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Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center / Edition 1

Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center / Edition 1

by Michael DowningMichael Downing


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A close-up look at the scandals that rocked the San Francisco Zen Center, a leader in alternative religious practice and the counterculture in America, and their repercussions.

The remarkable forty-year history of the people who established the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia in the history of the world has never been told. Michael Downing wondered why. "I'm living proof of why you better not speak out," explained one ordained Zen priest. "The degree to which I was scapegoated publicly was most effective in keeping everyone else quiet."

In 1959, a Soto Zen priest took leave of his family in Japan to minister to the congregation of a Buddhist temple in San Francisco. Alan Watts and others spread the word that an authentic Zen Roshi was living there, and students, poets, drifters, and seekers began to attend his lectures. Impressed by their sincerity and commitment, Suzuki Roshi began to offer instruction in zazen (meditation) and other Buddhist practices to these devoted young spiritual pioneers. The San Francisco Zen Center was born.

And then, in 1983, meltdown. A sex scandal rocked Zen Center, and it triggered tragedies and headlines about abuse of power that called into question the whole matter of alternative religious practice in America. Overnight the most prominent community of Buddhists in the West found itself at the vanguard of a cultural revolt against spiritual authority.

For Shoes Outside the Door, Michael Downing spent three years studying documents and interviewing more than eighty people who were there, at ground zero. As engaging as any mystery, as mysterious as any political campaign, as political as any family gathering, this story will haunt and challenge readers as they unravel this essential chapter of American history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582432540
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 08/15/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 8.94(w) x 6.02(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Michael Downing's novels include the national bestseller Perfect Agreement, named one of the 10 Best Books of the year by Amazon and Newsday, and Breakfast with Scot, a comedy about two gay men who inadvertently become parents. An American Library Association honor book, Breakfast with Scot was adapted as a movie that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. His nonfiction includes Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, hailed by the New York Review of Books as a "dramatic and insightful" narrative history of the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia, and by the Los Angeles Times as "a highly readable book." His essays and reviews appear in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals. Michael teaches creative writing at Tufts University. He and his partner have lived together in Cambridge for more than 25 years.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

                     At some point during the late spring of 1983, Richard Baker realized he was in a pickle. He wasn't alone. Hundreds of people were stewing in the same juice. But Richard was an enlightened Zen master. He was the Chief Priest of the San Francisco Zen Center, the most influential Buddhist training and teaching center in the country. He was Abbot of the first Buddhist monastery established outside of Asia in the history of the world. Even people who didn't particularly like him or his flamboyant style conceded that he was an intuitive genius, reliably able to anticipate cultural trends and to dream up events and enterprises to exploit them. So it surprised a lot of people in and around Zen Center that Richard hadn't smelled trouble sooner.

    "I was at Tassajara during the Peace Conference," says John Bailes, who was Richard's student for more than a decade. "And you had to wonder, Is this guy this stupid?"

    It had been going on for years, says Paul Discoe, a carpenter and ordained priest, but "most people didn't want to see anything."

    One of Richard's personal attendants remembers how he told himself the story of his teacher's behavior until that weekend. "I thought, I wish I could say to [Richard] Baker-roshi, 'I know that nothing is wrong, that it is all aboveboard, but you should be careful of appearances as well.'" He shrugs. "I did not know his history."

   He was not alone. After Richard was installed as Abbot in 1971, dozens of Zen students rotated through his three residences, earning their room and board and tiny monthly stipends as household staff. Most of them saw nothing that unsettled their faith in their teacher; within the year, most Zen Center students—the largest and most seasoned community of Buddhist practitioners in America—terminated their relationships with Richard in the aftermath of the revelations, accusations, and hijinks referred to by Abbess Linda Cutts as "the Apocalypse."

    This apocalypse was not occasioned by a sudden, eye-opening moment of satori, the instantaneous enlightenment that incited so many Americans in the fifties and sixties to explore Buddhism and other yogic cultural practices. Whether they were busy contemplating their navels or trying to come up with a passably irrational response to a question about the sound of one hand clapping, those early enlightenment groupies wanted to be splashed with the cold, clear waters of awakening.

