Posted In Blog,Books,Entertainment,Relationships,Sex,Society
by Brad Warner
Zen Master Genpo Roshi has announced that he is disrobing. To “disrobe” as a Buddhist monk means that you formally quit the Buddhist order and give up your status as a priest and/or monk. Ironically, it was disrobing that got him into trouble in the first place. It seems that Genpo, who is married, had an affair with the woman he was grooming to be his successor.
I never even knew or cared about any of Genpo’s sex scandals (this is not his first) until this one broke. But I have been highly critical of a scam he’s been running for a number of years called Big Mind(r).
Big Mind(r) is a process wherein Genpo, whose real name is Dennis Merzel, promises that he can produce for his customers a Buddhist enlightenment experience in just a few short hours, even if you have no previous meditation experience. He has been known to charge as much as $50,000 for his personally led Big Mind(r) sessions. His upcoming session in Maui (yes, he is still at it in spite of everything) is a bargain at $15,000. My first article denouncing Big Mind(r) as a fraud appeared here on SuicideGirls in 2007.
As usual when a sex scandal hits the news, this one was accompanied by a series of other revelations. A former insider in Merzel’s organization stated on Facebook that this Roshi’s community “has given him (Merzel) enough money to have three houses, two new cars and a Harley Davidson, not to mention a couple hundred thou a year salary and all expenses.”
Now I get that the love affair was hidden. But are we to believe that Merzel’s community didn’t know he had three houses, two new cars and a Harley? Really? Even I have seen photos of him on the Harley. And yet nobody noticed any problem with this? Seriously? That’s your story?
I think something else is going on, entirely. Whenever a scandal like this comes to light, everybody is very quick to point at the villain in the center of the controversy and put the blame for everything on him. It’s very neat and tidy. And it pointedly absolves everyone else of responsibility.
But it takes a lot of people to make a Zen Monster. A Zen Monster is not one man. A Zen Monster is the product of a group of individuals working in concert.
I think too many of us take The Wizard of Oz as our model for how these things work. You’ll recall that before Dorothy’s arrival, the Land of Oz was ruled over by the Wicked Witch of the East. When Dorothy’s house squashed the witch, the Munchkins celebrated singing, “Ding dong the witch is dead.” From this scene we can infer that the Wicked Witch of the East somehow took over the Land of Oz and forced her rule upon the Munchkins who, being small and weak, had no choice but to submit.
But is this what actually happens in the real world? And more to the point, is this what actually happens in small spiritual communities within wealthy democratic nations?
Merzel himself used to talk a lot about submission. In a video placed on YouTube by EnlighteNext magazine, Merzel has a dialog with Andrew Cohen in which he compares a spiritual teacher to a faucet. As one’s kitchen faucet is connected to the source of the city’s water supply, the teacher is connected to the Source of All. The water is the Dharma. The student is a cup. If you put the cup under the faucet the water comes through and fills the cup. But if the cup is beside the faucet, or above the faucet, it doesn’t receive any water. “We have to find a way to actually submit,” Merzel declares, “to come under the teacher.” (I will forego my juvenile desire to make a really obvious joke here.)
It all reminds me a lot of the BDSM scene. I’ve seen so many of the same types of behaviors directed toward kinky sex as toward lofty matters of the spirit, it’s kinda scary. I’ve written about this in my book Sex, Sin and Zen.
The people in the BDSM community have investigated the dynamics of power exchange in ways that can be really useful in understanding how much of human society actually works. These people have a vested interest in understanding clearly how power exchanges operate. The reward for them, if they get it right, is very clear and tangible. They get to have great sex.
Spiritual communities, on the other hand, are often studiously ignorant, indeed willfully ignorant, of how power exchange operates. They would like to pretend that power exchange is not a part of what they do. But it is.
In the BDSM scene they often use the words “bottom” and “top.” In very general terms a top would be the one holding the riding crop, and the bottom would be the one who is tied up. You get the picture.
Moreover, in the BDSM scene there is a well-known and very common phenomenon called “topping from the bottom.” These are cases in which the person who is tied up and supposedly enduring whatever pain or abuse his “top” gives him is actually the one calling the shots. In these cases the so-called “master” is actually not in charge at all.
