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Born in Brooklyn NY, Dennis Merzel grew up in Southern California where he was both a high school and college champion swimmer and All-American water polo player. He earned a[…]

Question: What was your first experience of spiritual awakening?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: It happened back in February of 1971; I was having some difficulties in my relationship with the woman I was living with, and I decided to go out in the desert with two of my friends to get a little space for 3 days. They walked off to do a hike together: they were a couple and so I was left alone. I hiked to the top of a mountain.

This is in the Mojave Desert in California near Jawbone Canyon and I was sitting there on top of this mountain and I was contemplating my life; how could I have screwed up my life so badly? I’m only 26 years old. I’d already been divorced. I was in a new relationship. The relationship seemed perfect—and I started to feel the same suffocation, the same feeling of being trapped, being bound, and not free, not liberated.

I was sitting there contemplating, “What this is all about?” What I came up with—and it was very spontaneous—was a question. I don’t know where it came from, but from deep within me, and the question was, “Where is home?” So, I began to—and I was not a meditator, I never meditated before—really contemplate, or meditate, as I was sitting there in a cross-legged Indian fashion, this question, and I had a spontaneous awakening and body/mind dropped off. I became one with the cosmos. I lost the self and had an experience of being one with all things.

It was such an abrupt and immediate experience that was so transformative. I knew from that moment I would never be the same again, and I saw that my life up to that moment had all been pushing forward, going ahead full steam, whether it be as an athlete (I was a swimmer, all American water polo player I played in the Maccabean Games in Israel in 1965. My College teams, 3 out 4 were champion, American champion or state championship teams), everything was about winning, about gain, about fame, about security. I’d already got a Masters degree. I was already tenured in my work. I was teaching school. And all of a sudden, that all seemed very empty, very meaningless and the only thing that seemed to really matter at that point was to continue to wake up, to continue to clarify what this life really is and to share that with others. So, I began immediately sharing it with my friends and anybody who was ready to listen. I went back to teaching on Monday. I shared it with my team teacher, shared it with the kid—I taught them how to meditate, and I hadn’t ever had any instruction, but from that experience I learned how to sit still, do nothing, and be quiet.

Question: How did you achieve the title of Zen Master?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: I’ve trained 37-38 years now, and became a Zen Master in 1996. I was given what we call Inka, final seal of approval. I became a successor of my late teacher Maezumi Roshi in 1980, and I began training with him in 1972, and we went through a series of what’s called Koan study. These Koans are questions that are difficult to answer—and impossible to answer with the rational mind. You must transcend the rational or the dualistic mind and go into a nondual or transcendence state, which I already experienced back in ‘71. So, the Koans were relatively easy for me and I went through them rather quickly. In fact, in six years I went through over 700 of them, and became his second student to complete Koan study and his second successor.

Question: How Can a Big Think viewer practice Zen?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: I would say it’s all out there. The possibilities, the availabilities, technologically are all out there. Choose wisely and then you really can wake up. It is really possible. It’s not that difficult to wake up. The follow-up to waking up, the practice, the embodiment of that, the integration of that into your life, fulfilling your life—that part is not so easy.

I would say practice at least 30 minutes a day of meditation. I’d say there are other technologies out there that one can practice. If one is really serious, just like if you’re serious about studying a musical instrument, it might be advisable to find a great teacher to work with—someone who can help you—because one of the things that we know about our ego is our ego is very cunning, very conniving, very tricky.

The ego will, every time, fool us and sometimes we need a good friend or a good partner or good teacher to help us see where we’re stuck, where we’re being blind. I myself need that all the time, because I know my ability to delude myself is infinite, and we sometimes just need to check things out with another and be open, receptive and willing to hear and to listen to what they have to say, and not get defensive.

But it’s all there and it’s possible and anyone can do it. Anyone can lead an awakened life that’s full of love and compassion. It’s not that difficult.

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.”

Question: How can someone who is at a low point in their life utilize your teachings?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: Well, one thing that I think we know, and I have found out it’s really important—spend some time alone, some time to really contemplate our life. One of the things that we know is that really self-actualizing individuals—and Maslow found this out a long time ago—have one thing in common, and that is that they spend a minimum of maybe an hour a day alone either in meditation or prayer, walking on a path or road, alone in the forest, in the mountains, sitting by a stream or by a fireplace or maybe just listening to music. I think it’s important for us to be really sincere and honest with ourselves and spend some quality time with ourselves, reflecting. I also think that it’s important for us to be willing to experience our emotions, our feelings—to experience our heart and not suppress or disown aspects of ourselves.

