Dennis Merzel, also known as Genpo Merzel Roshi, is the inventor of the Big Mind School of Zen Buddhism. He has always been something of a lightening rod of controversy because of his claim that Big Mind, which is really a combination of voice dialogue therapy principles with Zen Buddhism, offers a kind of short cut to enlightenment. Traditionalists have of course decried Big Mind as a fraud, while others report making great strides toward enlightenment using the Big Mind teachings in conjunction with meditation. I have found his teachings interesting, and cannot really comment on them in light of Zen because I am neither an expert in Zen nor even a Zen practitioner.
In the past year it was revealed that Merzel, who is married, has had an ongoing affair of several years with one of his subordinate teachers at Big Mind. Hardly the stuff of the ego-less mind. Predictably, the scandal broke and many fled while Merzel took a couple of months to reflect and announced that he would carry on with the Big Mind teachings but let go of his position at and the property associated with the Zen sangha. We may or may not agree with the amount of time he took off to reflect on what had transpired, but the truth is that we really can’t know if it was enough time or not – only he can know that. To his credit, he wrote a public letter of apology in which he took full responsibility for his actions.
We have a tendency to want to kick people who fall from grace until they can’t get back up. It may be the understatement of the century to say that tendency isn’t very healthy for anybody. There are always those who say that people who have falls from grace shouldn’t be allowed to continue as spiritual teachers. Mind you, we aren’t talking about a pedophile, here, we are talking about a married man who had an affair with the woman who was his primary associate. It would be hard to argue from what is known that there was an imbalance of power or that this relationship was abusive in any way. The truth is that this sort of thing happens all the time between co-workers because people spend more time at work than they do with their partners at home – and that is especially true for spiritual teachers of every stripe who don’t do a good job of setting boundaries by saying “no” to some of the endless requests for their time and/or presence and using their time to nurture their relationships at home.
Regardless of how you feel about the situation, saying that Genpo Merzel shouldn’t teach anymore is tantamount to saying that he shouldn’t earn a living. I don’t know precisely how old Merzel is, but it’s fair enough to say he is in his late fifties or early sixties. As someone who is in his early fifties who has been looking for part-time employment for some time, I can personally attest it is very difficult – perhaps even more difficult when your primary field of expertise is spirituality, a field that our culture values very little. I have no problem with his continuing to teach. In fact, I am on his mailing list because his situation interests me and I find his teachings interesting.
What is sad about this situation is that the correspondence regarding the sale of the property formerly associated with Big Mind tends to carry on as if the sale of the assets is a natural occurrence. There isn’t even an oblique reference to the reason all of this has to happen. In fact, there is just the slightest undertone of what feels something like denial to the me. I’m not saying that I want him to engage in ongoing self-flagellation, and I am sure the tone of the correspondence is motivated by concern for putting the best image forward, but it seems like the brief window of honesty has closed in favor of public relations. I find that to be very sad, and not the most positive spiritual place to inhabit.
We all makes mistakes of all sizes and consequences, and it takes time for people to heal from those mistakes – both the people who make the mistakes and those who are affected by them. A few months might be long enough to realize we have screwed up royally – in fact, that often takes only a few moments – but true healing takes longer. Consequences often have to be faced sooner rather than later, but even in the case of consequences there are opportunities for spiritual and personal growth for all involved. Sweeping things under the carpet or casting them in the best possible light is most often the enemy of healing. Wounds that need healing do not go away if we ignore them, they just fester under the surface and become more infected. We are better served to do the painful work of cleaning them out as soon as possible.