Thursday, December 22, 2011

Genpo Merzel and Moralistic Gnashing

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post in response to the myriad of ways in which others were writing about Big Mind Zen teacher Genpo Merzel. One of the issues I wanted to address was the moralistic blasting Genpo was receiving from Buddhists, particularly those who deemed him in various ways "irredeemable," as if he were a Catholic priest being punished under Catholic doctrine. Buddhist ethics has nothing to do with fixed, finalized narratives about good and evil. And Buddha never taught about such a thing as "irredeemable" persons; in fact, he brought people into the fold that had been firmly rejected under the moral codes of the day, precisely because he saw through the story of such codes.

So, when I received the following comment on the old Genpo post from a reader named Jamie, I had to smile:

I've been on the path since 1978, I'm not a "priest" of any sort, but would like to offer one observation. As Hsin Hsin Ming said in his discourses in The Book of Nothing - Discrimination is the gate to hell. As far as I can tell, there is one discrimination worth making, am I acting consciously or not? If yes, there is no blame, and indeed no karma. If my actions cause others suffering, then it will be their teaching. If no, then I am in hell, because nothing good can come of it. Genpo seems to have acted in a way he regrets. I would ask him, is it because you were acting unconsciously? Or because others have judged you immoral? There is nothing moral or immoral in concsiousness, or conscious actions. The addition of morality in the evaluation of someone's actions comes from interpretations of Buddha's teachings, I can't find it anywhere in his teachings. I do find a lot of teaching on how morality is a set of fixed ideas which have nothing to do with consciousness, in this moment. It has to do with ideas carried constantly over from the past. In short, to act consciously is to act rightly. To act unconsciously is to act in darkness. If Genpo is apologising and feels guilty, then I think he should disrobe as a teacher, not because sleeping with students is immoral, but because he doesn't understand how to be awake and act consciously, so how can he teach others? If one looks cursorily at one of the greatest teachers in the last century, Trungpa, and his actions with his students, one cannot go on and on about morality. He made a huge joke of it, as indeed many other great teachers have done. But no one ever deals with that, it simply is pushed under the rug, while the "priests" talk about morality. So, Genpo, my suggestion is to wake up and act consciously, and if you are consciously sleeping with students then it is right action, but then there will be no question of considering others' opinions, or even suffering. You have a family, perhaps you should ask yourself, am I conscious with these people, awake, completely in the moment? Or behaving according to society's expectactions of what a "family man" is? When Buddha left his wife and child to meditate before his enlightenment, was he behaving as a good family man?

There's obviously a lot to unpack here, much more than I plan to do.

First off, I believe that the Buddha offered the precepts - our ethical teachings - as a method of liberation from the heavy, often life sucking moral codes that exist in every society. Of particular importance is the way in which they are imbedded in overall Buddhist teachings, and the ways in which any given student might work with them. Not misusing sexuality - the third precept - isn't a fixed imperative that must be followed; it's like reed through which we can blow our actions through, until eventually, even the reed itself disappears and there's simply continuous, awakened activity.

Using Jamie's language above, when people are acting in deeply unconscious ways, they don't even think about the precepts. They can't hear the music of the dharma. Others, who are hovering on the edge of conscious living, lift up one of those reeds and attempt to blow their actions through it. They hear the dharma off to the distance and attempt to seduce it into coming home by deliberately employing precepts. And then there are those who are demonstrating awakened action. They have recognized that the music of the dharma is everywhere, and they simply tune into it and act.

This is a much different view of things than what many of us are used to. And it makes assessments of situations like Zen teacher scandals more challenging. I can stand behind calls for someone like Genpo to stop teaching, but at the same time, I can't stand behind totalized rejections of the man himself.

Secondly, there's a danger to treating things simply as a cosmic joke, which Trungpa did seem to do a fair amount. Even if there's truth to such a stance, it can easily become an excuse for saying or doing any old thing under the sun, including things that trigger a hell of a lot of suffering.

There's plenty more I could say here, but I will stop for now. Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Why include the comment about a Catholic priest being punished under Catholic doctrine? How about understanding and respecting other religious traditions.

Nathan said...

I'll let the body of my writing as a whole stand for how I respect, or don't respect, other religious traditions.

Robyn said...

From the fall 2011 issue of Buddhadharma, an article by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei:

"When healthy desires arise, they are based on right understanding of the dharma. These are desires that lead to practice, to the cultivation of compassion, to nonattachment, to generosity. They lead to selflessness and wisdom, to living in service to others. The impetus for unhealthy desires is in accord with samsara, it is in accord with an understanding that leads to not practicing, to insensitivity to others, to not caring, to selfishness, and to attachment. But why would those who have seen into the nature of samsara, of attachments, of the self, give validity and truth to their own desires? Being dry grass, why would they throw themselves into a burning fire? Because desire still remains. Karmic energies persist. There is still something outside which is wanted. There is still something inside which is seen as insufficient, even if it has been realized as empty. The fire is still burning."

Something is still seen as insufficient even if it has been realized to be empty. I think that is the key thing.

For Merzel, it isn't just the sex, it is money too. I mostly agree with Brad Warner that his bigger issue, by far, is the way he sells enlightenment like so much snake oil. Which means he (of course) isn't selling enlightenment at all because that is impossible, but some idea of it - his idea of it perhaps.

After having a good look at his website and then reading his blog posts that are filled with how he feels so humble was hard to believe. Yet he still has many supporters and students who trust him.

I think the person who posted that most recent comment, if I understood them correctly, is saying that there isn't anything that can be morally wrong if it is done in a conscious way..? If I am acting consciously and others suffer for it, then it is their teaching. For one thing, who is this "other" person anyway? And what about wisdom AND compassion? We need both or we still aren't there.

