Dennis Merzel

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Dennis Merzel
BornJune 3, 1944
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
EducationUniversity of Southern California
Taizan Maezumi and Merzel

Dennis Merzel (born June 3, 1944, in Brooklyn, New York) is an American Zen and spirituality teacher, also known as Genpo Roshi.


Early life[edit]

Dennis Paul Merzel was born on June 3, 1944, in Brooklyn, New York, and was raised and schooled in Long Beach, California. His family was Jewish (his grandfather was a Rabbi),[1] but he was raised as an agnostic by his father and as an atheist by his mother.[2] He was a champion swimmer and an all-American water polo player. He was a lifeguard and began teaching public school while obtaining a master's degree in educational administration from the University of Southern California.[web 1][news 1]

Zen Buddhism[edit]

While on a trip in 1971 to the Mojave Desert in California with two friends, Merzel had what he described as an "awakening experience".[web 2][web 3] Following this, he left his career as a school teacher for a year to live in the mountains alone in a cabin near San Luis Obispo. In 1972[web 2] he met the Japanese-born Zen teacher Taizan Maezumi, and moved to Los Angeles to study under him.[web 1][news 2][news 3] Merzel was ordained as an unsui, or novice priest, in 1973.[3] In 1980, a year after completing kōan study, Merzel received dharma transmission, becoming Maezumi's second Dharma successor.[3][web 2] In 1981 Merzel underwent zuise[note 1] in Japan,[3] and in 1988 he was officially installed as abbot of Hosshinji Zen temple in Bar Harbor, Maine.[web 4][note 2] In 1995 Merzel received the title of Dendō-kyōshi Kenshuso, a now defunct category officially recognizing Western Zen priests by the Sōtō School Headquarters in Japan (Sōtō-shū) .[web 5] In 1996 Merzel received Inka from Bernie Glassman,[3][web 2] after Maezumi's death in 1995.[web 4][note 3] This made Merzel Bernie Glassman's first Inka successor and made him the second in Maezumi Roshi's lineage to be recognized as a Zen Master.[web 2] Merzel is the founder[news 4] and former Abbot of Kanzeon Zen Center. [news 5]

Big Mind[edit]

In 1983 Merzel began studying Voice Dialogue—a Jungian therapeutic technique designed to expand the individual's ability to make choices in life rather than to behave in an automatic and unconscious fashion[web 8]—with Hal and Sidra Stone. Shortly thereafter, he began to experiment with integrating Voice Dialogue with the Zen tradition,[web 9] and in 1999 he introduced the Big Mind Process™.[web 4] The aim of the Big Mind Process is to combine "Eastern, Buddhist insights with Western psychoanalytical ideas,"[news 6][note 4][note 5] and according to Merzel:

It allows a person to step out of their ego and have a universal mind or mystical experience, to attain what is commonly called enlightenment, self realization, Christ mind, or Buddha mind.[web 9]

Merzel has organized Big Mind™ retreats and events nationally and internationally, such as an annual event in the Netherlands that has attracted hundreds of participants.[news 6] Responses to Big Mind have been variously negative[web 11][web 12] and positive.[web 13][note 6]

A randomized clinical trial of Merzel's Big Mind process has been carried out as part of a masters thesis "to test the hypothesis that a Zen training method using a self-based dialogue approach called Big Mind (Merzel, 2007) produces significant changes in subjective experience that are similar to the spiritual experiences of long-term meditators during deep meditation and, second, to examine whether the effect brings about any lasting positive psychological improvements in both spirituality and well-being measures."[6] The participants appeared to score higher on various measures after participation, but the reported effects may also result from factors such as group effect, suggestibility, and/or simple expectation,[6] and the study may have limited generalizability due to the high level of education of the participants.[6][note 7]

Resignation from White Plum[edit]

In 1988 Merzel was installed as abbot at Hosshinji, a Zen temple in Bar Harbor, Maine.[web 2][web 5][7] He was alleged to have had a romantic relationship with a student, leading to the dissolution of the temple.[web 5]

In August 1992, a group of 12 American Zen teachers sent a letter to Taizan Maezumi, expressing concern about Merzel's relationships with a number of female students, his lack of remorse, and his lack of responsibility. They asked Maezumi to withdraw Merzel's sanction to teach.[web 14]

In February 2011, after admitting to three extra-marital affairs, Merzel said he would disrobe as a Buddhist priest, resign as an elder of the White Plum Asanga, step down as Abbot of Kanzeon, and stop teaching for an indefinite period to seek counseling.[news 7][news 8][web 15][news 9]

Forty-four American Buddhist teachers wrote a letter[news 10] suggesting that Merzel take a minimum one-year break from teaching and seek therapy.[letters 1][letters 2]

By April, Merzel had reversed his position, saying that too many students and his organizations depended on him financially and spiritually.[news 11]

Sixty-six American Buddhist teachers responded with a public letter to Merzel requesting that he follow through with his stated intention to stop teaching for some time.[news 11][letters 3][letters 4] Merzel continued to lead retreats.[news 11][letters 5] It was reported that he and his wife were divorcing.[news 11]

