On Monday night, EnlightenNext founder Andrew Cohen and many of his students engaged in a fascinating and powerful dialogue with Zen Master Genpo Merzel at the EnlightenNext World Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Genpo Roshi was delightfully funny and disarmingly frank, displaying an impressive spiritual depth born of 37 years of Zen practice and teaching. (A dharma brother of Bernie Glassman, Genpo Roshi is now 65 years old and started performing basic Zen teaching functions when he was just 28, at the behest of his master, the late Maezumi Roshi.) Over the course of the evening, we spoke with him about the evolution of his teachings, the necessity of maintaining a clear vertical hierarchy in any student-teacher relationship, and even about his experience as a collegiate water polo team captain. The highlight for me, though, was when Genpo Roshi guided us through a three-minute version of his innovative “Big Mind Process.”
I first learned of Genpo Roshi through his involvement with philosopher Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute. In a 2007 foreword to Genpo Roshi’s book Big Mind, Big Heart, Wilber offered tremendous praise for the Roshi and his work:
Let me state this as strongly as I can: the Big Mind Process . . . is an astonishingly original, profound, and effective path for waking up, or seeing one’s True Nature. . . . What Dennis Genpo Roshi has done is not only the most original discovery in Buddhism in the last two centuries, it is unbelievably simple, quick, and effective. In Zen, this realization of one’s True Nature, or Ultimate Reality, is called kensho or satori (“seeing into one’s True Nature,” or discovering Big Mind and Big Heart). It often takes five years or more of extremely difficult practice (I know, I’ve done it) in order for a profound satori to occur. With the Big Mind Process, a genuine kensho can occur in about an hour — seriously. Once you get it, you can do it virtually any time you wish, and almost instantaneously. It is nothing less than the discovery of your True and Unique Self, Ultimately Reality, the Ground of All Being — again, call it what you like, for “they call it Many which is really One.” . . . And once you spot that, an entirely different world opens for you.
Now, I have to admit that I’ve always been somewhat of a snob when it comes to Zen, having cut my spiritual teeth on the works of the almighty Zen masters Hui-neng (7th century), Keizan (13th century), and Hakuin (18th century), among many of the other great figures in that most no-nonsense of Buddhist sects. In light of those towering giants of Chinese and Japanese Zen, I considered most Western teachers and approaches to be far too soft and watered-down to be taken seriously. To me, Zen required years of shaved-head, sweat-browed, bulging-eyed discipline — like meditating without flinching while being attacked by swarms of rabid mosquitoes, or contemplating a tough koan for a week without sleeping, or simply staring at a wall for nine years straight, as in the case of Zen’s founding father, Bodhidharma. So when I first heard about Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind Process six or seven years ago, which promised people a satori after just a few hours of “voice dialoguing,” I was skeptical to say the least. (Though I never approached the heights of disparaging arrogance demonstrated by Brad Warner, a Gen-X self-styled “Zen punk” whose inane books I’ve critiqued in the pages of EnlightenNext. See bottom of the page here, and a more recent review here.)
In YouTube videos of Genpo Roshi taking people through the Big Mind Process — which involves him asking the audience to contact, feel, and speak from different “voices,” or parts of the self, until they fall through the trapdoor and find themselves in Big Mind, the True Self beyond all concepts — it’s hard to get what’s going on unless you really engage with it, performing the exercise yourself and not merely watching others do it. Genpo Roshi works dynamically, engaging with you in the moment, face to face, peeling away layers of self-identity until he brings your attention all the way back to your Original Face. So, Gen-Y slacker that I am, I never fully tried it out and therefore never got it. That is, until Monday night, when he was no longer on YouTube but actually sitting right in front of me. :)
And . . . it really works. It is indeed “simple, quick, and effective,” as Wilber so boldly advertised. Granted, our audience wasn’t exactly the most random test sample, since everyone in attendance was a student of Andrew Cohen and his teachings of Evolutionary Enlightenment. But the exercise jogged memories of my first prolonged satori experience nine years ago, which happened shortly after I met Andrew and attended one of his long retreats. During that initial, overwhelmingly ecstatic foray into enlightened consciousness, I remember taking a Zen book off the shelf — perhaps The Blue Cliff Record — and opening it up to random koans. I would read them and then nearly fall over laughing, suddenly getting the joke. So as Genpo Roshi walked us through the famous “Mu” koan during our three-minute Big Mind session, it had a similar effect. It was comical how obvious the answer to the koan was after we’d exhausted all our intellectual answers to his question, “What is Mu?” And I’m sure it is all the more powerful for those who are guided by Genpo Roshi to the liberating recognition of their Self for the very first time (then again, isn’t it always the first time?). The surprising simplicity of the Big Mind approach reminds me of a classic quote from Zen Master Foyan: “When you see, let there be no seer or seen; when you hear, let there be no hearer or heard; when you think, let there be no thinker or thought. Buddhism is extremely easy and saves the most energy. It’s just that you yourself waste energy and cause yourself trouble.”
Still, the Big Mind method does have its drawbacks, which Genpo Roshi spoke with us about at length (and he did so in even more depth during an interview/dialogue conducted by Andrew earlier in the day, which I’m currently editing for the upcoming issue of EnlightenNext). Specifically, it can be used and abused for a kind of quick-fix gimmicky spiritual high by postmodern seekers who have zero authentic spiritual training — nor necessarily any intention of engaging in spiritual training — which thereby allows them to sneak a peek at the Absolute and then conclude that they’ve somehow attained something. Genpo Roshi gave the example of some eager young seekers coming up to him, after practicing Big Mind for only three months, and asking if they were now qualified to be Zen masters! (“As soon as you get some sense of contact, you want to be teachers of others,” observed the Zen master Ta-sui, long ago. “This is a big mistake.”) Most worryingly, Genpo Roshi explained, the Big Mind Process— when practiced in and of itself, without being supplemented by koan study and zazen — has revealed itself to lack a fundamental verticality, the hierarchical tension that alone has the power to pull a developing soul along the spiritual path. But he’s now taking active steps to correct this.
For the first two decades of his teaching work, he said, he was very traditional, sitting on a raised dais before his students in full Japanese Zen master regalia. In that context, verticality was obvious, and respect for the teacher, as well as reverence for the sacred heights of Spirit itself, were implicit in the tradition. But over time, it became evident that a strictly traditional path wasn’t necessarily the best fit for his post-traditional, postmodern students. So, in 1999, he developed the Big Mind Process, intending to convey the essence of Zen in a way more amenable to modern and postmodern sensibilities, while also making Zen more widely accessible — i.e., a more “horizontal” approach, aiming for breadth over depth. But now that the limitations of that have also become all too clear to him, Genpo Roshi envisions a new stage in the unfolding of his work: an integration of the vertical and the horizontal, the traditional and the new, with the potential to revitalize the practice of Zen Buddhism for the 21st century. And given what I’ve seen so far, I think he stands a good chance of succeeding.