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Zen & the Art of Success

1.

Michael Downing’s dramatic and thoughtful book begins with, and then encircles in widening orbits, a conference held in March 1983 at Zenshinji, or Zen Mind Temple, better known to the world as Tassajara. Tucked narrowly into a canyon of the forbidding Santa Lucia Mountains ten miles east of Big Sur and 150 miles south of San Francisco, Tassajara’s hot springs were known to the Esselen Indians for centuries before they became, in 1860, Monterey County’s earliest resort. In 1966 that isolated, ramshackle, unelectrified property was bought by San Francisco Zen Center and transformed into what Downing calls the first Buddhist monastery established outside Asia in the 2,500-year history of that religion.1

Tassajara still welcomes paying visitors, but they don’t brave the precipitous, switchbacked, fourteen-mile dirt road from the Carmel Valley simply to bathe in Tassajara Creek or its sulphurous hot springs. Mystic-minded, spiritually restless, or just curious, they come to sample the Zen atmosphere in conditions that are spartan enough to emit a bracing whiff of asceticism. But Tassajara in summer sees too much traffic to be called a true monastery. Rather, it is part training camp, part profitable tourist enterprise, and part showcase for potential donors who may be inspired to support Zen Center’s instruction in zazen—the meditative sitting, usually performed in the lotus posture, that was developed successively in India, China, and Japan, and is now widely practiced in the West.

Between summers Tassajara is considerably more monastic, though hardly to the point of celibacy. The cold, the drenching rain, and the mudslides that sometimes close off the road oblige Zen Center to restrict Tassajara’s population to apprentice monks and priests and to adepts of sesshin, an intensive retreat that can last for a week or more. Thus the public conference in March 1983 would have been an exceptional gathering even if it hadn’t proved to be what some insiders now call “the Apocalypse.”

In Downing’s words, Zen Center’s abbot Richard Baker

had invited the most eminent Buddhist teachers, scholars, and poets in the Western world to the first Buddhist Peace Conference. Thich Nhat Hanh, spiritual pioneer of the Buddhist Mindfulness communities, was at Tassajara, along with poet Gary Snyder, American Zen master and founder of the Diamond Sangha Robert Aitken, Esalen cofounder Michael Murphy, former California governor Jerry Brown, and most of the senior priests of Zen Center. Richard was spending the weekend at the one place on earth where every sentient being he passed was bound to recognize him—and to miss him when he wasn’t around.

And he wasn’t around very much. The married Baker-roshi (roshi means “venerable teacher”) spent most of the weekend in his cabin with the latest of many lovers; and for the first time ever, he was making no effort to keep the relationship a secret.

One of the things that had set Zen Center apart from earlier Japanese and Japanese-American temples—and Baker himself had strongly urged this innovation—was its encouragement of women to study and progress on equal terms with men.2 But the opportunitycut both ways. Even before Baker became abbot in 1971, the deference of female students to his priestly authority gave him easy sexual pickings in the Northern California world of Zen. Thereafter, as some women confided to Downing, they had been tapped for bed service in much the same spirit as they might have been called upon to act as one of Baker’s personal secretaries or, for that matter, to scrub pots or weed a garden. And understandably, their zazen practice had become hollow or simply impossible once they were made the concubines of their allegedly enlightened master.

This affair, however, was something else again. The shoes outside Baker-roshi’s door were those of Anna Hawken, the wife of his best friend Paul Hawken, a wealthy benefactor of Zen Center. And Paul Hawken, amazingly enough, was another stunned guest that weekend. His subsequent threat to hold Zen Center legally accountable for its abbot’s misconduct touched off a cataclysm in the Zen community, bringing down Baker-roshi and precipitating an institutional crisis that would finally revolutionize the center’s self-image and style of governance.

Starting in 1983, everyone at Zen Center suddenly wanted to air long-standing grievances against Richard Baker. His serial liaisons, hardly unique in the world of high-level American Buddhism, could have been forgiven, but his chronic untruthfulness about them could not.3 Nor could the fact that he had wielded the abbot’s corrective stick on students who were sometimes guilty of nothing more than flirting with one another. As one of his ex-lovers put it to Downing, “Dick was physically punishing students for behavior that was his for his entire life as a Zen practitioner. Essentially, I am above the rules. The rules for you do not apply to me.

