Sex, Shoes, and California Zen

Shoes“Zen is one continuous mistake.”
– Zen Master Dogen, 13th-century Japan
For students of the San Francisco Zen Center, one of America’s oldest and most
prestigious Buddhist institutions, the world has already ended. “The Apocalypse,” as they came to call it, took place in 1983 at a Peace Conference at Tassajara, a retreat center that was the first Buddhist monastery founded outside Asia. The conference included such luminaries as Nobel prize-winner Thich Nhat Hanh and former California Governor Jerry Brown, and was chaired by the abbot of Zen Center, Richard Baker, the successor to the legendary Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.

Baker, a married man, was seldom discreet about his numerous love affairs, but at the Peace Conference he pushed it too far. Many attendees noticed Anna Hawken’s shoes outside his door day after day and were amazed and horrified, none more so than Anna’s husband Paul, a generous contributor to Zen Center and close friend of Baker’s.

Previously, Baker’s affairs and peculiarities had been met with silence, as Zen tradition teaches, but this time things were different. (Buddhist teachers’ supposed misbehavior is sometimes explained away as merely a “manifestation” of his enlightenment which the unenlightened can neither understand nor judge.) Paul Hawken had invested a lot of money in Tassajara on the advice of Baker, and he started to make trouble. His legal challenge forced Zen Center’s hand: Baker was forced to step down, an almost unprecedented move in the history of Zen, Eastern or Western.

The next decade was spent in divesting Zen Center of the bloat it had acquired under Baker: eliminating failing businesses, paying off debts, and codifying proper behavior for Zen students and teachers. In essence, it was the movement from an autocratic Japanese system to a more democratic American one, where there would no longer be abbots-for-life, as had been the case with Baker and Suzuki, but rotating teams of co-abbots, who were answerable to a council of peers, an “Abbot’s Council.”

There had been an Abbot’s Council in Baker’s days, but it was controlled and manipulated by Baker. Zen Center students had been taught to regard first Suzuki, then Baker, as their teacher, their father, and especially among those who worked in Zen Center’s various businesses, their boss. They were wholly unequipped to deal with problems at the top of the system. No one had any authority to confront Baker. And after all, he was Suzuki’s successor, and Suzuki had been essentially canonized shortly after his death.

Zen Center needed a bureaucracy and a thick book of rules to survive, and after the Apocalypse, many of Suzuki’s original students couldn’t even practice together. Where had it all gone wrong? What happened to the wisdom and the compassion that is the foundation of Buddhism?

Michael Downing’s Shoes Outside the Door slaps the reader across the face with hundreds of thorny problems like this and leaves the reader to puzzle them out himself. What did America in the 1960s have in common with Japanese Zen Buddhism? What did these worlds have to offer each other? How did they ever get mixed up together?

Blame the two Suzukis. D.T. Suzuki tantalized America with his essays about Zen, a term which entered the American popular imagination in the 1950s and remains a much-misused buzzword. In 1962 Shunryu Suzuki (no relation) arrived from Japan with an assignment to run a small temple in a Japanese neighborhood of San Francisco, but he ended up doing very much more. Not content to simply perform the funerals and weddings of his community, he hung a sign advertising “zazen,” which is Zen meditation. The Japanese were not interested, it turns out, but Bay Area hipsters started showing up by the dozens. They dug this little man with his shaved head and monk’s robes who told them to “Just sit.” This was his method of teaching them the dharma, or the teachings of Buddhism. D.T. Suzuki had apparently been wrong when he thought Americans could only read about Zen and wouldn’t be able to practice it.

Certainly at first glance America in the 1960s did not seem like fertile ground for the rigid system of Japanese Zen. The Buddhist stories of ancient China, where the practice was originally known as Chan, appealed to hippies and beatniks: wise men on mountaintops saying and doing crazy things outside the boundaries of logic. But that was a far cry from the Japanese tradition of literally sitting still in a formal meditation hall for several hours a day. Nevertheless, Zen practice and teachers like Suzuki ultimately attracted very many people.

Downing writes that Alan Watts, an Englishman living in the Bay Area who wrote the seminal work The Way of Zen, struck three notes at the end of the 1950s with his writings: “Social and philosophical formalities were impediments; modernity was problematic; and the East was a repository of ancient remedies.” In other words, anything Asian was good, anything Western or American was corrupt and should be rebelled against. Today’s readers may need to suspend their cynicism about this era, such as when we read statements like this one from a Zen Center practitioner Darlene Cohen: “It was 1969. We thought it was the end. We thought it was the end of the world.” The 1960s were simultaneously a time of great hope and bottomless despair.

Zen Center students sat with Suzuki for nine years until his rapid decline and death from cancer in 1971. Before his death, Suzuki pulled a fast one on the boys back in Japan: He appointed an American as his successor, or “dharma-heir” in Buddhist terms, to continue the teaching at what had come to be known as San Francisco Zen Center. This was by no means an obvious move. It was expected that Suzuki would ceremonially pass along his begging bowl and robe — the symbols of transmitting authority in Zen Buddhism — to a Japanese student. But Suzuki was impressed by Americans’ dedication to zazen, and dreamed that his students would one day reform what he saw as the corrupt Buddhism of Japan. Suzuki’s viewpoint is an interesting inversion of the general countercultural attitude at the time.

