Dennis Genpo Merzel, Roshi
Dennis Paul Merzel, also known as Genpo Roshi, is a Zen teacher and Priest in both the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen Buddhism, Abbot of Kanzeon Inc. since 1988, and creator of the Big Mind Process in 1999.
From his initial awakening in 1971 his purpose and his passion have remained the same: to assist others to realize their true nature and to continuously deepen his own practice as well as assisting others in carefully reflecting on this life and clarifying the Way.
A champion swimmer and All-American water polo player in his youth, Merzel received a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California in 1968. He left his careers as a school teacher and lifeguard after his awakening and lived alone for a year in a cabin in the mountains near San Luis Obispo.
In 1972 he met his Zen Master, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and subsequently moved to Los Angeles to study closely with him. He lived there for the next twelve years, ordaining as a Zen Buddhist monk in October of 1973. In September 1980, a year after completing koan study, he became Maezumi Roshi’s second Dharma successor. In April of 1981, he completed the Zuisse Ceremony at Eiheiji and Sojiji Temples in Japan, signifying the recognition of the authenticity of his Dharma transmission by the governing body of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan, becoming the third Zen Priest outside Japan to be offered the title of Dai Osho (Great Priest) in the Soto Zen Tradition. From 1980 until leaving the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1984 he was Director under the guidance of Maezumi Roshi.
Genpo Roshi was the first Soto Zen Teacher to Poland (1983), the Netherlands (1983) and Germany (1983) and the second to bring it to France (1983) and Great Britain (1982). He founded the Kanzeon International Sangha in 1982. In October 1988 he was installed as Abbot of Hosshinji, Temple in Bar Harbor, Maine, the third Westerner to be installed as Abbot in the ceremony of Shinsanshiki in the Western world. In 1991 the Kanzeon Board and Roshi closed the Zen Center in Bar Harbor, and moved Kanzeon to Oregon, where he continued to teach with a group of his students.
In 1995 he was recognized by the Soto School Headquarters in Japan as a Dendokyoshi, one of the first Senior Western Zen Teachers to be so recognized. He continued to study with Maezumi Roshi until the latter’s death in 1995. He received Inka, final seal of approval as a Zen Master, from Roshi Bernie Glassman in 1996, becoming Glassman’s first Inka successor, the second to receive Inka in the Maezumi Roshi lineage. In the same year, he became the President of the White Plum Asanga, composed of successors of Maezumi Roshi, after Roshi Bernie Glassman stepped down, and served in that position until 2007. In 1993 he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and established the Kanzeon Zen Center there as the headquarters of the Kanzeon International Sangha.
The historical Buddha clearly saw that everything changes and that our ignorance, which is a fundamental cause of our dissatisfaction, suffering and unhappiness, arises from our unwillingness to accept the fact that everything including the self is impermanent. He also foresaw that by about twenty-five hundred years after his passing — the time we are in right now — people would no longer have the capacity to receive his teachings. Many Buddhists naturally resist accepting this change as well.
Facing the contradiction between the inevitability of change and our resistance to it has always been at the heart of Zen practice. So many of our distinctive stories focus on this same point: freeing ourselves from attachment to form, beliefs, concepts and ideas. Bodhidharma’s “vast emptiness, no holiness,” that all is empty of substance and transient in nature and nothing is exempt from this truth; Dogen Zenji’s “dropped off body-mind,” letting go of attachment to body-mind — such teachings aimed at freeing us from the bonds we create for ourselves are the lifeblood of our tradition.
The tradition of Zen is to go beyond the tradition of Zen. Nevertheless, we still cling to our notions and ideas of what Zen is, or was, or should be. I spent years identifying myself with the tradition I inherited from my great master Maezumi Roshi, swallowing the whole fish, and then many more years working on spitting out the bones while retaining the essence in a form that is vital and relevant for our generation and culture. Recently I have begun to see my practice in a new way, which of course is also subject to change. I call it NonZen.
Why NonZen? This ‘non’ is part of the DNA of Zen, as in Joshu’s “Mu” (no, not, non), and Dogen Zenji’s non-thinking, beyond thinking and not-thinking. It is not meant to be seen in a negative way, but rather as the Apex of a triangle, embracing and at the same time free from two perspectives that seem to our dualistic mind to be irreconcilably opposed: Zen and not-Zen, being Zen through and through and simultaneously completely free of Zen.
The unique practice of Zen has always been first to ascend and then to descend the mountain. However many Zen koans and stories emphasize the first phase — reaching the summit of enlightenment — over the second. So many of the iconic stories in the Zen tradition are about the challenge and drama of the ascent. Not many are about the descent. We know rather little about how it was for our ancestors to descend after reaching the summit.
