing further and showed signs of developing a new style of collegial practice that I think will some day be a profound step forward. A step that will allow us to maintain the strengths of classic practices but go beyond constrictions caused by their medieval hierarchy.

Those “constrictions” are illusions. There is no hierarchy except for the one we create in our heads. Ultimately, there are no teachers or students; there is just teaching and learning. But, as another teacher said, sometimes you have to polish the mirror to fully appreciate why you don’t have to polish the mirror.

If Big Mind has merit, then I expect it will continue to develop. But it’s just as well to keep it completely separate from Soto Zen so as not to cause confusion.

February 12, 2011 at 11:37 am
(19) Mark Rogow says:

“The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being.”

All of you have bet on the wrong horse. You lost the enlightenment stakes and because of delusion you wonder why. Pity.

February 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm
(20) Barbara O'Brien says:

All of you have bet on the wrong horse. You lost the enlightenment stakes and because of delusion you wonder why.

That would seem so only to someone with limited understanding of dharma combined with substandard reading comprehension skills. Pity.

February 13, 2011 at 12:06 am
(21) Jessica says:

BO’B: Those constrictions are illusions. There is no hierarchy except for the one we create in our heads.

J: Yes, on the level of realization one can say that there are no hierarchies. On the level of actually running a Zen center or Zendo in the modern world, there are very definite hierarchies. There are explicit ones that are acknowledged. There are implicit ones that are not acknowledged. They reflect both our individual psychologies and the sociologies of the societies Zen originated in and that into which it has been transplanted.

To the modern ear “no hierarchies” may sound appealing. To the elites of the societies in which Zen and other Buddhism developed, it sounded subversive. One of the purposes of the teachings and the social structures that Zen and other Buddhism developed was to create a way for the understanding of “no hierarchy” to coexist with societies that ran on rigid hierarchies and that thought that doing so was wise and necessary.
One way this was done was to quarantine these teachings in monasteries. Another way was to say “that all beings have Buddhanature” but to consistently act in rigid hierarchies as though those with the proper institutional credentials must have more of it.
When the topic of hierarchies comes up, if we look only at the level of realization and say “oh, there truly are no hierarchies”, this means that we will unconsciously replicate both the effects those hierarchies had in the societies they were born in and a second set of effects that comes from transplanting them into different societies. This basically is what Buddhism in the West has done and it is the reason why Buddhism in the West, Zen and Vajrayana alike, has shown so little ability to really come to grips with the repeated scandals, of which Eido Shimano Roshi and Genpo Roshi are only the latest.

February 13, 2011 at 1:51 pm
(22) Barbara O'Brien says:

Yes, on the level of realization one can say that there are no hierarchies.

“Realization” is kind of the point. If your practice doesn’t lead to an intimate experience of no hierarchies, and the dissolution of dualities, then it’s just entertainment. But you don’t realize the truth of hierarchies by avoiding them, which is why I was responding to “classic practices but go beyond constrictions caused by their medieval hierarchy.” Most people have to work with hierarchies in order to perceive the unreality of them.

And, anyway, I’ve been a zennie for more than two decades now, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen any such “constrictions” caused by a “medieval hierarchy.” Much American Zen already is much less autocratic than is the case in Japan. It’s commonly the case for management of Zen centers/ monasteries to fall to a board of directors that does not include the chief teacher or abbot, for example. And about half of the current crop of American Zen teachers are women, who tend to bring a less autocratic style to their roles. There still is some hierarchy, as needed, but I wouldn’t call it “medieval.” I don’t think Soto Zen in the West needs any sort of separate program to deal with a “problem” of hierarchies, as there is no problem, except perhaps at the level of individual Zen centers.

Most of the rest of what you wrote here is irrelevant to western Zen, IMO. Did you have much experience with Zen before you began working with Genpo?

On the level of actually running a Zen center or Zendo in the modern world, there are very definite hierarchies.

Of course. In the relative world there is this and that, yes. The Two Truths; Mahayana 101. When one side is illumined the other is dark, as Dogen said.