Question: Why do we suffer in the first place?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: Well, of course the major reason is craving and attachment. Those were discovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. We all have cravings and attachments. But let me give a little twist, a littlie spin. Something that I think might be really helpful for those viewing this; that is, think about how much you care. Just think about that for a moment. How much you care? You care about of course your own life, your children, your family, and your loved ones. You care about your wife or your husband. You care about your parents. You care about the world. You care about the planet. You care about the future of the planet. Just think of how much you care. We usually think, “Maybe I don’t care enough. Maybe I should care more.” That’s true. All of us could care more, but we don’t look at that caring as an attachment. I care so much that I’m actually binding myself, without even a rope, because I am so caring. I am so loving towards others, and of course I could be more, but that binds me because, out of this caring, what I’m not doing is being free.

Think of that as the left hand side of the triangle, and think about that caring as an attachment, as a craving. I crave to care more. I’m attached to satisfying my partner or fulfilling my mother or making my husband happy or being there for another. I care so much that I’m frustrated. I feel disappointment. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough. I’m not there enough.

Then, take the other side of the triangle; that’s a shift to the other side of the triangle, the base of the triangle where I don’t care. I’m not attached. I let go. I drop all that caring and I have an attitude which could be quite immature, not caring, but it could also be very mature—out of this not caring, I am free to care more, but without it being a cause of suffering. In other words, if we take the right hand side of the triangle as detachment or as liberation, nirvana, these are all terms that we could use for the right hand, it’s the transcendent.

If we take the right hand side of that triangle to be freedom from attachment, freedom from craving, freedom from desire, freedom from fear, freedom from all these things that bind me, and then at the apex we see that, in one hand, I deeply, deeply care about this world. I care about its future. I care about all the species on this planet not just the human species. I not only care about the human species, I care about the animate and inanimate things. I care about the rocks. I care about the seashells. I care about the sand on the beaches. I care, I care, I care—but because I’ve gone to the other extreme of the other side of the triangle of not caring at all, I am free to care and still, in that caring, have a sense that I’m not overwhelmed by it and I’m not frustrated by it and I’m not guilty about it all. So, at the apex, it allows us to approach our life in a way that is fully functioning. In other words, I’m in touch with my deepest feelings and emotions and yet I am not particularly attached.

There was a great column by two great Zen Masters; let me just share this with you. One of the Masters was named Obaku, and he was one of the all-time great masters, and he had a great student named Rin Zai. In fact, two of the three Zen Schools in Japan, one is a Soto school, the other is a Rin Zai School, and the third is a smaller school—the Obaku. Two of these characters, of this lineage, were in this column, and Rin Zai was the young student, probably in his early 20s, and he was out working in the field and working hard all day. In those days, they did a lot of work in the field. He’s coming back into the monastery and his teacher is sitting there under a tree all cool, chilled out, sitting there in meditation and he sees the young monk coming in and he says to him, “Hey, I see that you’ve been hard at it. You’ve been working hard, you’re all sweaty and all that.” And the young monk says, “Yes, but you should know the one who’s not hard at it.”

What he was doing in that response, it was a beautiful response: he was demonstrating the triangle. The teacher is talking about the left hand side of the triangle—there is one who is working hard, who is efforting, who’s trying, who’s trying to become something, or make something, or provide something, or do something; and the young monk, who was already very enlightened, said “You should know the other side.” Of course, his teacher knows the other side, but he says that, “You should know,” meaning, “I’m also aware that there is one who’s never hard at it. There is one who’s always free. There’s one who is not efforting and trying; who is at rest, at peace in just being in that state of mind, and I occupy both. I include, I embraces both as who I am. I’m hard at it and yet there’s one who’s not hard at it.”

Question: What can Western doctors can learn from Zen philosophies?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: An enormous amount. I think we’re coming to the place where we’re realizing that so much of our illnesses [can be alleviated by Zen]. I myself I went though cancer. Six years ago I had a mouth cancer—a tumor next to my uvula more than two centimeters—and went through six weeks of radiation, and I think it was brought about by not getting enough rest. My immune system was really down. I had spent nearly 30 years getting up very early in the mornings like 4:30 or 5:00 and working all the way through till late at night, living on maybe 3 or 4 hours of rest and sleep.

I think we know that meditation could allow us to truly rest and truly relax. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of meditation. I was doing so much teaching at that point. In the earlier years, I did 10, 12 hours of meditation a day—sometimes as long as 9 months of the year. I was meditating 10, 12 hours a day and all of a sudden the past—I don’t remember how long it was then, maybe 10 years. I was just teaching, teaching, teaching. So, everything was going out, and I would have done well to do more meditation.

