BG 152: Returning to the Marketplace

Episode Description:

This week we speak with Zen Master, Genpo Roshi, about the relationship between money and spirituality. It’s a hot topic and one that he is incredibly passionate about. He shares the details of a successful new fundraising campaign that his community puts on called the Big Heart Circle or 5/5/50. 5/5/50 stands for five people for five days, and at the cost of a $50,000 donation do a retreat with Genpo. He shares with us the specifics behind that retreat, including how the money is used, and responds to those people who find what he’s doing offensive.

He also shares his observations on how he, and many other spiritual practitioners, disown their own ambition, competitiveness, and greediness in a way that causes it to come out in extremely pernicious ways. The key, to him, is to re-own those parts of ourselves that we can be of benefit to all sentient beings, and just as in the 10 ox-herding pictures, re-enter the marketplace with gift bestowing hands.

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Vince: Hello Buddhist geeks. This is Vince Horn and I’m joined today over Skype with Genpo Roshi. Genpo thank you for taking the time to speak with us, yet again. We spoke with you, I think, two years ago in you Big Minded Gwen Bell here on the program. It’s great to talk to you again.

Genpo: Well thanks Vince, it’s a great pleasure.

Vince: Nice. And the thing we wanted to explore with you today. Well first I’ll say a little bit about your background in case people may not have been familiar with your work or may not have heard the interview we did with you last time.

Basically you’re one of the three founding members of the White Plum Sangha, which is a prominent community of teachers who studied originally with Maezumi Roshi and you are the founder along with Maezumi Roshi and your dharma brother Bernie Glassman. Now you’re running, what’s called the Big Mind Center–it use to be called Kanzeon Center–in Salt Lake City where you teach traditional Zen, and koan practice, and also a process that you’ve come up with in the last several years called the Big Mind process.

Today we wanted to explore this topic of money and spirituality. This is obviously a really hot topic. It’s all over the place in the Western Buddhist world. And it seems to draw reactions, extreme reactions, from multiple sides. On the one hand you have teachers who teach for nothing and they think it’s abhorrent or impure to charge to anything related to the dharma. And then on the other hand there are spiritual teachers that have fleets of expensive cars and house. There seems to be clearly an addition to the money and the power and prestige that comes along with their teaching.

And then there are lots of points in between those two poles. And of course we live in a capitalistic society where a free market economy determines most of our livelihoods. And the Buddhist teachers haven’t ever existed in this type of system, so there are lots of questions about what the right relationship is between money and spiritual teachings, like the Buddha’s. With that as a context for the interviews, I want to explore with you that topic. And maybe we can start off with that broad topic and I know this is something you have a lot of thoughts on.

Genpo: Well I’m very interested in this topic in fact. I’ve been working for quite some years now on shadows around spirituality, shadows in spirituality. I’ve been using both the Big Mind process to shed light on that, but also what I call the triangle of looking at the extremes, the opposites like spirituality and the capitalistic world. Or we could say the marketplace and the awakened mind, and bridging these or finding a way to bring one into the other in a healthy way, in a conscious way.

In other words if we look at a triangle and we see on one side of the triangle, we’ve got what is necessary to be in the marketplace, the marketplace mind I call it. And the kinds of things that you have to do when you are in that marketplace. And the other side of the triangle, let’s call it the spiritual mind or the awakened conscious mind, and it seems to be a tendency when we become more conscious and more awakened, and let’s say spiritual, that there’s a whole bunch of things that we find very unacceptable in ourselves and in the world. This is, I think, a very important phase in spirituality and in rising levels of consciousness to go through.

The problem is we get stuck there and it’s not a truly non-dual approach to spirituality. It’s a very dualistic one because we’re stuck in the non-dual. In other words we get stuck in this idea that certain things are not spiritual, like being competitive is not spiritual. Being greedy is not spiritual. Being ambitious is not spiritual. Being ruthless is not spiritual. We see all these things as bad and negative. It’s almost like we’re being very dualistic and we make those things bad and wrong, rather than embracing, which I think is the true, non-dual, we embrace even the non-dual, that becomes truly non-dual.

