The recent revelations of continuing sexual misconduct by Kanzeon Zen Center abbot and Big Mind originator Dennis Genpo Merzel, following as it does close on the heels of the scandal and clouded retirement of the Japanese missionary priest and founder of the Zen Studies Society, Eido Tai Shimano, has badly shaken the Western Zen mahasangha.
As it should.
Within the firestorm of complaint and allegation that finally sparked after many years of rumor, Shimano Roshi did everything he could to save his position. After apologizing publicly for at least the most recent of the many, many allegations of sexual misconduct, which seemed to slow the storm, he then apparently wrote a letter to the New York Times denying the substance of his apologies and the reasons for his retirement to an emeritus status. Although it seems instead of mailing it, simply producing a Japanese version to be sent to supporters in that country. Speculation about why he chose to do that is speculation. He did it. However, when it was translated into English this became some sort of last straw leading many Zen teachers, myself included, to publicly call for his dismissal. How the ZSS has negotiated his final separation is still taking shape, but it seems he really is no longer going to be allowed to teach at their centers.
Merzel Roshi seems to have a bit firmer control of his organization even in the midst of his own firestorm. While “disrobing” and resigning from the larger White Plum lineage community to which he had belonged, he seems to have appointed the vice-abbot for what appears to be only a nominally separated Kanzeon Zen Center. However he appears to have decided to continue using the Zen title roshi. The shove to push of his reformations seem to be summarizable in the statement “Roshi will not be teaching at the Zen Center for an indefinite period of time.” His strategy appears to be to separate himself from the principal organization to which he has any accountability, the White Plum, and to then lay low for a bit…
His credibility among the mainstream of Zen teachers has long been strained. I’ve felt uncomfortable with his accepting money from the Frederick Lenz Foundation, an organization that exists to purchase a revisionist view of the late and extremely notorious cult leader who operated under the self-proclaimed style “Zen Master Rama.” The truth is a number of Zen folk have accepted their money. And, it could be argued the only difference between accepting money from the Lenz Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation is time from when the scoundrel who started it died. However, I then found that Merzel has gone beyond taking dirty money to pretending that Lenz was some kind of Zen teacher. This is amazing and hard to excuse from someone who is supposed to be a Zen teacher.
I don’t know what to say about Big Mind (registered trademark) beyond saying if it is, as Merzel has claimed, another turning of the Wheel, a new revelation of the Buddhadharma, I will have to admit I’ve missed what the Dharma is all about. As have all other Zen teachers along the way before this great revelation. Which, to my deluded eye, is a silly adaptation of Voice Dialogue therapy, an interesting, if to me, not especially compelling psychological model, adding in, from where I stand, a dualistic projection of personality as if it were sunyata.
But the fallout for the Zen dharma is my real concern. Not Big Mind (registered trademark) Zen, real Zen.
And what is going on? What do these sex scandals and others in the past and, you know, coming in the future mean?
There are those who say we need to grow up and walk away from Zen teachers.
I respectfully say you can. And you may well find a true and useful and healthful path. It won’t, however, be Zen.
The Zen way has evolved within a system of training, or rather a cluster of training systems, all of which require spiritual direction. It is based upon at its core the relationships between teachers and students.
The way Zen came west, through individual teachers with limited supervision, and then establishing centers that are more or less isolated from each other has created a cultish system. That’s the problem, aggravated, of course, by the inflated language of transmission. I’ve explored both of these issues before.
But this is a historical anomaly, being corrected by the expansion of Zen in the West and the constantly increasing number of teachers, domestic and imported.
I’m confident we are also at the edge of a time where people are no longer dependent upon keeping a relationship with a specific teacher or giving up the practice. Already this is true in the San Francisco Zen Center inheritance as well as the Kwan Um School of Zen. Even our little Boundless Way project with three and in a few months four teachers mitigates significantly the cultish inclination. In some ways the scandals reflect that reality. We don’t have to put up with the inappropriate in order to have access to the way.
Today there are plenty of teachers out there. (Although I’d do more than just look at the list. I believe Genpo is still listed there…)
And teachers are essential to the process. And they, we, are not minor deities. You need to know it. They, we, need to know it.
We need, rather, to keep our eyes on the ball.
Awakening is the project.
We do this in healthy and respectful ways, then Zen will weather these and other scandals and bumps of our institutional adolescence.
And our way will, indeed, help in the great human project.