Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Strange things coming from Kanzeon Zen Center

Sweeping Zen, quickly becoming the go-to site for all things Zen, has published the latest letter from the Board of the KZC.  I personally find it representative of a place I do not want to be, a cautionary tale related to me who has lived enough of a live to be a cautionary tale to others.

This part I can accept:

Though he did resign as a Soto Zen Buddhist Priest on February 6th, until April 15th he had not resigned from the Japanese Soto Zen headquarters, the Shumucho. He stayed involved with the Japanese organization temporarily out of concern for the official status of those of his successors who want to remain affiliated with the Japanese Soto school.  When he first announced his intention to resign from the Soto school, he was told by Junpu Kuroda Hojo-san, Maezumi Roshi’s younger brother, who had spoken to the head of the Shumucho, that if he did so, the ordinations of all those who had received Jukai, Shukke Tokudo, Denkai, and Shiho from him would be regarded as invalid by the headquarters of the Japanese Soto school.  At that time he was, and still is, working on completing the necessary paperwork for Tammy Myoho Gabrysch Sensei to be recognized as both a Shuso and Dharma successor by the Shumucho.  He chose not to impose problems on his successors and those who had received Jukai and Shukke Tokudo from him by withdrawing from the Japanese Soto school before these matters were settled.  From his discussions with Bishop Daikagu Rumme, General Director of the Soto Zen Administrative Office of North America, his understanding was that that if he did choose to resign it should not affect his successors etc., but even the Bishop was not 100% sure of that.  On April 15th he received word from Bishop Daigaku that considering the imminent release of more statements critical of Genpo Roshi, and because this could be an embarrassment to the Japanese Soto school, now would be the time for him to officially submit his resignation, which he did on that date.
 I guess, despite Brad Warner's remonstrations to the contrary, official affiliation with the Soto school is indeed a big deal - it says if the Soto Zen official is mired in wrongdoing that the correction propagates through his descendants -at least as regards what sort of lapel pins they can wear today, I guess.    It's a different take on the old Catholic saw about corrupt priests administering sacraments (and the bigwigs in that body decided long ago that the sacraments' "power" is still "effective")  - and in a way the Zen teacher's position is by nature substantially more intimate, so it's not surprising they should differ with Christianity on this point.  But...


As part of our efforts to sustain Kanzeon, with Genpo Roshi’s support one of Roshi’s successors was invited in early February to step in to take Roshi’s place as full-time teacher at the Zen Center, which he generously agreed to do. It was hoped that during this time of transition he would help support the sangha and the continuing existence of Kanzeon Zen Center while it remained at its present location, and that he would be financially supported by Kanzeon Inc.  Also, in response to the request of members of the White Plum, the Board created a separate website for Kanzeon, which included the introduction of him as our new teacher.
In large part because of the critical and hostile feelings expressed by a few people in the local community, further inflamed and amplified by some outside Zen Teachers, students and others, Roshi felt he was no longer welcome to teach at Kanzeon.  Because his teaching activities at Kanzeon and mainly through Big Mind were the primary source of revenue for the Center, the necessary condition for this transition was that our properties had to be sold.
This decision to put Kanzeon’s two buildings up for sale was particularly painful for all concerned, most of all for those of us who continue to live, meet and practice here in those very buildings. It has also generated a lot of comment and criticism to the effect that the properties were being sold out from under the local community without their input, perhaps even to support Genpo Roshi’s activities elsewhere.  These suspicions and accusations are based on misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions which we would like to clear up.
First, the money originally used to buy the properties did not come from the local Salt Lake sangha. Almost all of it was donated with extraordinary generosity by members of Roshi’s European Sangha and students, by his former wife Hobai and himself, and from his inheritance from his mother.
Second, for years Kanzeon’s income from membership dues and programs have covered only a small fraction of Kanzeon’s overhead, while additional donations and contributions from all but a few local members of the Center have been very minimal.  Contrary to the impression that has been widely voiced on the internet, and even in our own community, the reality is that the Center has been largely supported by Genpo Roshi’s teaching and Big Mind work.
As is well known, Roshi has been widely criticized within the Zen community for receiving large donations from people who have attended small Big Mind workshops with him. These people, almost all of them needless to say wealthy, successful in their professions or businesses, have chosen to give amounts which they could just as easily spend on other things, so that they could study with Genpo Roshi.  To the best of our knowledge, not a single one has ever felt they wasted their time or money.  On the contrary, they are extremely grateful, they gladly allow their expressions of thanks to be quoted, many of them have returned again for additional workshops.
On the other hand, those who criticize these events, and Roshi for giving them, have never attended them.  And those who condemn them include not only representatives of the far-flung Zen world, but people in the Kanzeon community itself, the very people who are benefiting from them without realizing or acknowledging it.  It is these donations that have enabled Roshi to support Kanzeon’s Salt Lake City properties, full-time staff and office infrastructure, to continue supporting residents, extending scholarships, promoting social action programs, allowing free and partial tuition to many who could not attend at full price, and, by the way, provide Maezumi Roshi’s widow Ekyo Maezumi a place to live and a salary to help sustain her.  In fact, contrary to a widely disseminated but inaccurate impression, it is Big Mind that is supporting Kanzeon rather than the other way around, since the local Sangha provides only a minimal portion of the funds needed to support us.



