Zen teachers are livid Utah colleague in sex scandal still teaching
Schism • Colleagues call on founder to step away.
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The future of Salt Lake City's Kanzeon Zen Center remains uncertain three months after its charismatic teacher, Genpo Roshi Dennis Merzel, admitted to sexual affairs with three adult women, including one of his advanced students.

Merzel, who is married, disclosed the affairs to followers at a January meeting in the Netherlands but continues to teach and call himself a Zen master, angering many colleagues.

Sixty-six Zen Buddhist teachers, most of them in the United States, wrote a letter to Merzel last month, complaining that he had reversed his intention to step away from teaching in order to take care of his "habitual abuses of power with students and others."

Merzel issued a statement of remorse when he returned to Utah in February, stepped down as a Zen Buddhist priest and resigned from the White Plum Asanga, an organization of leaders of Zen communities in the lineage of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi.

But he said Friday — in his first interview since the scandal erupted — that he has too many people depending on him for enlightenment and financial support to stop teaching.

Roshi Jan Chozen Bays rejects that logic.

"People are just looking for some kind of integrity," said Bays, a former student and friend of Merzel who is a Zen teacher in Oregon and among those urging Merzel to step away from Kanzeon and Zen teaching for at least a year.

Bays also said Merzel is not getting the right kind of therapy to deal with clergy sexual abuse, which she believes he needs, particularly because of a previous episode in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the 1980s. The Zen center there closed after Merzel admitted to having sexual encounters.

Merzel said his affairs were "not about sex," but about his feeling of isolation and loneliness as the teacher at the top of an organization. "I'm working on the whole sexual thing, too," he said.

He and his wife are divorcing.

Merzel accused his critics of envy because of the success of his new way of teaching enlightenment, which he calls Big Mind.

"I'm not trying to justify my actions. I'm very remorseful. But this kind of judgmental mudslinging of Buddhist teachers is worse," Merzel said. "It's making Buddhism look pretty pathetic."

Bays countered that she and other teachers are trying to hold a colleague accountable.

"Anytime something like this happens," she said, "it damages the integrity of the profession and the reputation of Zen in America and around the world."

The buildings of the Kanzeon Zen Center, which Merzel founded on South Temple near 1300 East in the early 1990s, are for sale, but it's unclear whether that will be necessary, Merzel and Kanzeon board member Mark Esterman said Friday.

"We're still getting clarity," Merzel said from California, where he spent a week in therapy and two days on retreat with employees of a Silicon Valley company.

"Whether the buildings sell or not," Esterman said, "the community can still continue [elsewhere]."

Kanzeon's future is in question for several reasons, but it's mostly about money.

Merzel said he has been financially supporting the center for years through his Big Mind nonprofit. He now wants to stop teaching traditional Zen and turn his attention fully to Big Mind.

Big Mind is an enlightenment process Merzel began teaching 12 years ago. It blends Zen with voice dialogue techniques of psychology. Merzel sees it as a way to bring the essence of Zen to the West in a big way.

Big Mind has grossed millions in recent years by offering exclusive training with Merzel to well-heeled followers. Several dozen people throughout the world have paid $50,000 to spend five days with Merzel and four other students. The suggested donation this year for training at Merzel's cabin near Solitude Ski Resort and at Big Mind's monastery on Maui, is $10,000 or $15,000 a person, depending on the session.

Kanzeon, Merzel said, owes Big Mind about $165,000 and Merzel himself $200,000 to $300,000. Those debts would need to be repaid, he said, and the buildings purchased by any group wanting to continue the Zen center.

"I've asked the [Kanzeon] board to ask the community of people still with us what they want," Merzel said. "It seems to me … that if they want those buildings, then they have to come up with the finances for it."

One option, he said, is to rename Kanzeon "Big Heart Center" and focus it on Big Mind.

Merzel said about 100 people have signed their names to a statement saying they want to continue as his students.

Esterman didn't know how many have dropped out of Kanzeon, which once had about 200 members, as a result of the scandal. Merzel said fewer than a dozen have left.

"I'm one of a group of people who feels that Genpo Roshi is an extraordinary teacher," Esterman said. "I'd like to continue studying with him."

kmoulton@sltrib.com