As far as the scandals go, all of the examples I can think of involved either teachers who came from Japan or the first generation of male western-born Zen teachers. Genpo is on the younger edge of that, but since he was a student of Maezumi Roshi I’d say he qualifies. Over the years I have heard much theorizing that there’s something about that particular group — they do tend to be alpha male types and their students often were/are still smitten with Zen master mystique. Perhaps all we really need is some maturity.

February 13, 2011 at 12:23 am
(23) Jessica says:

David: When a teacher becomes too dominant, people become hesitant to offer friendly warning or earnest rebuke. I think one thing the situation requires is a number of senior people around, other ordained people, to help the leader keep perspective.

In Genpo Roshi’s case, there were warnings, there were other ordained people. Lots. The authority of the Roshi was explicitly used to silence all dissent and avoid all feedback. On at least one occasion, the recording of a Zen talk was edited to remove a feedback exchange between the then Roshi and student from what was sent out over the Web.
In the case of Shimano Eido Roshi, there were even Roshis who knew for a long time about the problems but kept silent. So too with Ozel Tenzin and Kalu Rinpoche among the Tibetans.

I do not think there is any foolproof method for having the very real power of the guru/lama/zenmaster relationship without also having the dangers. In the end, it all comes down to the integrity of the teacher.

February 13, 2011 at 10:58 am
(24) Machig says:

“I do not think there is any foolproof method for having the very real power of the guru/lama/zenmaster relationship without also having the dangers. In the end, it all comes down to the integrity of the teacher.”

— I agree completely with this statement. And it brings to mind a point brought up in Dharma talk I recently heard, by a man who has extensive experience teaching both Americans and Tibetans. What he mentioned was that, generally speaking, American students all have “trust issues” — our psychology tends to be colored by suspicion, as a kind of default setting: we don’t trust our parents, we don’t trust our politicians, we don’t trust our culture, etc. Tibetan students, on the other hand, tend as a group to be very trusting. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not parents, politicians, etc. are or are not “worthy” of trust — in the context of a teacher/lama/guru-student relationship, a certain level of trust is obviously necessary, for the relationship to function in a deep and powerful way.
—- Whether or not such a relationship manifests is, in one version of the story, ultimately a matter of one’s karma. And in the meantime: as students it would seem advisable to keep our intelligence online, without falling into a debilitating paranoia; and as teachers to strive to create and maintain ever deeper levels of integrity.

February 13, 2011 at 12:38 am
(25) Jessica says:

Machig: So then is going to a sake house after enlightenment any more skillful than going to a sake house before enlightenment? And does this mean that enlightenment (whatever that is) has no effect whatsoever on our worldly behavior and/or situations? That would seem a bit odd.

Jessica: The effect of enlightenment on our worldly behavior is erratic and unpredictable.

I think of there being two distinct awakenings. Enlightenment goes beyond the limits of the self-only to the absolute. There is another awakening that actually changes the self from the way a self acts when it experiences itself as alone to the way the self acts when it is fully aware of being a manifestation of the absolute.
Either one of these awakenings provides some advantages for pursuing the other. But neither automatically generates the other. And each is so powerful, so impressive, that it is very easy to belief that there could not be any other equally meaningful awakening.
Socially speaking, in pre-modern societies, rigid, arbitrary hierarchies were basic to the structure and functioning of society. Therefore, teachings that combined both enlightenment and the full transformation of the self could not be accepted or sustained. There are hints in a few of the old masters that some of them may have actually achieved this. But it was not passed on in their teachings.
In the modern world, such a both-enlightenment is now possible and necessary. This task requires assimilation of the wisdom of the classic teachings, but is unlikely to be completed within their bounds.

February 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm
(26) Barbara O'Brien says:

Socially speaking, in pre-modern societies, rigid, arbitrary hierarchies were basic to the structure and functioning of society. Therefore, teachings that combined both enlightenment and the full transformation of the self could not be accepted or sustained.

Sorry, but that makes no sense at all.

February 14, 2011 at 10:38 am
(27) Yeshe says:

No teacher is bigger than the teaching. Bigshot personalities tend to have smaller teachings in my opinion.

