Disrobing Genpo. ~ Brad Warner

Via elephant journal
on Feb 9, 2011
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Famous Zen Master Genpo Roshi has announced that he is disrobing.

For those not acquainted with obscure Buddhist twists on familiar phraseology, 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.

Genpo Roshi put a short essay explaining his side of the story entitled “Owning My Responsibility” on his website. It said in part, “I have chosen to disrobe as a Buddhist Priest, and will stop giving Buddhist Precepts or Ordinations, but I will continue teaching Big Mind®. I will spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect. I will not give up on, and will still continue to be available for people who wish to continue studying with me as just an ordinary human being who is working on his own shadows and deeply rooted patterns… that have led me to miss the mark of being a moral and ethical person and a decent human being. Experiencing the pain and suffering that I have caused has truly touched my heart and been the greatest teacher. It has helped open my eyes and given me greater clarity around my own dishonest, hurtful behavior as well as my sexual misconduct. I am in deep pain over the suffering I have caused my wife, children, students, successors and Sangha.”

It’s signed “With Sadness and Love.” Isn’t that just the most precious and special thing you’ve ever read in your entire life? Feh.*

Some of you reading this probably already know that I have been highly critical of Genpo Roshi for a number of years [as has elephant, from time to time. ~ ed.]. In March of 2007 I published an essay on the Suicide Girls website titled “Big Mind® is a Big Load® of Horseshit“. In that essay I took Genpo to task for teaching a ridiculous technique that he claimed in his literature at the time could give a person a true Buddhist enlightenment experience in just a few hours. Not long after that Genpo introduced a new, extra special version of the Big Mind® seminars for which he charged $50,000 per person. I spoke out about that as well. In 2008, the folks in Genpo’s organization came after me for daring to criticize their teacher in the comments section of this Elephant Journal piece.

Now Genpo’s sexual misconduct has been found out and he’s all contrite and lovingly sad about it. Yet he promises he will still continue teaching Big Mind® and he will truly integrate Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into his life. There is something seriously wrong with this picture. Deeply, deeply wrong.

Maybe I’m just weird. But Genpo’s affair seems like a pretty minor thing. Which is not to say I think it’s fine and dandy. But it’s a matter between him and his wife and his lover. I’ve come to believe quite strongly that monogamy is not at all the natural condition of human beings, despite what we’ve been told for so many years. For some people it comes effortlessly. For others it is absolutely impossible. I think for most of us it is possible, but extremely difficult. When I hear that someone has failed at it I am never shocked or surprised.

I understand that Genpo presented himself as a happily monogamously married family man and that these new revelations have shown this to have been a lie. I can see why people are upset at finding out that a man they trusted to lead them to the Ultimate Truth could not even tell the conventional/relative truth about his marital situation. Even so, the man’s sexual infidelities and his dishonesty about them, as bad as they are, are not even close to what I perceive as his most damaging misconduct.

People are falling all over themselves to congratulate Genpo for disrobing and “doing the right thing.” I don’t see it that way at all. Doing the right thing would have been remaining as a monk and ending the whole Big Mind® program. By leaving the Buddhist community, Genpo has now put himself beyond the reach of the only people who could legitimately criticize Big Mind®. I expect to see Big Mind® get even bigger and cause more destruction. Even absent the Big Mind® nonsense, remaining in the Buddhist order would have been the best way to address the other matters. Now that he’s on his own, Genpo has no one to answer to and can become as big of a cult leader as he pleases. That’s what typically happens in cases like this.

As usual when a sex scandal hits the news, this one has been accompanied by a whole series of other revelations. A former insider in Genpo’s organization stated on Facebook that Genpo’s community “has given him (Genpo) 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.” Yikes!

This all just has me scratching my head and furrowing my brow. Maybe I simply do not comprehend how normal people think. Because very little of this makes any sense to me at all. I get that the whole love affair thing was hidden. I get that people didn’t know about it till now. But this financial stuff had to have been all right out in the open. Genpo’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?

Look. I am not insisting all Zen monks take a vow of absolute poverty and live on just what they can carry in a knapsack slung over their backs like the monks in ancient China did. I know we’re living in a completely different society than they were. I own three bass guitars, a used PT Cruiser, and a ten-speed bike. I wouldn’t want to have to stuff those in a knapsack. But three houses? For the love of God, who needs three houses? I don’t even have one!**

Genpo made no secret that he was charging $50,000 a person for his instant enlightenment seminars. Didn’t anyone think that was just a tad excessive? It doesn’t sound like Genpo has any intention of not doing that anymore. He’s just going to be a little more careful about where he puts his penis.