I’ve done a lot of work in this area around returning to the marketplace, and as you know Vince, in the ten ox-herding pictures of Buddhism, the 10th and final stage of practice is called returning to the marketplace. I think they often, what happens is that when we become spiritual, there’s a very long series of stages that we have to go through, in other words from one to ten, and it takes us a lifetime and we think very often just because we’re back in the world, we’re working, we’ve got a job, we’ve got a home and we’ve got expenses that we’re really in the marketplace world. But if we don’t take care of the shadow around the marketplace, even though we may be in the marketplace world, we’re not really in the marketplace world because we’ve got all these shadows around it. And if we really want to make a difference in the world and we really want to bring true spirituality into the marketplace world, we have to take care of our own shadows.

And as long as those shadows are there and they’re not taken care of, we’re going to be handicapped in what we can really do. And so there are people who think that greed is bad and then they disown their own greediness and then it comes out in really petty ways and you can see that in all the spiritual communities. Greed over position, closeness to the teacher, power positions but it’s all disowned, so none of it is really healthy.

My work of the last number of years has really been about moving from an immature understanding around all the aspects we need in the marketplace like competitiveness and all this, moving from an immature and unhealthy voice to a mature and healthy relationship with our own competitive nature, our own ambition, our own feelings around sexuality, our own feelings around money and so forth. This is a hot topic and one that I’m happy to talk about.

Vince: Fantastic. Thank you. So jumping right in since you’re happy to talk about this stuff. I thought it be interesting to explore an initiative that the Big Mind center has been putting on recently, which I’ve heard called 5 / 5 / 50. And I really don’t know…

Genpo: It has two names. 5 / 5 / 50 and the Big Heart Circle.

Vince: …and the big heart circle. Good. So I was wondering if you could share a little bit about the Big Heart circle or 5 / 5 / 50 and what it is because I don’t know a ton about it.

Genpo: Ok, let me give you the background. All centers that I know rely a lot and depend a lot on fundraising or begging. And that of course goes all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha and the whole thing around begging. However, I think that in Buddhist practice for a very long time, there are certain issues that we’re just better to avoid.

By avoiding I mean, because they can get really messy and really sticky. Money is one of them. Earning money is another. Sexuality is another. Greed and so forth. So in the Buddhist world basically we haven’t really faced these issues and by staying in the monasteries or in the forest or in the desert or whoever we stayed apart from the world, we really could avoid these issues and not deal with them. But we’re living in the 21st century, and we are now as Westerners, fairly responsible if not solely responsible for the future of the Dharma. I don’t believe we can continue to skirt these issues and deny that we live in a world where money is a part of the world, sex is a part of that world, greed a is part of that world, and all these issues. And I feel we’ve got to kind of face these things in ourself, in our practices and in our culture.

So, what the 5 / 5 / 50 is we’ve always had to fundraise, and we’ve ask for money but we’ve never given anything back for that money except for our practice: prayers and meditation for the sake of all beings and relieving the suffering of all beings. But, what I heard from a lot of very wealthy people was they’ve always felt that the shadow around money in Zen and Buddhist communities meant they would give a lot of money, if they had a lot of money, and I’ve known people with that, and never be properly thanked or, more importantly, anything given to them that was meaningful.

So, this whole 5 / 5 / 50 concept came up a number of years ago. My wife and I were down in Tory, and we were doing a small retreat for just about a dozen people. And I had a lot of time while my wife was leading some things, and I had a lot of time to just hang out with my students. I love the idea of the small group because I hadn’t worked with small groups in years because, obviously, … sangha became very large and our retreats were never less than 50, 60 people, usually more like 100, 150. And it was really nice to spend this time.

So, I had this idea one morning why don’t I do as a fundraiser offer to spend ten days with ten people and they would make a donation that a fundraising a donation that would go towards fundraising of $10,000 for these ten days. You know, obviously, it would be a special category of people who could afford that. But it would be a way to raise $100,000 which is about what we always ran in the red at event center. So, that would be our fundraiser for the year.

I was talking to a woman who had served as advisor to two presidents, President Reagan and President Carter, around pharmaceuticals, and she was very close to both these presidents. And I was talking to her one day at Kripalu and we were very close friends. I was mentioning this idea and seeing if she was interested. And she said, “Well, you know, Roshi, if you can find ten people with $10,000, they don’t have ten days time. They don’t have ten days.” She said, “Why don’t you make it more kind of attractive, more attractive.” She said, “Why don’t you just have five people for five days because they’re going to be attracted that there are only four other people involved. They’re going to get a lot of your time and attention. It’s something they’re going to really want. And five days most people can find in their year, five days that they can take to spend with you. But ask $50,000.” And I just about dropped over.