February 14, 2011 at 11:32 am
(28) Lee says:

Very interesting this subject draws so much interest. In the 60′s I attended a talk by Krishna Muerte at UCSC in Santa Cruz Ca. He spoke on non attachment. Quite a wonderful talk. My wife worked there so we cut out through the back when it was all over and we saw him leaving in a group of people. They opened the door to his car and he got in; it was a silver cloud Rolls Royce. For a moment I was concerned about the speech I heard and the action I saw… Later I realized, it was only a problem if he walked out and they slid open the door of an antiquated VW bus and he didn’t like it that it would be a problem. Who are we to judge another because they have things. And as we all attack the men who ‘transgress’ sexually i would share. As a young man I chased many young ladies with various results…but I will say not many actually chased me…but later I gained power and money and as the power and money increased the women suddenly were much different in how they ‘worked’ with me. I would; from my experience; say women are attracted to power and money so it’s not just the mans challenge. And if no one is ‘hurt’ by such things …. if no one is taking advantage or selfishly engaging in such things who are we to judge the people involved… Now keeping the precepts and justifying sexual behavior to play like no one is getting hurt may be easy to do… or it may be a great training ground for those serious about training.

February 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm
(29) Mila says:

“Who are we to judge another because they have things.”

Hi Lee,

I enjoyed your story about Krishnamurti & the Rolls Royce … and agree that it’s not the “things” that is the problem, but rather our attachment/repulsion in relation to them. That is … up to a point. As I mentioned in my comment above, I’m all for people gathering the causes and conditions not only to meet their basic needs, but also to truly enjoy life fully, manifest beauty and express their creativity.

However for a Buddhist practitioner — particularly someone in the position of being a high-profile teacher — one would hope that compassion and a sensitivity to a context larger than their own personal enjoyment would also be part of the picture. So for instance after Genpo bought his first house, to have then considered all the people on the planet today who are living with no permanent shelter whatsoever — and seeing this, choosing to apply the money he spent on house#2 and house#3 instead toward somehow alleviating this suffering …. would, from my perspective, have been a choice more in alignment with the spirit of the Dharma. Of course I don’t know the details of the situation, nor what was going in his mind — this is just my perspective, from where I stand.

February 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm
(30) Mila says:

“if no one is taking advantage or selfishly engaging in such things who are we to judge the people involved”

I agree that at a certain level this all is simply about choices made by consenting adults. And to the extent that this is the case, it really is a matter to be just worked out between the three of them: Dennis Genpo Merzel, his wife and his lover.

And of course in any community there will be personal relationships, of varying levels of intimacy, that develop. And for teachers who spend most of their time teaching, that will likely be the context in which they meet most of their friends and intimate partners — so if we’re going to allow our teachers also to be human, then this all is just part of the situation, and needn’t be a problem.

But when a teacher has chosen a particular student to train as their successor — to play a very visible role within their organization — and then chooses also to be intimately involved with this person, it’s obviously a very different situation. Not that this couldn’t also “work” — but to attempt to maintain secrecy about the affair certainly doesn’t seem like the most skillful way of negotiating such a situation.

February 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm
(31) Lee says:

Gashho Mila:
of course there is always much to be considered … and if an affair must be secret then i would assume the precepts are already all broken. there is great responsibility involved when a person becomes a ‘teacher’ … ‘if they ask for your heart; your money or your mind you should run from them’… a teacher once shared.

February 16, 2011 at 11:57 am
(32) Mila says:

This description of the guru/disciple relationship — offered by an Advaita teacher — is one that I appreciate: —

“The relationship between the master and his disciple is one of special intimacy. It is neither personal nor impersonal (in the conventional sense), but it has an incomparable character due to the fact that the guru, being established in the Self [read: Buddha-Nature / Dharmakaya] is in fact the real “me” of the disciple. Thus it is said according to tradition, that the true guru is the guru in oneself.”

February 15, 2011 at 5:43 am
(33) Keith says:

Because it is called western buddhism is no excuse. This guy is not the only one charging fees, nor behaving incorrectly. Its always a mistake, I think to sign up with teachers demanding fees to teach Buddhist truths. But its a common practice! Can such teachings be relied upon if they are dependant on being paid for before they are taught? No payment no teaching! Thats a corruption! There’s something that jars, doesnt quite ring true. A metaphorical broom is again needed to sweep out all the nonsense from the temples!

