Traditions change every time they enter new cultures. Take the tradition of naming a baby. Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi’s parents started with a good American name, Dennis. They attached it to a good Jewish name, Merzel. And they left it at that.
Who would have thought that this American kid from Brooklyn would immerse himself in the Japanese practice of Zen Buddhism, thereby adding two good Japanese names to his own? Fifty-seven years after receiving his original monikers, Dennis Merzel has come to be called by the Japanese names Genpo Roshi. The kid from Brooklyn grew up to be a Zen master.
Merzel doesn’t necessarily look like a Zen master. No mustache hangs from his lip in two stringy threads. He’s got hair, though cropped close. In his lay clothes, out walking the family dog, he looks like any other fit middle-aged man in the Avenues area of Salt Lake City. Maybe he’s a coach, people might think as they walk past him, or a former athlete, one of those guys who never lets himself get out of shape.
This spiritual teacher actually is a former athlete and a coach of sorts. A champion swimmer and a water polo player in the 1960s, Merzel still runs and lifts weights. Now he’s brought his athlete’s acumen to the spiritual field, coaching people to live their lives “with peace of mind and a sense of freedom.” He teaches them to liberate themselves from suffering.
In 1968, a string of painful events began to lead Merzel to his Zen path. He had been divorced two years when his father died. Then he suffered injuries in a serious motorcycle accident. Finally, problems in a new relationship pushed him over the edge.
“I found myself with the same problems in the new relationship that I had had in the old one,” says Merzel, who was perplexed by his situation. “I just couldn’t believe that I could sink into those same problems, and I went to the desert to search for answers.”
Like other spiritual seekers before him, Merzel did find his answers in the desert, though it was only on a weekend trip with some friends. He had been on the fast-track in his career, eager to get ahead and gain more money and acknowledgement, but now he was sidelined by his pain. What was worthwhile, he wondered? What was worth pursing?
While Merzel sat alone in the desert, looking out at his VW van parked in the distance, he had a profound shift. It suddenly seemed to him that the only important pursuit was to know himself and to help others get to know themselves. “I began an inward journey that day,” says Merzel.
He went home, took a year-long leave of absence from his job, and began studying Zen. After awhile, Merzel found a secluded mountain cabin and lived alone there for a year, seeing only one person in the first eight months: a cowboy searching for lost cattle. Merzel found his way to the Zen Center in Los Angeles and to his teacher, Hakuyu Taizan Maizumi Roshi.
In order to become a teacher, Merzel had to liberate himself from suffering. He practiced zazen, or sitting meditation, for decades under the direction of Roshi, a master of Zen Buddhism who dedicated his life to the growth of Zen in the West. Merzel is said to have experienced full liberation, to have attained enlightenment. And 30 years after beginning his practice, he hasn’t let himself get out of shape.
That’s why people choose Merzel as their coach, their teacher, their Roshi. They want the best. As a lineage holder in two schools of Japanese Zen Buddhism—Soto and Rinzai—Merzel is one of the highest ranked Zen teachers in the world. He’s the leader of the largest group of Soto Zen Buddhists outside of Japan. It doesn’t seem to matter that only his first name is Japanese.
To many Americans, Zen has to be explained. And describing Zen is an awkward task, like pinning down an electron. The more you try to define an electron as a particle, for example, the more it looks like a wave. And if you try to determine its speed, you’ll lose its location altogether. It’s the same with this Eastern philosophy, which has its roots in the enlightenment experience of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautauma nearly 2,600 years ago.
That’s because Zen is an experience based on that most slippery of substances, the human mind. Imagine a woman sitting for a quiet half-hour in Millcreek Canyon, watching dogs and their owners trot past. She’s relaxed, having just finished her own hike. She thinks about things randomly: the purchase order she filled out at work, how cute her 8-year-old was in the school play. Occasionally, she catches herself singing her favorite Willie Nelson tune. The light shifts and she looks at a beautiful sunset.
