Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Reply to Dennis Genpo Merzel

Thanks to gniz, I was motivated to read the transcript of the podcast where Merzel discusses "Big Mind" and it seems, Big Money, to Vincent Horn.

Genpo Merzel, as per the transcript:

I’ve been using both the Big Mind process to shed light on that, but also what I call the triangle of looking at the extremes, the opposites like spirituality and the capitalistic world.

"Spirituality" - as defined by cultivation of the life force, the breath, for one's self and all other sentient beings - and capitalism aren't necessarily "opposites."

I for one labor in such a world and I have for 30 years, with a Buddhist practice for well onto 17 years.

So what does Merzel mean?

In other words if we look at a triangle and we see on one side of the triangle, we’ve got what is necessary to be in the marketplace, the marketplace mind I call it. And the kinds of things that you have to do when you are in that marketplace. And the other side of the triangle, let’s call it the spiritual mind or the awakened conscious mind,...

Merzel isn't expressing non-duality in any way I can recognize.

I’ve done a lot of work in this area around returning to the marketplace, and as you know Vince, in the ten ox-herding pictures of Buddhism, the 10th and final stage of practice is called returning to the marketplace. I think they often, what happens is that when we become spiritual, there’s a very long series of stages that we have to go through, in other words from one to ten, and it takes us a lifetime and we think very often just because we’re back in the world, we’re working, we’ve got a job, we’ve got a home and we’ve got expenses that we’re really in the marketplace world. But if we don’t take care of the shadow around the marketplace, even though we may be in the marketplace world, we’re not really in the marketplace world because we’ve got all these shadows around it. And if we really want to make a difference in the world and we really want to bring true spirituality into the marketplace world, we have to take care of our own shadows.

Because of course, the idea of right livelihood, never occurred to any other Buddhist...or rather, I should say, just where is the concept of right livelihood here???? As gniz notes, I see jargon, but I don't read "right livelihood" - avoiding harm to others, either by violence, by stealing, lying, or misuse of sex and drugs. Forget shadows, how can we avoid harm? For one thing, that's why folks created ethical constraints and practice them.

Now on that $50,000 for 5 days thing...

All centers that I know rely a lot and depend a lot on fundraising or begging. And that of course goes all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha and the whole thing around begging. However, I think that in Buddhist practice for a very long time, there are certain issues that we’re just better to avoid.

By avoiding I mean, because they can get really messy and really sticky. Money is one of them. Earning money is another. Sexuality is another. Greed and so forth. So in the Buddhist world basically we haven’t really faced these issues and by staying in the monasteries or in the forest or in the desert or whoever we stayed apart from the world, we really could avoid these issues and not deal with them.

That simply is not hisorically the case in any of the famous monasteries, such as Shaolin-si, Tiantong-si, and any number of Japanese temples I could name. It is not likely the case in some places today in Japan, and in China it is definitely not the case, although there is official state support for some temples. True, in Japan even Zen temples charge for funerals and assorted services, and some of them have been somewhat over the top with such things.

My teacher, a descendant of Shaku Soen, supports himself and his family by selling artwork. His late brother, a real roshi, also was an artist.

So, let's say it straight out: there is no need for Dennis Genpo Merzel to be charging this money.

So, what the 5 / 5 / 50 is we’ve always had to fundraise, and we’ve ask for money but we’ve never given anything back for that money except for our practice: prayers and meditation for the sake of all beings and relieving the suffering of all beings. But, what I heard from a lot of very wealthy people was they’ve always felt that the shadow around money in Zen and Buddhist communities meant they would give a lot of money, if they had a lot of money, and I’ve known people with that, and never be properly thanked or, more importantly, anything given to them that was meaningful.

Because heaven knows that you can't thank someone who gave $50K the same way you'd thank someone who gave $5.

Although Seung Sahn was not perfect as a Zen Teacher, this story comes to mind

One Sunday, while Seung Sahn Soen-Sa was staying at the International Zen Center
of New York, there was a big ceremony. Many Korean women came, with shopping bags
full of food and presents. One woman brought a large bouquet of plastic flowers, which
she smilingly presented to an American student of Soen-sa's. As quickly as he could,
the student hid the flowers under a pile of coats. But soon another woman found them and,
with the greatest delight, walked into the Dharma Room and put them in a vase on the altar.

The student was very upset. He went to Soen-sa and said, "Those plastic flowers
are awful. Can't I take them off the altar and dump them somewhere?"

Soen-sa said, "It is your mind that is plastic. The whole universe is plastic."
The student said, "What do you mean?"

Soen-sa said, "Buddha said, 'When one's mind is pure, the whole universe is pure;
When one's mind is tainted, the whole universe is tainted.' Every day we meet people
who are unhappy. When their minds are sad, everything they see, hear, smell, taste,
and touch is sad, the whole universe is sad. When the mind is happy, the whole universe
is happy. If you desire something, then you are attached to it. If you reject it, you are
just as attached to it. Being attached to a thing means that it becomes a hindrance in
your mind. So 'I don't like plastic' is the same as 'I like plastic'— both are attachments.
You don't like plastic flowers, so your mind has become plastic, and the whole universe
is plastic. Put it all down. Then you won't be hindered by anything. You won't care
whether the flowers are plastic or real, whether they are on the altar or in the
garbage pail. This is true freedom. A plastic flower is just a a plastic flower.
A real flower is just a real flower. You mustn't be attached to name and form.