Spiritual communities in which the teacher plays the top to his submissive students, who act as bottoms, often operate in the same way as tops and bottoms in BDSM. The dominant master is dependent upon his students for whatever power he can obtain. They act as a team. The students must willingly give up their power in order for the master to have any authority over them. He is not a political figure with an army or police force to impose his rules. He does not have magical powers like the Wicked Witch of the East did. The only power he has over his students comes from the students themselves who must deliberately give it to him. This is the essence of power exchange.
Also, sometimes the students feed into the teacher’s grandiosity because they want some kind of tangible reward. In the case of spiritual communities, that reward is the institutional power granted, hierarchically, to students who submit to the institution. As I noted earlier, Merzel was a key figure in his lineage. That meant that he wielded a great deal of institutional power; many people around the world were beholden to him for the institutional authority Merzel could confer upon them or their teachers. In the Zen world it was dangerous to be openly critical of him. I know this first hand.
But Dennis Merzel was dead wrong about the student-teacher relationship in Zen. It actually is not about power exchange at all, or submission. That is the beauty of Zen. Zuiko Redding of the Cedar Rapids Zen Center puts it this way, “Submission was not what I learned from my teachers. They emphasized standing up straight on your own. Tsugen Roshi, the 84-year-old Japanese teacher from whom I received transmission, likens his role to that of a guide. If you’re from the remote countryside, he says, you’ll want a guide to show you the sights of Tokyo. When you’re exploring dharma you need a guide who, because of his or her experience, knows the way. You do not submit yourself to your guide, you follow because you feel she or he is wise.”
But we’re used to the model of the submissive student, so some of us try very sincerely to give power to our teachers. It is a mistake. What was wonderful about my relationship with my own Zen teachers was that whenever I tried to give my power to them, they always threw it right back at me like a hot potato.
Since I have become a teacher myself, I now understand just how difficult it must have been for my teachers to toss back the power I tried so hard to give them. People are constantly trying to give their personal power to me. It’s not easy to give it back. And that’s not because I have some burning desire to dominate them. I don’t. It’s because they desperately want to give up their power. Sometimes they get angry and abusive if I throw it back. They blame me for not being a good teacher because I refuse to accept responsibility for their lives.
I can’t say I know what Dennis Merzel went through. But I can guess what it was like, based on my own experiences. In spite of my dislike for Merzel, I have some sympathy for him. I understand that his usurpation of power wasn’t something he did solely on his own. I’m certain that the people from whom he received power gave it to him willingly, and perhaps even insisted that he take it from them.
It would seem that the easiest solution to this would be to simply not give power to our teachers. But this is not so simple at all. A tendency to fall into power exchange relationships seems to be built into the human psychological system. Our pre-human ancestors probably had hierarchical societies built around a powerful dominant individual. Furthermore hierarchies actually do work well when groups of people want to accomplish a task. It’s been said that dictatorships are generally far more efficient forms of government than democracies. Small spiritual organizations often appear to function better when one person calls the shots. Thus it may seem expedient for spiritual societies to function this way.
In spiritual societies, the teacher is more than just an ordinary leader. She is a person who is recognized for having some kind of unique understanding. She has done the practice for a long time, and can serve as a guide to those who are new to it. When such a person is the head of an organization it is reasonable for the community to want to give her the things she tells them are necessary for her to perform her work as a guide.
Somewhere, though, a line needs to be drawn. It is essential for students to understand how this dynamic works and to learn to step outside of it. Unfortunately, this is a skill that is not very widely taught in society in general. If I had an easy answer, believe me I’d spill it. But I don’t. Like many of the human difficulties Zen seeks to deal with, this one is deeply rooted in the human psyche. We all have these same inclinations, myself included. But it’s vital that we watch them carefully and be aware of how we operate in situations where we’re invisibly and silently asked to act as either a spiritual bottom, or spiritual top. We’re all tops, okay, that’s the true teaching of Zen.
Brad is on tour right now and may be in your area. To see where Brad will be speaking next visit his blog.
Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.