A key instrument of progress in the study of Zen is dokusan, or the private conference with the master. Typically, it is concerned only with identifying errors in practice and challenging the student to keep on the path of enlightenment. In the years after Baker took over in 1971, however, dokusans at Zen Center gradually became more intimate and less private. Students found that the abbot was leaking their confessions to his inner circle, and some of them inferred that he was collecting evidence that might be used against them later. They also sensed that Baker enjoyed humbling them by scoffing at their professed spiritual gains and thwarting their ambition to advance on the priestly ladder. “There was always this confusion,” said one. “Is this Zen practice, or is this just a power trip?” Another aggrieved party reports that Baker used dokusan sessions to convince him that he was incompatible with his wife—who, sure enough, left him for several years and attached herself instead to Baker.

Every school of Buddhism aims at the same characterological goals: self-insight, serene detachment from impermanent objects of desire, apprehension of the underlying unity of all things, compassion toward suffering, reaching out to the needy, and sangha, or a loving community of the faithful. In this light Richard Baker presented a disturbingly anomalous model for his flock. He maintained three residences, spent large sums from the general coffers on remodeling, surrounded himself with unpaid student clerks and servants, collected exquisite and expensive works of religious art, traveled widely, and kept company with millionaires and celebrities whose interest in Buddhism was casual at best. His abbacy, Gary Snyder told Downing in disgust, had turned into “an imperial presidency…. He had become the Dick Nixon of Zen.”

One of Baker’s acquisitions stands out as having especially goaded his subordinates. In 1979, four years before the Apocalypse, he cajoled the Abbot’s Council—a hand-picked body of senior priests that he employed to circumvent Zen Center’s legally constituted Board of Directors—into granting him $25,000 for the purchase of a BMW. The car was needed, he said, for his frequent shuttling between Tassajara, San Francisco, and Green Gulch Farm, a combined organic farm, educational institute, and residential complex for Zen students in western Marin County. But why a BMW, and especially one in the pricey 700 series? A smaller car, Baker pleaded, wouldn’t allow him to sit in zazen posture while driving.

Two decades later, speaking more candidly to Downing, Baker admitted that he had entertained other reasons for wanting a sporty Beemer. “I decided I would try to prove that you could be fully a layperson and a monk,” he said. “…I thought, okay, I’ll drive a nice car, and I’ll have girlfriends, and I’ll go to dinner…. I was trying an all-fronts experiment.” The experiment might be said to have ended on the day he drove away from the fateful Buddhist Peace Conference. A stickler for ceremony, the roshi generally saw to it that his black-robed students would line up and bow whenever he took his leave. They did so again on that Sunday. But now, appalled by the brazen recklessness of his conduct in Paul Hawken’s presence, they saw more clearly than ever that they were bowing not to a custodian of the dharma, the Buddha’s sacred teachings, but to a glamorous automobile—Mammon on wheels. In a sense that the Buddhist doctrine of undifferentiation never anticipated, Baker and his BMW had become one.

2.

The consequential fall of Baker-roshi has remained clouded until now by legend, rumors, and smoldering resentments on all sides. With no prior experience as a social historian or a connoisseur of Zen, the novelist Michael Downing has nevertheless proved himself well suited to piecing together the facts and assessing their meaning. He has done so chiefly by interviewing more than eighty of the involved figures and weighing each nugget of testimony against the others. The literary result superficially resembles a Rashomon- like medley of incommensurate perspectives, but Downing is no relativist. His narrative line, though continually interrupted, is lucid and convincing, and he challenges his interviewees’ occasional half-truths with sharp comments and rhetorical questions that bring buried factors into view.

