It seems the perfect confluence of life events may have brought Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi to Buddhism.
Or at least prepared his mind for Buddhism to find him.
It happened in 1971 while on a trip to the Mojave Desert. Genpo Roshi had climbed a mountain and was contemplating his life and purpose. The past years had brought him experiences with death, relationship struggles and also pain.
While on the mountain, he had what he now considers a Zen experience. It was an awakening of the mind that shifted his perspective on life and made him more interested in serving others.
"Before that, I was just going full steam ahead," Genpo Roshi said during an interview from his office at the Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City, where he is the abbot, or spiritual leader. "When I had this experience, it did turn my life around."
In person, he doesn't look like what you would expect from a Zen master, particularly one who is sought all over the world for his leadership and teachings. Genpo Roshi seems more of an outdoorsman or former athlete, with his trim build and casual attire.
But most followers consider him a revolutionary when it comes to Zen in the Western world. During the last decade, Genpo Roshi has developed a process called "Big Mind Big Heart" that is designed to allow people to experience a form of "enlightenment" without years of meditation and practice.
The process is difficult to describe without direct participation, but it involves a teacher guiding a student into exploration of self and mind. The goal is a better understanding of one's self and their life, said Genpo Roshi. And some of the benefits are a more open mind and more compassion, he said.
Enlightenment can be rudimentally defined as an awakening of the mind to greater compassion, awareness and truth. In Zen, it's traditionally achieved through years of meditation.
For Genpo Roshi, one of his greatest desires as a teacher is to help people "awaken" their minds and reach their fullest potential as human beings. And that doesn't matter whether a person is Muslim, Christian, Jewish or a member of another congregation, he said.
"Basically what we're trying to do is help make people better human beings," Genpo Roshi said. "And when you have any one of these personal (Zen) experiences, you realize something way beyond ones self. We call it God, or truth, or enlightenment."
In general, Zen is more of a philosophy than a religion, and many of the people who come to Sunday medidation sessions at the Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake are members of other faiths and belief systems. Several American Zen masters are also Catholic priests.
For Cindy Zen etsu Atkins, a student of Genpo Roshi and also his publicity director, Zen has brought a measure of awareness, calm and peace to her life. It has also helped her to become more aware of her unique gifts as a person and to become more fearless, Atkins said.
Zen Buddhism, to her, is about being truly intimate with one's self and giving back to others.
"We're all just trying to become better human beings," she said.
For more information about Genpo Roshi and the Kanzeon Zen Center, log on to: www.bigmind.org
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