Punk vs “Big Mind”

by Titus OBrien December 4, 2008
Franklin Jones, aka Adi Da, died on Thanksgiving at his compound in Fiji, age 69. I had written about his adventures in art a few months back. He apparently keeled over from a massive coronary, while making art no less. A message released by his groupies said that he would lie, or more properly sit, in state for two weeks, unless he started to decompose (saints are reputedly often somewhat rot proof.) It was then reported he was buried by Sunday, three days later. I’m not saying he wasn’t a saint, but…

His followers are all over the internets gushing about their Beloved (his preferred term of address.) It all creeps me out of course, but I can’t help but think much of it all comes down to aesthetics in the end. It makes me wonder if choosing one religious form over another (including science, atheism, capitalism et al) is any different than realizing you’re a formal abstract painter, functional potter, or performance artist. Maybe it’s all just inclination driven by the quirks of character and influence.

wilber_and_friend.jpgI had mentioned how Integral Super Hero Ken Wilber had been known to champion the absurd messianic claims of the Da Man, and proselytized on his behalf. Wilber can’t seem to talk about anything without launching into flights of hyperbolic frenzy, be it pro or con. Maybe it’s just aesthetics again, but it bugs me, and makes nearly anything he says somewhat suspect in my book. Now he’s found a new Zen Messiah, and there is a tiny little controversy tempest brewing in the American Buddhist tea cup.
(photo: Ken and friend. Don’t ask me. Pictures of him without clothes are weirdly ubiquitous.)

genpo.jpgDennis Merzel, given Zen name Genpo, is a well-known Zen teacher who has lately developed a “new” approach he’s actually trademarked as “Big Mind.” The promotional lit for his workshops says:

If you do spend these two days with us, here’s what will happen for you:

    * You’ll have a real, tangible experience of being One with the entire universe — what Genpo Roshi calls Big Mind/Big Heart. I’m talking about the same experience a Zen master or other enlightened master has — something that usually takes decades of meditation and direct work with a spiritual master to achieve. I’m not kidding. You’ll experience this amazing state (more than once) during these two days, and I promise it will change your life — forever…

    * You’ll very likely experience permanent resolution regarding at least one — and probably several — dark places in your life. At least one major part of your life that wasn’t working will finally work!

    * Bottom line: your perspective on life will permanently change to one that allows you to have more of the happiness, inner peace, and personal success you’ve always wanted.

I know this sounds like a lot, but trust me, you will experience all of this — and a lot more — during this 2-day experiential workshop.

Genpo Roshi has become world-famous for his Big Mind Process, a combination of Zen and Western psychology. This amazing process allows you to experience — in just 3 hours or less — what Buddhists call "Buddha Mind" — the mind of clarity, transcendental wisdom, and unconditional compassion — and, the profound personal and psychological insights that go with it.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what this experience is like — whether you call it unity consciousness, Buddha Mind, Christ Consciousness, enlightenment, Nirvana, liberation, or something else…

…this is your chance.

And, I guarantee you WILL experience it.

Enter Brad Warner. Warner is a professed punk musician, Godzilla movie fanatic, and honest-to-Buddha Zen priest in his own right. He spent some years in Japan where he began to practice Zen, eventually getting “transmission” from his teacher (the wonderful, utterly authentic 86 year old Nishijima-roshi), ie full authorization to carry on the lineage and teach in his own right. brad8.jpgHe’s written three books , that I can’t say I’ve read, but I like his attitude and it’s good to show that things as seemingly disparate as Punk and Zen can be harmoniously married. Because they can. Zen is just life. One of my favorite Zen masters, Ikkyu (1394-1481), was a poet whose favorite themes included visiting brothels, doing it with his blind girlfriend, masturbating, and getting drunk.

In that spirit I suppose, Warner blogs on SuicideGirls.com, which I can’t really look at anymore for three reasons: 1) I’m married, and wife no like; 2) The girls are mostly covered with tat’s and piercings, which I find more silly than sexy; and last but by no means least, they are starting to look really, really young to me. They look like a goodly quotient of the students I’m teaching, and I begin to feel sort of chaste and paternal toward them all.