I don’t care where he puts his penis! I’m sorry for the pain and suffering his wife and kids and his girlfriend had to endure. And it does show a lack of judgment and honesty that could reflect on other areas of his life and teaching. But it is so completely removed from the more truly damaging stuff he’s been doing (and apparently intends to go right on doing) that it hardly even registers as far as I’m concerned.

Sexual misconduct is a serious matter in Buddhist practice. It is one of the top ten things we vow not to do when we declare to the world our intention of following the Buddha Way. Long ago the Buddhist order tried to specifically define what is and is not sexual misconduct. But many centuries before any of us were born they realized that what constitutes sexual misconduct is very much tied to the society you live in and the attitudes of the people you interact with. There can never be any universal definition of sexual misconduct. Nevertheless there is still a universal thing that we can call “sexual misconduct” in spite of the fact that the specifics of what it is are so variable. Therefore we vow not to conduct ourselves wrongly in the area of sexuality. Then we have to figure out for ourselves what precisely that means in our own lives and in the lives of those we interact with.

It sounds to me like Genpo probably did engage in sexual misconduct. He clearly defines his behavior as such. In another instance having sex with someone other than the person you married would not be sexual misconduct. There are many married couples who do not feel that extra-marital sex is sexual misconduct. There are even entire societies who do not feel sex outside of marriage is anything to get too worked up about.

This is why these sex-related allegations against Genpo mean nothing at all to me. For all I know maybe Genpo and his wife were swingers and the affair was not nearly so hurtful as he’s making it out to be. He could just be too ashamed to admit it and is taking this public stance as a way of avoiding doing so. I don’t know and I don’t care very much. I don’t even understand why everyone else seems so overwrought about it.

There is another issue, though, that I am personally concerned about regarding this scandal. Some people have misread my book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, as containing the revelation that I had an affair with one of my Zen students. Some have even so deeply misconstrued the book as to believe it says I had two affairs with two students. In fact, I fell in love with a woman who had come to a handful of the Zen classes I taught and then stopped attending them a few months before we got together. The other woman mentioned in the book was not only not a Zen student, she had not even the slightest interest in Buddhism. Neither of them ever entered into anything like a formal teacher/student relationship with me. In Zen, the teacher/student relationship is a clearly defined thing that involves a specific public declaration and ceremony.

Even so, this experience led me to understand how and why teacher/student love affairs develop so frequently in the Zen community as well as in other spiritual communities. Most of them are nothing at all like what happened with Genpo. There is no deception, no cheating on spouses, and no abuse of power going on in the majority of these relationships. They are simply cases of people finding mutual attraction based on a deeply held interest that precious few people can even understand let alone share. Where else would an un-partnered Zen teacher be most likely to encounter a person like that other than among her students? Sure there are six billion other people on the planet, as one guy pointed out on Facebook regarding Genpo, but how many of them are committed practitioners of the thing that that un-partnered teacher has dedicated her life to?

Unfortunately for these lucky people who have been able to find their so-called “soul mates,” the Genpo case may very well be absorbed into the psyches of the rest of their community and lead them to believe that something terrible is going on when really nothing could be further from the truth. Besides the whole Big Mind® mess, this is what saddens me most about the Genpo Roshi affair.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Big Mind® is a deeply hurtful and dangerous technique that goes absolutely against the real teachings of Soto style Zen Buddhism. It is far more unethical and immoral to run a Big Mind® seminar than it is to cheat on your spouse. The potential damage far surpasses anything a love affair could produce. I’ve written more extensively about this on my blog.

Buddhist style “enlightenment experiences” (I despise this term, but it’s in common use, so I’m stuck with it) are not something one should take lightly. There’s a very good reason why Zen teachers for thousands of years have cautioned their students to go very slowly and cautiously along the path. These sudden breakthroughs can seem very thrilling when they happen. People might even pay good money for them. But they can also mess your mind up in a very big way if you go into them unprepared. Yet here’s old loving Genpo making it so you can walk in off the street and have one in a couple hours. That’s like giving random people massive doses of LSD and saying, “Here! It’s fun! Now you’re going to see God and love everyone in the world!”

And Genpo has vowed to keep right on doing it. Wonderful. Just wonderful.

* And poor Ken Wilber! He’s up there on YouTube from a couple years ago telling the world, “Isn’t Genpo Roshi about the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen? It’s not just Genpo as a human being and as an Enlightened human being. He’s a deeply, deeply decent human being. Which is much harder than being enlightened, incidentally.”

