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Buddhist Genpo Roshi offers transformation in a New York minute

Genpo Roshi, founder of Big Mind Buddhism, talks to WellandGoodNYC.comApparently spring is Buddhist season in NYC. After a long depressing winter, now, in the span of six sunny weeks, we have Genpo Roshi, Krishna Das, and the Dalai Lama in town. But Buddhism is not just a fair-weather friend, and neither is Zen master Dennis Genpo Merzel, who goes by Genpo Roshi (“Roshi” means “venerable teacher”) and who comes to Manhattan a few times a year to teach Big Mind, a form of Buddhism that he founded.

If Zen is known as the school of sudden enlightenment (because it assumes you’re already enlightened), and Tibetan Buddhism takes this life to attain it (plus the next few), Big Mind, which marries Zen with Western psychology, is the bullet train of Buddhism, making it ideal for the New Yorker and the iPhone Generation. (In fact, Genpo Roshi has an iPhone app that provides a visual shorthand for Big Mind concepts.) Nothing works faster for a sense of peace, says Genpo Roshi, which is why he’s in town this weekend speaking to dignitaries of the United Nations (seeking world peace) and to the rest of us stress cases (seeking inner peace).

Genpo Roshi began practicing Zen in the early ‘70s, after experiencing gestalt therapy to deal with the death of his father. By 1973, still in his 20s, he knew he’d meld Zen koans with gestalt and psychotherapy tenets into a new form of practice. “In Zen, we’re considered already perfect, so sometimes people don’t work on themselves in a deep way. In psychotherapy we’re flawed, we come with problems, so we work on the refinement of the self,” says Genpo Roshi, from the Marriott Downtown on West Street where his weekend workshop is held. “The self needs both acceptance and the refinement to really get somewhere.”

Big Mind Buddhism woman meditating in New York City

While the transformation process is popular with West Coasters (he’s based in Salt Lake City), its second largest audience is New Yorkers, who might need it more, acknowledges Genpo Roshi. “New Yorkers seem very open and receptive to Big Mind because they’re aware of their stress and how it affects their inner life.” There’s also our Woody Allen-like willingness to lay on the couch. (How different is sitting on a zabuton?) “New York has always been on the cutting edge of conscious growth, like Southern California where I was raised,” says Genpo Roshi, who was born in Brooklyn. “I’m fostering the quiet cross-country rivalry over who’s more balanced!”

The practice of Big Mind is easier to do than to describe, but the process lies in the summing of voices you’ve disavowed to let them be incorporated into who you are. “The first thing I did when I became a spiritual person,” remembers Genpo Roshi, “was to disavow all the things and parts of myself I considered not spiritual, like my competitiveness, for example. I was a serious athlete! How could I not have been competitive? Instead I ignored that it existed, because it wasn’t who I felt I should be. It’s dishonest, and nothing’s worse when spiritual people pretend. We call it the stink of Zen,” says Genpo Roshi, who laughed when I suggested this line would make a great T-shirt. (Keep your eyes peeled for it!)

Genpo Roshi at the Shambhala Center in 2007

An analogy from Genpo Roshi makes the concept more clear: “Think of it this way, you have 20 children. Ten you give beautiful names, and they get access to the house, treats in the fridge, and the TV. The other ten you give awful names and you keep them locked in the basement. You say, ‘You gotta stay down there, you don’t exist, nothing for you.’ Now imaging honoring these children or parts of the self, and what it would feel like to be really loved and appreciated, instead of saying I’m not competitive. That’s not me.” Genpo Roshi says the suppression makes it harder to experience the goal of personal contentment and freedom, but that it’s also ultimately unhealthy and, like the psychoanalysts, he believes it can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and illness.

So in the practice of Big Mind you speak in the voice of competition, or whatever you bring to the table. Literally. During this interview with Genpo Roshi, I said out loud (uncomfortably at first), “I am the voice of competition.” (So Genpo Roshi and I have matching baggage.) After a few more questions from him and my answers in this role, something stirred in my stomach. And then a Lego piece somewhere in my psyche clicked into place. “The result of doing this practice is becoming unified or balanced and coming from a place of choice and of freedom,” says Genpo Roshi. In other words, enlightenment isn’t perfection or purity, it’s being honest about the lurking mess. Hey, that’s something most New Yorkers can handle.

Genpo Roshi in New York: Explore the Wisdom of the Sages two-day workshop. Saturday, April 17, 10 am–6 pm. Sunday, April 18, 10am–1pm. Marriott New York Downtown, 85 West Street, at Albany Street, 212-385-4900. Cost is $300 or $400 for two people booking together,