Monday, April 25, 2011

Kanzeon Zen Center Board's Response to Letter from North American Zen Teachers

Even though I have other things I would rather talk about, I feel compelled to share the current response from the Kanzeon Zen Center board in regards to the Genpo Merzel debacle. It's quite a detailed letter, which offers some clarifications that those following the story need to have.

But honestly, after reading it, I just feel sad for those folks. The broken sangha. The loss of revenue. The threats of closure. Criticisms. Suspicions. Confusions. All are very familiar to me, as a member of a sangha that went through a smaller, but similar process several years ago. We almost didn't make it, and given that Kanzeon's financial picture is probably more dire than our sangha's was, they are facing a long, tough road.

Even though I find some of the letter defensive, and frankly kind of confused, I understand the intense loyalty those who remain on the board and in the community have for their teacher. For all of his screw ups, Genpo still offered something to these students that touched them deeply. I can imagine he supported some of them when few others would, during the most difficult of times. It's hard to just turn your back on that, even when such a terrible breach has occurred.

Clearly, from the details of the letter, there's also an understanding that Genpo's Big Mind work might be the only thing that can keep the center afloat financially. Which perhaps another reason why they're so keen on keeping Genpo around right now, when it really makes more sense for him to be taking care of himself and cleaning up his life without tending to a sangha as well. The expansiveness of Big Mind has always reminded me of that Peter Gabriel song "Big Time," which really is a big poke at the love fest American culture has for all things big.

One particular section of the letter demonstrates this most clearly:

As is well known, Roshi has been widely criticized within the Zen community for receiving large donations from people who have attended small Big Mind workshops with him. These people, almost all of them needless to say wealthy, successful in their professions or businesses, have chosen to give amounts which they could just as easily spend on other things, so that they could study with Genpo Roshi. To the best of our knowledge, not a single one has ever felt they wasted their time or money. On the contrary, they are extremely grateful, they gladly allow their expressions of thanks to be quoted, many of them have returned again for additional workshops.

On the other hand, those who criticize these events, and Roshi for giving them, have never attended them. And those who condemn them include not only representatives of the far-flung Zen world, but people in the Kanzeon community itself, the very people who are benefiting from them without realizing or acknowledging it. It is these donations that have enabled Roshi to support Kanzeon’s Salt Lake City properties, full-time staff and office infrastructure, to continue supporting residents, extending scholarships, promoting social action programs, allowing free and partial tuition to many who could not attend at full price, and, by the way, provide Maezumi Roshi’s widow Ekyo Maezumi a place to live and a salary to help sustain her. In fact, contrary to a widely disseminated but inaccurate impression, it is Big Mind that is supporting Kanzeon rather than the other way around, since the local Sangha provides only a minimal portion of the funds needed to support us.

The whole thing sounds a little bit like some of the stories from corporate America during the last decade. Grossly over-extended companies bringing in tons of money from a select portion of their offerings suddenly collapse when the leader or leaders of those offerings are found to be corrupt.

In fact, even the spirited defense of the organization's work, and especially of Big Mind, sounds similar to, for example, the defenses the late Ken Lay gave of Enron. The company, which he repeated said was a good, "honest company," ultimately fell apart in Lay's view because of "public hysteria." During the Enron trials, corporate philanthropy efforts were also used as a character defense for Lay, as were appeals to his Christian faith.

I bring this up because Big Mind has always felt a little too capitalistic for my taste, and the mess left in the wake of Genpo's downfall has the look, in some ways, of a corporate crash. Which I think should give everyone in the larger Zen community pause around the ways in which sanghas are being financed, and how that might impact the nature of the group's development.

It's sad to see how much turmoil is occurring in the Kanzeon sangha, and given the public nature of the scandal, I think they are in a miserable position in terms of damage control. Nothing in the letter changes my mind about the need for Genpo to step away from teaching, and for the need to take what happened with him and others as a sign that something collectively has to be done around teachers and ethics.

However, given the very tenuous position of the Kanzeon sangha, I think all of us outsiders would do well to start offering them some metta. And wish for them that the wisdom required to move forward in a healthy way for all - the remaining sangha, Genpo, and anyone wronged - will come forth and guide them.


Anonymous said...

It would be alot healthier to have financial transpareny for all religious organizations, including zen centers.

Brikoleur said...

Yes. You shouldn't really need all that much to support a sangha. If it needs a cash flow like Big Mind to stay afloat, it's already off the rails in some ways.

Mumon K said...

I'm going to write a follow up post to the one I wrote a few days ago, but the long and the short of it is this: the gist of their letter seems to be that they're joined to the hip with Genpo Merzel because of money.

That's two attachments. Or, what Petteri said.

Nathan said...

Yes, I agree with all of you about the money issues, and especially how the connection with Genpo and money is both obvious, and troubling.

kevin said...

My only legitimate complaint against Big Mind is that it's not Zen as far as I can tell. I have neither the interest nor the means to investigate it all that closely for myself, but I don't think it should be closely associated with Kanzeon.

If it is proprietary, costs money, and is unavailable from any Zen teacher anywhere else, it should not be promoted in conjunction with a Zen center.

If it is promoted by a single teacher or group under ones leadership as a gateway to or sample of what Zen can provide, I can only label it skillful means. But it's not for me anymore than the questionable and supposed mental powers of Tibetan lamas.

If he wants to continue the program and donates proceeds to the center so that it can continue, so be it. It's his spiritual family, just because the black sheep turned out to be the patriarch doesn't mean it should suffer.

With this letter it just seems as if Kanzeon needs to back off on the financial commitment of their activities or risk losing everything.

Not that I'm comparing Big Mind to drugs (seriously, I'm not being facetious) but if your family is used to a certain lifestyle and you lose your job, you make cutbacks in that life style. You don't go out and engage in unsavory activity for money even if it is for the sincere benefit of others.

Nathan said...

Lots of lessons around attachment and letting go to be had here. Hopefully, they'll be able to keep their sangha going in some form, but it will probably look pretty different in the end.

Brikoleur said...

From beginning wouldn't be a bad place to start. A room, some people with a will to practice, some mats, some zafus. And experience gained from painful events.

The secretarial staff will find gainful employment, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

To this day (30 Apr 2011), under key word "dharma transmission," Mr. Merzel, in grand regalia, is shown as giving mind-to-mind transmission etc. under "transmission" on

Who will clean that one up?


Nathan said...

wonder how he got there in the first place. it's curious what can show up on wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

Like all charismatic frauds, Merzel would have the world believe that his return to leadership is necessary in order to provide the financial support for the Kanzeon Zen Center to function. His claim that they owe him some preposterous amount of money is absolutely laughable. I trust Stephanie and her lawyer will be able to slow down his financial appetite, if not totally expose him for the pious charlatan he is.