**Hey former Genpo followers! I’m struggling to find a way to pay the rent on a cheap apartment in one of the most rundown communities in America. If you really want to stick it to Genpo, why not take away one of his houses, sell it, and give the money to his worst arch-enemy and nemesis–me? Then I’ll buy myself one house and it’ll all be even steven. Hit me up. We’ll talk.

Brad Warner is a Zen monk and author of Sex Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff.

Brad Warner is ON TOUR RIGHT NOW and may even be in your area! To see where Brad will be speaking next, take a look here!


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85 Responses to “Disrobing Genpo. ~ Brad Warner”

  1. TamingAuthor says:

    But Zen without Buddhism is what we find most frequently. Therefore, maybe sitting on a cushion being bored is now a major hobby. You must admit, however, that a lot of attitude can be donned as a result of sitting on a cushion being bored, so maybe the boredom is transferred into attitude?

    Though I am being sarcastic to a large extent, I find almost all Zen practitioners I speak with have absolutely no clue regarding the basics of Buddhism.

  2. TamingAuthor says:

    "Being one with the universe." Oops. Not Buddhism. Zen monism. Trap door opens and Genpo Roshi falls through into the hell realms.

  3. Al Billings says:

    Unfortunately, everything you say here is pretty true.

    I've heard well known "Zen" teachers admit to never reading a sutra, which I find appalling.

  4. Brian Jackson says:

    Brad Warner is correct in his points criticizing Merzel. Now Brad just has to learn that rebirth is literal as it is stated in the sutras.

  5. Kelly says:

    I like that the naturalness of love is brought up. I feel an openness to a path that defends love and naturalness AND honesty and compassion. Two sides of the same coin. Or just the same coin.

  6. Linda says:

    I have learned that opinions and judgments concerning other people's private lives should be "labeled" mere "thinking", and that it's best to breathe out and wish everyone true well-being.

  7. bebop23 says:

    "inga" is not "inka": that is, being made a ji do pop sa is NOT dharma transmission. As this letter makes clear.

    "Dear Students of the Golden Wind Zen Group and the Public at Large:

    It is with a great deal of sadness and wistfulness that I write this letter is to inform you that Paul Lynch was permanently suspended on July 13, 2008 as a Ji Do Poep Sa Nim in the Golden Wind Zen Teaching Order. I originally asked Paul to take a leave of absence as a teacher during which time he could begin to practice regularly once again and make an effort to deal with his severe health problems and personal issues. When informed of this leave-of-absence from teaching, Paul decided to walk away from the sangha entirely.

    A Ji Do Poep Sa is permitted to teach only under the direct supervision of their supervising Zen Master according to the Korean/American Zen tradition.

    Any teaching done by Paul (under the rubric of a “Before Thinking” organization or in any other forum) is, therefore, presented without the consent or approval of Zen Master Ji Bong. Consequently, Zen Master Ji Bong accepts no responsibility for any of Paul Lynch’s words or actions currently or at any time in the future. Paul Lynch is not in any respect to be considered the Dharma heir of either Zen Master Seung Sahn or Zen Master Ji Bong.

    If a student -JDPS is unwilling to follow his/her teacher, that student gives up all rights to any claims of lineage. One has authentic lineage or one has nothing – that is the majesty of the Zen Tradition.

    Ironically, this experience has become a good teaching experience for all of us. We must watch our steps in each moment – remember there is always a banana peel close by.

    Zen Master Ji Bong (August 17, 2008)"

    Lynch can do what he wants, but he should stop legitimizing himself by claiming Moore, and by extension Seung Sahn, as his lineage credentials, which he keeps emphatically doing. If he had any integrity, like many other teachers and priests, when he had conflict with one teacher, you respectfully work out a transition to a new teacher, RETAKE precepts with that teacher, and begin again. He did not receive transmission, which would make such a situation unnecessary. He completely misrepresents himself. As do you. You say the same thing everywhere – "You don't know the REAL story." I don't need to know YOUR version. The teacher told him to work some shit out, and he felt he'd just turn around and start his own school instead, peopled with the like of this guy, Big Al Billings. This is the pattern of a man in the throws of inflation, and you can't throw a rock in the Buddhist universe without hitting someone displaying such symptoms.
    The choosing of a teacher(or "preceptor") is a dangerous business – especially considering these types of half-baked wannabes running around shouting "katz! Do you understand?"

  8. bebop23 says:

    And I know enough people in the Kwan Um school that if Lynch hadn't burned so many bridges he could have simply taken up with another Kwan Um Zen master and gotten transmission from them, if he was deserving. The fact that he just decided to start his own school instead saying he's an heir of Moore and Seung Sahn, often hiding behind the confusion of vague and erratic Asian terminology, simply boggles the mind.

