Question: Do you call your spiritual practice a religion?
Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: You could call it a religion. I don’t particularly see it so much as a religion, but you could call it a religion. It’s more spirituality, or even more precisely, it’s a way of life. It’s a way to be in the world, to come from wisdom, to act with compassion and love and in doing that, to really be a kinder, nicer, more empathetic, compassionate person in the world. It’s less about rules and it’s less about dogma than it is about a way to live one’s life connected and seeing the interconnectedness to all beings.
Question: Must you believe in God to follow it?
Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: No. In fact, I was raised agnostic by my father and was raised as an atheist by my mother, and I don’t believe in particularly in an external God. I believe God, but to me God is the same as what I call Big Mind, which is what the title of my latest book is, Big Mind Big Heart. It’s also the title of the work that I do. Big Mind is when someone allows them self to identify with the mind that has no boundaries, no limits; has no beginning, no end. There’s no birth. There’s no death. That’s the infinite. That’s the internal. That’s what we would call God as the absolute, but I don’t give it the name “God,” although we can. I just call it Big Mind and Big Heart.
Question: Explain Big Heart Big Mind.
Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: Big Mind is obviously opening our mind to the infinite, just opening our consciousness to the infinite. Again, I can use best the triangle. So, if the left hand side of the triangle is the more restricted mind and heart: the mind and heart that we encase and we call that the self. It’s limited, it’s finite, it’s contained in our story, who I think I am, who I believe I am, what I would call Genpo—that’s the small mind. All this in the body—what goes on here and in my thoughts my beliefs, my concepts, my opinions, my ideas, my notions about who I am—that’s the limit, that’s the left hand side.
On the other side, Big Mind is when you throw all that out, when you drop all the concepts, all the ideas, all the notions of who I am, all the story about it. Then, I am in that wonder, in that transcendent way where I just don’t know who I am. I’m so big, but there’s no one there to know. There is no subject/object division. There is no one there to say, “Oh, I am this.” There is no here. There is no listener. There is no seer. I am all. I am the whole. I am the infinite. I am the eternal. That’s Big Mind—what we could call the absolute, what we could call God. Big Heart is the apex.
Big Heart is when we include all the personal—the limited self, the small mind, the confined or limited mind—and the Big Mind. Out of the wisdom of Big Mind and the conventional wisdom of the limited self, we move to the apex and that’s Big Heart. We open our heart up to its limitless capacity, its unconditional love and caring. Its unconditional. At this point, my love for all essential beings, my love for all inanimate as well as animate things and all beings, for the planet, is so beyond anything I can conceive of or imagine because its beyond imagination, beyond conception. Its so open, but because its balanced with Big Mind, because there’s that balance, I can care infinitely, without conditions, unconditionally. That’s Big Heart. Then we take these two into our daily life, and we function with wisdom and compassion—that’s Big Heart Big Mind.
Question: Why do you compare Big Heart Big Mind to a spiritual technology?
Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: Well, like all technologies, spiritual technologies are advancing, and for 2500 years, what has alluded us in the spiritual practice and in the spiritual world and Zen—which is also known as the sudden school of Buddhism, and is probably the most sudden and immediate path; most of the paths are more gradual, but Zen has always called itself the instant awakening or sudden awakening. In one moment, we can have a sudden realization or sudden awakening, like what happened to me in February of ’71 and its happened many, many times and to many spiritual practices this happened, but what has alluded us is, “How do you get someone to wake up?”
So, we have something what’s called a turning word. If the student is really right, kind of like a chick and an egg and the chick is really ready to be born, the mother hen will peck at that shell and crack it open, but if she cracks it too soon the chick dies because the chick is not fully developed. If she cracks it too late the chick also will die. So for the mother hen, the timing is absolutely essential. A turning word is to peck on that shell at the just the right moment when the student is ready to awaken, and that’s always been an art. A master has to be totally tuned in to the disciple in order to help them awaken, and say just the right thing. One of those was a monk, came to the Great Master Joshu and said, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” and Joshu just said, “Moo.” And moo is not the sound of a cow, it’s actually Chinese. It was “Moo, Moo,” like that, and the student awakened.
Another one was, “What is the meaning of Buddhi Dharma?” Buddhi Dharma was the Great Master who came from India and brought Zen for our Buddhism from India to China—that became Zen. So the question is, “Why did Buddhi Dharma come from the West?” And Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.” And at that moment he was probably looking out at this oak tree and the student looked out at this oak tree and had an opening, had an experience.
We’ve been able to bring students to a sudden realization but it was never that we could determine the moment, the time and the place. Everything has to be just right. The soil had to be just prepared. What the technology of Big Mind is, is that we can do it with 400 people and an audience. We can do it with 10,000 people over the TV screen or the computer screen. We can do it with millions of people, and we can determine when we do it because all it requires is that the person is prepared and wants to open up and has just enough trust to follow the directions.
Yhis moment, if I was to say to you, “May I speak to Big Mind please?” Then, the listener says, “Okay. I am Big Mind,” and then take a moment to just reflect who you are. I’m no longer Genpo. I’m no longer Dennis Merzel. Now I am Big Mind, and then, when we look in to our mind, we see as Big Mind. I can find no birth, no beginning. I can find no limit. I find no end. I find no parameters, no edges. My mind is infinite, eternal and there is no Genpo. There is no self and that is technology. We’ve never been able to do that before.
Ten years ago, almost exactly—it was 10 years ago June when I discovered Big Mind, and since then hundreds of thousands of people have awakened either thru workshops or DVDs or the internet or YouTube; with this process, because the technology, not only the technical technology, but the spiritual technology, is there; because, by asking to speak to this voice, once I identified that I am, then all the wisdom of the voice is there.
I can also ask to speak to the awakened mind. May I please speak to the Awakened Mind and then I say, “Okay. Who are you?” I’m the Awakened Mind. Well who are you not? Well, I’m not the non-awakened Mind. I’m not the un-awakened Mind. I’m not the mind that is deluded. I am the Awakened Mind. So what are you? I’m awake. What does that mean? You’re awake. I’m awake. I’m conscious. What are you conscious of? This. What’s going on right here now, with my surroundings, watching this interview? I’m awake. What’s different now than before? Well now I realize I’m awake. I didn’t know I was awake before. I am awake. What does that mean? All my whole life just changed. I am an awakened being. What does that mean? I am a Buddha. If we use those terms, I’m an awakened one. When the Buddha was asked, “Who are you?” He said, “I’m sorry but that’s the wrong question.” So the questioner said, “What’s the right question, the correct question?” He said, “What are you?” So, the person said, “Well okay, what are you?” He said, “I’m awake.”
Recorded on: June 24 2009