A Letter from Kanzeon Zen Center Concerning Genpo Merzel
By Al Tesshin Billings
As many of you have heard, Genpo Merzel of Kanzeon Zen Center and Big Mind disrobed recently on the revelation that he had been having an affair with one of his senior students and Dharma heirs. You can read about it on Sweeping Zen as well as other places. I have refrained from comment so far as so many others were doing so and because I felt that, by and large, Genpo was doing the right thing by acknowledging his actions, disrobing as a priest, resigning as a White Plum Asanga elder, and going into therapy.
A lot of people have written about this issue and 44 American Zen Teachers sent their advice to Kanzeon the other day. Today, I received this letter from Kanzeon, reproduced in its entirety below (disclosure: a few years ago, I paid for an online subscription to Kanzeon’s archive and updates for video and audio by its various teachers so I’m on their mailing list).
It seems like they are having enough issues right now that people might do well to give them a little space.
Dear Kanzeon Zen Center Members and Friends,
As you are no doubt aware, the situation at Kanzeon has been the subject of a great deal of conversation on the internet and elsewhere, including an open “Letter of Recommendation to Kanzeon Zen Center” from 44 American Zen Teachers, which was sent to us directly by Kyogen Carlson of the Dharma Rain Zen Center and posted two days ago on the Sweeping Zen website.
Attached is the Kanzeon Board’s response to that letter, which we are sending today to Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick, President, of the White Plum Asanga, and to the American Zen Teachers Association. We trust that they will post our letter on their websites and pass it on to their members.
We would also like to remind you of the healing circle meeting tonight in the Zendo at Kanzeon at 7:30. These meetings will not be broadcast or recorded. Once again, we invite you to speak and listen from your heart, and even if you have not been involved in the conversation until now, to join us and participate actively in the healing and rebuilding of our sangha.
The Kanzeon Board
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 — http://bigmind.org/Responsibility.html.
* 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 http://bigmind.org/Home.html.
* 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Public Statement of Apology. Genpo has apologized and his apology is posted at http://bigmind.org/Responsibility.html. He continues to talk full responsibility for the harm his actions have caused.
- 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