  9. Terry says:

    Interesting issues being presented, with Gempo's and Brad's disclosures on
    their student / teacher Affairs. I am new to the Buddha teachings and now dissapointed.
    As a boomer I missed out on the playing a guitar act to find girls many years ago,
    seems like female seekers looking for clearity today are……. just as vulnerable.
    I am really glad we did not sign-up for the Big Mind course, thanks Brad.

  10. John Simmons says:

    Ken Wilber has a lot of experience in justifying the sexual misadventures of his gurus. I doubt that this will shake him up too much. He'll just start selling the same line of BS that he did when Adi Da was found to be a sexually abusive drug addict, or explain it away like he did for Cohen.

  11. Jajcac says:

    His confession is rare

  12. Well! Looks like Genpo is one of your disowned shadow aspects! Gotta love that self-righteousness!

  13. Sebastian says:

    Wow my first tiome reading sth by you, and I must say:

    I am thankful I didnt read your book many years ago

    Big Mind Worked well for me, and I dont see it as a substitute for meditation and I use it for more specific details. You sound strange, bro. I am no buddhist and given your way of talking, you are a) a true believer, and you b) mainly wanna talk about yourself, so I guess there is no sense to talk about anythin(see a) thats not you(b). Just wanted to let you know one thing, buddy: Big mInd works best with people able to hold multiple as-if perspecives, and I guess vertical development is bull to you anyway, why should being stupid be worse than being smart, ? : ) : ) : )

    In case you need it as usual, please complain about me as one of the Integral assholes to go for you as you did with so many others on so many places in the internet, whiny.

    Btw: Its no wonder you dont care about Genpo not following his truth vows or whatever. If I would be a, lets say, morally very lexible person : ), I wouldnt care neither

  14. […] 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 […]

  15. integralhack says:

    If anyone has $50k to throw at instant "Big Mind" or whatever, then they probably got what they paid for. If there was ever the smack of a Zen master's stick, that is it: "Oh crap, I just paid $50k for *this*?" One person's instant enlightenment is another person's instant karma.

  16. […] harrowing tales of sex scandals, money laundering, power struggles and coercive threats. . […]

  17. Kennydee says:

    Goodieb, are you not yourself 'judging'? "Where is your compassion?"

    Brad's efforts are laudable for they go to 'teaching the teacher' and teachers notoriously defend their lofty perch until successfully knocked off of it.

  18. kennydee says:

    Right on Aaron. Power and Money, Money and Power!

  19. robert says:

    I am not a big fan of Genpo, but your way of voicing your critcism seems rather immature, trying to nail a complaint to every word genpo has said. Grow up.

  20. geogrok says:

    At one point I was a student of Big Mind. My wife admitted infidelity four months ago. I now live in a train wreck. My children and me are emotionally devastated. I am offended with you making light of the pain caused by infidelity. I don't know the worst big mind did to anyone. All they did to me was sucker me out of a few hundred bucks. I got over it. I would trade the worst big mind experience for lilving with the constant thought of the woman i love with another man. You obviously have never experienced infidelity.

  21. Paul says:

    I am new to this and I think the discussions are interesting.
    Since I have attended Big Mind retreats, met Genpo Roshi, talked to him in private, etc. I want to share my thoughts.
    In Ameland we attended a somewhat typical retreat schedule for 9 days, starting at 6Am with 40/30/30 minutes of zazen. Breakfast, working samadhi, chopping vegetable, etc. meditation, then lunch. In the afternoon we did a little over
    two hours of Big Mind, a kind of group psychotherapy to me. Only who wants to take the microphone and address
    anything could do so. Never was anybody asked to say something, people volunteered. Some started crying, telling
    their stories, some were desperate, most were quite stable, many seemed relaxed and happy. The whole range..
    There never was pressure to do anything, to say anything, not even to attend anything.

  22. Paul says:

    Sometimes I just slept in my room, read a book, skipped parts of the seminar. No problem at all for anybody.
    The afternoon Big Mind session with Genpo Roshi, basically the only time he attended, besides some evenings, was for me like some time of group psychotherapy. You can, if you like, take the microphone and speak up in a certain voice, like the voice of anger, or fear, or jealousy, etc. but if you do not want to talk, expose yourself, etc. you just don't. My girl friend did not for a week. Many people never took the mike.
    I have never seen Genpo Roshi make fun of anybody, when the person was in pain or distress.
    But Genpo Roshi at other times did make jokes and we all had fun, laughing can also release tension.
    What I think was positive for me as a general sceptic, was the fact that he also made a lot of fun about himself, about Big Mind, about Zen, etc. He does have a healthy sense of humour in my eyes.