Our training in NonZen is first to completely identify with our life being Zen from morning till night, then to free ourselves from this identification, for if we remain identified with Zen we cannot be truly liberated and happy. We must return to being ordinary, embrace being both ordinary and extraordinary, and live as Bodhisattvas liberating all sentient beings, while not denying we too are mortal human beings.
Being human means not only practicing to forget the self but continuously working with where we are stuck. I have often said, and my own life as well as others’ demonstrates, that we can spend decades on our cushions and still be sitting on our shit. Descending the mountain does not mean we automatically transform into integrated free-functioning human beings. It means embodying not-Zen as well as Zen, being vulnerable and human once again, accepting our powerlessness as well as our power. It means continuously acknowledging and owning our shadows, fully embracing our humanity. How else can we embrace the humanity of others?
Zen has no fixed creed or authority and is free from dogma. It is, according to the saying attributed to Bodhidharma, the founder of Chinese Zen, “A special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending on words and letters; directly pointing to the mind.” And yet it is so easy to fall into dogma. The true spirit of Zen is lost when we get attached to forms and rituals, or to bricks and mortar. In NonZen we do not ignore the importance of form, rituals, bricks and mortar; we embrace them but are free from attachment to them.
So in NonZen we use such skillful means, upayas, as just sitting, shikantaza, and koans as well as the Big Mind process. We work on experiencing both the transcendent and the disowned aspects of our self, then go beyond both the dual and the non-dual, embracing both as ever-changing integrating free-functioning human beings. The dual is our perspective as an ordinary self. The non-dual is what we refer to as the transcendent or Big Mind, no-self. The Apex is Big Heart, or the Way of the Bodhisattva which includes and yet transcends these seeming opposites.
Knowing that any disowned part of the self will act out in covert, negative and unhealthy ways, our practice is to own, embody and empower each aspect of the self and then to go back and pick up its opposite as well. Then, embracing both sides of the triangle, we can make the leap to the Apex. However, I want to emphasize that “to own and embody” does not mean we need to act out these negative extremes. This is a very costly lesson I had to learn the hard way. Many aspects of our humanity are difficult to accept within our selves. We all have very negative, frightening and unhealthy thoughts that if acted on would be dangerous, even violent. When they are disowned they never have the opportunity to be transformed into positive forces within. They fester and become frightening because we are afraid they will get the best of us. Once we are able to investigate them without fear, they can become positive contributors to our health and well-being, empowered to serve rather than sabotage our success and happiness.
The Big Mind process supports our study of the Buddha Way by allowing us to explore any and all aspects of the self, and ultimately to forget or go beyond it. When we free ourselves from our attachments to these aspects of the self and get some distance from them, we realize that what we call ‘self’ is merely a concept composed of thousands of these aspects, which we sometimes refer to as ‘voices.’ Each voice plays an important role in enabling the self to function in the world, but from this perspective we see that what we thought was the self is no-self; it is, as the Buddha said, not solid, substantial or permanent and is therefore easier to let go of.
The moment we cease clinging to anything and are unconditionally open and vulnerable, without boundaries, we forget our self. Forgetting, or letting go of the self, all phenomena are seen as One Mind. There is nothing outside this Mind. When we truly realize this, there is nothing apart from us to be feared or ignored. There is no division between self and others, inside and outside, no division between oneself and externals. There is also no one to blame for our life or the circumstances we find ourselves in. We take full responsibility for action and reaction, for cause and effect. Neither is there anything to cling or attach to. All is realized and actualized as ‘me.’
In NonZen when we sit in meditation we are relaxed and natural, not holding tension anywhere in the body. We sit comfortably upright, not stiff, back relaxed against the back of a chair, feet placed squarely on the floor shoulder-width apart. Since we are all different and unique some prefer to meditate alone, some with others, some in lotus posture, cross legged on a cushion, others on a chair. Of course sitting on the floor is easier when we are young and flexible and more difficult as we age or if we begin sitting on the floor when we are older. Some may prefer to not lean back but remain upright with no support. Any of these preferences can change with time. Neither one is right or wrong, good or bad. What’s best is just what works best for us and we enjoy.
The key is not judging anything that arises, not thinking anything is particularly good or bad, right or wrong, not judging by any standard. It is having no preference, not even a preference for no-preference — in other words, non-preference. We have no preference for awake over asleep, attentive over inattentive, aware over unaware. We do not even judge our judging. In other words we sit in non-judging, doing nothing, just being our breath coming in and going out, not trying to focus or to be concentrated. When we are sitting comfortably, we begin by counting each complete breath from one to ten, breathing in deeply through the nostrils and out in a very thin stream of air through the mouth, as if we were breathing through a straw. After ten to even twenty breaths in this manner we continue inhaling and exhaling quietly and naturally through the nose, allowing the breath to do the breathing without interference.
