The Cloud of Knowing & Not Knowing: Sex, Power, and Sangha

23 February 2011

Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.

— Shunryu Suzuki Roshi


In late January at a gathering of students at Ameland, in the north of Holland, Dennis Genpo Merzel acknowledged a long-running affair with one of his senior students.  Genpo is the founder and abbot of Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City, creator of the controversial “Big Mind process,” and a disciple of the late Taizan Maezumi, who was founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.

Returning to Utah in early February, Genpo addressed an open meeting at Kanzeon, reiterating his admission, acknowledging responsibility for “the pain, anger, concerns, questions and feelings of his wife, family and sangha members.”  Several days later he made a statement, disrobing as a Soto Zen Priest and resigning from the White Plum Asanga, the loose association of Maezumi Roshi’s dharma family.  While disassociating himself from teaching at Kanzeon, Genpo plans to continue to lead Big Mind trainings.  On February 8, Kanzeon Zen Center announced that Richard Taido Christofferson Sensei, one of Genpo’s dharma successors, was stepping in as Vice Abbot and full time resident teacher.

The controversy around Genpo Merzel is not new and it is not over. Allegations of sexual impropriety were leveled against Genpo in 1990 by students at an earlier Kanzeon Zen Center in Bar Harbor, Maine. He resigned from abbacy there and the center closed. Nor is his case unique.  Late last year Eido Shimano, founder of Daibosatsu Monastery in New York stepped down as abbot in the face of allegations of sexual impropriety and abuse of authority going back more than thirty years. If I were to list other scandals and problems, we would be here all day. The cloud of scandal and denial throws all the western Zen world into question.

During my days at Buddhist Peace Fellowship I received letters and phone calls from students at Buddhist centers in all traditions. Most of them had exhausted channels of communication in their own communities and simply wished a sympathetic ear.  For better and worse (mostly better, I think) Buddhism in the U.S. is de-centralized.  There is no overarching governance or regulating body.  If we look at the Catholic Church it is easy to see how an entire institution can be corrupted by power and sexuality.

But a growing number of Buddhist teachers are no longer willing to remain silent about the pain, trauma, and isolation endured by victims of sangha abuse. This awareness led me to collaborate on the editing of Safe Harbor: Guidelines, Process, and Resources for Ethics and Conduct in Buddhist Communities in the 1990s. It has also led respected teachers to express their concern and offer recommendations for healing at Kanzeon and at Daibosatsu/Zen Studies Society. These outspoken teachers, many of whom are members of the American Zen Teachers Association and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, have also been helping behind the scenes — corresponding with victims, teachers, and board members in troubled communities.

There really is no simple fix. Nor are all situations black and white. There are times when teachers are falsely accused of transgressions.  And there is a compelling question: what is the personal responsibility of “consenting adults” in these circumstances?  Are we enacting a Puritan stream of American individualism even in the midst of a deeply sexualized culture?

Well, yes and no.  But the central responsibility in communities defined by religious authority lies with the teacher, priest, minister.  (At the risk of making trouble, I think we might ask whether the highly centralized and personalized manifestation of Rinzai Zen in the West is itself problematic.)  Inequality between teacher and student, and the yearning for a teacher’s personal verification of one’s dharma understanding skews the equation of power towards the teacher.

The issue, I think, is not primarily sexual, although a legacy of sexual depredations must be addressed. Underneath sexual gratification is the matter of power, and a teacher’s illegitimate addiction to a student’s submission.  The Buddha’s way was not rooted in power, but in the essential equality of all beings.  Spiritual authority exists, but it is not an absolute. It must be based in wisdom and compassion, which are matters of practice rather than irrevocable qualities that one person has and another personal doesn’t have.  In Zen there is nothing to have, and nothing one doesn’t have.

This piece is written off the top of my head.  There is much more to say. And more to listen to.  I’ll close with a principle that my wife Laurie and I use in our marriage, in our community, and in the world: Where my teacher (or any person) has an understanding that is ahead of mine, I will follow her.  If I see there is something missing in his or her understanding, I will not follow. I might even try to lead.  Discerning the difference is not always easy.


Below are three relevant documents, all or some of which have been previously published in a variety of locations, including the Salt Lake Tribune, Tricycle’s blog, the Sweeping Zen blog, Kanzeon Zen Center’s website, and elsewhere.  News and opinion have spread quickly.   The first piece is Genpo’s personal statement, issued on the Big Mind website. The second is a letter of concern, with recommendations from roughly forty western Zen teachers (including myself).  Third is the Kanzeon board’s response to the teachers’ letter.  Your own comments are, of course, invited at the bottom of this blog.