    The San Francisco Zen Center Buddhists are descended from the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. They like to wake up to their Buddha nature softly, gradually, slowly; they're sleepers who are reluctant to get out of bed, just like the rest of us. This may explain why so many of them didn't respond to the many alarms they heard in the years before 1983. Who hasn't hit the snooze button a few times?

    So, it was not an insight into the nature of all things that attracted their attention one sunny weekend in March of 1983. It was a dusty pair of women's slip-on shoes. The shoes were spotted at several different times outside the door of Richard's cabin at Tassajara, an old hot springs resort 150 miles south of San Francisco.

    Richard was in one of the little wooden cabins. He had first visited the resort in the early 1960s with his wife, Virginia, and even then "I thought it was great," he remembers, though "it looked pretty run down—the kind of place you bring your girlfriend or boyfriend, to be away from your spouse or job or something. It was pretty tacky, but beautiful." By 1983, when Richard invited his friend Anna and her children to join him there for a long weekend, the buildings and landscape at Tassajara had been subtly and thoroughly transformed. A pearl had been polished.

The Esselen people and other Native Americans visited the Tassajara hot springs for centuries before the first white settlers arrived in the 1860s. These settlers named the place Tassajara, a coinage that probably derives from the Esselen phrase denoting "the place where dried meat is hung." Tassajara acquired its basic shape as a rustic resort in the early years of the twentieth century, long after the anonymous Chinese laborers cleared and dug the road, and long before one of Joan Crawford's husbands bought it and, like almost every other owner, could not manage to make it pay. It's not a gold mine. Even today, after thirty years of extensive renovation by the current owners, including a few new residential buildings and some low-cost improvements to a couple of saggy old barns (where they stick the kitchen and cleanup crews during the summer guest season), Tassajara can only accommodate about seventy overnight guests.

     Tassajara is far from anywhere. On a map, it is about ten sky miles east of Big Sur. When you look inland from California's central coast, you see the outskirts of the two-million-acre Los Padres National Forest. Near its center is the Ventana Wilderness—200,000 acres of rugged and profound sanctuary. It is ringed by a snaggle-toothed grin of granite peaks more than a mile high; inside, the sloping land is dense with stands of conifer that give way to sudden, almost purely vertical ridges. A single dirt road winds slowly upward for more than ten miles and plunges down the last four toward Tassajara Creek in a series of switchbacks that sometimes will spare a car's transmission (if a recent rain hasn't washed a lot of trees and rock into the road) though often at the cost of the brakes, which go mushy and can melt under constant pressure in summertime temperatures of 110 degrees.

    The road ends—it just ends. You're almost there. It's a short walk down a soft hill to the valley floor, where the little village spreads out along the creek. A central stand of long, low buildings houses the kitchen and dining room, a large deck overlooking the creek, and an administrative office. There is one telephone (sometimes), and four giant propane tanks provide fuel for cooking and hot water for cleaning up, but the guest rooms are not electrified, and every night the paths and cabins are lit by kerosene lamps. This keeps the nightly fire-watch crew alert, as wildfires have more than once nearly burned Tassajara out of existence.

    Follow the dusty footpath to the right, and you pass a short string of pine and stone rooms set along the banks of the creek. Only one building project—a large concrete bathhouse—was ever completed across the creek, where a steep piece of ridge intrudes almost into the water. It is now in ruins. Erosion has turned the big old bunker into a temporary retaining wall. It'll be gone soon. The path winds through the narrow valley floor—you're at the bottom of an ancient gorge, and the land rises so precipitously from the creek basin that direct sunlight slips inside for only a couple of hours every day, even in the summer. A few hundred yards further on, you pass the new Japanese-style wood-and-tile hot-bath complex, and then you head into deeper woods, where land begins to rise toward the ridge and the path dwindles away and you are hiking out of the gorge on a narrow trail.

