Utah Zen master admits affair, leaves center

The Salt Lake Tribune/February 25, 2011

The founder and charismatic Buddhist teacher at Salt Lake City's Kanzeon Zen Center has stepped away after acknowledging a sexual affair with an advanced Zen follower.

Dennis Merzel, known by his Buddhist name and honorific title "Genpo Roshi," is a nationally respected Zen master who leads trainings all over the world.

He first acknowledged the affair in late January to hundreds of students in Holland. Shortly after his return to Salt Lake City, Merzel addressed an open meeting at the center, took responsibility for his actions and apologized for "the pain, anger, concerns, questions and feelings of his wife, family and sangha members," according to a statement on the center's website.

Merzel voluntarily "disrobed" as a Zen priest and also resigned as an elder in the White Plum Asanga, a consortium of Zen centers led by students of Taizan Maezumi.

Merzel was on retreat Friday and not available for comment. But he did post an apology on his own website.

"My behavior was not in alignment with the Buddhist precepts. I feel 'disrobing' is just a small part of an appropriate response," Merzel wrote. "Experiencing all the pain and suffering I have caused has touched my heart and been the greatest teacher."

Since then, Merzel's actions have been discussed and dissected throughout the American Zen community.

Such sexual behavior "cuts the legs from under Zen practice in this country," said Franz Metcalf, a Buddhist scholar in Los Angeles. "It's a tragedy on various levels."

Sex between teachers and followers "is simply, to use the Buddhist term, wrong action," Metcalf said in a phone interview. "And it violates [Buddhism's] third precept against engaging in harmful sexual activity."

In addition to his family, those hit hardest by Merzel's misconduct are his followers.

"My first reaction was sadness," Mark Esterman, a senior student at the center, said Friday. "I realized there was a lot of hurt here and a lot of suffering would result from this."

The community has staged several "healing circles," so people could share their feelings and discuss how to move forward.

The issues are also financial.

About a decade ago, Merzel created a program he calls "Big Mind." It combines Zen teachings with Western psychology and promises a quicker path to enlightenment. The training can be pricey: His "5-5-50 program" offers five days of training for five people for $50,000.

On his website, Merzel says he will continue to lead his Big Mind training, which could limit revenue for his former center.

The center has tapped one of Merzel's students, Richard Taido Christofferson Sensei, of Seattle, to take over teaching, training and administrative functions.

Christofferson's appointment is a "first step toward the local community's healing," said former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Zimmerman, who, along with his wife, Diane Hamilton, was among Merzel's students.

Zimmerman and Hamilton, who plan to open their own Zen center in downtown Salt Lake City next week, are committed to working cooperatively with Christofferson to support the larger Zen community.

They have left Kanzeon but were disappointed to hear about the misconduct of Merzel, who officiated at their wedding,

"I found him to be a strong and dedicated teacher and will always be grateful for his schooling me in Zen practice," the former judge said. "What the future holds for Genpo is difficult to predict."

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