This is how busy the human mind is even when it’s relaxed. We don’t pay it much attention, but Zen Buddhists do. They believe that it’s this noisy mind that’s getting in the way of profound peace and compassion, and that meditation will quiet it.
Telling an American to pay attention to her mind seems tantamount to telling her to think. But thinking isn’t it. Meditation is actually sitting as a person outside your own mind, observing all of the thoughts that come up, then letting each one go. You don’t take the thoughts seriously, you don’t wonder what they mean, you don’t follow any of them further. You just observe the random flotsam and the meaningful ideas and even the brilliant poetry that floats through your mind without your slightest effort, and you let it go.
People with a lot of meditation experience of this sort say that enough time spent letting thoughts go helps the mind relax. It quits trying to think a hundred things at once. If this happens to the extreme, the complete emptiness of mind is experienced as samadhi, nirvana, perfection, pure joy and understanding.
Catholic Monk Thomas Merton—a long-time student of the Zen discipline—once wrote, “The Zen experience is a direct grasp of the unity of the invisible and the visible … Zen seeks not to explain, but to pay attention.”
Maezumi Roshi explained it like this: “Wisdom is the natural functioning of samadhi. Love is the natural functioning of wisdom. The direct functioning of love is compassion.”
That’s how meditation makes better people. But to get to a place where complete compassion is the norm, with no regard for protection of the ego, you have to spend a lot of time meditating. That’s all Zen is. But like the tiny electron, the simple becomes tricky. Continuous meditation is a difficult process, and people get bored. It becomes emotionally jarring. Just because a student is watching her mind doesn’t mean that the thoughts go away. Instead, it’s more like cleaning out a drawer—you sometimes have to look at every thought and feeling before you can throw even just one away.
But the reason people come to Zen practice again and again is because life is so complex. Inevitably, problems come up that no amount of intellectualism or faith can respond to. Sitting meditation—especially under the guidance of a great teacher—helps people come into contact with the spiritual truths that clergy often tell them about, giving them an experiential kind of faith.
Catholic monks like Merton have written widely on their own study of Zen, likening it to Christian contemplative prayer. Jews have been joining Zen centers in droves in recent years. People of all religious faiths, or no religious inclinations, can practice Zen meditation because Zen is not a religion. It’s a philosophy, and when it becomes experiential, it’s an approach to life, a way to live life well. Zen has no gods, no dogmas. It’s as plain as a black robe, as sparse as a head shaved of hair.
“Zen can really enhance or help anyone in any tradition to get closer to the source,” Merzel says. He remembers Utah’s Catholic priest Father LaSalle, who was a lifetime student of Zen, speaking at the Salt Lake City Zen Center in 1973. “The question was asked, ‘How do you bridge the gap between being a Catholic priest and being a Zen teacher?’ Father LaSalle said, ‘There’s never been any gap for me.’”
The Zen electron refuses to be reined in among only one religious group. In the past 20 years, as Zen has attracted various Christians and Jews, its cultural borders have become as blurred as its spiritual borders. This Japanese form of Buddhism is popular all across America, and now it’s getting noticed in Utah. Zen, meet Zion.
While Zen isn’t a religion, it does require people to live by a strict moral code. Zen maintains that virtue must be combined with wisdom for a person to ultimately cultivate effortless compassion. For this reason, Zen practitioners try to follow the Eightfold Path, which includes tenets of Right Livelihood, Right Speech and Right Action.
Utah happens to be the Right Place.
After 12 years of training under Maezumi Roshi, Merzel began conducting meditation retreats in the U.S. and Europe. At the time, Salt Lake had a small Zen community that met in the house of Jim and Jamie Curtice. The Curtices invited Merzel to start teaching in Salt Lake, where he eventually opened Kanzeon Zen Center and its non-denominational meditation center.
Merzel says that he settled in Utah because the values espoused by its residents were compatible to the Zen way of life. He married Stephanie Young, a great-great granddaughter of Brigham Young, who doesn’t practice Mormonism but hasn’t taken Buddhist vows, either.
