Something about Genpo's story keeps people hooked. There have been plenty of other Zen teacher scandals in recent years. Several have broke open since Genpo. I've written about more than one of them here, and while those posts gained a lot of attention as well, none have had the lasting power of the Genpo post.
Sure, there's kind of a flies attracted to garbage thing around these scandals in general. Gawking at the downfall of folks with some elevated level of wisdom is a popular pastime these days. Maybe it always has been. And certainly these stories always give the opportunity for dissecting delusion, and offering warnings and insights into how to practice - especially with teacher figures.
But for some reason, the Genpo post in particular lingers on. If you type in "Genpo Roshi controversy" into Google, the post comes up #6 on the list, so that's probably part of it. I tend to think that the big money making of "Big Mind" also plays a role in continued interest. Power scandals that involve lots of money are always major attention grabbers. Along those lines, the most recent commenter said this:
It interesting to me that as soon as someone, particularly someone who is teaching something in the spiritual sphere, makes money from what they do then it's a scam.
Good on Dennis Merzel for having the courage to share his work and charge what it's worth, the world is a better place because of it.
This linkage between making money and what's being offered being considered a scam is worth investigating. Living in a capitalist society creates a lot of challenge for spiritual lay teachers, writers, and others on similar paths. The safety net of support from a community, or even societal norms that monastics traditionally have experienced, just isn't really there for most lay folks. Even monastic sanghas in countries like the U.S. are finding it difficult at times to support the needs of its individual members, and also offer teachings and/or practice opportunities to the broader community without cost (or at low cost.)
In capitalist societies, those teachers, spiritual writers, and similar others who are able to give freely most of time are often in economically privileged places. They aren't dependent upon students or interested folks giving them money for the time and energy they give teaching. And the expectation that this be the case - that they not be dependent for material needs on their students and interested others - is a really curious warping if you think about it. Instead of figuring out ways to develop communities of giving and receiving that encourage a general flow of material support to those teaching, writing about the dharma, etc., we've mostly imposed a capitalist framework that turns offerings of the dharma into products for purchase. So, either teacher X accepts the commodified exchange, or they have to get their material needs met elsewhere. Usually in the form of a job or career of some sort.
So, in one way, what someone like Genpo does is really just an exaggerated form of compliance to the capitalist framework imposed upon the dharma. Charging piles of money for the teachings he is "giving" ensures that he'll be able to keep functioning for a long, long time as a teacher within the framework. Most others charge much less and either barely get by, work somewhere else for pay, or are privileged. But in all cases, what's reinforced is the notion that an individual "I" is fully responsible for covering his/hers material needs at all times. A notion that really runs counter both to the teachings of interdependence, as well as the ways in which sangha and "enlightened" societies are supposed to run.
The greed that I see in folks like Genpo streams forth from this collective place. When you are indoctrinated from a very young age to believe that "a good citizen" is someone who always produces, always has enough money, always takes care of their needs on their own or within their own immediate family, it's terribly likely that you'll feel compelled to take more than you need when you can. That you'll horde and justify hording. That you'll exploit others in small ways or great ways. Because in the back of your mind, you don't want to be viewed as "a failure." You don't want to be at the mercy of something like a faceless government bureaucracy, unforgiving family members, or random strangers on the street. It doesn't matter how much you pile up, there's that nagging feeling of lack hanging around which never seems to let up. Not only fears about lack of material goods and/or money, but a lack of self worth as well.
None of this justifies charging $50,000 for a Zen retreat, for example. Nor any of Genpo's power abuse, sexual greed and exploitation of his students either. However, I think that one of the reasons why stories like Genpo's remain "hot" long after they have cooled in a certain sense is that they provoke all the unexamined and unsettled narratives each of us have around need and lack, especially those of us born and raised in capitalist dominant economies like the United States. Where self worth and value is intimately tied up in money making, continuous production and consumption, and "personal" responsibility. And where power is mostly linked with control over the general consensus means of gaining that self-worth (i.e. the jobs, money, and material goods.
Greed is certainly a universal, human predicament. But it's that much harder to face and overcome when you live in a society that essentially is built upon rewarding and upholding acts of greed. And has as a central narrative the rejection of all those "in need," whether temporary or ongoing. We won't get anywhere with issues like power hungry, greed ridden spiritual teachers as long as the communities we built around them fail to address the broader issues of need and lack head on. As a regular, ongoing focus of practice.
*If you're interested in going more in depth on these issues, I highly recommend Scott Edelstein's excellent book.