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Friday, June 23, 2006

Shoes Outside the Door

Shoes Outside the Door : Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Downing.

Yes, this book has hallmarks of sensationalism. And though I don't take a word of it as gospel, it's interesting and thought-provoking, especially if you've had extensive contact with any kind of large religious organization. It's the story of the San Francisco Zen Center from its creation in the sixties, through the early years of this millennium, with its focus on Richard Baker, the dharma heir of Sunryu Suzuki, the SFZC founder.

To very briefly summarize, Sunryu Suzuki was a Buddhist priest who came to the United States from Japan, sent by the Soto Zen hierarchy to run a Japanese Zen temple in San Francisco. But Suzuki had his own agenda; to reform corrupt Japanese Buddhism. He to some extent abandoned the congregation to which he had been assigned and began teaching American students. His early students included one Richard Baker, who was instrumental in creating what became the SFZC. Upon Suzuki's death, Baker was his only dharma heir in the United States, making him the leader of the Zen Center. Under Baker, the Center became a huge presence in the Bay Area and nationally; at its peak, it ran a number of businesses in San Franciso, including a bakery, a stitchery, and a greengrocer. It had a large resort/retreat center/monastic training center about 150 miles south called Tassajara, and a farm in Marin County called Green Gulch. The institution became such that a large number of Zen students who came to live at the main temple on Page Street in San Francisco were housed by the SFZC, and put to work in one of the businesses, at Tassajara or otherwise, paid nothing other than their small monthly stipends, and worked so much they seldom had time for zazen or any other Zen practice. This was all done under the rubric of "work practice." The culmination of work practice came with the opening of Green's, a high-end San Francisco vegetarian restaurant which is still existence today, known for the high quality of its cuisine and for its priciness.

Of course, Richard Baker wasn't living on a small monthly stipend. The real focus of this book is on the abuse of power by Baker-roshi. Baker seems to have taken the Zen Center bank accounts as his personal checkbook, living in opulence while the students just squeeked by. Of course, along with the lavish living came womanizing, and the title of the book refers to the occasion which brought the whole situation to a head (ouch!); at a "Buddhist Peace Conference" (whose attendees included Thich Nat Hanh) at Tassajara in 1983, Baker's affair with the wife of his rich friend, who happened to be a big financial backer and advisor of Zen Center, became so obvious that it brought a public outing and direct legal confrontation with the husband, at which point all of the stored angst of the other Zen Center higher-ups came out in what has come to be known to Zen Center as the Apocalypse. The torrents of the Apocalypse washed Baker out the door, and apparently turned Zen Center into an original American institution: a leftist Zen bureaucracy, rife with psychoanalysis, which today exists in its very un-Japanese form, with its affiliates, as probably the most extensive Buddhist organization in the US, albeit shorn of its industries.

Some readers of this book have oversimplified it and turned Richard Baker into the Jim Baker of Zen. Whether or not one believes Downing at crucial points, and regardless of the attacks made on the book by students of Baker and Zen Center students in general, I think he has done a good job of being objective, although this is belied to some extent by the fact that he can't keep from personally refuting a lot of Baker's excuses for his own behavior, probably because the numerous students interviewed never get around to doing it as systematically as Downing wants. Ultimately, Downing is an outsider, and the fact that he has never practiced Zen denies him a real understanding of what was going on. He has certainly done his research and garnered enough intellectual understanding of Zen to be objective; but his very limited experience with sitting deprives him of the real common ground he needs to really understand what he has read and heard. As good as his analysis is most of the time, whenever he discusses zazen he shows no understanding at all; he can only quote the Zen students, in ways that appear out of context. Most notably, his description of his own limited sitting experience shows that he didn't get it at all. It makes you uncomfortable the way Howard Cosells' boxing commentary used to.

Richard Baker was obviously not Jim Baker. He was and is obviously an intelligent, energetic and highly competent man, whose superior abilities made his impulses hard to rein in. As much of a scandal as the last years of his abbacy became to the Zen students and the Zen Center backers, it would take a lot more scandal to make the story lurid. There's no popular film here, no People's Temple, not even a PTO club. No one at Zen Center was abused, except financially and psychologically, and these people were not idiots, Most of them were and are highly-educated, spiritually motivated, and sincere. Baker was sincere, just out of control. His manipulative ability is evident. The subsequent reorganization of Zen Center with a system of checks and balances that would paralyze a government seems based on an understanding of what really must have gone wrong. It seems apparent that had Suzuki-roshi lived, or had he given transmission to another teacher or two so that Baker was not given ultimate power for a while, had Baker just had someone to keep him in touch with reality and the group conscience emerging around him, Zen Center could have expanded more slowly into what it may ultimately still become; a coordinating body for American Zen.

This book was meaningful to me because of the attenuated personal connections I have to Zen Center, and my recent very remote interaction with it. As recited in previous blogs, I first sat zazen at Zen Center in 1981. I didn't stick with it but my girlfriend Jane did, and she went on to become a Zen Center resident for a while at Green Gulch and worked at Tassajara Bakery, Zen Center's most successful business and the focus of Baker's attention until Green's took over. Later she moved out but continued to be affiated with Zen Center for several years. I went with her to Baker-roshi's Sunday morning talks at Green Gulch and spent a weekend as a guest at Page Street. I had other interests at the time, like law school and partying, so I was never more involved than that, but this book brings back all the people, places, businesses and practice I heard so much about at the time. I have strong visual images in my memory of Page Street and Green Gulch, but strangely of none of their people. During my last year of school, 1982-83, I lived in San Francisco at Oak and Fillmore, three or four blocks from the Zen Center, but I never visited, though many of the Bay Area scenes from the book resound in my mind. More recently, as you have read, I have made a connection with the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, which was and is simultaneously in the process of making a connection with the SFZC through its Austin Zen Center affiliate; in fact, Barbara Kohn, the current abbot of the Austin center and previous abbot at SFZC (they have limited terms, now, for some reason) was visiting at the Atlanta center the first time I visited, and I had the benefit of sitting with her. Presently, the Atlanta abbot is in residency at Austin to further a connection with them, among other reasons (some of which are opaque to me as an irregular visitor at Atlanta, since I am four hours away).

All of the above is brought into context by the book. I sit with a very loosely-knit group in Nashville, whose commitment for the most part to group activity is to sit together once a week when our schedules don't conflict. When I returned to Zen after over twenty-three years, I was seeking some more. This seeking led me to Atlanta, where I've found a lot of what I was looking for in terms of authenticity and commitment. I was initially overjoyed to find out about the evolving SFZC connection. This book gives me some perceptive.

I think what I was hoping to find was the security of an established lineage. My perspective on all that has changed. For one thing, all of the Japanese founders of Zen in America seem to have been rebels, to some extent. Sunryu Suzuki is a good example. I appreciate him more after reading Shoes Outside the Door, and I need to read more of his work. I have never really liked his best known work, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, which is actually a rendition of some lectures he gave in Los Altos by one of his disciples. Apparently Suzuki-roshi had hesitated to have his words in print; my understanding of why is that all of his statements were made in context and were not to be taken as universal truths. I love that; it helps me understand why outside of Dogen, virtually everything I've ever read about zazen is crap. I sit at weekly meetings of the Nashville Zen Center seething at almost every reading, done as if they were daily devotions. I truly believe that everything said about Zen which is not directed toward immediate practice is wrong, by definition.

Anyway, although Suzuki-roshi was sent to San Francisco by the Soto heirarchy, he truly believed Japanese Zen had become decadent, a theme echoed by virtually all of these transplant teachers. His own son had to be given transmission to assume the father's "hereditary" temple in Japan, yet the son never or rarely sat zazen. It really seems Sunryu Suzuki was as much of a rebel as is Gudo Nishijima, Brad Warner's teacher. And yet at Atlanta Barbara Kohn characterized Michael Elliston's teacher Soyu Matsuoka as a rebel.

It is beginning to appear to me, from this book as well as from various firsthand accounts, that Zen in Japan is a corpse, a body with little or not soul. Please convince me that I am wrong. From all I can find, Zen interest in Japan is all among old people, and Zen priests have little function other than officiating at funerals; zazen seems rare. Has the practice been revivified in America, or is what we do something new altogether? Have we saved Buddhism or transformed it? I don't know the answers to these questions. If you do, please tell me. I have no doubt of the validity of the practice or of the validity and sincerity of (most of) the teachers I know. But as American Buddhists, what exactly are we?

Of course that's rhetorical and ultimately unanswerable, I guess. A few other points bear mentioning. The instant book emphasizes, intentionally or not, how psychological counselling and its lingo have become integrated into SFZC's version of Zen practice. In retrospect, I can see some (to me, welcome) aversion to this trend at Atlanta. It seems to me that psychobabble is antithetical to Zen, but what do I know? It still appears to me that Christianity is incompatible with Zen, but some much more experienced practictioners and teachers seem to disagree with me.

So I know the bottom line is, sitting is sitting, but the mind has to be occupied with something, and I could do worse that all this. The book was a pleasure to me, partly because of memories evoked. Whether or not the story here is "true", or more likely just one of many possible stories, is not the issue, so much as that this story does not seem to be false. I don't like koans because as a philosophy major and then a lawyer I think I burned out on word games a long time before I came to this book. I'd love to read or hear a chronicle of these same events told from the inside out, by one of the students, hopefully one without a big axe to grind. Until then, this is the only history of the period I've seen. Let me know if you have another perspective.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ms. Johnson, part 1

No, Ms. Johnson is not dead, as you may have wondered from the title of this. In fact, she seems to be recovering from what the vet said this afternoon, was probably idiopathic vestibular syndrome, which basically means dizziness for an unknown reason. Last night, I heard a crash in the kitchen; she was either trying to get into or out of her litterbox, and crashed face first into the floor. I picked her up and she couldn't walk. She took two steps, leaned her head to the right, and her whole body followed her head over. I'd noticed that she'd been hiding out in her nest in the bedroom for a day or two and heard a couple of inexplicable crashing sounds, so it may have come on anytime in the last few days.

Since she couldn't stand up or walk, and she seemed out of it, I called and took her to the afterhours emergency clinic. She had a full blood work-up which showed that all of her levels were unremarkable. That vet, who was not "her" vet, said she seemed healthy for a 16-year-old cat. Her hearbeat and breathing were good, and she seemed fully hydrated. She thought that said vestibular syndrome was the best best, or it could be a cancer or a brain tumor. Ms. Johnson got a mild steroid shot, and came home.

Although she couldn't walk, she was able to get where she wanted to go by either walking a few steps, falling down, then getting up and walking again, or crawling/slithering. I gave her her favorite food, which is any kind of Fancy Feast with gravy (although she usually eats the gravy and leaves the meat chunks unless she gets really desperate. If anyone knows where I can get gravy alone, just let me know. I tried her on canned brown gravy and she just sniffed it good.). She perked, up, walked over to the food, and fell into the plate head first. After I picked it up from under her, she did stand up and eat all the gravy before walking away and lying down again. I tried to get her to drink some water, but she wasn't too interested. I guess water has the same gag reflex humans do for water when they're ill (and what is the evolutionary sense of that?).

Anyway, I took her into the "normal" vet today for a follow-up, and she seems to be recovering a little. If it is the vestibular syndrome, she should recover on her own at her own personal rate, anywhere from a few days to a week or two. If it's a brain tumor or something, there's nothing to be done, I guess. She could go in for x-rays or an MRI, but I don't see the point if there's no treatment. I'm just going to watch her til Friday and take her in for another fluids injection (she got one today; she seemed a little dehydrated this time) if she's not drinking well by then.

I'm not sure what the point of my reciting all this is, except that it does to connect to a lot of topics that are occupying or pre-occupying me these days. Life, death, attachment, old age, sickness, love, attachment, and attachment. Sickness and death in particular seemed to be surrounding me very recently, though the tide has ebbed for the most part. The major death that will ever occur in my life occurred three years ago, and although in one sense everything else that occurs will be anticlimax, I expect the presence of death to be more and more immanent (bad grammar; you fix it). Lately I've been telling my self that I don't want any more attachments, to anyone or anything. I'm hoping that all the people whom I love die before I do, because I'd rather feel the pain myself than see them go through it. Most of the people whose death will affect me severely are a lot older than I, with one exception, so most likely I'll get my wish. Certainly, with Ms. Johnson, the 16-year-old calico, that will almost certainly be the case. Although I know it will be most painful to me when she dies, I'd rather that than for me to die and her to be alone, for she is the most uniquely bonded cat I have ever seen, and she will never be anyone else's pet. I undertook an obligation over sixteen years ago to house and support her. I failed in that obligation for a while, just as I've failed other; and I sincerely hope that she will live a while longer, but that she dies as painlessly as possible before I can ever let her down again.

