For years, Genpo Roshi wondered how to get Americans to sit still. We are, after all, an impatient, restless bunch. If we're sitting still, we usually want to be holding the TV remote.
We are reluctant to sit still, our legs folded and our backs straight, our minds open to emptiness, and yet this sitting zazen, Zen Buddhists call it has always been considered a prerequisite for that ineffable experience known as enlightenment.
What the world needed, Roshi decided, was something less time-intensive and less rigorous than years of meditation, less caught up in robes and chants and riddles. What the world needed, he decided, was something involving folding chairs and conversation, something that included a break for lunch yet still helped people shift their identities away from the self the small self that is self-ish, fearful, jealous, dissatisfied toward something bigger.
In the past six years since he first developed the "Big Mind" process, Roshi has presented his one-day workshop to more than 20,000 people worldwide. He will offer his next Big Mind on Saturday, Sept. 3, at Salt Lake City's Kanzeon Zen Center, where he is abbot and Zen master.
The beauty of Big Mind, Roshi says, is that anybody, even without a background in Buddhism or any desire to become a Buddhist, can get a glimpse of what the Buddha himself experienced 2,500 years ago.
"Now let me speak to Seeking Mind," says Roshi. He is sitting in his office at the Zen Center, giving a visitor a mini-version of his Big Mind workshop.
"Who are you?"
"Seeking Mind," the visitor says.
"What do you want, as Seeking Mind?"
"Peace and contentment."
Yes, he says, but the very act of seeking means you will never be satisfied, so the very thing you want you can't get. However, if a person can shift her thinking, Roshi says, she can see that everything she wants and seeks is already here, now. She can see beyond her ego, past the part of her mind that separates the world into "me" and "others."
In the Big Mind workshop, Roshi asks his participants to identify as various aspects of the self, shifting from The Controller to The Skeptic to the Desiring Mind and so forth, and finally to Big Mind and Big Heart. By identifying with Big Mind and Big Heart, he says, "We can see that even though we're all unique, we're all basically one. And when I see that, I see intuitively that what I do affects you, and vice versa."
As Big Mind we are both the self and larger than the self, Roshi explains. As the self we are both separate and interconnected. It's like the ocean, says Roshi. The ocean is made up of separate waves but is something whole. Without insight, he says, "we only see the waves." To see the ocean simply requires a shift in thinking.
"It's like if you live in a house and you reside primarily in the living room, and you forget there are other rooms," says Salt Lake writer Melissa Bond, describing how we all tend to stay confined. What was shocking, she says about her experience with the Big Mind process, was how simple it was to enter the other, spacious part of her self.
"It really did feel, on a curiously profound level, that I had tapped into something," she says. Not nirvana, of course, but "small shifts that start to take place."
Enlightenment comes in degrees, says Roshi. "What I'm interested in now is having more people have an initial insight, to be more aware. With more time, they may have true enlightenment," may incorporate this expansiveness into their everyday life. It's like planting a garden, he says. When the soil is properly prepared, that's when something will grow.
On a summer evening 30 people sit straight-backed on cushions in the upstairs room at the Kanzeon Zen Center, an old house on South Temple. Cars rev their engines out on the street, but inside there is only the whir of the ceiling fans and the softness of approaching twilight. Finally, after a long 30 minutes, Roshi asks if there are any questions. Yes, says a woman near the front. "My sitting is not going well. I can't relax."
"Are you trying to relax?" asks Roshi. Laughter ripples through the room. This is a kind of Zen joke, because trying is so not Zen. "Trying means you have a goal, an objective, an aim," Roshi explains. "As soon as you do, you're defeated."
Many of the people on the cushions are serious, long-time students of Genpo Roshi, some of whom were introduced to Zen through Roshi's Big Mind process. Some have followed him to Utah from Europe, even though in Utah the Kanzeon Zen Center is largely unknown, overshadowed by the Mormon temple 13 blocks down the street.
The Kanzeon Zen Center is part of the White Plum Sangha, a Zen lineage founded in the 1960s by Japanese Zen Buddhist Maezumi Roshi, one of just a handful of Japanese Zen masters who brought Zen to the United States in the 1950s. Maezumi, who died 10 years ago, has 12 direct lineage holders, including Genpo Roshi.
Before he became a roshi, or Zen master, Genpo was Dennis Merzel, born in Brooklyn and later an All-American swimmer and high school teacher in California, with a master's degree in educational administration from the University of Southern California. Before studying under Maezumi Roshi, he spent a year in the California mountains in solitary retreat.
Sometimes Roshi wears a black robe, in the ancient Japanese style, but tonight he is wearing jeans and a polo shirt. After this class, which he has titled "Transcending Zen," he will get on his motorcycle and drive home to his wife and two children.
In the future, he tells his students, Zen will look very ordinary. It will blend in more and more with western culture, "and transform the culture from within."
"We're in an incredible period of history," he says, a time when Zen is taking hold in the United States. "It's the biggest leap across oceans and cultures in 2,500 years." The question for Buddhists in the west, he says, is how much of the traditional practice to hold on to and how far to move beyond it.
In China, he says, it took six generations for Buddhism to look nothing like it did before. "We shouldn't feel funny above moving ahead," Roshi tells his students. "We shouldn't feel bad that we improve" even though, he says, "when it comes to spirituality, we have something in our brain that says we can't do better."
Zen is all-encompassing, he says. "But the moment we say 'Zen' we have to move beyond Zen. And the moment we say 'beyond Zen' we have to move beyond that." That's the Buddhist teaching, he says: "to go beyond the teaching."
Later, Roshi talks about the human tendency to think of religion as something fixed. "When people don't go very deep into their own spiritual practice, they tend to cling to their religion as being the only or right religion. Those who really go deeply, (LDS) President Hinckley is one of those, have a greater respect for what we're all trying to do," he says, "which is to help people become better human beings, to reach our potential as human beings to become more compassionate. When we go deep enough, we all reach the same place."
There are rabbis and Benedictine monks and Tibetan Buddhist lamas who want to bring Big Mind to their religious traditions, he says. Roshi's goal (even nonseeking, nontrying Buddhists have goals) is to help "change the planet," one mind at a time. Along with Zen Buddhist master Bernie Glassman, co-founder of The Peacemaker Circle, and Ken Wilber, author of "A Brief History of Everything" and founder of the Integral Institute, Genpo Roshi has formed "The Alliance of Three" to bring Zen principles to businesses, religions and other institutions.
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