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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[…]

Heartbreak set Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi on the path to enlightenment.

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.

Recorded on: June 24 2009