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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[…]

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi advises on the spiritual tools one can use to confront both spiritual and physical ills.

Question: How can someone who is at a low point in their life utilize your teachings?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: Well, one thing that I think we know, and I have found out it’s really important—spend some time alone, some time to really contemplate our life. One of the things that we know is that really self-actualizing individuals—and Maslow found this out a long time ago—have one thing in common, and that is that they spend a minimum of maybe an hour a day alone either in meditation or prayer, walking on a path or road, alone in the forest, in the mountains, sitting by a stream or by a fireplace or maybe just listening to music. I think it’s important for us to be really sincere and honest with ourselves and spend some quality time with ourselves, reflecting. I also think that it’s important for us to be willing to experience our emotions, our feelings—to experience our heart and not suppress or disown aspects of ourselves.

Question: Why do we suffer in the first place?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: Well, of course the major reason is craving and attachment. Those were discovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. We all have cravings and attachments. But let me give a little twist, a littlie spin. Something that I think might be really helpful for those viewing this; that is, think about how much you care. Just think about that for a moment. How much you care? You care about of course your own life, your children, your family, and your loved ones. You care about your wife or your husband. You care about your parents. You care about the world. You care about the planet. You care about the future of the planet. Just think of how much you care. We usually think, “Maybe I don’t care enough. Maybe I should care more.” That’s true. All of us could care more, but we don’t look at that caring as an attachment. I care so much that I’m actually binding myself, without even a rope, because I am so caring. I am so loving towards others, and of course I could be more, but that binds me because, out of this caring, what I’m not doing is being free.

Think of that as the left hand side of the triangle, and think about that caring as an attachment, as a craving. I crave to care more. I’m attached to satisfying my partner or fulfilling my mother or making my husband happy or being there for another. I care so much that I’m frustrated. I feel disappointment. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough. I’m not there enough.

Then, take the other side of the triangle; that’s a shift to the other side of the triangle, the base of the triangle where I don’t care. I’m not attached. I let go. I drop all that caring and I have an attitude which could be quite immature, not caring, but it could also be very mature—out of this not caring, I am free to care more, but without it being a cause of suffering. In other words, if we take the right hand side of the triangle as detachment or as liberation, nirvana, these are all terms that we could use for the right hand, it’s the transcendent.

If we take the right hand side of that triangle to be freedom from attachment, freedom from craving, freedom from desire, freedom from fear, freedom from all these things that bind me, and then at the apex we see that, in one hand, I deeply, deeply care about this world. I care about its future. I care about all the species on this planet not just the human species. I not only care about the human species, I care about the animate and inanimate things. I care about the rocks. I care about the seashells. I care about the sand on the beaches. I care, I care, I care—but because I’ve gone to the other extreme of the other side of the triangle of not caring at all, I am free to care and still, in that caring, have a sense that I’m not overwhelmed by it and I’m not frustrated by it and I’m not guilty about it all. So, at the apex, it allows us to approach our life in a way that is fully functioning. In other words, I’m in touch with my deepest feelings and emotions and yet I am not particularly attached.

There was a great column by two great Zen Masters; let me just share this with you. One of the Masters was named Obaku, and he was one of the all-time great masters, and he had a great student named Rin Zai. In fact, two of the three Zen Schools in Japan, one is a Soto school, the other is a Rin Zai School, and the third is a smaller school—the Obaku. Two of these characters, of this lineage, were in this column, and Rin Zai was the young student, probably in his early 20s, and he was out working in the field and working hard all day. In those days, they did a lot of work in the field. He’s coming back into the monastery and his teacher is sitting there under a tree all cool, chilled out, sitting there in meditation and he sees the young monk coming in and he says to him, “Hey, I see that you’ve been hard at it. You’ve been working hard, you’re all sweaty and all that.” And the young monk says, “Yes, but you should know the one who’s not hard at it.”

What he was doing in that response, it was a beautiful response: he was demonstrating the triangle. The teacher is talking about the left hand side of the triangle—there is one who is working hard, who is efforting, who’s trying, who’s trying to become something, or make something, or provide something, or do something; and the young monk, who was already very enlightened, said “You should know the other side.” Of course, his teacher knows the other side, but he says that, “You should know,” meaning, “I’m also aware that there is one who’s never hard at it. There is one who’s always free. There’s one who is not efforting and trying; who is at rest, at peace in just being in that state of mind, and I occupy both. I include, I embraces both as who I am. I’m hard at it and yet there’s one who’s not hard at it.”

Question: What can Western doctors can learn from Zen philosophies?

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi: An enormous amount. I think we’re coming to the place where we’re realizing that so much of our illnesses [can be alleviated by Zen]. I myself I went though cancer. Six years ago I had a mouth cancer—a tumor next to my uvula more than two centimeters—and went through six weeks of radiation, and I think it was brought about by not getting enough rest. My immune system was really down. I had spent nearly 30 years getting up very early in the mornings like 4:30 or 5:00 and working all the way through till late at night, living on maybe 3 or 4 hours of rest and sleep.