I think what we can learn from the Eastern practice how to reduce the stress, how to reduce anxiety, how to reduce fear, and how to really, truthfully relax, chill out. The word “nirvana” can be translated as chilled or chilled out or cool or cooled off, you know. We’re in that place where there’s not a lot of stress, not a lot of pressure, so I think that’s one thing.

Another thing is the what whole Big Mind Big Heart process really allows us. The first thing I did when I got my cancer is speak to the tumor. Immediately I spoke to the tumor. I spent every night, an hour a night, and I would first talk to the tumor. I say, “Tumor, cancer, why are you here?” You know the first thing it told me? “Your life is out of balance. You’re doing too much, and you’re not spending enough time in meditation. You’re not spending enough time in devotion. Your mind, all that you’re doing here is trying to help people wake up, but it’s too mental, and for all your Zen practice the past almost 30 years, 35 years was also very devotional.”

You kind of stop doing the devotional part. My teacher had died in ’95 and I’d stopped doing all that devotional practice and I started doing too much mental [practice]. So, the first thing that cancer told me was, “Your life in not in tune. Your life is out of harmony. It’s not at peace and you must start bringing back in more heart and more devotion.”

Up until that moment I don’t think I called it Big Mind Big Heart. I just called it the Big Mind process. Now, even though the trade mark is Big Mind, I say Big Heart Big Mind, because I include the more devotional, heart aspect, because that was out of whack. It was not in balance. The other thing it taught me was that there were certain things in my life I had to stop doing. One was I had to stop spending time doing things I didn’t want to do, and I had to spend more time doing the things that I love to do. The other thing is you got to stop spending so much time with people you don’t want to be around, people that are draining you, demanding too much from you, and you’re not happy in that relationship. Stop spending so much time with people you don’t really want to be with, and start spending more time with the people you do want to be with.

Now, when I’m with someone, they know I want to be with them. I’m not doing it out of some feeling of obligation or “I should do this” or “I need to do this” or “I must do this.” If I’m spending time with you, I want to be spending time with you. If I’m doing something, it’s because this is what I really want to do.

What I found was the things that I love to do the most were the things I had been doing: helping people wake up, helping people get in touch with some of the parts of themselves that say that are shadowed or disowned, that will help them feel happier and more fulfilled in their life, getting in touch with things that are blocking heir energy. The Great Master Rin Zai, who I mentioned earlier, once said at the later part of his life—this is like 50, 60 years later—he said there are only two things that I do anymore in my teaching: I remove barriers and I untie knots.

Sometimes our energies are all knotted up. It’s like we need a good acupuncture needle right into the center of our being, and I think Big Mind is that needle, where we open ourselves up so that our energy is flowing again. The cancer told me this. My energy wasn’t flowing well. Also, we may have certain barriers, certain decisions, maybe we made as children.

I made a decision and I only got in touch with this just recently. In fact, I just had my 65th birthday two weeks, three weeks ago, and I had a great liberation on my birthday. It was the greatest present I could have. One thing I got in touch with was in my relationship with my mother. I held a lot of guilt because I could never ever make my mother happy or pleased. I could never satisfy her, and what I realized was I held this tremendous guilt that I could never live up to her expectations and I’ve carried this into my life. What a liberation to realize and drop that. To realize that, and to drop that, and be free from that guilt of trying to make somebody else happy, to make somebody else fulfilled, to make somebody else feel satisfied in their life. That’s their responsibility and I can’t do it anyways. What liberation.

At that moment, I also liberated all of my students and all my successors. I wrote an email to my successors. I have like 13 successors, and I wrote an email to them and I said. “You’re now free.” It is your Dharma, your teaching that you carry on. It’s no longer mine and it’s your responsibility. It’s your life and you’re free and who are you free from? Me. I’m setting you free. I’m cutting the umbilical cord. I’m kicking you out of the nest and you’re free to live your life and to spread the teachings, the Dharma, however you see fit, and I’m not going to ask anything of you.

Now, that could look like detachment, cop out; I don’t care, right? That’s where it came from. All of a sudden I saw the me and the “I” in this. The “me” in this, like my teachings, my Dharma—I was attached to that, that they do a good job in carrying that forward, and when I dropped the my and the me and the mine out of it, it became their Dharma or the Dharma not mine, not the possessive: my wife, my husband, my children, my mother, my father. It’s now they’re all human beings and they’re all people in their own right, and I don’t own them, I don’t posses them nor am I owned by them or possessed by them.

Recorded on: June 24 2009