Anyway, on his blog, Warner takes Merzel to task. I think for some of the wrong reasons, but I’m glad he’s calling Merzel out (here he does a faux-debate, with a sock puppet sitting in for Merzel. It’s pretty art-like, not to mention funny.)
If I know you GT readers, the sales pitch above probably had many of you smirking at your screens. Ken Wilber has gone so far as to declare Merzel’s process the biggest development in Buddhism in centuries . There’s that hyperbole again. Anything he’s associated with has to be nothing short of REVOLUTIONARY!!! His critics are simply just never evolved enough to “get” him. Gads.

Warner reminds readers that it takes decades of hard work to become a Zen master, and truly be “enlightened.” Merzel says that you can gain the same insights in 45 minutes with him that it would take a Zen monk years to attain. I’m with Warner when he says that if it’s “enlightenment” Merzel is selling, he doesn’t want enlightenment.

But I understand Merzel’s direction. Zen shouldn’t be just years plugging away on a cushion, waiting hopefully for something to change. And time was when Zen was an elitist kind of thing – though it initially arose as a product of a populist religious revolution in China. Zen grew quite stagnant in the intervening centuries, but has found fertile fresh new soil in America, which is truly the epicenter for a Buddhist Renaissance. It’s as if all the children of particular family scattered around the world, multiplied for generations, developed new languages and cultures, and then millennia later came back together and compared notes. That’s precisely what’d happened in the US in the last 50 years. Tibetan lamas, Thai forest monks, Zen masters from countries that have been culturally estranged for centuries, newer lay traditions – literally hundreds of flavors of Buddha to choose from.

I am just one American among millions now who bought the sampler pack. I’ve tried out numbers of traditions, and seen first hand the merging of styles and traditions into a new American, or simply post-modern Buddhism. 
I’ve mostly stuck with Zen. I know its not the “best” brand. It’s just the one that works for me. Some people like Jesus cupcakes, or Allah muffins. I like wholegrain Buddha bread (though kinda dry sometimes.) Not just Merzel, but a lot of American Zen teachers having been trying to find a way to cook without all the Asian seasonings. Bread is bread.

So, back to this enlightenment thing. That word is such a big problem, most good teachers just discourage using it at all. Sometimes, you have dramatic openings or insights, where some more glaring misconceptions about yourself or things drop away. The Japanese use the term Satori, or kensho. So what Merzel is sort of saying is that he can get you to that breakthrough by talking at you in a morning or weekend. I believe that this is possibly true. Good teachers, well, that’s what makes them good teachers. They point out your intrinsic, fundamental goodness and wisdom and lead you to see it. But learning to live in that, every moment of every day? What else can do that but practice? And you never always live there, obviously. We’re fucking human beings. We fall off the horse, and get on the horse. We yell at the wife/husband/loverperson, kick the dog/cat/kid, hate ourselves for minute, and try to just be more patient and mindful next time.

The funny thing is everybody who makes it into the history books (be they artist, politician, or religion founder) does so by going out and saying “I have the real shit here, man! I’m doing it like no one else has done it baby!” Zen dude Bankei did it; the founder of Zen Bodhidharma did it; even the Buddha did it (or his followers said that he did as they tried to create their brand). So Merzel, in full-on American consumer, instant-gratification style is doing it too. But I hope his graduates don’t all go out calling themselves “Big Mind” masters, like Reiki healing “masters” who get the appellation after a weekend workshop or two. The thing that comes over time isn’t “enlightenment,” which is your natural state anyway. It’s wisdom, experience, skillfulness, and compassion for the suffering of others. Which comes as a result of seeing what natural-born a-holes we all are, much of the time. That is, when we’re not being wonderfully realized Buddhas.



Asshole December 5, 2008 - 18:26

You mean there is no a-hole and Zen horizon studies?

Asshole December 5, 2008 - 20:06

Man you could do a whole blog dedicated to nude pics of Ken Wilbur.