All effort is effortless, we are relaxed and natural. We don’t make thinking wrong and not-thinking right or better. When we judge the thinking mind and tell it to shut up it will rebel and come out louder, producing even more thoughts. It is like a child condemned to be quiet and stuck down in the basement. It will scream even more. When we give the thinking mind the space and support to do its thing, it quiets down by itself and remains calm and silent, ready to think when necessary. The mind is held neither too taut nor too loose. We do not force it to be concentrated, but just allow it to be quiet and relaxed.
Similarly with seeking, we honor both seeking and not-seeking and come from the place of non-seeking, the Apex beyond seeking and not-seeking. There is a tendency in all of us to get stuck in identifying with our seeking mind and feeling superior to those who are not yet seeking the Way. However we can also become stuck in being identified with the freedom from seeking, in other words as one who has found the answer or Truth. This can lead to arrogance and a sense of superiority over those still caught up in seeking.
Our way is to embrace both seeking and not-seeking, identifying neither as a seeker nor a finder and yet embodying both seeking and being one with the Way. It is what is referred to in the Buddha Way as neti neti, neither this nor that and yet embodying both this and that. It is never-ending, beginningless reality, which is eternally present as presence. It is depicted in NonZen as the triangle of the eternal knot, which represents the endless loop of no-escape from the continuous flickering of light/dark, birth/death, sane/insane, enlightened/deluded, yin/yang, etc.
Our practice is to drop all ideas and notions of being enlightened and to simply acknowledge that we are deluded. We are just simply ourselves, without a trace of being spiritual or enlightened. This integrating process goes on endlessly as we move forward as free-functioning human beings.
The Zen practice we inherited comes from an Eastern male monastic model where men and women, monk and lay were separated. The training was designed for young men without family, occupation or financial responsibilities, devoted to monastic practice, sitting hours and days in cross-legged lotus posture. NonZen is a practice for all: men and women, monk and lay, young and old, professionals and non-professionals. It embraces rather than excludes. For us men and women in the modern world, who for the most part do not live in monasteries but in relationships, with jobs and a lay life, even some of us who are priests and monks, it is essential that we embody vulnerability and the relational self. It is no fun for the people in our lives to try to relate to someone who only embodies Zen and the non-relational.
Zen has always recognized that the most difficult and final challenge is our attachment to the Buddha Dharma. To be truly free and happy we must eventually leave behind the raft of Buddha Dharma which brought us to the ‘other shore.’ Our practice is to totally embody the Buddha Dharma and yet be completely free from it at the same time.
For many of us who have been practicing Zen a long time, our identification with being Zen is so strong that the very thought of being not-Zen is unthinkable and brings up a great deal of fear and resistance. Identification with Zen is very empowering. However, we can easily become rigidly attached to particular practices or views because that was the way we were taught. For some of us that includes the sentiment we often heard expressed by our teachers, and I myself repeated many times, ‘Zen is not about being happy!’ NonZen is about cultivating the flexibility and creativity necessary to discover what we have been searching for from the very beginning of our training: truth, freedom, peace and, yes, happiness.
NonZen is continuous and endless practice of Zen and beyond. Coming from the Apex, embodying as many aspects of the self and their opposites as possible, is the Way of freedom and happiness. GATE GATE PARA GATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA! Gone, gone, gone beyond, utterly gone beyond awakening, YIPPEE!
Genpo Roshi continues to explore new insights and skillful means to transmit the essence of Zen, which is waking up to our essential nature free from all dogma, suddenly and immediately. He sees zazen, koans and Big Mind as three complementary practices for actualizing the Way, along with other traditional forms of Zen Buddhism such as prayer, chanting, and devotional practices, all beautiful expressions of the teachings for waking up and living with profound wisdom and compassion.
He serves as President of Big Mind Inc. and as Abbot of Kanzeon Inc., now known as the Big Heart Zen Sangha.
Genpo Roshi’s publications include The Eye Never Sleeps, Beyond Sanity and Madness, 24/7 Dharma, and The Path of The Human Being, a novel entitled The Fool Who Thought He Was God, and many DVDs. His book Big Mind/Big Heart: Finding Your Way, has been published in fourteen other languages: Dutch, Spanish, German, Russian, Polish, French, Italian, Hungarian, Croatian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Danish, Korean and Chinese. His latest book, Spitting Out the Bones, A Zen Master’s 45 Year Journey, was published in 2016.