The Sad Tale of Dennis Merzel

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.

8 thoughts on “The Sad Tale of Dennis Merzel

  1. I read some of one of his books and found it very pretentious and hackneyed, and immediately thought: “I bet this guy’s been caught up in a scandal…” Sure enough, I come online and see your article.

  2. Frankly from the parts of his book I read, I doubt he has attained satori. His actions also show this. If you attain satori your sense of ethics are greatly magnified: you realise that the whole universe really is spiritual, and that you and everything and everyone are a part of it – your actions MATTER. He is not enlightened.

    1. Hi Tim! I would be inclined to agree that he is not enlightened, and perhaps more importantly for his students his actions would seem to reveal that his technique doesn’t work. I have found there is a huge difference between getting an idea of what something might look or feel like and actually having the experience for oneself. I might watch high resolution videos of what the view is like from the top of a mountain overlooking the ocean, but until I have stood on that mountain and seen it for myself I won’t realize the totality of the experience – the sounds of the waves on the shore, the smell of the saltwater spray, and so on. It seems to me Big Mind is much like watching a video of the ocean. It may well provide some information or perspective into what enlightenment is like, but it’s not enlightenment. Might it be helpful to some? Sure. In the end, though, there are no shortcuts. I often think of the CDs that promise to reproduce the meditation experience of someone who has been meditating for 15 years. They cannot possible do that because there is something learned in those 15 years for which there is no shortcut. We in the west are so driven to finish, to cross the finish line, to plow through what is in front of us full speed ahead – to our detriment. I have learned the journey is where the transformation happens, not at the finish line. Thanks for your insightful comments! Craig

  3. I just came across this article and, though it is more than two years past, I thought I’d reply to what I see in the comments section. First to Tim. Tim, I respectfully invite you to explore the work of Ken Wilber, especially his discussion of Lines. In essence, what he has found is that one line of development, say the spiritual line, DOES NOT automatically imply or guarantee equal development on other lines, for example, morality or ethics. Satori does not, as you suggest, “greatly magnify your sense of ethics”. There are countless stories of spiritual masters that have sadly fallen into this trap. I have direct experience with one and I can tell you; his spiritual powers were incredible but they did not stop him from being a total creep in other areas.

    Regarding other comments above, I would also enthusiastically recommend the Work of Byron Katie. Two key teaching of hers come to mind. First, her brilliantly insightful comment that there are only three kinds of business in the world: yours, mine and God’s. My business is the only thing I need be concerned with. The second teaching concerns the first question of The Work: Is that true? I see many unquestioned assumptions made about Genpo Merzel above. These assumptions serve no one. They are only the product of the ego.

    I offer the above with respect. I am not a student of Genpo Merzel, only someone curious about his path and process. I came across the news of this “scandal” late. I will do my best to examine his teachings without letting this news sour me.

  4. Should someone deliberately find a pile of excrement or stumble upon it, wrapping it in Silk and calling it by some fancy name or saying it came from some “anus of repute” does not eliminate the stink, change its identity or make it any more palatable. Here, some teachers (small “t” deliberate) will extol the virtues of manure and saying how spreading it around fertilizes growth. There comes a time when the confused & befuddled masses caught in samsara develop the courage to call CRAP, CRAP and move on and take responsibility for their own life.

      1. Craig: It was an attempt to be as humorous as possible without saying outright that if it looks like sh*t, smells like sh*t then it probably is sh*t. I know that many sincere Dharma practitioners have spent decades engaging in study and practice with recognized Teachers. A few have had “experiences” they believe to be indicative of awakening. Then, with all of that in hand, act in ways that are harmful to themselves and others. Often, their sycophants and/or minions resort to a variety of AMAZING explanations to excuse fundamentally bad behavior. I cannot recall the text but recall that the opening line discussed the inseparability of Emptiness and Compassion. The bad boy & bad girl list in the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and even Judaic Traditions should make an intelligent person think at least twice before getting involved in anything Spiritual. I think my first comment was a funnier read…

  5. Got it – and I agree completely. Forgive me, sometimes I just miss what is right in front of my face! Perhaps it’s age sneaking up on me, a (hopefully) premature senior moment.

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