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.
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.
But Zen Center may have been headed for trouble before Baker ever took control. The problem can be traced to his predecessor, Shunryu Suzuki, the center’s nominal founder and now its all but official saint.5 Impressed by the earnest young dropouts and runaways who had attached themselves to him at Sokoji, his Japanese-American temple in San Francisco, Suzuki had conceived the distinctly naive hope of turning the most dedicated of them into missionaries who might reform the jaded, politically compromised practice of Zen back in Japan. That dream lay behind his wish to establish the training monastery that became Tassajara. But the unworldly Suzuki—who, his wife once reported, would return from a market with the most damaged and wilted vegetables, because he felt sorry for them—failed to anticipate the strains that such a major expansion would produce.
After a typical winter training session at Tassajara, Suzuki’s followers naturally wanted to resume their sangha, or fellowship, in another residential community. Some of them found it in a new San Francisco institute (City Center), purchased in 1969, that could house seventy students; others moved into subsidized rental quarters or newly purchased buildings in the city; and still others would eventually populate the as yet unacquired Green Gulch Farm. In Japan, the counterparts of these communards would have fanned out to become the priests of regional Buddhist temples. But America had no such temples that would accept native-born clergy; and besides, former hippies would hardly have relished doing weddings and funerals for the capitalist bourgeoisie. In the karma-free zone of Zen Center’s dormitories they were prolonging a retreat that could last a lifetime. “The Buddha knew his palace was nothing, so he moved out,” writes Downing. “Zen Center amassed palaces, and everybody moved in.”
Many of these not-quite-monks lacked, or gradually lost, the fervor for zazen that had been shown by Zen Center’s earliest members, who had practiced with Suzuki at Sokoji in the early morning before beginning their workdays in ordinary jobs. Furthermore, Buddhists are supposed to devote themselves to the alleviation of suffering; how could that be done in sleepy, pastoral Muir Beach? As for City Center, efforts at outreach to its surrounding black ghetto met with only temporary and limited success.
A more urgent worry, however, was the drain on Zen Center’s budget exerted by the housing of so many nonproductive residents. From the day that the mortgage on Tassajara was signed in 1966, the organization could hope to survive only on the kindness of philanthropic strangers. This was the plight inherited by Baker-roshi. He had already shown some talent as an impresario, but his transformation from a conscientious social activist into a hustler with fourteen telephones in his house was set in motion by the overriding need for fund-raising.
In 1970 Baker had become the only American to receive Suzuki-roshi’s “dharma Transmission”—the ceremony marking a Zen master’s avowal that, through an ineffable “heart-mind” to “heart-mind” understanding, his student has now matched or surpassed him as a worthy carrier of the Buddha’s wisdom. By then, Zen Center insiders had already been put off by Baker’s ambitious and calculating style. They were dismayed when their adored roshi passed over candidates whose resistance to earthly desire more nearly resembled his own. But in retrospect the choice hardly looks unfathomable. Baker must have struck his teacher as the priest who stood the best chance of holding things together for Zen Center in a period of rapid and taxing change.
His top priority when he became abbot was to press for the costly acquisition of Green Gulch Farm in 1972—a move that appeared to ease Zen Center’s housing crunch but actually exacerbated all of the existing tensions. He also began finding more work for his live-in proletariat, partly in staffing the three principal complexes, partly in attending to his own comfort and convenience, and partly in running the various new retail enterprises whose initially low prices, picturesquely shorn and clad employees, and aura of clean-living virtue allowed them to serve as what one shrewd insider called “donative theatres.”
A born salesman, Baker at first convinced his charges that they were extending their zazen practice, not sinking into peonage, when they worked without compensation growing potatoes at Green Gulch, peeling them in the kitchen at Greens, or silently presenting them in novel vegetarian dinners at his own San Francisco house as he hosted banquets for the likes of Werner Erhard and Mick Jagger. When the Apocalypse arrived a decade later, the potatoes were still being peeled, but many wielders of the paring knives were by then middle-aged and raising families, having received for their toil neither thanks nor sympathy, not to mention a living wage, health insurance, or Social Security credit. And insofar as these frantically overworked people were gaining business acumen, they were drifting ever farther from the nondualistic “beginner’s mind” that Suzuki-roshi had proclaimed as the Zen ideal. They remembered it well enough, however, to pass a sentence of banishment on their arrogant, high-living abbot.