I am also including here a link to the Clear View Project website where you can obtain a copy of Safe Harbor: Guidelines, Process, and Resources for Ethics and Conduct in Buddhist Communities, a book I edited in the 90s at Buddhist Peace Fellowship.  Then as now concerns about sexuality, authority, and appropriate boundaries continue to arise in our communities.  Follow the link for a free download, or to purchase a hard copy of the book.  Events that are unfolding at Zanzeon and at Daibosatsu Monastery in New York are not simply aberrations in spiritual or religious life.  They are the result of recognizable human shortcomings.  As fellow humans we need to know how to take care of ourselves, our sister and brothers, and our teachers. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the Beloved Community, “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother.”


Owning My Responsibility — A Personal Statement from Genpo Merzel

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. My actions have caused a tremendous amount of pain, confusion, and controversy for my wife, family, and Sangha, and for this I am truly sorry and greatly regret. My behavior was not in alignment with the Buddhist Precepts. I feel disrobing is just a small part of an appropriate response.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, my stepping down as a Soto Zen Buddhist Priest does not affect the status of anyone to whom I have given the precepts or ordination or  any other empowerments. I am also resigning as an elder of the White Plum Asanga. My actions should not be viewed as a reflection on the moral fabric of any of the White Plum members.

As Genpo Merzel, I will continue to bring Big Mind into the world and to train and facilitate people who wish to study with me. I will not give up on, and will still 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.

With great humility I will continue to work on my 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. I appreciate all the love and support as well as the criticism that has been shared with me. Experiencing all 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 recently entered therapy and plan to continue indefinitely with it. I am in deep pain over the suffering I have caused my wife, children, students, successors and Sangha.

With Sadness and Love,

D. Genpo Merzel


Letter to Kanzeon Zen Center & Dennis Genpo Merzel from 44 Zen Teachers


We, the undersigned Zen Buddhist teachers, endorse these recommendations to the Kanzeon Zen Center Board, and to whatever body governs the Big Mind trainings regarding the rehabilitation of Genpo Merzel after his recent admission of sexual misconduct with students. Because this repeats a pattern of more than 30 years, many of those signing on to these recommendations would prefer more stringent measures. We agree, however, that Genpo should take a leave of absence from teaching in any capacity. Further more, the appropriateness of his return to functioning as a teacher in any capacity should be determined by a therapist who is an expert in the field of misconduct of this nature.

RECOMMENDATIONS for GENPO MERZEL, the KANZEON ZEN CENTER BOARD, and the Big Mind teaching organization regarding the status of Genpo Merzel

1) TEACHING: Take an indefinite leave, but at least one year, off from all teaching duties. To make it clear that Genpo takes working with this long-term issue seriously, and to provide the time and energy necessary for the work that needs to be done (personal inventory, specific therapy, reconciliation and community-healing, work with his marriage) we recommend that he takes an indefinite leave from all teaching in all forms until he has been cleared to do so by a therapist who is an expert in this field.

2) THERAPY: Expert inpatient treatment. There is an over 30 year pattern of repeated sexual misconduct with students, repeated episodes of discovery, emotional community upheaval, liquidation of assets, moving to another location, finding a new stable partner, and beginning the cycle all over again. This kind of deep-seated, repetitive pattern is not amenable to ordinary therapy. It requires admission of the full extent of the problem and surrendering to treatment with experts in sexual addiction, misuse of power and clergy misconduct. We can provide recommendations for an appropriate residential center. Full disclosure is important both for therapy and to avoid more traumatic revelations. This process has served other teachers and centers in the past, and has proved its efficacy.

3) SALT LAKE KANZEON CENTER: Make every effort to retain the Salt Lake facilities. The Kanzeon sangha has entered a critical period since these new revelations. A significant amount of time, at least a year, will be needed for the many processes that can help support sangha members through this time of great transition. They need a place to hold events, to gather, to support each other, to grieve, to be witnessed, to learn, and hopefully to reconstitute their spiritual practice. To lose their teacher and their center at the same time would be a double blow.

4) MONEY ISSUES: Reach out to other teachers to lead workshops and retreats. Genpo is justifiably worried about stepping back from teaching for an extended period because of the effect on the center and staff of loss of revenue. In a recent similar case, teachers from various traditions volunteered to come and teach at a Zen center that had lost its teacher. Particularly in a center focused on one charismatic teacher, this has the advantage of bringing in new voices and viewpoints, and reassuring students about the many ways to manifest and practice the dharma. It keeps the centeropen and makes spiritual support constantly available during a time of extra need. It also helps with revenue.