It’s not uncommon for Buddhist meditation centers to spring up in traditional American states like Minnesota, Illinois and Oregon. Salt Lake City even welcomed Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama last spring with sellout crowds at his lectures, hosted by Utah Valley State College and the University of Utah.
Buddhism took a small hold in America in the 1860s, as Asian immigrants entered the states to work on railroads and in gold mines. But about 100 years later, as America entered into the war in Vietnam, Buddhist treatises on compassion and one-ness surged in attractiveness to Anglos. Sanskrit words nirvana and karma added themselves to the American vocabulary. Meditation—whether Buddhist or Hindu—also gave people a way to deal with the war. The Beatles went to India to study transcendental meditation. Richard Alpert entered otherworldly states of mind on LSD and then dropped the drug habit to study meditation. He eventually became Hindu guru Ram Daas.
Experts say that the popularity of Eastern religion in the last two decades—and especially that of Buddhism—is a response to cultural influences in our country. Zen Buddhism attracts the secular liberalists of Generation X with its lack of dogmatism. Students are encouraged to accept no teachings without first comparing them to their own experience, an instruction handed down from the Buddha himself.
American independence is also fed by Buddhism’s interest in developing the individual’s understanding rather than encouraging him to accept predetermined creeds. Perceived as ethically liberal, Buddhism recommends tolerance of alternative viewpoints. It also provides practical techniques for dealing with stress through meditation.
Buddhism seems to be a perfect fit for the individualistic, self-guided, stressed-out society. And it is, if you remember that this is Buddhist Modernism, a new form of the old path that ignores any teachings that don’t fit well in the Western mind. The modernist movement also tends to clump all Buddhists together, which is like lumping all believers of Christ together simply as Christians.
Certain Buddhist practices tend to attract traditional Christians and Jews more than others. Tibetan Buddhism, with its beliefs in mystical diagrams and elephant-headed gods, is practiced in Utah, but only mainly by a local Tibetan community. Austere Zen—devoid of gods and mysticism—is practiced by a wider range of Utahns with backgrounds in Western religious practices.
Still, some people don’t feel comfortable practicing any kind of Buddhism in addition to their own religion but still want to meditate. In part for them, Merzel has developed a meditation technique called Big Mind. Salt Lake lawyer John Kesler first experienced Big Mind at a Utah State Bar seminar for mediation training. He felt that the experience was profound. “Essentially what happens is that you agree to allow your ego to step aside so that you can more clearly see reality without being immersed in and looking through the lenses of your self-centered needs and desires,” says Kesler. “This is pretty much what higher moral codes and most religions ask a person to do to the extent that one can. This facilitation process enables one to be very effective in doing that.”
Big Mind was created as a fusion of meditation and therapy techniques. “The Big Mind process is completely a non-Buddhist approach, a very Western approach,” says Merzel. “What we’ve done with Big Mind is take out all the religious connotation. The objective is to bring about a shift in consciousness or an awakening experience of putting one’s ego-self aside.”
Merzel and other facilitators he has trained to lead Big Mind sessions use a therapeutic voice dialogue technique to speak to various emotional aspects of the participant, including the ego. In this way, a participant can agree to speak to fear, worry, loneliness and other feelings. A person dealing with grief can talk from the standpoint of grief, without giving personal details about why he’s grieving. The participant is completely in control and can choose when he wants to participate and when he doesn’t. Kesler says Big Mind has given him the experience of unity that he always believed existed. “From a traditional religious perspective, one might say that [Big Mind] helps to open up a channel for yourself, more than you’re normally able to do, to feel one with the Spirit.” Zen monks spend decades meditating to experience the openness Kesler found in his first Big Mind workshop.
And Kesler is not even a monk. He’s a practicing Mormon who makes the very clear distinction that he in no way practices Buddhism. “But I am very interested in helping people have the opportunity to have that Big Mind experience.”