For several years following Baker’s departure, Zen Center appeared to be not only ungoverned but ungovernable. Suddenly there were dozens of would-be roshis, united only in their vindictiveness toward the exiled one. “We had meetings,” a prominent member recalls, “where people were saying, ‘Why should we have to obey the rules?’ It became anarchic. City Center became a kind of hotel on Page Street—people were living there and bad-mouthing Zen Center. They had lost their faith in the practice.”
The paralysis was such that Baker-roshi’s “transmitted” heir apparent, Reb Anderson, had to wait three years before being installed as the next (and last) abbot-for-life, a position he held for only a year before having his powers curtailed by the newly assertive Board of Directors. The precipitating incident was another scandal. Putting Buddha mind in abeyance, the former boxer Anderson had packed a gun when he went looking for a neighborhood thug who had robbed him, and it turned out that he had lifted that gun, four years earlier, from a corpse he had stumbled across in Golden Gate Park without notifying the police.
Behind the awkward headlines lay nagging, debilitating doubts. Had Anderson really received full Transmission from Baker? (Baker denies it.) What would it mean, anyway, to have acquired the dharma from someone whose callous actions belied his own possession of it? And had zazen sitting and the teaching of resignation, by fostering a docile mentality, undermined the common sense of what one survivor called the “stunningly unaware” Zen Center community? A much-quoted pronouncement by the droll and elfin Suzuki-roshi began to sound all too prophetic: “Establishing Buddhism in a new country is like holding a plant to a stone and waiting for it to take root.”
It couldn’t have been pleasant for Richard Baker to realize that, with or without his cooperation, Shoes Outside the Door was going to be completed and published. Michael Downing finally caught up with him in February of 2000 by driving through a blizzard to remote Crestone Mountain in southern Colorado, where Baker, after several abortive ecclesiastical and commercial ventures in Santa Fe, is now the abbot of a modest training monastery. He refused to discuss his sexual history; instead, he glossed over it in a six-hundred-word document whose sophistries Downing efficiently punctures for us. But Baker did talk about his stewardship of Zen Center, admitting that he had let the operation balloon on a scale that must have been harmful to individual practice. Even so, he remains astounded that the Board of Directors felt itself entitled to strip him of the title roshi. That move, he believes, was disastrous for Zen Center and bad for the wider cause of American Zen.
Being an outsider to Buddhism, Downing wisely refrains from dismissing Baker’s claim as a mere expression of pique. And in fact there is a serious issue here. In Baker’s time at Zen Center it was customary in the US (though not in Japan) to honor as a roshi every “transmitted” Zen adept. But if an elected board could take a vote and declare in effect that someone had been named a roshi in error, wouldn’t that also cast into doubt the authenticity of Transmission? Go down that road, Baker believes, and you will lose your awe for a central doctrine of Buddhism: the unbroken lineal descent of the dharma from Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, through a chain of enlightened custodians.
Baker may well be right on that score. Yet the early followers of Suzuki-roshi would have needed only to ponder his conduct in order to acquire a less mystical grasp of Transmission. Suzuki hadn’t wanted to be called roshi, and he never characterized himself as enlightened. Everything about his ironic manner bespoke a disbelief that one anointed person can be enduringly more Buddha-like than others. Sheer neglect and then illness, not awe for the unique sacrament of Transmission, prevented him from granting it to anyone at Zen Center except the notably self-interested Baker. And on trips back to Japan, he showed how little Transmission meant to him by conferring it on his own scarcely qualified son and, as a favor to a friend, on another young priest whom he hadn’t taught at all.
Nobody, however, seems to have drawn the obvious inference that Transmission must be at least partly a political act. Zen Center’s young absolutists, we need to recall, were mostly products of the ingenuous California counterculture, with its psychedelic visions of transcendent reality and its faith in the higher wisdom of Eastern gurus. Suzuki’s compromises could have taught them a good deal about the way an established religion has to make its peace with prejudice and privilege, but such “sellout” realism was just what they were seeking to escape through immersion in zazen.
After 1986, with the ascendancy of a more sober generation that had chafed under Baker’s dictatorship, Zen Center gradually regained its poise and soldiered on—but in a significantly altered spirit. In addition to closing down or spinning off its business enterprises, reducing its property holdings, and generally trimming its budget, the organization reconstituted itself in a checks-and-balances mode. An authoritarian hierarchy became a dispersed bureaucracy, with multiple advisory boards and committees ensuring that elected officials couldn’t make policy on their own.
