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.
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 …