May 3, 2022
Meet Erin Merk: Zen Priest and Innovative High School Teacher
Erin Merk

Erin Merk, photo by Tova Green

Erin Merk, a SFZC-trained priest, brings her practice out into the world as Department Chair of the Body-Mind Education department of a San Francisco-based high school. If you are inspired by her path, you may want to consider one of our many Guest Student and Apprenticeship opportunities at GGF, City Center, and Tassajara. Stays can be as short as two weeks; longer commitments are also possible.

Interview by Tova Green

Erin Merk began Zen practice at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center and lived at Green Gulch Farm and at Tassajara. She was priest-ordained in 2005 by Eijun Linda Cutts and was Shuso (head student) at Tassajara in 2012.

Since 2006 Erin Merk has been a faculty member at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, teaching yoga, mindfulness, and health classes to students through the Body-Mind Education department. Lick-Wilmerding describes itself as “a private school with a public purpose.” Faculty and students explore what they can do to transform culture.

Erin appreciates and enjoys the opportunity to be around young people in an educational environment with so much learning energy and interesting faculty members. She brings perspectives and skills she learned in her years of Zen practice to her work at Lick-Wilmerding. Her study of the precepts and practicing “right speech” at SFZC prepared her for engaging in the challenges of collaboration, giving feedback, and figuring out what is skillful.

In her first years of teaching at Lick-Wilmerding, Erin focused on meditation with the ninth-grade students. She learned that they were more engaged when movement was included and she deepened her skills in teaching yoga. Her awareness of the body, in part acquired through her Zen practice, and her experience in the kitchens of Tassajara and City Center, led her to study nutrition. She incorporated this knowledge into her health classes at Lick.

Four years ago, Erin and a colleague began developing and teaching a required semester-long course on Human Sexuality to all the tenth-graders. There are 140-145 students in each grade level who have taken or are taking the course.

Erin and her colleague have a wide scope in what they can offer. Here is the course description: “Soph Health: Human Sexuality, offers an inclusive and well-structured space for students to explore the complex realm of sexuality, traversing culture, identity, values, relationships, sexual health, safer sex, pleasure, and consent, among other topics.” This course has changed students’ lives by helping them to know how to navigate difficult situations, especially when they encounter views out in the wider world that are different or hostile.

In addition to this class for tenth-grade students, every semester Lick-Wilmerding offers a two-part unit on sexual identity, including sexual orientatation, and invites LGBTQ+-identifying members in their community to speak and respond to students’ questions. The intention is to create a safe, open, non-judgmental space for students to explore identity.

Erin recently completed two years of training through the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment (ISEE). There were several areas of learning for her, including aspects of the history of sexuality education and the ways the government shapes what information teachers and students have access to. She considers it a privilege to be able to speak openly about topics like pleasure and consent and to be aware of the intersectional experiences of sex and sexuality beyond Eurocentric ways of viewing the body, intimacy, and sex.

Erin grew up in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, and attended the School of the Arts for high school. There was no sex education offered at that time. She considers that some of her classmates who died in their twenties of AIDS were impacted by that lack. “I’m aware that it can be a life and death crisis,” she said, and mentioned the Trevor Project for young LGBTQ+ lives. “So many LGBTQIA+-identifying kids are out there, isolated, with parents who may not be supportive.”

Erin’s Dharma name is Myoju Shinjin/Bright Pearl, Body of Faith. She has begun to prepare for Dharma transmission with Eijun Linda Cutts and looks forward to a period of formal practice in 2024, when she will be on a sabbatical leave from teaching.