Now Zen Center appoints rotating co-abbots with fixed terms. In sharp contrast to earlier times, women far outnumber men in positions of responsibility, and they are vigilant against any backsliding into the old patriarchal mode. Already by 1987, for example, a center conference—a “Celebration of Women in Buddhist Practice”—was billed as “entirely a leaderless event,” offered with the pointed hope that “such exploration of consensual and horizontal structures will ripple throughout the Buddhist sanghas in America.” There one heard the voice of Eighties-style feminism, and it was saying that no more Richard Bakers need apply for starring roles.
Along with egalitarianism came, inexorably, a certain porousness to cultural influences from outside the zendo. According to Downing, Zen Center now seeks the advice of secular counselors and group training consultants, and the lingua franca of psychotherapy—transference, projection, archetypes, addictive behavior—mingles easily with the ancient religious lexicon. Moreover, the Tassajara guest season, more popular than ever, welcomes citizens who would like to cultivate some Buddhist mindfulness without having to believe in the literal Transmission of the dharma, much less in nirvana and reincarnation. Summer visitors can take classes in Judaism and Christianity as well as Buddhism, along with a smorgasbord of peripheral offerings such as yoga, cooking, and bird-watching.6
This eclecticism is, of course, only the face that Zen Center turns to the “spiritual” but increasingly nonsectarian public, whose support is still needed if the books are to be balanced. The institution’s central mission remains the teaching of Soto Zen, purged of its Japanese legacy of racism, sexism, nepotism, and collusion with samurai killers and modern imperialist warlords. A practice that is disconnected from civil power and self-restricted to well-meaning liberals can afford to be ideologically pure. As for the bestowal of dharma Transmission, Yankee fair play has largely supplanted the whims of roshis. Transmission is all but guaranteed to students who complete a fixed course of study and remain active within the center beyond ten years. In short, although Zen remains paradoxical at its core, Zen Center now operates on rationally defensible lines.
Suzuki-roshi has been dead for more than three decades, and few of his disciples remain associated with the center. Troubled fugitives from the America of corporate greed, conformism, race riots, and body bags, they had been drawn to Zen through the person of Suzuki himself, who struck them as radiating an inner peace. He tolerated their wildness while teaching them a way of taming it through rigorous discipline and ritual. Now Zen Center, deprived of his living example but determined to memorialize it, metic- ulously preserves the formalities he introduced, celebrates his birthday, is readying more of his uncollected lectures for publication, and has erected a shrine in his honor.
Is that what the self-effacing Suzuki would have wanted? Can Zen Center promote nonattachment by attaching itself to a legend? Or are we witnessing the coagulation of a passionate, spontaneous, and turbulent movement into a church? “Oh, Americans,” Suzuki once confided to Gary Snyder. “They don’t have enough sense of humor. They’re much too serious.”
March 28, 2002
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. ↩
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). ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Suzuki (no relation to D.T. Suzuki, an important early spokesman for Zen in America) is the subject of an affectionate biography, David Chadwick’s Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki (Broadway Books, 1999). His talks and comments, liberally rendered into more idiomatic English, are sampled in Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, edited by Trudy Dixon (Weatherhill, 1970) and in To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki, edited by David Chadwick (Broadway Books, 2001). ↩
Tassajara’s policy resonates in suggestive ways with Blue Jean Buddha, a bellwether anthology of personal stories by do-it-yourself Buddhist practitioners now in their twenties and early thirties. Here in the US, observes the editor, “all the Buddhist traditions now live side-by-side, colliding and mingling vigorously.” Reverence toward roshis has given way to religious comparison shopping by college students who have traveled widely in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Nepal. “Jew-Bu’s” and “UU-Bu’s” (Jews and Unitarian Universalists adhering to Buddhist ways) coexist amiably with believers in goddesses and even with one contributor who thinks he is a tulka, or reincarnated Tibetan monk. The testifiers are, on the whole, socially conscious activists who manifest a cheerful self-satisfaction that would have been rebuked in dokusans with either Shunryu Suzuki or Richard Baker. See Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists, edited by Sumi Loundon (Wisdom Publications, 2001). ↩