Trungpa Ricochet December 6, 2008 - 03:51

Being human always involves a struggle. It is the nature of life to strive. We all fluctuate in a range somewhere between lucidity and stupidity. Maybe it’s fair to say that levels of awareness can be marked or measured by how each of us assumes responsibility for himself. Learning to become responsible involves admission of ignorance. Admission of ignorance sometimes involves getting to know a teacher who is presumably less ignorant than his students. A student, then, might also ask, “What, master, do you need that is being fulfilled by your role as a teacher? Why do you teach?”

I studied Shorin-ryu quite informally with a friend who was a very good fighter. He earned his upper-level ranks in the ring. After watching him win against various blowhards and badasses, all with black belts, I asked him who the best fighter was in the style. My teacher said, “I have never seen him, nor is he ever going to bother entering a ring to prove himself. He is probably a fisherman in Motobu.”

Asshole December 6, 2008 - 09:50

What did you think of the video performace Trungpa?

Trungpa Ricochet December 7, 2008 - 03:21

The video performance was funny. I tend to give more credibilty to anybody who can laugh, especially at himself. This, for me, is actually what defines a healthy attitude. Authority, like anything else genuine, must be earned. It cannot be inherited or handed over through friendship. One of the strengths of buddhism is its insistence upon questioning everything. No one is asked to believe based on faith. That is also why it flourishes in the West and why it is not, in the end, tied to geography or even language. I think there have been many very able teachers, translators, and poets who have untied the dharma from its moorings in Japan, China, Tibet, and India, and kept its essential nature intact. And what attracts many in the West is the idea that buddhahood is our true nature, and we can realize it with effort. This is directly opposed to what Asshole accurately called ontological guilt, a characteristic of the religions of the Levant. Just to criticise one of them, since I was born a Roman Catholic, am half Irish, and feel free to speak about it, Christianity, at its core, insists that humans are imperfect, doomed, in fact, by the sin of Adam, and cannot be redeemed except throught the atonement of Jeheshua ben Youssef, carpenter and martyr. That is where the idea of responsibility comes in. That is also where, to me, since I mistrust authority, buddhism stands out. I trust myself. If Jesus actually existed, and if he were the real deal, he would have no argument to offer against anything the Buddha ever said. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have all been hobbled by politics, family ties, and vanities about language. They also take away responsibility from humans and assign it to a deity.

I’ve read some of Ken Wilbur’s stuff, although it’s been a while. He impressed me as a pretty smart guy. I always feel free to accept or reject everything, though, and that includes his endorsements. I don’t know much about Dennis Merzel or Brad Warner. I have read that Tibetan Buddhism varies in its attitudes about liberation and how it is achieved. There are the studious ones, the Gelugpa, who sound like Brad Warner. There are also the instant lightning-bolt-thunderstruck ones, the Kagyupa. I think it’s possible to have a spontaneous realization, either self-induced or given in an instant by a teacher. I think Zen admits to both as well. You can arrive via the long way or the short way. The real work, though, like Titus says, is staying there once you’ve “arrived”.

tobrienwriter December 7, 2008 - 16:27

I know most people couldn’t give a rat’s ass about much of this – I just blog about what’s on my radar, much of which happens to be Zen-ish lately. The words Zen and Buddhism are a huge distraction, and they often illicit expressions of disgust from Zennists and Buddhas. I’m grimacing. I’m ashamed of the using them so much myself. Pardon.
I just got back from sesshin. I’m in the usual physical pain, but quiet minded.
I just wanted to clarify what I’ve found an important point. Dogen, one of the founders of Zen in Japan and increasingly influential in American Zen, emphasized “practice/enlightenment.” he said they are the same thing. you already have “it.” You “actualize” it by practicing. You don’t sit or whatever to GAIN anything. Your intrinsic “enlightened” self, just as you are, practices as a way to reveal itself to itself. It’s really much more like art than psychotherapy or something. You’re revealing something, expressing it, exploring it, inquiring into your own basic nature.
So it’s not about having some special experience at a weekend workshop – an idea I find fundamentally grotesque (which is the only word that sums up my feeling about the above promo thing.) Nor is it about working really hard to get some special quality in the future. I practice because its good way to be, to experience things. Its mysterious, and yet totally transparent. It’s like art – but from where the art comes from.