  23. Paul says:

    The seminar was only $900 for 9 days including all meals and room, that seems reasonably to me.
    What I am VERY sceptical about is the fact that for fund raising there are the 5/5/50s where people pay $50.000.- and get five days with a maximum of five people of Big Mind training.
    No therapy in my eyes can be worth that, no therapy can change you in any way profound in five days.
    But I have never heard or read Genpo Roshi say that you will get huge lasting changes out of short training.
    He always pointed out to us that a short glimpse of peace, Big Mind, non duality is possible with the Big Mind technique and I think it is, but that for implementing this into our lives it takes a lot of time and practice.
    It takes time to grow, it takes zazen.
    I am confused now concerning the future of Kanzeon Zen Center and Big Mind, there seems to be a lot going on that goes beyond his being unfaithful, which I, like Brad, don't give a shit about.

  24. Paul says:

    I am sceptical about the money thing, when seminars get expensive, I get suspicious. They are getting expensive, why? The Big Mind process, where you give voice to feelings, the thinking mind, also non dual parts of our mind, helped me lot to expand my perspective on life, to release tension, to put light on disowned aspects.
    It is no miracle therapy, it is no shortcut to enlightenment, it is no easy way of getting "better", it is just a tool to
    reflect on how my mind works. I get to know myself and clarify my way of thinking through Big Mind. That part I like.
    I hope this could clarify a little to some readers.
    Sorry for the length of my text.
    Paul (Austria, sorry for language problems

  25. Tallis Mortallic says:

    There is no right or wrong there just is. There is no you or me there just is. There is no moral or immoral there only is. There is one awareness one presence there is one oneness. Every moment just is. Anything that is seen is only illusion. Anything that is felt is illusion. any illusion is oneness. Dennis Merzel is Brad Warner there is no difference they are both writing this post they both are this post. This post is oneness. The person reading this post is Dennis Warner or Brad Merzel or Merzel Warner it is all oneness. I am Dennis Merzel, I am Bran Warner, I am you, we are oneness. Adultery is oneness. Hatred is oneness. anger is oneness. love is oneness. there is only oneness. Good vs. Evil is Oneness vs. Oneness. The illusion of division or duality is oneness.

  26. Stuart says:

    months ago, suffixtreemonkey wrote…
    > … educating others that maybe the quick route to enlightenment does not
    > really lead to enlightenment as we understand it.

    Who's this "we," paleface? I'm sure as heck not familiar with any generally-agreed-upon understanding of what "enlightenment" is.

    In the tradition I practice with, "enlightenment" is a teaching word, used to point to the experience of this moment (what are you doing right now?). So we have at least 3 different ways that "enlightenment" is used: (1) enlightenment is at least somewhat related to an experience that you can get from a short workshop, (2) enlightenment is something that you can't get quickly and easily, but only by long, slow, gradual, formal practice, and (3) enlightenment is a teaching used to point to something not dependent on anything that you get or don't get.

  27. Vince says:

    Petty stuff, get over it. Brad, Genpo, aren't you the Awareness?

  28. JohnT says:

    Very happy that those quotes were an enlightening experience for you!?! Best of luck with your path. I'm sure it is going very well.

  29. […] I just read this piece by Brad Warner on his reaction to Dennis Genpo Merzel’s stepping down as a Zen priest and […]

  30. Guest says:

    "So yeah, I violated the Buddhist precepts, so I'm going to disrobe so I'm not held accountable to those precepts anymore. Meanwhile, I'm going to continue to use my dharma name and capitalize on the buddhadharma with my controversial for-profit version of Zen and completely embrace my life as a self-help huckster."

  31. Maia says:

    The problem is that Buddhists are just now discovering that there actually is a thing called morality. So where does it come from? Where does moral law originate? You must now acknowledge it exists and that it has an origin or else not complain about each other.

  32. Emily.Bronte says:

    best part of this post is poor Ken Wilber! He’s up there on YouTube from a couple years ago telling the world, “Isn’t Genpo Roshi about the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen? It’s not just Genpo as a human being and as an Enlightened human being

  33. Emily.Bronte says:

    best part of this post is the right thing would have been remaining as a monk and ending the whole Big Mind® program.

  34. Emily.Bronte says:

    best part of this post is working on his own shadows and deeply rooted patterns… that have led me to miss the mark of being a moral and ethical

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