It just shocked me, right. I go, “No way. This is incredible. I’m not worth $50,000.” Who’s going to pay $50,000 or donate $50,000 to spend five days with me, you know? Can you see that? I mean, think about it, Vince, could you ask somebody to spend $50,000 to spend five days with you and that’s how I felt.

Vince: [laughs] Got ya’.

Genpo: So, I said, “Okay. Let’s try it out. I’m going to announce it here at Crupalo [phonetic] at this group.” We had about 80 people there. And, you know, we got five people to say they want to come.

Vince: From that group?

Genpo: Just in that group.

Vince: Wow.

Genpo: Now, one person cancelled and somebody else joined but we still filled that first one, that was two years ago, August. And we filled four out of the five places, even though there were five that said they would do it right there in that workshop. They loved the workshop, they loved the work. Obviously, they must have appreciated me and they wanted to do it. So, since then I don’t know how many I’ve done now, maybe ten, almost all have been full. One was only two people. Most have been five. A couple have been four and everybody who’s done one, if they could afford it, if you couldn’t have done two, three, four or even five. One person’s done six.

Vince: Wow.

Genpo: That’s how much value they find, and what they say is that nowhere else do they feel when they donated money like they donate to all kinds of charitable organizations, do they get something that they put as such a value on as the 5 / 5 / 50. So, in other words, they’re getting my undivided attention. I spend six hours a day doing big mind with this small group of people as well as we’re together from 8:00 in the morning when we had breakfast till 9:30 or 10:00 at night when we finish dinner. We socialize, we have all this time together. It’s all teaching pretty much even while we’re eating. And they feel that this has given them more. Some of them have been practicing for 20, 30, even 35 years. One person’s been practicing over 40 and he’s done six of these, that they get more out of these five days than they do in years and years and years of practicing on their own, and they all said the same thing by the end of the first day, they’ve gotten their $50,000 worth of their donation. They all say it’s worth five to ten times that. I’m not asking five to ten times but they all say it’s worth that.

So, whatever anybody else thinks about it, this has now become our major fundraiser. In fact, we don’t do any other fundraising. This is it. This supports all the work that we do as Big Mind Zen Center. It supports all the work we’re doing with Big Mind, getting all of my talks out there and other teachers’ talks out there and DVD’s, free on TV, online, also on our Zen-eye, all under Big Mind. We go out to hospitals and programs for people with addictions and we do all this for free. We do university work, prison work. We’ve given a hundred thousand dollars this last year just to prisoners and books and forms like that. I mean, tremendous amount of support we’re able to give because of the generosity of these people. Now, there have been over 30 people to have done the 5 / 5 / 50’s.

So, you know, it speaks for itself. It think it’s placing a value on time with the teacher which is what people want that are interested in spirituality and they have this money, they need to donate it to some kind of charitable organization for their own tax sakes. And they’re getting something back in it. So, I don’t have a problem with it. Some people do because that’s their problem.

Vince: Cool, maybe we can get into that a little bit too because I think that be an interesting thing to explore. But first, you kind of point to this, but I think a lot of people assume when they hear about this type of thing that they assume that you’re basically taking all the money yourself. For some reason people go there immediately.

Genpo: Actually just let me say I take none of this money. Absolutely zero pennies of this money, do I make. All my money comes from the workshops that I have been doing with Bill Harris and other workshops that I do on my own. And none of the money from 5 / 5 / 50 goes to me. It all goes… It does go for staff salaries, for getting the work out there, and it does go for scholarships and it does go for equipment, but none of it goes to my salary, and we’ve been clear about that from day one, which I would take none of this money because I felt that was going to be a criticism. Our books prove this and it’s very clear that none of the money goes to me or my wife or anybody else in my family.

Vince: Interesting. I think that’s an important clarification especially for people that may just hear about the idea, like five days, five people, $50,000. And then they just, from there… people just make up what they will.

Genpo: Again, I’m going to say, I frankly don’t give a shit how they feel about it. It isn’t even an issue for me. It just shows to me they’re stuck somewhere. But no, none of that money goes to me. I have a very small and comfortable little house in the Zen Center and I drive normal cars and I don’t have Mercedes or, what was it that Bhagawan had? His Rolls-Royce’?