    If you head left from the central courtyard and dining room along the footpath, you pass painted wooden huts clinging to the creek's edge, and then the men's and women's "dormitories"—two little rustic motels for solo travelers willing to share one of the five twin-bedded rooms with a stranger. The valley floor is a little more generous over here. There is room enough for a few big public buildings, a neighborly cluster of eight-by-ten cold-water cabins, a flower and vegetable garden, one strange cylindrical cabin with a deck that is bigger and much less charming than anything else on the property, a couple of refitted barns where students live, and a swimming pool filled with a temperate blend of creek and hotspring waters.

    Every night there is nothing but the unsteady amber glow of glass lanterns lined up like jarred fireflies along the path, an embarrassment of stars overhead, and the creek water smooth-talking its way around a lot of rocks.

Richard's wife Virginia and their two children had decided not to join him at Tassajara that weekend in March of 1983. Anna and her kids had their own cabin, but the neighbors—most of them not more than ten feet away—figured those dusty shoes outside Richard's door were Anna's. "They were," Richard says, years later, nodding. Several people also remember Richard and Anna holding hands as they walked along the path toward a trail into the woods. When he hears this, he looks genuinely confused. "Could've been," he says, and then he smiles briefly, as if he wishes he had held Anna's hand. "I actually don't think so, but it could've looked like it. It was impossible to hide what we were feeling."

    Hiding? Who said anything about hiding?

    No one in this story supposed that Richard and Anna had traveled to Tassajara for a clandestine rendezvous. Just for starters, Richard is six-foot-two, with dark eyes, a big Roman nose, and he shaves his head. He attracts attention. Anna was lithe, blonde, and "so beautiful"—according to a young female Zen student who remembers the first time she saw Anna on Zen Center property—"so beautiful that I didn't ask her if she needed help, even though she looked lost. I immediately thought, She must be here visiting [Richard] Baker-roshi. No way he doesn't know this woman."

    On the merits of their appearance and behavior alone, Richard and Anna might reasonably have expected to excite passing glances no matter where they were that weekend. And secrecy was not served by their selection of a resort with one public byway, a communal dining room, and sleeping arrangements only slightly more private than bunk beds. Also, Richard sort of owned the place.

    Since 1967, the Tassajara hot springs resort has been owned and operated as a summer-season business by the San Francisco Zen Center, a nonprofit corporation sole at the time, with Richard as its legally designated Chief Priest. Tassajara is also Zen Center's monastery. Here, for the first time in the 2,500-year history of Buddhism, Zen priests and monks were trained and ordained in the West. And though the guest season was still a few months away and Tassajara typically is closed to all visitors from September until May for intense monastic practice periods, that spring weekend in 1983, Richard 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. "He and Anna didn't make it to most of Thich Nhat Hanh's talks," a former Zen Center Board member recalls. "Of course, by then, Paul was there."

    Richard had invited Paul Hawken to the conference, too. Paul was Richard's friend. Paul was Anna's husband. Paul had recently turned over to Zen Center 200 shares of stock in his new business enterprise, the Smith and Hawken garden-tool catalog company. He and Anna had also made a recent donation—$25,000 in cash and a $20,000 loan—to Zen Center in exchange for a home that had been built for them on the Zen Center farm and practice center in Marin County, twenty miles north of San Francisco, where Richard's wife and two children lived most of the year.

    And yet, everyone who lived through the Apocalypse will tell you, as more than eighty of them have told me, it was not about sex.

    Okay; but it was not not about sex.

    "How could these people not have known there were other women in his life?" Frederique Botermans had spent several years at Tassajara and was on her way back from a stay in Japan when she heard the news. "I was shocked by the community more than Richard. Did they think he was perfect?"

    By 1983, John Bailes was not looking for perfection. "I didn't care who Dick slept with," he says. "I did care that he cared who I slept with and told me who I could or couldn't. That he did." John had taken a leave of absence from college in 1972; it was not until February of 1984 that he left Zen Center and returned to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree. Fifteen years later, John is a married investment advisor, and he is training to spend the year 2000 as a crew member ("one of seventeen in a seventy-two-foot boat," he says) in a sailing race around the world. "I like situations," John explains. "That's why I like Zen."