The student said, "But we are trying to make a beautiful Zen Center here,
for all people. How can I not care? Those flowers spoil the whole room."

Soen-sa said, "If somebody gives real flowers to Buddha, Buddha is happy.
If somebody else like plastic flowers and gives them to Buddha, Buddha is also happy.
Budhha is not attached to name and form, he doesn't care whether the flowers are real
or plastic, he only cares about the person's mind. These women who are offering
plastic flowers have very pure minds, and their action is Bodhisattva action. Your mind
rejects plastic flowers, so you have separated the universe into good and bad, beautiful
and ugly. So your action is not Bodhisattva action. Only keep Buddha's mind. Then you
will have no hindrance. Real flowers are good; plastic flowers are good.

So, in that spirit, I'd say, $50,000 is good, $5 is good, whatever Chester F. Carlson gave to Philip Kapleau was good.

Soen-sa was correct here, Dennis Genpo Merzel crossed a line as I see it.

Now, truth be known, historically Zen Buddhism has not been free of issues like this either; for many times Zen Buddhist temples depended on the patronage of the rich and powerful. But many of the great masters, including Hakuin, were known more for their ability to bring the Dharma to the masses. Dennis Genpo Merzel says he can propagate the Dharma to the rest of us (me?) by giving special attention to the wealthy.

So, whatever anybody else thinks about it, this has now become our major fundraiser. In fact, we don’t do any other fundraising. This is it. This supports all the work that we do as Big Mind Zen Center. It supports all the work we’re doing with Big Mind, getting all of my talks out there and other teachers’ talks out there and DVD’s, free on TV, online, also on our Zen-eye, all under Big Mind. We go out to hospitals and programs for people with addictions and we do all this for free. We do university work, prison work. We’ve given a hundred thousand dollars this last year just to prisoners and books and forms like that. I mean, tremendous amount of support we’re able to give because of the generosity of these people. Now, there have been over 30 people to have done the 5 / 5 / 50’s.

The problem is, even if what you eventually do with the money is good (and there are issues with Merzel's teaching itself, so that is questionable) if you have in some way slandered the Dharma then it in effect doesn't matter what good you do after it; you've got 500 lifetimes as a fox. And it's kind of hard to call this necessarily the Dharma from what I've seen and read:

It think it’s placing a value on time with the teacher which is what people want that are interested in spirituality and they have this money, they need to donate it to some kind of charitable organization for their own tax sakes. And they’re getting something back in it. So, I don’t have a problem with it. Some people do because that’s their problem.

My problem is to practice the precepts, to practice mindfulness, and to help all sentient beings cultivate wisdom, generosity and compassion. While I would accept Ven. Merzel as I would anyone else, I would also insist that this scheme is unethical from the standpoint of propagation of the Dharma. Speaking of which...

Actually just let me say I take none of this money. Absolutely zero pennies of this money, do I make. All my money comes from the workshops that I have been doing with Bill Harris and other workshops that I do on my own....

Res ipso loquitur...

And finally:

We also offer so much for nothing that they really don’t have to participate. So it’s just jealously on some level that some people can afford to. But some people can afford to actually give up their home and become a full-time Zen student and the rich people and the people with children and occupations and vocations who can’t do that, don't get jealous because somebody else like myself back in 1971 gave it all up and became a full time Zen student. We’re really narrowed-minded and frankly this is the area that I’m trying to help work on, with how narrow we can be.

And you see this is the basic problem. Right here is the whole ethical issue of Dennis Genpo Merzel in a nut.

Now full disclosure: I probably could scrape up the money to go to one of Merzel's Rich People Retreats, but I never, ever will. I'm also one of those guys with a child and a wife and an occupation. And I'm quite well set thank you very much. Not only that, I'm appalled that Merzel is still thinking in terms of people like me, and people like him that "gave it all up and became a full time Zen student." Merzel's never lived my life, he has no idea what he's talking about, and I have never lived the life of any of Merzel's other critics either. But I'll say this: he has absolutely no right to criticize anyone that attempted to incorporate their practice into the mundane quotidian doings of everyday life as a lay person, and to think someone like me (or Warner? Warner? or gniz?)would actually be jealous of him. I have found challenges and rewards of practicing the Dharma far beyond whatever I could learn from Merzel in just how I speak to my son and wife, and how I can truly laugh and cry and enjoy the life I have. I have made really, really colossal mistakes, too! Complete and utterly humiliating screw-ups!
I also have a respectable 401(k) as well (though we'd like it to be quite a bit greater so we can retire with money to go cross-country & internationally). So when Merzel says things like that, I think back to what I said here.


gniz said...

Hey, really enjoyed your take on this.

Mumon said...

Thanks. It became apparent to me that his "they must be jealous because they didn't drop everything they had to become a monk" thing was a classic case of what they call "projection."