For those charging fees I would say: cease charging, hand over all past fees and gains to charity, rediscover humility and get out that dusty old bowl… A compassionate whack on the head is needed.

February 15, 2011 at 9:24 am
(34) Barbara O'Brien says:

Its always a mistake, I think to sign up with teachers demanding fees to teach Buddhist truths.

How do you propose dharma centers and monasteries pay for their utilities? How else will the teacher buy food, medicine, socks?

February 15, 2011 at 8:31 am
(35) David says:

I have really enjoyed this discussion, both for its content and as a model of respectfulness. Gassho to all.

Response to Keith–indeed, it would be great not to charge for Buddhist teaching, but the trouble is that, in this capitalist society, charging for goods and services is our only means of staying alive unless we make our living another way and teach during whatever time is left. The ancient Jewish sages, for example, laid down the dictum that Torah should be taught for free and life sustained through a ‘worldly’ occupation, and early Christianity speaks of a ‘tent making’ ministry in which, again, religious teaching is separated from making a living. But both religions found they had to establish a ‘professional’ clergy/teacher/leader class because there is so much to learn and teach, so much involved in community building, that there is little time for anything else. I think the issue for Buddhist teaching is how much is charged and whether those who can not afford the fee may pay whatever they can. If huge fees are involved and combined with huge promises of ‘personal growth’, something is fishy. Even the name ‘Big Mind’ raises my hackles. What does Buddhism have to do with a ‘big’ or a ‘little’ mind? Making comparisons is very un-Buddhist. The implication of Big Mind is–hey, now that I took this course, mine’s bigger than yours.

February 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm
(36) Kyorei says:

“In the modern world, such a both-enlightenment is now possible and necessary. This task requires assimilation of the wisdom of the classic teachings…”

And $50,000 to toss around, apparently…

It’s one thing to charge money for a retreat to cover the many costs for housing, food, etc. To me this is far worse than Genpo’s other personal matters between his wife and lover.

Could you imagine the Buddha charging several thousands of dollars for Enlightenment(tm)?

February 17, 2011 at 3:25 am
(37) Senin says:

A lot of these posts are BS.

I do not condone what Genpo did for a moment. He should be relieved of his robes.

As for Big Mind, this complaint about the fees are pure BS. I actually learned Big Mind from an article in Yoga Journal– 2 bucks. I read the article and explored it on my own. 2 Bucks!!! I didn’t think it would work, but it did– and it was fantastic. I explored the internet and Youtube. There is free Big Mind stuff all over the place. I bought his book and cd. That was about 15 bucks.

So criticize Genpo if you want to– and he deserves it. But if you criticize Big Mind, in my opinion, you are out to lunch. It is a great process and,
for you cheapies, you can get it on the cheap.

February 17, 2011 at 8:20 am
(38) Barbara O'Brien says:

There is free Big Mind stuff all over the place. I bought his book and cd. That was about 15 bucks. … But if you criticize Big Mind, in my opinion, you are out to lunch. It is a great process and, for you cheapies, you can get it on the cheap.

What, exactly, did you “get” for your 15 bucks?

February 17, 2011 at 9:54 pm
(39) Senin says:

A great process. A taste of enlightenment. The deepest meditative state I’ve ever been in. The feeling of Big Mind/Big Heart/Big All. A profound sense of Oneness. The ability to observe states and non-states from various perspectives.

Yeah, Barbara, I think I “got” a good bargain for my 15 bucks.

February 21, 2011 at 5:04 am
(40) Senin says:

“Zen is a tradition, a methodology, a discipline. a training process.”

Oh, your Zen is a workout routine. (No wonder you dont like Big Mind– it’s not your training routine).

My Zen is the way to the moon.

By the way, I think you reversed my syntax. Perhaps this is why you mistook my meaning. It is not, “alegbra is everything” or “piano playing is everything”. It is “everything is alegbra” or everything is piano playing.”

Talk to the mathematician, to his essence “everything is algebra.” To the essence of a musician, “everything is music.”

February 21, 2011 at 8:49 am
(41) Barbara O'Brien says:

My Zen is the way to the moon.

