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Big Mind: An Interview with Genpo Roshi

Genpo Roshi is one of the highest ranking American Buddhists and a deeply respected teacher. He has been described as a revolutionary in the tradition of the old Zen masters who so embodied Buddhist teaching that they were able to revitalize and transform it for their own day and age. Since 1999, he has been sharing a simple yet powerful process he calls Big Mind that offers an experience of the awakened state. His unique adaptation of Eastern wisdom for the Western mind ultimately invites us to become fully integrated, free-functioning human beings. The following is a conversation between Genpo Roshi and Grace Welker, Kripalu’s Senior Editor, that took place on June 15, 2006.

Grace Welker: At the beginning of your Big Mind DVD, it is mentioned that you had a spontaneous spiritual awakening in 1971. Can you tell us something about that?

Genpo Roshi: It was in February of that year, and I was 26 years old. My second serious relationship was ending, and I was feeling very confined and conflicted. I needed to get some space, so I went out to the Mojave desert for a three-day camping weekend with two friends. On the Friday, I hiked up a mountain alone. I knew nothing about meditation or spiritual practice. I was just sitting there, thinking about my life and the things going on. I felt I had gotten pretty screwed up for such a young age.

I could see my VW camper, my home for the weekend, parked a few miles away, . But at the same time, I was aware that my home was back in Long Beach, California. And a natural koan came to me: Where is home? All of a sudden, I had a kind of breakthrough. I felt myself fall away, and I became one with the cosmos, one with the universe, one with all things. I knew in that moment that wherever I am, that is home; home is everywhere. I also knew who I was, beyond description, but let’s call it Big Mind.

That experience completely changed my life. It was like I had been going full-steam ahead in one clear direction: I was an athlete. I had been an all-American water polo champion and swimming had been my life since I was 13. My life was about the Olympics, about being a great athlete, about being known. All of a sudden, that all seemed empty and meaningless. After that experience, I made a 180-degree turn. The only thing that seemed important from that moment on was knowing myself more deeply and helping others.

I just sat there for hours.

Grace: How was it transitioning from that to interacting with your friends again?

Genpo: One of them was a high-school buddy. We’d been best man at each other’s weddings. When I was describing what I had realized, what I was experiencing, he said, “You sound like a Zen master.” I said, “What is Zen?” He’d studied it at university and said, “I have a book that you’d love to read.” It was Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Within a few months I was studying Zen and began teaching it two years later.

At the time, the experience and the energy was so powerful that I didn’t sleep for two nights.

Grace: I imagine that because your body was strong and healthy, it would have created a phenomenal container for the energy.

Genpo: You’re absolutely right. My teacher used to say the same thing. I’ve seen weaker bodies just kind of blow a fuse.

Grace: That’s a good reason for practices like hatha yoga. There are teachers who say that more people are having spiritual awakenings. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but if it is, your work becomes even more important in that it provides a context for what they are experiencing.

Genpo: I do think it’s the case that more people are having these experiences. And that they are more willing to share them. Of course there are more and more people in the world, so even as a percentage (which I believe is probably increasing), that’s more in terms of numbers. I think it’s a sign of the times.

Grace: What do you mean by that?

Genpo: Well, I think consciousness is moving also. It’s not just that as individuals we’re moving toward awake-ness or more consciousness. Planetarily, and as a species, we are also heading in this direction. If we put it in the context of heading home, I think more people are getting closer to and arriving home.

It’s absolutely crucial that we awaken right now. If we look at the situation on our planet, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we’re in a race against time: Either we’re going to self-destruct or we’re going to wake up.

Grace: So do you see your work as a contribution to improving the odds that we win this race?

Genpo: Absolutely. I’m working with Ken Wilber and Bernie Glassman on a foundation called Vast Sky. It has a very simple mission: to raise the level of consciousness on the planet. We agree that it’s essential that this work be done right now, that we stop debating and arguing amongst ourselves—Who’s doing the better job? Whose school is the best? Which is the right way?

We all have to be doing our part, however small, to wake this planet up to the reality of our situation—environmentally, socioculturally, economically. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the level of activism or consciousness-raising, or if it’s done by Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Muslims or Hindus. I look at it as if we’re all in a boat, rowing; and if we get our oars working together, in unison, we’re going to do better than if we’re all just doing our own thing.

To me, it all just seems so simple. Coming back to that moment I described earlier, everything became very simple and very obvious. It only continues to get more simple, more obvious. With the Big Mind process, for example, part of the magic is that it’s so simple.

Grace: I’d like to share with you my experience with the Big Mind process. I moved through it once on the Integral Naked website. Zen is not my path, but I wanted to find out what this was all about. I started off curious, though a bit skeptical. And it was just amazing. It was actually completely secular and matched up with my own experiences, beliefs, and practices. It brought me into a profound place.

So when I put on the Big Mind DVD in preparation for our conversation, I thought “I’ll just have it on and witness, not really participate.” That lasted about five minutes. It’s truly an amazing, liberating, and real process. And you are a gifted and skilled guide.

