This was a surprise to stumble upon, even though I suppose it really shouldn't be much of a surprise.
Owning My Responsibility
A Personal Statement from Genpo Merzel
I have chosen to disrobe as a Buddhist Priest, and will stop giving Buddhist Precepts or Ordinations, but I will continue teaching Big Mind. I will spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect. My actions have caused a tremendous amount of pain, confusion, and controversy for my wife, family, and Sangha, and for this I am truly sorry and greatly regret. My behavior was not in alignment with the Buddhist Precepts. I feel disrobing is just a small part of an appropriate response.
I am also resigning as an elder of the White Plum Asanga. My actions should not be viewed as a reflection on the moral fabric of any of the White Plum members.
As Genpo Merzel, I will continue to bring Big Mind into the world and to train and facilitate people who wish to study with me. I will not give up on, and will still be available for people who wish to continue studying with me as just an ordinary human being who is working on his own shadows and deeply rooted patterns.
With great humility I will continue to work on my own shadows and deeply rooted patterns that have led me to miss the mark of being a moral and ethical person and a decent human being. I appreciate all the love and support as well as the criticism that has been shared with me. Experiencing all the pain and suffering that I have caused has truly touched my heart and been the greatest teacher. It has helped open my eyes and given me greater clarity around my own dishonest, hurtful behavior as well as my sexual misconduct. I recently entered therapy and plan to continue indefinitely with it. I am in deep pain over the suffering I have caused my wife, children, students, successors and Sangha.
With Sadness and Love,
D. Genpo Merzel
The response to this announcement from the Whte Plum Asanga is as follows.
The White Plum Asanga Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Genpo Merzel from White Plum Asanga membership as well as an Elder of the White Plum. This resignation is a result of his recent disclosures regarding sexual misconduct with several of his students. Please see the Big Mind website for their statement. On behalf of the White Plum organization, I extend our support for Genpo's efforts in recovery and treatment and to the teachers and members of the Kanzeon Sangha in their efforts in healing and realigning their communities. --- Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick, President, WPA
Anyone who happens to follow the ongoings in the Buddhist 'blogosphere' will be well acquainted with the broad criticism Mr. Merzel has been subject to over the past years. I don't intend to rehash those criticisms here, but would rather like to briefly consider Mr. Merzel's announcement and how it reflects patterns of behavior in the larger Buddhist community, of which this is simply one example amongst many.
Genpo is no stranger to this blog or many others. His money making Big Mind process has been torn apart by so many in the blogosphere that there is too many to count. Now he joins the ranks of Zen teachers who have fallen prey to power, and lust, and in the process, have harmed many people in his trust.
Some outsiders are already thinking that this whole teacher/student relationship thing in Zen is a disaster, and should be abandoned. Some insiders, or former insiders, feel the same, including the guy who offered the post.
Mr. Merzel has, with his announcement, chosen to adopt the approach of admitting his misgivings, professing a willingness to humbly accept the consequences of his actions by disrobing as a Buddhist priest, giving up his 'Elder' status, entering into therapy, and to "spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect." Yet, at the same time, Mr. Merzel has expressed the intention to continue teaching Big Mind, and "will not give up on, and will still be available for people who wish to continue studying with me". This strategy, although not without risk, seems to be quite successful in some Buddhist communities. Rather than indefinitely adhering to the position of strict denial, or, perhaps more commonly, after an initial period of strict denial and subsequently being forced to give up that position, the teacher attempts to appeal to others' appreciation for human fallibility; something most can sympathize with to some degree. However, when this occurs in the case of someone in the role of a teacher, it is not at all uncommon for that person to subsequently be praised for his/her admissions and, paradoxically though it may seem, the entire situation may be turned around such that in the end, the teacher actually enjoys a better standing amongst his peers and followers than beforehand! It is precisely due to the delicate psychical intricacies at play in potentially harmful situations such as these that I would offer a strong word of caution to anyone considering engaging another person as a 'teacher' in a religious context, whether it be (Zen) Buddhist or otherwise.
I think this view is too extreme. In fact, it's driven by a fear that humans are incapable of healthy, deep intimacy, and so we best remain on guard. You could take this and extend it out to psychologists, spouses and lovers, deep friendships, and in the end, you'd be left unscathed perhaps, but also untouched by the best parts of life.
But it does bring up some good questions for me. First off, how do you handle the incoming news about power and sex abuse in sanghas, and other spiritual communities? More specifically, how do you maintain openness and trust, while also being intelligent about and responsible for whatever relationships fall under the "deeply intimate" category? (Note: intimate here isn't about sex, if that isn't already clear.)
Another interesting issue brought up in the comment above is the reputation of a fallen teacher after the admission of abuse occurs, especially if it's done in a reasonably above board manner. It's worth pondering. The examples I can think of off hand, including what happened in my own sangha, are examples of repeated denial and never really taking full responsibility. In all those cases, views of the teacher in question were or are mixed afterward, as some folks who stayed loyal stick by the teacher in question, while others make efforts to keep the record set straight about the messes that were made. And then there are all those who never heard about the past, and so aren't working from the fault line so to speak.
It is a fault line, when you think about it. Genpo's narrative in the world will now, for many people, hover around the admission point. And when you think about how humans tend to handle big screw ups in general, this is a major fixation for us. Someone is sent to jail for robbing a bank when they are 20 years old, and for the rest of their life, that robbery plays a major role in how others see him or her, even if the patterns of behaviors that led to that event have mostly or completely disappeared. You would think a practice like Zen would loose up this kind of thinking, but probably not to the extent that it should, given the teachings we study and sit with for years on end.
Given the commonplace quality of teacher scandals in "Western" Zen communities over the past 50 years, perhaps the following larger issues need to be examined, along with things like community ethics policies:
1. the ways people are trained to think about major ethical breeches and criminal activities, and how our teachings either support that, or ride against it
2. the hardened narratives around those who have committed such acts in the past (i.e. things like "Once an abuser, always an abuser.)
3. how to protect groups and individuals from predatory behaviors, while also maintaining an attitude of "don't know" openness about the future of the person whose behaviors caused major harm
4. the role of teacher/student relationships in a more horizontal, democratic social context
Some of these things do come up in discussions of teacher scandals, but they tend to play a back role to commentaries about ethical violations, development of ethics policies, methods to heal communities harmed by scandals, and ways to train and "police" teachers on a larger scale (regional, national, etc.)
May all those harmed by Genpo's behavior be healed and be able to move on. And may Genpo wake up in the face of his big mistakes, and step more fully into his life as it is.