Dennis Merzel

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Dennis Merzel
Genpo Roshi Merzel Profile Picture.jpg
Born 3 June 1944
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Education University of Southern California
Occupation Author
Taizan Maezumi and Merzel

Dennis Merzel (born June 3, 1944 in Brooklyn, New York) is an American Zen and spirituality teacher, also known as Genpo Merzel Roshi.


Early life

Dennis Paul Merzel, known as Genpo Roshi, was born on June 3, 1944 in Brooklyn, New York and was raised and schooled in Long Beach, California. His family was Jewish (his grandfather was a Rabbi),[1] but he was raised as an agnostic by his father and as an atheist by his mother.[2] He was a champion swimmer and an all-American water polo player. He was a lifeguard and began teaching public school while obtaining a master's degree in educational administration from the University of Southern California.[web 1][news 1]

Zen Buddhism

While on a trip in 1971 to the Mojave Desert in California with two friends, Merzel had what he described as an "awakening experience".[web 2][web 3] Following this, he left his career as a school teacher for a year to live in the mountains alone in a cabin near San Luis Obispo. In 1972[web 2] he met the Japanese-born Zen teacher Taizan Maezumi, and moved to Los Angeles to study under him.[web 1][news 2][news 3] Merzel was ordained as an unsui, or novice priest, in 1973.[3] In 1980, a year after completing formal Kōan study, Merzel received dharma transmission, becoming Maezumi's second Dharma successor.[3][web 2] In 1981 Merzel underwent zuise[note 1] in Japan,[3] and in 1988 he was officially installed as abbot of Hosshinji Zen temple in Bar Harbor, Maine.[web 4][note 2] In 1995 Merzel received the title of Dendō-kyōshi Kenshuso, a now defunct category officially recognizing Western Zen priests by the Sōtō School Headquarters in Japan (Sōtō-shū) .[web 5] In 1996 Merzel received Inka from Bernie Glassman,[3][web 2] after Maezumi's death in 1995.[web 4][note 3] This made Merzel Bernie Glassman's first Inka successor and made him the second in Maezumi Roshi's lineage to be recognized as a Zen Master.[web 2] Merzel is the founder[news 4] and former Abbot of Kanzeon Zen Center. [news 5]

Big Mind

In 1983 Merzel began studying Voice Dialogue—a Jungian therapeutic technique designed to expand the individual's ability to make choices in life rather than to behave in an automatic and unconscious fashion[web 8]—with Hal and Sidra Stone. Shortly thereafter, he began to experiment with integrating Voice Dialogue with the Zen tradition,[web 9] and in 1999 he introduced the Big Mind Process™.[web 4] The aim of the Big Mind Process is to combine "Eastern, Buddhist insights with Western psychoanalytical ideas,"[news 6][note 4][note 5] and according to Merzel:

It allows a person to step out of their ego and have a universal mind or mystical experience, to attain what is commonly called enlightenment, self realization, Christ mind, or Buddha mind.[web 9]

Merzel has organized Big Mind™ retreats and events nationally and internationally, such as an annual event in the Netherlands that has attracted hundreds of participants.[news 6] Responses to Big Mind have been variously negative[web 11][web 12][dead link] and positive.[web 13][note 6]

A randomized clinical trial of Merzel's Big Mind process has been carried out as part of a masters thesis "to test the hypothesis that a Zen training method using a self-based dialogue approach called Big Mind (Merzel, 2007) produces significant changes in subjective experience that are similar to the spiritual experiences of long-term meditators during deep meditation and, second, to examine whether the effect brings about any lasting positive psychological improvements in both spirituality and well-being measures."[6] The participants appeared to score higher on various measures after participation, but the reported effects may also result from factors such as group effect, suggestibility, and/or simple expectation,[6] and the study may have limited generalizability due to the high level of education of the participants.[6][note 7]

Because Big Mind allows many to attain some but not all of the benefits of long-term sitting meditation, an important topic for further exploration is how to master those other aspects. On the other hand, Big Mind may provide a means for developing teachings that go beyond the subtle limitations that were embedded in more traditional practices in order to meet the needs of feudal Confucian-based societies.


Dennis Merzel has given Dharma transmission to 17 heirs, and authorized 11 to teach as Zen Masters. He has given Jukai to 518 students and ordained 137 Priests.[web 2]

Dharma successors

Inka transmission

Inka transmission conferring the title of Zen Master on eleven Zen teachers:



  • The Eye Never Sleeps: Striking to the Heart of Zen (1991, Shambhala Publications)
  • Beyond Sanity and Madness the Way of Zen Master Dogen (1994, Tuttle Publishing)
  • 24/7 Dharma: Impermanence, No-Self, Nirvana (2001, Journey Editions)
  • The Path of the Human Being: Zen Teachings on the Bodhisattva Way (2005, Shambhala Publications)
  • Big Mind, Big Heart: Finding Your Way (2007, Big Mind Publishing)[news 7]
  • The Fool Who Thought He Was God (2013, Big Mind Publishing)
  • Spitting Out the Bones: A Zen Master's 45 Year Journey (2016, Big Mind Publishing)


  • Big Mind Big Heart Revealed
  • The Path of the Human Being
  • Awakened by the 10,000 Dharmas
  • From Student to Master
  • Masculine and Feminine Energies
  • The Teachings of Bodhidharma

See also


  1. Ceremonial "abbot-for-one-night" rituals at the head temples of the Soto school
  2. A traditional ceremony of "entering the temple" which marks the end of the monastic training period and becoming part of the clergy.[4]
  3. IntegralNaked: "Roshi Bernie had received Inka from Maezumi Roshi shortly before the latter's death in May of 1995."[web 4] SweepingZen: "In the Japanese Rinzai schools, inka is the equivalent of Sōtō Zen dharma transmission (shiho ceremony), and is the final level of empowerment as a teacher. In the Harada-Yasutani lineage, inka is one level of empowerment beyond dharma transmission."[web 6] Great Plains Zen Center: "This Inka ceremony grants final approval in our Rinzai lineage through Musa Koryu Roshi, another one of Maezumi Roshi's teachers."[web 7]
  4. From the Big Mind website: "In 1999 he created the Big Mind Process™, also known as Big Mind/Big Heart, which philosopher Ken Wilber has called “arguably the most important and original discovery in the last two centuries of Buddhism.” It has broadened and enriched not only the teaching of Zen but spiritual practices in other traditions as well, enabling thousands of people from all walks of life and religious backgrounds to have an awakening with little or no prior consciousness study. It is being used in many fields, including psychotherapy, law, medicine, education, mediation, business, athletics, social work, family therapy, and work with prison inmates, hospital patients and the dying. Roshi continues to train people to bring the Big Mind process and Big Heart Zen out into the world, and remains deeply committed to their ongoing evolution."[web 2]
  5. Japanese Soto Zen founder Dōgen Zenji uses the phrase in his Tenzo Kyōkun (Instructions to the Chief Cook);[5] as does 20th-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in talks collected in the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.[web 10]
  6. Negative:
    * Brad Warner: "Big Mind™ is irresponsible and dangerous. But there is a lot of irresponsible and dangerous stuff going on in the world of this type of cheesy vaguely Eastern feel-good-now spirituality. The reason I have focused so much attention on Genpo Roshi’s rotten Big Mind™ scam is because it pretends to be related to Zen. Not only to Zen, but to the Soto tradition of Master Dogen. Genpo has even stolen Suzuki Roshi’s phrase “big mind” — first used in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — and trademarked it for himself (SFZC really should make a legal complaint about that, since they own the copyright to Suzuki’s works). But Big Mind™ has nothing whatsoever in common with real Zen practice."[web 11]
    * Barabara O'Brien (2011): "What always (to me) made Big Mind™ sound hinky is that it is marketed as enlightenment on speed dial. By using Genpo's techniques, the pitch said, you could save yourself years of sitting zazen before realizing satori. Big Mind™ is taught mostly through seminars that charge a hefty enrollment fee, beginning at $150, which I'll come back to in a minute. I understand some people have paid as much as $50,000 for quickie enlightenment.[web 12]
    * Denis Hamill: "I approached "Big Mind, Big Heart" with a jaundiced eye, expecting snake oil. But I found it compelling and life-changing. I can't say that I have achieved "kensho." But I have reached a place where I no longer do a Ben Hur chariot race on the BQE after someone flips me the bird. I shout a lot less. I deal with envy and petty jealousies by embracing and owning the emotion and then transcending it.[web 13]
  7. See also Linda Heuman, Meditation Nation, Tricycle April 25, 2014.


Book references

  1. Stroud, Michael (January 2004). Shambhala Sun.  Missing or empty |title= (help); (the article Archived 25 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine. on "Mindful"); partial version on Lion's Roar
  2. "Big Think Interview with Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi". Big Think. 3 August 2009. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Ford 2006, p. 166.
  4. Borup 2008, p. 180.
  5. Dōgen Zenji 1983, p. 18, 38.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Johnson 2011.

Web references

Newspapers and magazines references

  1. Jarvik, Elaine (26 August 2005). "The Zen of Sitting". Desert Morning News. Retrieved 3 January 2008. 
  2. "Sitting judge: Retired Utah chief justice finds his way as a Buddhist monk". Deseret News. 24 April 2004. 
  3. "Sensei Coppens: het grootste geschenk is de onbevreesdheid". Trouw. 11 January 1997. Archived from the original on 13 October 2012. Retrieved 12 February 2011. 
  4. Bloom, Anna (1 May 2007). "How to bring Zen to the grocery store". Park Record. 
  5. Warburton, Nicole (3 January 2009). "New year, New mind – Zen master helps others find enlightenment". Deseret News. Retrieved 18 February 2011. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Limpt, Cokky van (22 January 2010). "Verlichting voor westerse geesten". Trouw. Retrieved 3 April 2011. 
  7. Hamill, Dennis (1 September 2008). "Peace of mind in Zen master Gerpo Merzel's 'Big Mind'". Daily News (New York). Retrieved 12 February 2011. 

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