Suzuki chose Richard Baker, an efficient and eloquent man who seemed to have the vision to carry Zen Center forward. After all, hadn’t Baker almost single-handedly obtained and delivered to the Zen Center the Tassajara Hot Springs resort, and hadn’t he been instrumental in converting Tassajara into the first-ever Buddhist monastery outside Asia? When Suzuki summoned Baker to his deathbed to appoint him as his successor he said, “I am very sorry for what I am about to do to you,” and he cried. “I wasn’t going to think about what it meant,” says Baker. “I had one thought — I will do it. That’s all. What could I do?”

Shoes Outside the Door ambles backward and forward in time through the history of the San Francisco Zen Center but keeps as its focus Baker’s downfall in 1983. You could say it was a kind of enlightenment experience, this Apocalypse, but it took Zen Center many years to recover, if it ever really did.

In his twelve years at the helm, Baker turned Zen Center into something bigger than Suzuki probably ever intended. By the mid-seventies in addition to Tassajara and the headquarters at City Center it included Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, various rental properties in San Francisco, and a variety of businesses of varying profitability, most notably Greens, one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the country, and the Tassajara Bakery. Zen students staffed these businesses and referred to themselves as “Zen slaves.” They received extremely modest stipends, had no time to meditate, and supported the three practice centers with the profits from their businesses. None of them had health insurance, and none could afford to live anywhere but in Zen Center-subsidized housing. Meanwhile Baker spent thousands of dollars on art and Buddhist artifacts, and repeatedly refurbished his luxurious apartment. “He got erotically charged about things,” says Lewis Richmond, Zen Center’s treasurer in the early years.

The Japanese model of a Zen training center (though there was nothing in Japan at all like the San Francisco Zen Center) was that students would receive transmission from their teacher and then leave to start their own practice centers. Zen transmission is a ritualized way of recognizing someone as enlightened and therefore capable of teaching others. But Suzuki had only transmitted his teachings to Baker, and Baker himself was likewise reluctant about recognizing the enlightenment of his students. So for many years Zen Center had a two-tiered hierarchy: Baker on one hand, and everyone else on the other.

The Zen slaves watched with confusion and resentment when Baker drove by in his BMW. They were already accused of being in a cult by family, friends, and the media. The pressure was building, and Baker’s high-handedness and numerous affairs, often with Zen Center students, his students, didn’t help. Yvonne Rand, a longtime student of Suzuki’s says, “Something above ninety percent of us had come from alcoholic families or families that were dysfunctional with the same patterns.” (One wonders if the same holds true for the communities of other teachers, like Trungpa Rinpoche and Maezumi Roshi, for instance, both of whom actually were alcoholics.) Baker wrote, “I did not think that the relationship between a Zen teacher and practitioner was in any way similar [to that between a psychiatrist and patient.] I saw Zen practitioners as strong, not as weak, and not as patients.” But Buddhism is about taking refuge. In the case of Zen Center practitioners, it wasn’t necessarily strong, healthy people who were coming to the path.

Zen Center students and American Buddhists in general were, and are, overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class. Buddhism in America has never been a populist movement. Downing wonders, referring to the story of the Buddha’s original departure from his affluent lifestyle, “if there were any poor boys in the Buddha’s neighborhood who watched him as he walked out of that beautiful palace, and thought knowingly to themselves, Bad move.” Buddhism is a religion of renunciation. You need to have something to renounce.

But what are American Buddhists renouncing? One of the problems of American Zen is the blurred distinction between lay practice and monastic practice. There seems to be no role for robed monks to play in American life, as there is to some extent in Japan. “You are neither lay people nor monks,” Suzuki told his students. Is it worthwhile to go on weekend retreats at a Zen monastery then return to normal life? It had better be, because that is how American Zen is practiced. Baker epitomized the conflict:

I thought, okay, I’ll drive a nice car, and I’ll have girlfriends, and I’ll go to dinner, which I had basically never done. I did all these things to see if I could also practice. I wanted to be like a layperson. And I don’t think I was an exaggerated layperson. I was trying an all-fronts experiment.

Zen Center students renounced life, insurance, and decent wages for Zen and were exploited. Only Baker got to have it both ways, and today most American Buddhists try Baker’s experiment too. They try to reconcile practice with living in the world. It wasn’t done that way in Asia, but that doesn’t mean anything. This is a new, American form of an Asian religion. It doesn’t have to play by all the old rules, does it? American practitioners split their time between the zendo and the psychiatrist’s chair trying to figure it all out and to transcend the lay-monastic dualism. This question, What form will American Buddhism take? has been present since Buddhism’s arrival in America. It’s already clear that women are vastly more important in American Buddhism than they were in Asia. In Asia female monastics are rare, but in America women practitioners outnumber men. The next hurdle is widening Buddhism’s appeal to attract non-white practitioners.

Shoes Outside the Door confronts these issues head-on and Downing never tries to provide easy answers. He logged hundreds of hours of interviews with practitioners who have spent thousands of hours in the zendo. The stories of people helped and hurt by Zen Center are moving, and Downing balances their words with his own careful observations. It is almost an oral history written by the participants themselves. At times the huge cast of characters and frequent jumps in time can bewilder the reader, and certain key pieces of information, such as the exact composition of the Abbot’s Council at the time of Baker’s removal, are never made clear, but the complex story is engagingly and thoroughly told. Downing writes in a very active style that is more like a long magazine article than a book, and that sweeps the reader along and provides for frequent climaxes.

Many Zen Center students left after the Apocalypse, but many stayed. Downing lets the students themselves tell us why, and the reader is moved by envy and admiration as often as by pity at their words: “To say I had no thought about leaving Zen Center is to understate it. There was one world, one place, one thing. This was it.”

Philip Ryan is a writer and web designer living in Brooklyn. He worked for several years in various capacities at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.