See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

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.

No comments: