Looking Back On My Path With Genpo Merzel. ~ Atalwin Pilon

Via on Feb 27, 2011

Genpo Merzel Sensei 1990.jpg by Big Mind Zen Center, on Flickr

Photo: Big Mind Zen Center

Until two weeks ago I didn’t even know about the existence of elephant journal…

Hi. This is my first post for ‘ele’. It’s the Universe again, working in mysterious ways. Recently I became aware of a growing desire to make myself heard through my writing. Because I learned over the years that desired changes don’t take place when we are not open about it, I told my friends and acquaintances working in the media or advertising industry that I was looking for some sort of platform in a magazine or newspaper here in The Netherlands.

Unlike The Secret, nothing happened. Then—out of the blue—my zen teacher Genpo Merzel decides to disrobe. After reading his public statement I decide to write him an open letter. From then on a whole series of unexpected things happened. My letter went touring through cyberspace, was posted on more than 100 Facebook walls, shared and commented upon by lots of people. In that process I came across elephant journal, I wrote Waylon and Lindsey and there you have it: they accepted me as a regular contributor.

I have been blogging on my own website for a couple of months now. For me, writing is a way to practice openness and sincerity. I give voice to what is alive in me at the very moment of typing. That means I hardly ever know what I will write about when I sit down. I just observe what comes up and type it down. It is a practice of courage as well, as I find it often scary to publish what goes on in my heart and soul. But by doing it anyway I make you, the reader, a witness of my inner journey and an accomplice on my spiritual path. Maybe we can enjoy the ride together or maybe we will suffer together. We’ll see.

So where am I at? Well, since I caused controversy by writing my controversial zen teacher who finds himself in the middle of a sex scandal an open letter, I cannot help but contemplate my relationship with him—and teacher-student relationships in general.

Let me share with you my path, and how even ‘negative’ interactions between Genpo Merzel and me worked out extremely positively.

By writing the letter I got a taste of what it means to be controversial. I wonder if this is what Genpo feels and I wonder if it is addictive. Unfortunately, it seems I cannot do the same thing twice so it will be hard for me to find out. I remember writing a funny post about 2 months ago that was very well received. It planted a seed in my head: “you must be funny! More people will read your website when you are funny!” Long story short: I never wrote a funny post again.

So I didn’t have a great insight in the meaning of being controversial but I did experience how it feels to be exposed to many different projections. The projections become very visible when you witness the same message being received differently by different people. What I learn from that is that all relationships are different and all teacher-student relationships are different.

When I first heard about the scandal and started to read reactions from students, I felt pity for the ones who were so wounded, who acted like betrayed victims—or better—betrayed girlfriends. I could not see why they took it so personally. I mean come on, it was just a zen teacher; and wasn’t it obvious all along that he had a big fat ego as well? I was also put off by the many that responded with blind admiration, trying to subtly weave in some non-dual awareness in their comforting words—just in case there were some zen brownie points to be scored.

What this situation needed was somebody who saw clearly and had the guts and balls to stand up and speak the truth, who was unwilling to be fooled into overlooking what was hidden. This called for some true masculine compassion! This was my moment!

So I gathered all of my courage and did what I did and that was that. I gave Genpo my best shot and many responses followed. By being at the receiving end I realized that I was not the only one who gave his best shot. We always give our best shot, all of us, all the time. And everybody does it in his or her own unique way.

I talked to some longtime students who were genuinely shocked, angry, sad and (in some cases) totally devastated about what happened. But they were also very proud and grateful for what I did, and I realized that one of the reasons that allowed me to write the open letter was that I never went in that deep. My first retreat with Genpo and the Kanzeon Sangha was in 2004 in Ameland, and I never missed an episode until 2011 (and see what happens if I don’t show up).

I went to Salt Lake City twice, in 2006 and 2008, three months in total. That means that I spent a total of five-six months on retreat with Genpo, strictly during the Big Mind era when he spent a lot less time one-on-one with students than before. That might sound like a lot to non-practitioners, but it’s nothing compared to living as a monk in the zen center for nine years straight and following him for 15 more. For me, Genpo was a powerful influence and a source of inspiration, but I can imagine that for some he was the most important figure in their lives. I can see that some wounds are deeper and that one can also be too close to see things in perspective.