The level of denial here, from a standpoint of Buddhist ethics is simply breathtaking to me.  Let me show you.

In large part because of the critical and hostile feelings expressed by a few people in the local community, further inflamed and amplified by some outside Zen Teachers, students and others, Roshi felt he was no longer welcome to teach at Kanzeon.

 "At least in part those people outside made Roshi feel he was no longer able to teach."  I mean, did they actually think about how this would read to the outside world?  Because that's how it seems to read to me.  Really, here's a guy abusing his power, and the Board (I'm assuming it's the Board) opines that people in the "local community" "inflamed" and "amplified" by "outside" Zen Teachers, students "and others." made Roshi feel he was unable to teach.  But evidently it was fine to still use the honorific that means literally "Old Teacher."

The following sentence:

Because his teaching activities at Kanzeon and mainly through Big Mind were the primary source of revenue for the Center, the necessary condition for this transition was that our properties had to be sold.

I can live with.  I know it's a great suffering for the Sangha at KZC,  but that's what happens in these things, and I have great empathy for them for this.  Though further down in the post we'll get to something that I think is potentially explosive on this point.  A bit further down:


First, the money originally used to buy the properties did not come from the local Salt Lake sangha. Almost all of it was donated with extraordinary generosity by members of Roshi’s European Sangha and students, by his former wife Hobai and himself, and from his inheritance from his mother.

 Did you not go, "Whoa! Who actually owns those buildings?"  But wait ...it gets... worse...


Second, for years Kanzeon’s income from membership dues and programs have covered only a small fraction of Kanzeon’s overhead, while additional donations and contributions from all but a few local members of the Center have been very minimal.  Contrary to the impression that has been widely voiced on the internet, and even in our own community, the reality is that the Center has been largely supported by Genpo Roshi’s teaching and Big Mind work.

EXACTLY THE PROBLEM! Forget about the fact for a moment that lots of people in the Zen community, myself included, think "Big Mind" is a load of horse hockey.  The sangha could not sustain the facilities. End of story! Right there.

Now for the nuclear explosion, at least as I see it.  At the Sweeping Zen Facebook entry on this, comments have been prolific, to say the least.  One Rob Evans has, through public sources, started to go through the tax forms filed for the Frederick Lenz Foundation and "Big Mind" Inc. I'm assuming these are correct forms, and if others have updated information I will happily correct this post as soon as I am aware that I have the correct information. But, before I go into the  reputed details that have been published on the internet ,  first, now, remember this, from Genpo Merzel?