5) PUBLIC STATEMENT and APOLOGY: It is very important for Genpo to make a public, thorough statement and apology about what he has done, and state his plans to set things right, for himself, his students and the Kanzeon Center. The absence of a statement from the teacher himself provides fertile ground for gossip, leaks, speculation, gathering resentment and unfounded reactions. The statement could be published on the Kanzeon, Big Mind and White Plum websites and on his Facebook page. The statement on the Big Mind website is a start. But without specific actions to make amends, it is not enough. Such actions should be spelled out in the public statement.

6) OUTSIDE EXPERT ASSISTANCE IN HEALING THE SANGHA: Hire experts to help with the work that needs to be done. There are many pieces to the work that needs to be done to help the sangha: witnessing, processing, education about clergy misconduct and power structures, setting up prevention strategies. We highly recommend the Faithtrust Institute, which has had decades of experience in these matters and has excellent trainers, curricula and media materials for appropriate workshops and trainings. See for books, media, trainings, and consultations on clergy misconduct.

Eiko Joshin Carolyn Atkinson, Everyday Dharma Zen Center

Shosan Victoria Austin, San Francisco Zen Center

Chozen Bays, Great Vow Zen Monastery

Hogen Bays, Great Vow Zen Monastery

Dai-En Bennage, Mt. Equity Zendo

Mitra Bishop, Mountain Gate Temple & Hidden Valley Zen Center

Angie Boissevain, Floating Zendo

Gyokuko Carlson, Dharma Rain Zen Center

Kyogen Carlson, Dharma Rain Zen Center

Roko Sherry Chayat, Zen Center of Syracuse

Nonin Chowaney, Nebraska Zen Center Jundo Cohen, Treeleaf Zendo

Shotai De La Rosa, Daishin Zendo

Norman Fischer, Everyday Zen Foundation

James Ford, Boundless Way Zen

Eshin Godfrey, Zen Centre of Vancouver

Gaelyn Godwin, Houston Zen Center

Sunyana Graef, Vermont Zen Center

Ruben Habito, Maria Kannon Zen Center

Elizabeth Hamilton, Zen Center of San Diego

Zenkei Blanche Hartman, San Francisco Zen Center

Taigen Henderson, Toronto Zen Centre

Kokyo Henkel, Santa Cruz Zen Center

Soeng. Hyang, Kwan Um Zen School

Les Keido Kaye, Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center

Daijaku Kinst, Ocean Gate Zen Center

Barry Magid, The Ordinary Mind Zendo

Genjo Marinello, Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen

Ji Ejo McMullen, Eugene Zendo

Mary Mocine, Vallejo Zen Center

Tonen O’Connor, Milwaukee Zen Center

Susan Ji-on Postal, Empty Hand Zen Center

Al Fusho Rapaport, Open Mind Zen Meditation Center

Zuiko Redding, Cedar Rapids Zen Center

Shinshu Roberts, Ocean Gate Zen Center

Grace Jill Schireson, Empty Nest Zendo

Yozen Peter Schneider, Beginner’s Mind Zen Center

Hozan Alan Senauke, Berkeley Zen Center

Joen Snyder O’Neal, Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center

Daniel Terragno, Rocks and Clouds Zendo

Katherine Thanas, Santa Cruz Zen Center

Jordan Thorn, San Francisco Zen Center

Sallie Jiko Tisdale, Dharma Rain Zen Center

Jisho Warner, Stone Creek Zen Center


To Members of the American Zen Teachers and White Plum Asanga:

As members of the Board of Kanzeon Zen Center, we have received many e-mails and phone calls concerning the highly-publicized situation resulting from Genpo Merzel’s admission of his transgressions and sexual misconduct. These communications from Zen teachers in your organizations and others, not to mention open letters and other postings on various social media and internet sites, are filled with advice and recommendations, many of which are beyond the scope of our responsibility as a Board. To the extent that they are motivated by a sincere concern for the survival, healing and rebuilding of our sangha, we would like to share with you an account of some of our efforts to date.

* Feb. 3rd: Shortly after returning from the international sangha meeting in Europe, Genpo Merzel met with the sangha at the Zen Center in Salt Lake City in an open meeting which was widely publicized in advance. He admitted his misconduct (which had already been made public but wasn’t known by all attending), apologized for his actions for which he bears the blame and responsibility, and responded to the pain, anger, concerns, questions, and feelings of his wife, family and sangha members.

