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 Mindô process. I never quite "got" what Big Mindô† 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 Mindô 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 Mindô 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 Mindô 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 Mindô process. Whether Daido ever expressed an opinion on Big Mindô, 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.
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.