OK, that’s another way of saying what I’m saying. It’s a WAY. It’s a MEANS. It’s a TRADITION. It is a particular discipline that has developed over 15 centuries, based on other disciplines that go back even more centuries. And, yes, there are multiple schools of Zen that don’t do everything exactly the same way. But within those traditions, the methodology, or practice if you will, is clearly defined and exacting. It’s not some amorphous, fuzzy thing that can be anything you want it to be.

Further, when I say that a particular thing is not Zen, that isn’t necessarily an insult. I don’t think Zen is the only means to realize dharma. The Tibetan schools of Buddhism are not Zen, either, but they have been very skillful dharma gates for countless people. Same thing for the other schools of Buddhism. To say that something isn’t Zen is like saying a microwave isn’t a refrigerator; it doesn’t necessarily follow that one thing is better than another. It’s saying there are two things with different attributes.

What Genpo is doing is way outside the boundaries of the tradition. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad. It just makes it not-Zen.

In particular, the Japanese Soto Zen tradition is based largely on the teachings and the approach to meditation of a 13th-century Japanese master named Dogen, and Genpo’s methodology is strikingly at odds with Dogen. This doesn’t necessarily mean Dogen must be right and Genpo must be wrong, but it is saying Genpo has left the Soto Zen tradition.

To try another analogy, let’s say Genpo is a baseball player. And he comes up with a new way to play baseball that changes all the rules and uses whiffle balls in place of base balls, and you score by batting the whiffle ball into a net guarded by a goalie. It might be a perfectly fine game, but it isn’t baseball any more.

To the essence of a musician, “everything is music.”

OK, and to continue that analogy, to someone who is immersed in Zen practice, everything is Zen. But to someone immersed in another practice, everything is whatever that other practice is. To a mathematician, everything is not music. To a musician, everything is not algebra. Zen is not an absolute that is intrinsic in all existence, but rather is a methodology, or means, of realization.

Finally, to use a phrase like “your Zen” and “my Zen” tells me you don’t get Zen at all. There is no self to possess anything. As Dogen said, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” As long as you are relating to the practice as something that belongs to YOU, that YOU are doing or using for your own ends, it is way not Zen.

February 21, 2011 at 4:51 pm
(42) Senin says:

Barbara, you sound like an expert.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

I used the terms “your zen” and ‘my zen” to make a point. Perhaps it was lost.

“And yes, thats really what Zen practice is about. Otherwise its just mystical masturbation.”

I cannot really agree with that statement.

As you know, zen has evolved over the years. It has split, changed. I am sure there were points in history, when one zen master would say about the other “that is not really zen.”

I think people most often get in trouble when they think in terms of labels. “This ….. ” “That….” “My…..” “Yours….” Then at a certain point, the label becomes more important than the object.

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you will never know.”
I think the same can be said of Zen.

February 21, 2011 at 5:14 pm
(43) Barbara O'Brien says:

Barbara, you sound like an expert.

Shunryu Suzuki was talking about being open to realization. This is what Zen does; it opens you to realization. That’s why we practice. This is what I’m trying to explain to you. You are the one who is the expert, who’s got it all figured out, because you are desperate to defend something.

I used the terms “your zen” and ‘my zen” to make a point. Perhaps it was lost.

I know what your point was. My point is that you don’t “have” Zen. I don’t “have” Zen.

I think people most often get in trouble when they think in terms of labels. “This ….. ” “That….” “My…..” “Yours….” Then at a certain point, the label becomes more important than the object.

Exactly. Zen is not an object that can be possessed and labeled “my” or “your,” as you are doing. However, it is a particular tradition, and people like you who refuse to respect that are kicking dirt on it.

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you will never know.”
I think the same can be said of Zen.

You learn what it is through personal experience and practice in the tradition. You haven’t had that expererience. I can tell you’ve picked up some ideas about it, but if you’ve never sat a sesshin to talked face to face with a lineage holder in dokusan, you don’t know what it is. Instead, you’ve got a head full of half-assed mush, you think you know all about it, so you’re not going to listen to me. Have fun being an expert.

This is futile. I’m done trying to open doors for you and show you what you refuse to see. Good bye.

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