In 1990, I was an attorney beginning my seventh year of practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico, almost four years into solo practice. I was renting my office from my benefactor, landlord, friend, and all-around strange guy Jim Ellis. About February, Jim walks in with a couple of fresh Route 66 street orphans, Ms. Johnson and her brother, barely-weaned kittens off Central Ave. (yeah, that's Route 66). Ms. Johnson was unconscionalby charming. I took her home without premeditation. The brother was taken home by Terri the secretary, but subsequently disposed off somehow due to his outlandish temperament. True to my temperament, I made the equally asocial Ms. Johnson a permanent part of my life.

They say children are created by the neuroses of their parents (or I say that, anyway). I didn't know how to handle relationships at the time, and I certainly created Ms. Johnson. I didn't and still don't like to have other people in my house very often. Ms. Johson grew up thinking nothing ever moved but her and me.

When Ms. Johnson was a little older, Paulette used to bring other kitties over to play. Ms. Johnson used to try to kill them all. When my dad came to visit, and tried to take the vacuum cleaner back up the stairs, Ms. Johnson backed him down. She weighed about five pounds and she was declawed, but you would have backed down too. She was and is incredibly fast and incredibly smart. Her other trick was to come down the stairs and attack people sitting in the one chair, from behind and above. I think she may have scratched an eyeball or two. I just laughed.

In early 1990, I was probably in the third year of an unmedicated manic phase that crash-landed when Ms. Johnson was about eight months old. I'm probably exaggerating; maybe not. I have never been diagnosed, just misdiagnosed, and if either ever happens again, it is not with my cooperation. Nevertheless, Ms. Johnson loved me, and nobody else. Never related to anyone else. Never has and never will.

In the spring of 1991, out of the mania phase and into another destructive phase entirely, I tried to mellow Ms. Johnson out and got her a friend. Thunder was a cute littel pastel calico from a healthy home. She was the runt of the litter and I named her to make her a little bolder. It didn't work. I was never quite sure if she was a little blind or a little stupid or both, but I loved her in an entirely different way. The roles couldn't have been any clearer. Ms. Johnson tried to get rid of Thunder too, but I protected her and let Ms. Johnson know -- and she did know -- that any harm to Thunder was unconscionable. I think Ms. Johnson was me, and Thunder was the other side of some abusive realtionship that never lasted that long in my life, or maybe it did. I don't want to know. I don't want to find out. No more relationships. No more danger to anyone.

Things blew up for me in Albuquerque in the middle of 1993. Gotta go. Gotta run. I ran back home to my mom's house in Manchester, TN, and the cats came with me, against her will, and were the mistreated stepchildren til my mother died in 2003. In 1993, I told my mother I was bringing Thunder and Ms. Johnson back to her house to live until I found a better place for them. Unknown to me, right before I arrived, she went to a pet shop or something and bought a poodle named Suzette, who never got called anything but Suzy. She never told me; she never told me. My mother called Paulette to ask her to ask me not to bring the cats.

All this became known to me a few weeks before I left Albuquerque to come to Tennessee. It was too late for me to do anything else. I could abandon a lot of things, but not the only two creatures that had been consistently loving to me for these years. I paid $100 apiece to fly the cats to Nashville in late August, 1993, and arrived the next week.

I have to finish this later. It's 2 a.m. and she's still not drinking her water. She doesn't seem to be in pain. She thinks she's just sick and will get better. Don't ask me how I know if you don't haven't had a pet for a long time. Right now, I don't know if she'll get better or not. Right now, I know she's been more consistently loving to me than any human being left alive. Despite the fact that I didn't treat her right for most of her life. This is not the way it should be. This is the way it is.