...But no, none of that money goes to me. I have a very small and comfortable little house in the Zen Center and I drive normal cars and I don’t have Mercedes or, what was it that Bhagawan had? His Rolls-Royce’?  No. I’ve never had been interested in wealth or being rich in any way. I don’t have a lot of desire. My biggest desire has been to get the teaching out there and this has made that possible. The money that we receive really just goes to get that teaching out there to the world...
Well, if you look at the records for "Big Mind Inc." for 2009, an interesting story unfolds... It's address is SE Temple. I don't know the sangha and I don't know the address, but if KZC was the owner of the property, I'd assume BMI was paying it rent, no?  BMI took in about $1.4 million in 2009.   Here's some other interesting bits from that return, which again, I'm assuming is correct:

  • Does the organization have a written whisleblower policy? No. But you'd probably have guess that by now.
  • Dennis Genpo Merzel made has income from "BMI" $185,900 and from related organizations $108,000.
  • Bruce Lambson   was the guy ripping into Warner when he criticized BM, if I recall correctly.  Mr. Lambson was working a full 40 hour week for BMI, but made no salary. The related organizations payed him $56,568.
Now, I don't begrudge Merzel for his income. And maybe he's speaking correctly in that none of the money from the "Big Heart Circle" money went to him.  But money as any accountant can tell you is fungible. Also, I'm sure there's other Zen Teachers who do well, too, and well they should - if they're supporting themselves in a way that doesn't burden the Sangha.   And of course Dennis Genpo Merzel is in his "peak earning years."  But as far as I see it, Dennis Genpo Merzel wasn't being fully forthright with Vincent Horn. I am a man, whose income is hovering in the neighborhood of the top 10th percentile.  But Dennis Genpo Merzel's combined income for 2009 is much more substantial, to say the least.  It can be relatively easy  to say you're not attached to wealth when you're pulling in over a quarter million dollars a year.

When I go to a local sangha here in the Portland OR area, I go full well knowing that I'm not one of the poorer guys there. But BMI and KZC were so closely joined at the hip that for all intents and purposes they seemed one and the same, and presented themselves as such even on their website - I recall visiting that site quite a few times to try to disentangle them, just to see if KZC still did sesshins without "Big" "Mind."    And regardless of what Dennis Genpo Merzel was saying, he was living well.  Not Bhagwan N Rolls-Royces well, but quite comfortably upper middle class.  More comfortably upper middle class than I am. 

I don't know to what extent the Board of KZC knew about this, nor the greater sangha.  But what I do know is there are massive consequences from attachments all over the place here, and I would reiterate the points I made earlier:  It's time to let go of Dennis Merzel as a teacher, at least for now.   I wish them peace and contentment.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Contrary to the impression that has been widely voiced on the internet, and even in our own community, the reality is that the Center has been largely supported by Genpo Roshi’s teaching and Big Mind work.

I am on the Board of the Zen center I practice with. There are always questions of how much to charge for retreats, how much to pay a teacher, how strongly to ask for donations. It's always difficult. I've never encountered an unquestionable "right" way to deal with these issues; they seem to be something to question, examine, and work with day by day.

The only conclusion I've come to is this. I'd rather not start with an idea of how big the center should be, and then ask what we need to do to support this vision. I'd prefer to try to see as clearly as possible what the Sangha needs and wants (as reflected by how much effort and support they're ready to give), and build the organization based on that.

Not "we should have a retreat every month, and that costs money and effort, so we must exhort everyone to give enough in donations and volunteerism to support this." But rather "this is what the Sangha is willing and able to give at the moment; what's the best we can offer from what we have to work with?"

That's what I'm comfortable with, working from the realities of our situation, rather than striving towards a visions. Other people have the exact opposite view. I'm open to the possibility that the people with views opposite of my own are necessary, or important, or an integral part of the Sangha's ecosystem.

Stuart