No. I’ve never had been interested in wealth or being rich in any way. I don’t have a lot of desire. My biggest desire has been to get the teaching out there and this has made that possible. The money that we receive really just goes to get that teaching out there to the world. We’re live at least two times a week all over the world. And then when I do these conferences, we’re live on internet TV for free where people were tuning in the last two weeks, twice a day, all over the world. 450 people sometimes at a time are able to watch it. This is all paid for by the generosity of these very large and, frankly, very, very giving people, generous people. Their interest is in the work. Of course they reap and feel they get a lot of benefits from the events and that’s why they keep coming back. And they all say this: I’d be giving this money away anyways. I really appreciate getting this time with you and with the teachings.

Vince: Nice. I feel like I’m personally following you on all of this, and have no problem at all with what you’re saying. But I feel that I would be doing a disservice to the people that might be hearing this and still their sensibilities are still offended in some way. And so I just want to ask one more question.

Genpo: Can I just say one thing. You can ask me a question. I really don’t give a shit at this point in my life. I really don’t. I had a big breakthrough in June around the issue of caring and not caring and I feel I deeply, deeply, deeply care about all sentient beings. And all my work has evolved all sentient beings, where you have to become more conscious. And healthier and with less shadows. And the other side of this triangle, I really don’t give a shit. But go ahead and ask your question.

Vince: Way to set me up there Roshi. [laughs]

Genpo: You’re very welcome Vince.

Vince: Well I mean basically it’s kind of an interesting question of what is it or why is it that our sensibilities get so offended when we hear that someone is charging a lot of money, to us, maybe for millionaires it’s not a lot of money, but a lot of money for me – $50,000 is more than I make in a year.

Genpo: Those people don’t have to come.

Vince: Right. Absolutely.

Genpo: We also offer so much for nothing that they really don’t have to participate. So it’s just jealously on some level that some people can afford to. But some people can afford to actually give up their home and become a full-time Zen student and the rich people and the people with children and occupations and vocations who can’t do that, don’t get jealous because somebody else like myself back in 1971 gave it all up and became a full time Zen student. We’re really narrowed-minded and frankly this is the area that I’m trying to help work on, with how narrow we can be.

We can think that because I’ve given everything up and I live in a Zen Center and I’ve given my life to Zen, and therefore I can’t afford to do the same event like this. Or I don’t have a large income enough to do work like this. If these people are privileged and are treated special. But the people can afford to retreats are also being treated special. And the people who have families and can’t come, or maybe have a high-powered position as a president of a corporation and can’t come, nobody feels sorry for them.

So I think it’s just the narrow-mindedness around spirituality. And I’ve been in the spiritual world now 40 years and I see so much narrowness. We have the smallest minded people on the planet are spiritual geeks. You know? And let’s face it we are narrow-minded. And we are self-centered. And we are arrogant and we got to look at that. And that’s my whole point: that we become spiritual…

I became spiritual February 6th, 1971 with my first awakening, the first thing I did was cut off all the things I considered not spiritual. So I became not competitive, not aggressive, not angry, not harmful, stopped eating meat, stopped drinking alcohol. Became pure and now I realize that some point I had disowned all these aspects. So they came out in a covert way in all my life.

And you go to any spiritual center, and I know I’m’ on my rampage now, but at any spiritual center and you will find all kinds of back biting, competitive, aggressive movements. What’s the word when it’s kind of anger that’s covert, there’s a word for it.

Vince: Passive aggressive?

Genpo: Passive aggressiveness. You’ll find people trying to get close to the teacher, getting the highest position. Not willing to wash the dishes and clean up after themselves. And it’s all passive aggressive behavior, because they disowned their competitive nature, their greed, their anger, all of this. So it’s a hot topic for me, as you can see. I’ve got a lot of passion about it. I would love to reach out there into the world and help us all look at these places that we get stuck.

Now why is it that the tenth ox-herding pictures, meaning the most accomplished state, is this person who returns from the marketplace with gift bestowing hands and a jug of wine under the other arm. Why is that considered the highest accomplished state in Zen, over and above certain places where we’re really into, so called taming the ox, or working on our greed and working on this. Because those are the things that we’ve got to go through to get to the place of returning to the market place. And very frankly very few people both historically and present day get to the tenth ox-herding picture. It’s very difficult to go that far. There’s so much that we have to face in ourself that we’re, frankly, frightened to face in ourself.

Vince: So, you see, basically, the facing of that as part and parcel of the spiritual journey?

Genpo: Yes, I see it as the spiritual journey. I think that’s what you mean?

Vince: Yeah.

Genpo: I see that as the spiritual journey.

Vince: And this is something that you’ve been actively exploring. You kind of hinted at this with the Big Mind process both in yourself and your students?