He continues to serve as president and abbot of Kanzeon Zen Center, now called Big Heart Zen Sangha.[web 2]


Dennis Merzel has given Dharma transmission (shiho) to twenty-three students heirs, and inka (final acknowledgement) to fifteen Zen-teachers. He has given Jukai to 518 students and ordained 139 priests.[web 2]

Dharma successors[edit]

  • Catherine Genno Pagès (1992), Dana Zen Center, Paris, France
  • John Shodo Flatt (1994, deceased), England
  • Anton Tenkei Coppens (1996), Zen River, The Netherlands
  • Malgosia Jiho Braunek (2003, deceased), Kandzeon Sangha, Warsaw, Poland
  • Daniel Doen Silberberg (2003), Lost Coin Zen, San Francisco, US
  • Nico Sojun Tydeman (2004), Zen Centrum Amsterdam
  • Nancy Genshin Gabrysch (2006), England
  • Diane Musho Hamilton (2006), Boulder Mountain Zendo, Utah, US
  • Michael Mugaku Zimmerman (2006), Boulder Mountain Zendo, Utah, US
  • Rich Taido Christofferson (2007), Seattle, Washington, US
  • Michel Genko Dubois (2007), L'Association Dana, France
  • Tamara Myoho Gabrysch (2008), Zen River, The Netherlands
  • Maurice Shonen Knegtel (2009), Izen, The Netherlands
  • KC Kyozen Sato (2009), Salt Lake City, Utah, US
  • Judi Kanchi Warren (2010, deceased)
  • Mark Daitoku Esterman (2014), Salt Lake Zen Group, Utah, US
  • Mary Ellen Seien Sloan (2017), Salt Lake City, Utah, US
  • Christian Jikishin von Wolkahof (2018), Dusseldorf, Germany
  • Lynn Shozen Holbrook (2019), Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Stefan Kenjitsu Coppens (2019), Kanzeon Zen Centrum, The Netherlands
  • Krzysztof Furyu Leśniak (2019), Lublin, Poland
  • Hank Yoshin Malinowski (2019), Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  • Jacqueline Shosui Wellenstein (2019), Voorburg, The Netherlands

Inka transmission[edit]

  • John Daido Loori (deceased), Zen Mountain Monastery, New York, US
  • Catherine Genno Pages, Dana Zen Center, Paris, France
  • Anton Tenkei Coppens, Zen River, The Netherlands
  • Charles Tenshin Fletcher, Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, Idyllwild, California, US
  • Nicolee Jikyo McMahon, Three Treasures Zen Community, San Diego County, California, US
  • Susan Myoyu Anderson, Great Plains Zen Center, Wisconsin and Illinois, Great Wave Zen Sangha, Michigan, US
  • Sydney Musai Walters, Prajna Zendo, Lamy, New Mexico, US
  • Malgosia Jiho Braunek (deceased), Kandzeon Sangha, Warsaw, Poland
  • Nancy Genshin Gabrysch, Kannon-ji Temple, Bilsborrow, England
  • Daniel Doen Silberberg (2003), Lost Coin Zen, San Francisco, US
  • Maurice Shonen Knegtel, Izen, The Netherlands
  • Tamara Myoho Gabrysch, Zen River, The Netherlands
  • Nico Sojun Tydeman (2018), Zen Centrum Amsterdam
  • Rein Konpo Kaales, White Cloud Zen, Idaho



  • The Eye Never Sleeps: Striking to the Heart of Zen (1991, Shambhala Publications)
  • Beyond Sanity and Madness the Way of Zen Master Dogen (1994, Tuttle Publishing)
  • 24/7 Dharma: Impermanence, No-Self, Nirvana (2001, Journey Editions)
  • The Path of the Human Being: Zen Teachings on the Bodhisattva Way (2005, Shambhala Publications)
  • Big Mind, Big Heart: Finding Your Way (2007, Big Mind Publishing)[news 12]
  • The Fool Who Thought He Was God (2013, Big Mind Publishing)
  • Spitting Out the Bones: A Zen Master's 45 Year Journey (2016, Big Mind Publishing)


  • Big Mind Big Heart Revealed
  • The Path of the Human Being
  • Awakened by the 10,000 Dharmas
  • From Student to Master
  • Masculine and Feminine Energies
  • The Teachings of Bodhidharma