Genpo: About three years ago, I did the process for David Deida and Ken Wilber, and Ken said, “I’m just going to witness. I’m just going to watch.” And I wasn’t two minutes into the process, when he just dove in headfirst. Ken’s become one of the biggest supporters of the Big Mind process. It’s now a part of all of the graduate programs with the Integral Universities.

Grace: I do want to ask about the ongoing effectiveness of the process. In other words, sure, you can take me into this profound experience, but what then?

Genpo: We’re actually doing research on this at University of Utah. And we’re finding that a 1-day Big Mind workshop with people off the street—in other words, no Zen or meditation or spiritual training—show the same brain changes as a monk with 20 or 30 years of practice (you’re familiar with the study the Dalai Lama did with meditating monks?). And a month later, they still have the same brain changes. We haven’t measured more than a month yet because it’s only a month ago that we did the first test.

Grace: You describe this work as adapting the wisdom of the East for the Western mind. Why is that even necessary?

Genpo: I taught traditional Zen for about 25 years before I started doing this. I found that the traditional approaches just do not cover enough territory for Westerners. We can “get” the teachings, we can advance spiritually, even awaken, and at the same time, we can stay psychologically impaired, we can stay somewhat immature, socially inept, emotionally imbalanced—for 30 or 40 years. (This is true in the East as well.) The traditional practices, no matter which tradition, do not really get the whole person. We need the Eastern wisdom. And we also need to have a Western psychological practice that gets to our shadows, the disowned voices and aspects of ourselves.

Big Mind is a healthy integration of the two. The process didn’t come out of nowhere; there’s my 35 years of Zen practice plus thousands of years from the lineage I hold. I’ve simply integrated the psychological work into the traditional teachings and made them accessible and appropriate for our times.

Grace: Is there anything you’d like to say about the Big Mind weekend you’ll be leading at Kripalu?

Genpo: Just that I think it would be a shame for people to miss it. I’m only teaching on the East Coast twice this year. This is an experience for absolute beginners and for very, very advanced practitioners; for men and for women; for people from every background. My goal is to share it with as many people as possible.

Grace: I’m curious about why the Zen tradition uses stories and koans. Why is that and how come they’re so effective?

Genpo: Jesus used parables, too. I love stories and I use them a lot. It’s a way of teaching that makes it more interesting and more comprehensible to people. Koans also have a place and are useful—I still use them with people. However, there is a downside to them, which is that you can get very competitive with koans, even with yourself—How many koans have you done? How long did they take?—and you can get a little arrogant about the fact that you’ve finished so many koans. So there are some built-in problems.

On the positive side, there’s nothing quite like koans for really showing that you’re not just getting it conceptually but that you’re really grasping it on a much deeper level. In addition, one of the problems that many people seem to have is how to articulate these experiences to others. One of the things that koans teach you is how to be very direct and to the point and use fewer words. Koans offer a living expression of experience versus what we can call dead words or dead concepts. They are great for articulating spiritual experience.

Grace: In the Big Mind process, you have people shift their body positions in certain moments. Can you say something about that?

Genpo: The changing of physical position facilitates a shift in perspective. I think this is one of the most brilliant aspects of the process. I learned this from Hal and Sidra Stone, clinical psychologists and co-creators of Voice Dialogue. They get credit for this. I just adapted it for spiritual practice. I started using Voice Dialogue in 1983–84 with my students, because I realized that it was a beautiful complement to Zen training, and actually made up for some of the disowned and shadowy parts, even after years and years of very deep Zen practice.

Traditionally, when we sit, one of the things we’re told is to sit still and not move. And many people sit seeking enlightenment, which is altogether wrong in the sense that if you’re in that seeking mind, you’re never going to get there—unless you completely “throw in the towel,” completely surrender. And so in order to do that, spiritual traditions have put us through such a tough and arduous journey, that we eventually throw in the towel. Or we sit there trying not to seek anything. But again, the trying not to seek becomes a problem.

Sitting still has its place; for example, I don’t teach people to move when they’re meditating. But when we want to shift perspective, it really helps if we first shift the body, because when we first make that physical shift with the body, it’s easier to follow that shift with the mind.

Grace: One of the things that is so apparent when you teach is your profound respect for each person’s humanness. There’s no judgment, just a tangible and complete acceptance of the human experience.

Genpo: Back in 1994, when I turned 50, I had a very profound experience in which I returned to being fully and completely human. This is an important part of the Zen teachings: After enlightenment, you cannot hold on to it, you must let it go. And when that happened for me, when I fell from grace and I found myself once again a human being, it became clear that it was time to integrate Western practices and thought back into my life—family, community, physical exercise, etc. It was also crucial for me to consciously choose to be a human being—with all the pain and suffering that comes with that.



Find out more about Genpo Roshi and his upcoming programs.

Grace Welker is a lifelong learner and language lover who currently serves as Kripalu’s senior editor.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the July 2005 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.