Genpo: Yes, particularly the last ten and a half years. The Big Mind process has actually shed light on shadows that I didn’t even realize were there in me or in others. In fact, one of the big breakthroughs for me was about two and a half years ago. And I was going to be giving a workshop on that weekend. And this was Saturday morning. The workshop was starting at 10:00am. The workshop was around koans, koan practice, you know, these unresolvable questions that Zen masters opposed for years to students or comes out as their conversation between a student and master. And you can’t resolve these koans with the dualistic rational mind. You have to move into the intuitive and instinctual mind, or the non-dual mind. And I was going to be doing this workshop and exactly 30 years earlier, Maezumi Roshi, in 1977, had said to me, “Genpo, I really want you to revitalize the koan study, the koan system. It’s basically lifeless, dead and archaic. And I want you, some day, to really rejuvenate it, bring it to life and make it relevant for our society and culture. You have to promise me to do this.”

So, here it was 30 years later and I’m going to be doing this workshop on koans and Big Mind. And I was sitting, and it’s probably 4:00 in the morning, I’m sitting and I went back to bed to get a little more rest before the workshop started and I had a dream. And in this dream, Maezumi Roshi appeared. It was one of these vivid dreams, you know, really like you wake up and you can’t believe you’re not still there. And in this dream we were sitting around in a Chinese restaurant, and we were actually doing a fundraiser. And we used to do these fundraising events and we would go to Chinese restaurants and we would raise the money there. So, we were sitting around this round table. Everybody from the 70’s was there. Bernie Glassman was there, all these people. And Maezumi Roshi was sitting to my left, and he looks at me and he says, “Genpo, are you competitive with me?” And I looked over at him and I said, “Oh, no, Roshi, not at all. Of course not.” He looks at me and he says, “Well, I am with you.” And I woke up. And, you know, it woke me up. I mean it was a wakeup because I realized in that moment that I had still a shadow or disowned voice around being competitive.

Now, I have always been a highly competitive person. I was on three college national championship water polo teams. And the only year we lost, I actually had quit the team before we lost. I was on an Olympic caliber team. My team went to the Olympics in 1968. I had to stop in mid-1967 because I had two full time jobs and a marriage and was going to grad school. We won the gold medal in 68. Anyways, I’m a very competitive person. But when I became spiritual in 1971, I disowned my competitive side. Now, anybody who knew me through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and this decade, knows that I’m very competitive, but it was disowned so I couldn’t see it. In other words, I was in denial of my own competitiveness.

When I woke up to owning my competitive side again, I started to see all the places in the marketplace and around the marketplace that I also disowned: in other words, greed, ambition, not only competitiveness, but all the things that are important in the marketplace that one would say, “Well, I have to be competitive. I have to be greedy and all of this.” Now, we can take offense to that but they’re all there. And all of a sudden, things changed for me but they changed for a whole sangha, and the whole relationship around money and the world. The spiritual world in the marketplace also shifted for me. And I realized that it’s a universally disowned voice among us spiritual people.

I think it’s really, it’s a time in history where it isn’t even a choice anymore. We have to become more conscious. If this planet’s going to survive us, us human beings, we have to become conscious human beings. We have to wake up and we need to wake up to all aspects of ourself, and to all of our shadows and disowned voices so that we truly cannot just realize that we’re whole and we’re integrated, but to actually be whole and integrated. I come from a place where we haven’t taken half the pie and disowned it because it’s not spiritual or spiritual enough for the spiritual mind. Do you see what I mean?

Vince: Yeah.

Genpo: And there is a race against time. And we have the capabilities. As we all know, I’m preaching to the choir here, of destroying our planet as we know it. The planet will survive but we may not. It’s a time where it’s going to face our fears, face our resistance and practice and wake up and don’t just believe anything that we haven’t been able to really test for ourself and find our what real gold is and not just fake gold. And the Buddha, himself, said that. And yet we always fall into these traps in believing the things that we read of the old masters. And we always, somehow, feel that we cannot advance and we cannot move forward. And I have a saying that came up to me one time, a long time ago, that we don’t want to stand on the heads of our ancestors nor in their shadows, but we want to stand on their shoulders. I think that’s very important that we don’t say they were so great and what do we have to offer, nor that we’re so great, what do they have to offer? They a tremendous amount to offer us and we have a tremendous amount to offer them in the future. And we don’t want to fall into a false modesty nor an arrogance.


Genpo Merzel Roshi