I think we know that meditation could allow us to truly rest and truly relax. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of meditation. I was doing so much teaching at that point. In the earlier years, I did 10, 12 hours of meditation a day—sometimes as long as 9 months of the year. I was meditating 10, 12 hours a day and all of a sudden the past—I don’t remember how long it was then, maybe 10 years. I was just teaching, teaching, teaching. So, everything was going out, and I would have done well to do more meditation.

I think what we can learn from the Eastern practice how to reduce the stress, how to reduce anxiety, how to reduce fear, and how to really, truthfully relax, chill out. The word “nirvana” can be translated as chilled or chilled out or cool or cooled off, you know. We’re in that place where there’s not a lot of stress, not a lot of pressure, so I think that’s one thing.

Another thing is the what whole Big Mind Big Heart process really allows us. The first thing I did when I got my cancer is speak to the tumor. Immediately I spoke to the tumor. I spent every night, an hour a night, and I would first talk to the tumor. I say, “Tumor, cancer, why are you here?” You know the first thing it told me? “Your life is out of balance. You’re doing too much, and you’re not spending enough time in meditation. You’re not spending enough time in devotion. Your mind, all that you’re doing here is trying to help people wake up, but it’s too mental, and for all your Zen practice the past almost 30 years, 35 years was also very devotional.”

You kind of stop doing the devotional part. My teacher had died in ’95 and I’d stopped doing all that devotional practice and I started doing too much mental [practice]. So, the first thing that cancer told me was, “Your life in not in tune. Your life is out of harmony. It’s not at peace and you must start bringing back in more heart and more devotion.”

Up until that moment I don’t think I called it Big Mind Big Heart. I just called it the Big Mind process. Now, even though the trade mark is Big Mind, I say Big Heart Big Mind, because I include the more devotional, heart aspect, because that was out of whack. It was not in balance. The other thing it taught me was that there were certain things in my life I had to stop doing. One was I had to stop spending time doing things I didn’t want to do, and I had to spend more time doing the things that I love to do. The other thing is you got to stop spending so much time with people you don’t want to be around, people that are draining you, demanding too much from you, and you’re not happy in that relationship. Stop spending so much time with people you don’t really want to be with, and start spending more time with the people you do want to be with.

Now, when I’m with someone, they know I want to be with them. I’m not doing it out of some feeling of obligation or “I should do this” or “I need to do this” or “I must do this.” If I’m spending time with you, I want to be spending time with you. If I’m doing something, it’s because this is what I really want to do.

What I found was the things that I love to do the most were the things I had been doing: helping people wake up, helping people get in touch with some of the parts of themselves that say that are shadowed or disowned, that will help them feel happier and more fulfilled in their life, getting in touch with things that are blocking heir energy. The Great Master Rin Zai, who I mentioned earlier, once said at the later part of his life—this is like 50, 60 years later—he said there are only two things that I do anymore in my teaching: I remove barriers and I untie knots.

Sometimes our energies are all knotted up. It’s like we need a good acupuncture needle right into the center of our being, and I think Big Mind is that needle, where we open ourselves up so that our energy is flowing again. The cancer told me this. My energy wasn’t flowing well. Also, we may have certain barriers, certain decisions, maybe we made as children.

I made a decision and I only got in touch with this just recently. In fact, I just had my 65th birthday two weeks, three weeks ago, and I had a great liberation on my birthday. It was the greatest present I could have. One thing I got in touch with was in my relationship with my mother. I held a lot of guilt because I could never ever make my mother happy or pleased. I could never satisfy her, and what I realized was I held this tremendous guilt that I could never live up to her expectations and I’ve carried this into my life. What a liberation to realize and drop that. To realize that, and to drop that, and be free from that guilt of trying to make somebody else happy, to make somebody else fulfilled, to make somebody else feel satisfied in their life. That’s their responsibility and I can’t do it anyways. What liberation.

At that moment, I also liberated all of my students and all my successors. I wrote an email to my successors. I have like 13 successors, and I wrote an email to them and I said. “You’re now free.” It is your Dharma, your teaching that you carry on. It’s no longer mine and it’s your responsibility. It’s your life and you’re free and who are you free from? Me. I’m setting you free. I’m cutting the umbilical cord. I’m kicking you out of the nest and you’re free to live your life and to spread the teachings, the Dharma, however you see fit, and I’m not going to ask anything of you.

Now, that could look like detachment, cop out; I don’t care, right? That’s where it came from. All of a sudden I saw the me and the “I” in this. The “me” in this, like my teachings, my Dharma—I was attached to that, that they do a good job in carrying that forward, and when I dropped the my and the me and the mine out of it, it became their Dharma or the Dharma not mine, not the possessive: my wife, my husband, my children, my mother, my father. It’s now they’re all human beings and they’re all people in their own right, and I don’t own them, I don’t posses them nor am I owned by them or possessed by them.

Recorded on: June 24 2009