Kesler is on the executive committee of Kanzeon Zen Center’s non-denominational meditation center. “The secular meditation center was set up specifically to be separate—a neutral space for people of all religions in the community as well as for people who meditate for health reasons,” he says. Some helpful meditation techniques from the Zen tradition are occasionally shared to help people meditate more comfortably or more deeply, but the Zen influence is limited only to that. Kesler says that the center’s members would never cause a visitor from any background “to be less attached to their religion or more attached to Buddhism.”
For Kesler, this is an important point. He knows that people of many religions practice Zen, yet he’s not interested in practicing Zen himself. He notes that the LDS church has never endorsed Zen practice among its members. It’s meditation that Kesler’s into, and he’s happy to point out that his church encourages that. “How [meditation] is understood in the Mormon church isn’t sitting for hours in a traditional Eastern posture,” he says. “You’ll find the words meditation, contemplation and prayer somewhat used interchangeably. I think to some people that means deep prayerful thought, but I also get a sense that there’s an encouragement to sit quietly and listen.”
Even as he keeps a strict distance between himself and Buddhism, Kesler can admire Merzel’s methods. “As Genpo has developed all of the Big Mind workshops, he has worked really hard to take the essence of Zen and present it in a non-Buddhist framework,” he says. To him, the genius of Zen is its focus on experience instead of on a belief system. “I might be the only committed Mormon practicing Big Mind in existence,” says Kesler, “but I don’t see it in any way as a barrier.”
The barriers come up when you talk to the academics. Buddhist philosophers, professors and teachers question the changes Buddhism is making as it adapts to American culture. Buddhist-styled marketing is on the forefront of the debate. In Buddhist magazines like Tricycle and Shambhala Sun, writers warn that sales techniques might make this time-honored tradition into just another American fad.
It’s hard to deny, when Patagonia uses images of Tibetan monks to sell its parkas. The more subtle part of selling dharma—Buddhist wisdom—is promising people its glorious benefits without reminding them that the spiritual path is one marbled with pain. People might assume that the Big Mind method is another New Agey way to have all the wisdom of the universe with none of the struggle.
Merzel actually argues against “watering down Zen” in his 1994 book, Beyond Sanity and Madness (Tuttle). If you need any reassurance that the road to enlightenment isn’t paved only in nirvana experiences, just read the title. Merzel doesn’t feel that he’s taking the essential essence or difficulty from Zen, nor that it’s a bad thing to offer Westerners a non-Buddhist meditation experience.
“We have a very traditional practice at Kanzeon,” Merzel says. “You could walk in there and not find much different than in a monastery in Japan. As long as that’s viable, I feel comfortable finding other ways to allow the greater population to experience Zen, to find out what Zen has to teach without all the religious trappings.”
Merzel looks to Buddhist history to explain that Zen changes every time it enters a new culture. “As Zen moved from India to China to Japan or Korea, it has always managed to flow perfectly into the culture,” he says. “But it always takes a few generations.” Some people will lose interest as the fad dies down, but Merzel says Zen will inevitably take root in a uniquely American way. “My own teacher said to me, ‘At some point you’ll have to change the way we practice in order to make [Zen] vibrant and viable for Westerners.” That means a variety of things, from providing secular meditation retreats to meshing therapeutic technique with Buddhist training.
Merzel will be patient as Zen gets comfortable in its new homeland, but he won’t be complacent while it’s happening. “If we could get enough people to wake up to our connectedness to all things, this could be a harmonious and peaceful world,” he says. “One without war and the other things we go through.”
Merzel’s innovations in meditation are proof that the Zen name might have to be added to or changed, just as Merzel’s own name was altered decades ago. Big Mind, Zen Counseling, Meditation Therapy, Practicing Compassion, Opening Consciousness. Any might be names that the most experiential of the world’s religions takes as it goes beyond pop culture and into the American heart.