It would be awfully handy to be able to separate ourselves and our actions like that, but I don't think it works quite that way.

d.sullivan said...

I agree with Robyn. You can argue that seemingly immoral acts that are done consciously are no longer immoral, but that is not what the Buddha taught. It is not just that he broke his obligations to his order, his students and his wife. It is that he HARMED people. He violated the trust of his wife. Anyone who has ever been cheated on knows how hurtful an experience it can be, and that is his responsibility.

Furthermore, the trust between a teacher and a student can be as close and delicate as those between therapists and patients, and it becomes especially important that boundaries protect the student/patient from being taken advantage of. This is essentially what Merzel did, and who knows how much harm he may have caused in doing so. Whether he was being "conscious" while he did it does not matter if people were hurt by his actions.

None of this is moralistic gnashing. Those in positions of power need to be help accountable, and they need to be held accountable not only by the standards of their tradition (their vows and precepts), but by a humanistic standard as well.

This is not to say he is an "evil" or "irredeemable" person, however. Everything is impermanent and constantly in flux. He absolutely has the ability to change if he so wishes. As long as he is running his "Big Mind" scam and calling it Dharma, however, I will be skeptical that he has grown at all. I personally do not feel he should ever teach again. What I hope for him is that he go find a good teacher and become a full time student again.

Algernon said...

Jamie wrote, "If Genpo is apologising and feels guilty, then I think he should disrobe as a teacher, not because sleeping with students is immoral, but because he doesn't understand how to be awake and act consciously."

That gets to my own response. If I have any feeling about the matter, it comes down to that: worry for the man, worry for others who might suffer because of unconscious actions. For that reason, disrobing might be appropriate, not because of anybody's opinions about his choices.

I also appreciate your warning about treating things as a cosmic joke -- since I do regard things that way to a large extent. The dark side of it is a terrible indifference to the suffering of others.

Nathan said...

D. Sullivan, I agree with everything you said. Anyone who has read my blog for awhile now knows that the issues around power abuse with Zen teachers are a frequent topic of concern here. Because my own sangha went through a much smaller scale version of all this several years ago. I'm intimately aware of the individual and collective suffering of these situations and do not take them lightly at all.

At the same time, I do believe there is a fair amount of final, total judgements when it comes to Genpo floating around out there. And it really feels similar to the damned to hell narratives I've heard coming from some Christian communities. And this post is trying to shake a bit of that up.

Nathan said...


Thanks for reposting part of Arnold's article.

"I think the person who posted that most recent comment, if I understood them correctly, is saying that there isn't anything that can be morally wrong if it is done in a conscious way..? If I am acting consciously and others suffer for it, then it is their teaching."

This is one of the areas of Jamie's comments I thought about writing about, but couldn't find the right wording yesterday. It would be nice if Jamie came back to offer a more in depth follow up to that comment because I agree with you that it sounds off.

Furthermore, I continue to be one of those who thinks Big Mind has become a money making scheme that treats enlightenment as a "thing" that people can "obtain" - in a pretty short time, too, if they got the bucks.

Algernon, I also enjoy the cosmic joke frame, so I have to be careful not to go overboard.

d.sullivan said...

I figured we were thinking along similar lines, and I want to make it clear that my comment wasn't aimed at you but at Jamie's original comment. After I posted the comment I noticed that I used the word "you" in a spot that made my comment seem like it was addressed to you, when that was not my intention at all. I've been reading your blog for a while now and I know we agree on this topic :)

I also agree that some of the criticism of Merzel has been pretty hell-fire-esque, and I do no find that tone to be healthy or helpful. I would imagine some would justify their harshness by claiming it is rooted in compassion for those who were harmed by Merzel. However, clearly not a lot of compassion is being shown towards Merzel himself. He, after all, is clearly just as stuck in the muck as the rest of us and deserves our understanding and compassion.

Nathan said...

"He, after all, is clearly just as stuck in the muck as the rest of us and deserves our understanding and compassion." I totally agree. Folks can take a clear stance on the power abuse and the misery caused by it, while still remembering he's just another person caught in the muck.

Barbara O'Brien said...

I haven't personally seen that much "moralistic gnashing" about Merzel's sex life for a few months now; currently the loudest objections are about money and "Big Mind," not the sex. Indeed, one of the reasons he has given for not resigning as teacher of Kanzeon Zen Center is that the Zen Center owes him money:

"Big Mind has grossed millions in recent years by offering exclusive training with Merzel to well-heeled followers. Several dozen people throughout the world have paid $50,000 to spend five days with Merzel and four other students. The suggested donation this year for training at Merzel’s cabin near Solitude Ski Resort and at Big Mind’s monastery on Maui, is $10,000 or $15,000 a person, depending on the session.

"Kanzeon, Merzel said, owes Big Mind about $165,000 and Merzel himself $200,000 to $300,000. Those debts would need to be repaid, he said, and the buildings purchased by any group wanting to continue the Zen center."

Want to do some "moralistic gnashing" about selling out the dharma?

Nathan said...

Barbara, you're right that lately, the focus with Genpo has been on money. The title was referring to longer range picture, where there has definitely been a lot of nasty, condemnation.

It's funny. I don't at all want to appear like an apologist for Genpo. He shouldn't be teaching, and the way money has corrupted what he's offering is beyond sickening. I've written plenty about how Big Mind and programs like are represent what capitalism can do to our spiritual lives.

I guess it just seems like Genpo has become like President Bush was for American liberals - an easy target to unload our anger and dismay on. But the way I see it, what he has done - both in terms of power abuse and selling out the dharma - is just a gross example of a more pervasive problem.