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ceremonial "abbot-for-one-night" rituals at the head temples of the Soto school
  2. ^ A traditional ceremony of "entering the temple" which marks the end of the monastic training period and becoming part of the clergy.[4]
  3. ^ IntegralNaked: "Roshi Bernie had received Inka from Maezumi Roshi shortly before the latter's death in May of 1995."[web 4] SweepingZen: "In the Japanese Rinzai schools, inka is the equivalent of Sōtō Zen dharma transmission (shiho ceremony), and is the final level of empowerment as a teacher. In the Harada-Yasutani lineage, inka is one level of empowerment beyond dharma transmission."[web 6] Great Plains Zen Center: "This Inka ceremony grants final approval in our Rinzai lineage through Musa Koryu Roshi, another one of Maezumi Roshi's teachers."[web 7]
  4. ^ From the Big Mind website: "In 1999 he created the Big Mind Process™, also known as Big Mind/Big Heart, which philosopher Ken Wilber has called “arguably the most important and original discovery in the last two centuries of Buddhism.” It has broadened and enriched not only the teaching of Zen but spiritual practices in other traditions as well, enabling thousands of people from all walks of life and religious backgrounds to have an awakening with little or no prior consciousness study. It is being used in many fields, including psychotherapy, law, medicine, education, mediation, business, athletics, social work, family therapy, and work with prison inmates, hospital patients and the dying. Roshi continues to train people to bring the Big Mind process and Big Heart Zen out into the world, and remains deeply committed to their ongoing evolution."[web 2]
  5. ^ Japanese Soto Zen founder Dōgen Zenji uses the phrase in his Tenzo Kyōkun (Instructions to the Chief Cook);[5] as does 20th-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in talks collected in the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.[web 10]
  6. ^ Negative:
    * Brad Warner: "Big Mind™ is irresponsible and dangerous. But there is a lot of irresponsible and dangerous stuff going on in the world of this type of cheesy vaguely Eastern feel-good-now spirituality. The reason I have focused so much attention on Genpo Roshi’s rotten Big Mind™ scam is because it pretends to be related to Zen. Not only to Zen, but to the Soto tradition of Master Dogen. Genpo has even stolen Suzuki Roshi’s phrase “big mind” — first used in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — and trademarked it for himself (SFZC really should make a legal complaint about that, since they own the copyright to Suzuki’s works). But Big Mind™ has nothing whatsoever in common with real Zen practice."[web 11]
    * Barbara O'Brien (2011): "What always (to me) made Big Mind™ sound hinky is that it is marketed as enlightenment on speed dial. By using Genpo's techniques, the pitch said, you could save yourself years of sitting zazen before realizing satori. Big Mind™ is taught mostly through seminars that charge a hefty enrollment fee, beginning at $150, which I'll come back to in a minute. I understand some people have paid as much as $50,000 for quickie enlightenment.[web 12]
    * Denis Hamill: "I approached "Big Mind, Big Heart" with a jaundiced eye, expecting snake oil. But I found it compelling and life-changing. I can't say that I have achieved "kensho." But I have reached a place where I no longer do a Ben Hur chariot race on the BQE after someone flips me the bird. I shout a lot less. I deal with envy and petty jealousies by embracing and owning the emotion and then transcending it.[web 13]
  7. ^ See also Linda Heuman, Meditation Nation, Tricycle April 25, 2014.


Book references[edit]

  1. ^ Stroud, Michael (January 2004). "Spirituality - Coming Home". Mindful. Shambhala Sun. Partial version on Lion's Roar
  2. ^ "Big Think Interview with Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi". Big Think. August 3, 2009. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d Ford 2006, p. 166.
  4. ^ Borup 2008, p. 180.
  5. ^ Dōgen Zenji & Uchiyama 1983, p. 18, 38.
  6. ^ a b c Johnson 2011.
  7. ^ Buddhist Society 1988, p. 252.

Web references[edit]

Newspapers and magazines references[edit]

  1. ^ Jarvik, Elaine (August 26, 2005). "The Zen of Sitting". Desert Morning News. Retrieved January 3, 2008.
  2. ^ "Sitting judge: Retired Utah chief justice finds his way as a Buddhist monk". Deseret News. April 24, 2004.
  3. ^ "Sensei Coppens: het grootste geschenk is de onbevreesdheid". Trouw. January 11, 1997. Archived from the original on October 13, 2012. Retrieved February 12, 2011.
  4. ^ Bloom, Anna (May 1, 2007). "How to bring Zen to the grocery store". Park Record.
  5. ^ Warburton, Nicole (January 3, 2009). "New year, New mind – Zen master helps others find enlightenment". Deseret News. Retrieved February 18, 2011.
  6. ^ a b Limpt, Cokky van (January 22, 2010). "Verlichting voor westerse geesten". Trouw. Retrieved April 3, 2011.
  7. ^ Ryan, Philip (February 7, 2011). "Genpo Merzel disrobes". Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Retrieved February 18, 2011.
  8. ^ Limpt, Cokky van (March 23, 2011). "Pleegde de zenmeester overspel of was het misbruik?". Trouw.
  9. ^ Peggy Fletches Stack, February 25, 2011, Utah Zen master admits affair, leaves center, The Salt Lake Tribune
  10. ^ Tricycle (February 20, 2011 ), Sex in the Sangha: Apparently, we still haven't had enough
  11. ^ a b c d The Salt Lake Tribune, Zen teachers are livid Utah colleague in sex scandal still teaching
  12. ^ Hamill, Dennis (September 1, 2008). "Peace of mind in Zen master Gerpo Merzel's 'Big Mind'". Daily News (New York). Retrieved February 12, 2011.

Letters from Zen teachers[edit]


External links[edit]