Another thing was that my spiritual path unfolded in a way that was very much about becoming independent, autonomous. I had a big transformational experience only two months after meeting Genpo and being introduced to the Big Mind Process in January 2004, and a handful of smaller openings took place in the weeks and months after. I had realized my shadow, knew that there was nothing weak, rotten or vulnerable outside me. I learned that realization was about becoming real and not turning into a saint. I had learned to forgive and had felt the purification of deeply mourning the suffering I had caused. I went through all of this stuff alone, without help, support or guidance. Therefore I didn’t start feeling deeply indebted.

With all of this newfound wisdom under my belt, I prepared to go to France to attend my first ‘real’ session, with Genno Sensei. She would give transmission for the first time, to Amy Hollowell. Because of this special occasion Genpo would be there too. During my early morning shower before departure I felt all of these competitive feelings around Genpo and I realized: “I’m making him into the father I never had!” And I realized that he is not my father, and I see how this is a popular pitfall in the spiritual process.

In 2006 I decided to travel to the United States. I had to make huge sacrifices to go there. This realization had turned my life upside down, I could not go back to my ‘old’ life and didn’t know exactly how to manifest as, well, myself. I had ideas that involved facilitating an innovative way of brainstorming. I wanted to learn to facilitate, and thought that the Big Mind Facilitator Training would be a good idea.

To cut a long story short: the Big Mind Facilitator Training was just an ordinary retreat and I felt betrayed.

What was offered was not what was advertised on the website. There was no proper facilitator training and Genpo had no intention whatsoever of certifying people. When I ‘revolted’ and asked for an explanation, publicly, I was beaten down. Genpo shouted at me: “You always with your analytic mind! I want you to show me some emptiness!”

What happened was that I saw that I actually had a well functioning analytic mind and had some sort of wisdom. Maybe not fully enlightened but there was certainly something. These two ‘talents’ combined was what made me unique, I could finally see what I had to offer to the world. Maybe I wasn’t a zen master but I was worldly enough to bring spirituality to the corporate world and the creative industry. I just knew I could bridge these two worlds.

To do that I had to stand with my own two feet on the ground and follow my heart. Big Mind Facilitator Training was a Catch 22. To become a certified Big Mind Facilitator you needed to have experience, during the program there was no opportunity to build up experience and you were certainly not encouraged to go out and try by yourself. I decided to break and bend the rules. I clearly saw I had to live my own life and that I shouldn’t wait for Genpo or anybody else to rescue me. So the worst, most disappointing, deceitful retreat where I was publicly scorned and humiliated actually freed me. This was the beginning of Basic Goodness.

Looking back, it was just my karma that brought me in the position where I find myself today. My path with Genpo Merzel was not a path of submitting and surrendering to the person, but a path to finding my voice and my purpose—becoming more autonomous and independant. Still, that’s a lot to learn and I never experienced the level of intimacy that some other students had. But I’m very grateful for what I did receive and am literally trying to pay him back, wishing him the same purifying mourning that comes with the untying of the knots that are keeping the shadow revealed.

So what is my lesson?

We can only share what we have. We all have our own perspectives, and our efforts might appear differently. At the same time though, we are very much the same. Nothing special.

Atalwin Pilon is an executive coach, life coach, mindfulness trainer and a Zen Buddhist practitioner. He is also a former bad boy from Amsterdam who likes boxing, snowboarding, cross country running and lifting heavy steel. Somebody once called him “a zen monk with the brain of an advertising guy in the body of a nightclub doorman,”  and now he is putting that in every bio he gets his hands on. Atalwin writes about his life, his own struggles, his occasional insights and anything else that he feels is worthwhile. He always comes from the heart. Check out his website www.basicgoodness.com if you are interested in learning more about Atalwin or his stuff. Feel free to follow Basic Goodness on Twitter and Facebook too.

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