Asshole December 7, 2008 - 19:01

O’Brien I like your thoughts on the subject.

I’ve been trying to remember and find a zen (like) painting where a man is walking a cow then is taken up to other realms then is back walking the cow, but cannot locate it yet.

Trungpa Ricochet December 7, 2008 - 21:41

That is part of my practice. It’s painless. I also really do chop wood. Happily, I do not carry water. The pipes do.

tobrienwriter December 8, 2008 - 10:59

I think this is what you are referring to, A. There are 10 pictures of a man searching for the ox, tracking it, finding it, subduing it, riding it, disappearing along with it, reappearing with it, walking alongside it, and reentering “the village marketplace” with gift-bestowing hands.
Its a metaphor for the process. It’s been painted and spoken about for centuries. I’ve been hearing commercials on Chicago NPR for an art performance based on it at the MCA coming up, which sounds pretentious kind of. Funny coming from me right?

Trungpa Ricochet December 8, 2008 - 12:01

Titus, pardon me for asking, and maybe it’s none of my business, but did you take any vows at any time in your Zen practice?

tobrienwriter December 8, 2008 - 12:27

different ones, different traditions, different times. Its a way to orient I guess, affirm a direction and commitment. In Zen they say “know when the vows are open, and when they are closed.” In some Buddhist traditions, they hold to the vows really strictly – like not touching money, or being alone with women (for monks), or eating garlic. These all came about from practical experiences, they weren’t divinely ordained. Like a monk comes back from alms rounds, and says “Hey Buddha, this widow invited me into her hut to give me alms, and she touched my, uh, robes inappropriately.” Buddha’d say “ok, lets add that to the list.” But today, for lay people, there are 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 or whatever, depending on the tradition. Don’t kill people. Don’t steal their stuff. Etc. But then also, beyond that, the flip side, how can one actually give life, free people from obsession with stuff, like that. Flip it into the positive.

Trungpa Ricochet December 8, 2008 - 22:08

I myself have refrained from vows because I know I would have trouble refraining from “destroying towns, villages, cities or large areas by means such as fire, bombs, pollution or black magic”.

The reason I asked you is because it seems to me you have no reason to apologize for anything you’ve written here. What’s pretentious? How can you write to all who read your blog without overshooting or undershooting in some cases? The best one can do is aim for the middle, which you do, it seems to me. Of course your ideal is to seamlessly join your practice and your life without appearing to separate the two by mentioning something from the tradition, but what’s wrong with the tradition?

What I think is great about tantra (and please excuse me for using words from a tradition, but the tradition is worthy and it works for me) is that I can use the energy that was harmful and ride it like that ox into town. I just have to understand what it is and not identify with it. Anger is my friend when he’s not burning down my house. Mahakala is a protector, but man, he’s an ugly mofo. If he was handsome, he wouldn’t get no respect. I know you already know this…that’s flipping it into the positive, of course.

Maybe somebody’s smirking, but it ain’t me.

Trungpa Ricochet December 14, 2008 - 01:43

I played music in a band in Texas some years ago, and we shared the same rehearsal space, (a former mortuary school!) with Really Red, a hardcore group if ever there was one. The singer and main troublemaker, U Ron Bondage, now works for a law firm in Seattle and is a meditator and political activist. RDB, as he calls himself, practices flipping his anger into constructive activism.

There was a bumper sticker that was around for a while years ago that said LIFE SUCKS AND THEN YOU DIE. At the time I could only shake my head and laugh, but I got the sentiment. A lot of what might define “punk” is dissatisfaction with the way things are. Maybe people could consider it a challenge to deal with things by knowing that they have actually made an important observation when they are dissatisfied. Instead of allowing that dissatisfaction to collapse into apathy, they might try what my friend in Seattle has done.

Good article, A.


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