In its assessment of ultimate culpability, however, Shoes Outside the Door becomes complex and tentative—and properly so. Downing understands that Richard Baker, for all his faults, was no Jim Jones or David Koresh. The story of the Apocalypse is one of impeaching an errant leader, not of following him over a cliff. As Downing’s interlocutors often reminded him, no one was ever coerced into remaining a member of Zen Center. Nor did Baker-roshi play the prophet or insist on eccentric articles of belief. Until that final weekend he was conscientiously working to raise needed funds, to keep Zen Center’s multiple enterprises afloat, to conduct sesshins and dokusans, to lecture, interview, and ordain, and to teach proper zazen sitting as he had learned it from masters in the US and Japan.

Baker was a man with a vision; it was, in the words of one still-approving colleague, “to integrate Buddhism into Western society through the arts, business, and politics.” That is just what he achieved, in California at least, in the 1970s and early 1980s through intellectual brilliance, charisma, autocratic leadership, and a restless, driving will. Talented architects, artists, and craftsmen were glad to donate their services to his many projects. The center’s retail businesses—the Tassajara Bakery, the Green Gulch Greengrocer, the Ayala Stitchery, and Baker’s favorite showcase, Greens Restaurant—earned renown as embodiments of the organic, self-sufficient, small-is-beautiful ethic and aesthetic that had emerged from the Sixties counterculture.4 And under Baker’s guidance Zen Center developed fertile links with West Coast progressive thought as it was represented by figures as diverse as Stewart Brand, Philip Whalen, Gregory Bateson, and Baker’s close friend Jerry Brown, who brought both Zen notions and fellow travelers of Zen Center into the councils of state government.

If Baker’s priests and students had been as dazzled by all those famous connections as the lay public was, no sex scandal could have ended his regime. But Downing’s interviews show that by 1983, at the apparent height of its glory, the organization was profoundly confused and demoralized. No one lifted a finger to defend the imperiled roshi, because everyone sensed that his pyramiding of highly leveraged properties and his networking with the mighty had been achieved at an intolerable cost—financial, emotional, and spiritual.

  1. 1

    San Francisco Zen Center operates at three sites: Tassajara, City Center, and Green Gulch Farm in western Marin County. They were acquired, respectively, in 1966, 1969, and 1972. (“Zen Center” in this article always refers to the organization as a whole.) Japanese Zen Buddhism possesses two major schools, the Rinzai and the Soto. Rinzai Zen relies on the study of paradoxical koans, with emphasis on the attainment of kensho (satori), or enlightenment. Soto Zen, the tradition from which Zen Center emerged, is focused chiefly on zazen sitting, the correct performance of which is considered spiritually sufficient. Individual masters, such as Zen Center’s first abbot, Shunryu Suzuki, tend to draw from both traditions, but with a bias toward the school in which they were trained.

  2. 2

    Zen Center was by no means the first organization of its kind in the US or even in San Francisco. Nyogen Senzaki had established a “floating zendo” there in 1927 before moving on to a temple in Los Angeles, and Sokei-an Sasaki had founded the First Zen Institute of America in New York as early as 1930. Zen Center itself began as a guest operation within Sokoji, the Soto Zen Mission, which had been functioning on Bush Street since 1934. And by the Sixties there were mixed-nationality Zen groups in New York, Rochester, Boston, rural Maine, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, and Maui. For this background, see Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Shambhala, 1981).

  3. 3

    Consider Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the guru who founded the colorful Naropa Institute in Colorado and who made Tibetan Buddhism fashionable in the US. Trungpa was a drunk whose sexual escapades, when he was sober enough to engage in them, were cruder and more ephemeral than Baker’s relationships. But unlike Baker, he took no pains to conceal his vices. That made all the difference to his disciples, who considered him “deeply realized.” Buddhism of every school, one gathers, readily accommodates behavioral frailty but draws a firm line at hypocrisy.

  4. 4

    Of those undertakings, only Greens survives; it has gone upscale and is no longer staffed by Zen Center students. Its vegetarian chefs in Baker-roshi’s day, Deborah Madison and Annie Somerville, are the authors of outstanding and still widely consulted cookbooks, as is Edward Espe Brown, who ran the admired Tassajara Bakery.

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