* Feb. 6th: Genpo Merzel announced he is disrobing as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest, resigning as a member of the White Plum Asanga, acknowledged his own dishonest, hurtful behavior as well as his sexual misconduct, and said he has entered therapy which will continue indefinitely. This statement was posted on his website on Feb. 7th —

* Feb. 8th: Kanzeon Zen Center announced that Richard Taido Christofferson Sensei will be taking over the teaching functions, training, administration, day-to-day operations, scheduling of all events, ceremonies, retreats, etc. as Vice Abbot and full time resident teacher. Kanzeon and Big Mind (a separate corporate entity) will also separate their websites, and Big Mind will continue as a separate secular practice, not connected with the Soto Zen Buddhist School. This announcement is posted at

* Feb. 10th: The first of a projected series of council meetings was held with community members who wished to attend and express their feelings and their views on attempts for future healing.

* Feb. 13th: Taido Sensei arrived in Salt Lake City to lead a town hall meeting to which all local members were invited. He outlined his vision for the future of Kanzeon under his leadership and responded to the concerns of the audience.

* Ongoing: The Board is formulating a Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Procedures addressing issues of misconduct, abuse, and grievances within the sangha, based on models already instituted by other groups. They will be adopted as soon as possible.

Further, an e-mail sent to us yesterday by members of your organizations raised six issues, to which we briefly respond as follows:

1. Teaching. Genpo Merzel is taking an indefinite leave of absence of at least a year from Kanzeon. The Board has no authority over Big Mind, Inc.

2. Therapy. This is a matter for health care professionals working with Genpo to determine. This is not within the expertise or purview of the Board.

3. Salt Lake Zen Center. The Board is making every effort to maintain the facilities and keep the Center open for the community. This effort has been hampered by the heated rhetoric coming from the Zen Teacher community, in particular those who have reached out to members of our community to inflame reactions that are more adversarial than cooperative.

4. Money Issues. The Board is supporting Taido Sensei’s effort to maintain the flow of revenue through memberships and programs. His teaching schedule for the next two months will be posted shortly. We are a small Sangha, which has been financially supported by Genpo’s teaching for many years and more recently by his teaching through Big Mind, Inc. He has offered to continue to support Kanzeon to the extent he can. Therefore, donations you wish to make to enable the Board to implement item 6 below would be welcomed.

5. Public Statement of Apology. Genpo has apologized and his apology is posted at He continues to talk full responsibility for the harm his actions have caused.

6. Outside expert assistance. Taido Sensei has been in contact with several Dharma teachers in the White Plum Asanga, who have offered their support and willingness to come to Kanzeon to share their skills as teachers, therapists, and leaders who have experienced the problems of leading centers through similar crises. The Board in consultation with Taido Sensei will develop a plan that will include consultation with and participation of these and other Zen teachers. The Board has also been in contact with organizations, which can provide experienced, objective, professional assistance in guiding us to the creation of a healthier sangha with proper safeguards and strategies to avoid any future misconduct and abuse.

As you might expect, these activities are occurring in an environment that is under great stress. The Center’s very small staff which is implementing the changes we have set in motion, is struggling to maintain the Center’s schedule and commitments in financially constricted conditions, not to mention the strong daily practice which all agree is vital especially now, while at the same time coping with a deluge of phone calls and emails engendered by the ever-increasing volume of recommendations and calls for action like yours. Long-time bonds of respect and friendship among members of the sangha are being frayed and broken. People with little or no connection to our sangha or Center have appeared at meetings designed to promote healing only to offer their own inflammatory views on our situation. Our Zendo has been vandalized, a beloved statue stolen from the altar.

Under these circumstances, we respectfully request that those people who sincerely hope that we at Kanzeon survive and heal as a community, and create an environment and adopt procedures that lessen the possibility of any future misconduct or abuse, will extend us a little patience and allow us the time and breathing space to restore the peace and harmony of the sangha and the strength and sound practice of its members. Genpo Merzel has repeatedly reiterated his full support for all of the actions taken by the Board and Sensei as outlined above.

Board of Trustees of Kanzeon, Inc.

Kanzeon Zen Center
, 1268 E. South Temple
Salt Lake City, UT 84102



About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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2 Responses to The Cloud of Knowing & Not Knowing: Sex, Power, and Sangha

  1. Mark Copithorne says:

    Thanks for your thorough review. It does seem as though a wholesome process and precedent for repairing this kind of damage is being established. I hope everyone can maintain their confidence in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I’m very grateful my life is not so dramatic.

    What I don’t understand about the story is how 44 Zen teachers were caucused in a couple of weeks. There’s some mysterious Zen Hotline arrangement that is being worked out behind the scenes. Please use that power for good.

    Enjoy your time in India.

    • asenauke says:

      Thanks, Mark. The teachers are networked via the American Zen Teachers Association, and our discussion group. But AZTA is not technically an “organization,” but a loose association. So editing was done online by people interested in participating in the discussion.


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