    John remembers Richard at his best, challenging and pressing people to exceed their own perceived limits, "and people rarely do that." John says, "The relationship with Dick was always one of love, and it made me strong." He smiles and rakes his big hands through his curly brown hair. John is taller and more obviously muscular than Richard, but as a young Zen student, "I used to feel I had gone fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali. As my practice matured," says John, "well ... I think it was difficult for [Richard] to acknowledge the growth of his students. He couldn't do it." After several years as Richard's student, "there was always this confusion: Is this Zen practice, or is this just a power trip?"

    John attended a public lecture in San Francisco given by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh during his stay at Zen Center in early 1983. "I remember sitting in the back of the theater. IA lot of us] had worked to get Thich Nhat Hanh here. Dick introduced him. And I realized I was fed up," says John. "I thought this had Nobel Peace Prize written across it—everything people imagine Harvard is about, not Zen." John is one of several Zen students who were "shocked and not" in March of 1983. "Dick stated, before the Hawken affair—I heard him say—'The shit is going to hit the fan.' As far as Dick could make a plea, he was making a plea," explains John. "But he couldn't give anyone an opportunity to help him."

Chapter Two

                                  "Before this all happened, before this whole gathering at Tassajara, you would see a lonely man walking around like a crazy person—Reb Anderson—frequenting the holy altars and doing secretive practice having to do with his Transmission," remembers Willem Malten. "The [Transmission] ceremony asks you to profess oneness with the teacher, the intent of the teacher. We understood that as a mystical union—that you become a master."

    Willem runs the popular Cloud Cliff Bakery and Café, which he started in a garage in Santa Fe in 1984. He is in his early forties now, but when he is especially excited, or amused, or intent—as he often is, often at the same time—you see the face of the blond, blue-eyed, young Dutchman who turned up at Zen Center in the late seventies during his first trip to America.

    Like most of the students who managed and staffed the multimillion-dollar not-for-profit retail businesses that fueled Zen Center's phenomenal growth in the seventies, Willem never met Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Zen monk who emigrated to America in 1959 and, in 1962, founded the San Francisco Zen Center. (By the mid-1960s, students at Zen Center called their teacher Suzuki-roshi. The title roshi traditionally was accorded only to a few venerable Zen masters in Japan; however, in the West, it became customary to refer to all Zen teachers who receive Transmission as roshis.) Suzuki-roshi was a legend by the time Willem arrived, and everyone in the Buddhist world knew that Richard was the Japanese master's only American dharma heir. Suzuki-roshi had thousands of American students, but he had only one American heir.

    As Willem saw it from the start, "Richard was the indisputable leader. You can't believe how charismatic he was. When the Clinton story started to unravel, I thought, I have seen this before. Magnetic. They make you feel special, in the first place. They're hilariously funny. And he was always right there; very aware." From the first, Willem believed that "Richard had the vision. And maybe he was right. Maybe America wasn't ready to support a Buddhist community the way it was traditionally done, by begging on the street and by performing ceremonies—weddings and funerals. But there was something else in the businesses and the conferences," says Willem. "There was his personal ego. The structure of Zen Center was an S Corp [Corporation Sole], as I have now with Cloud Cliff. You can do whatever you want. This made it hard to depose him. He could change the rules. And he did what he wanted and legitimized it with the mantle of practice."

Suzuki-roshi's historic Transmission of the dharma to one and only one American man haunts everything that ever happened at Zen Center. And it only got spookier when, in 1983, Richard publicly identified his own first dharma heir.

    The job of a Zen master is to transmit the dharma.

    The word dharma is a cognate of the Pali word for carrying. The dharma that is passed from teacher to student involves the essential teachings of the Buddha and the spirit of living those truths. Transmission is applied both to the ritual identification and acknowledgment of a particular student as the legitimate successor, or dharma heir, of a Zen master, and to the ordinary, daily interactions between the teacher and all students.

    Transmit is an oddly technical verb, and the analogies it occasions are oddly useful. If you imagine the dharma as an electrical current arcing across a distance from one conductive wire to another, you get the basic idea. However, if you have even a rudimentary grasp of physics, you know that the power of an electrical charge decreases as it travels this way. This is precisely what is not supposed to happen to the dharma as it passes from master to disciple. A dharma heir is meant to be someone whose enlightenment or understanding equals or, preferably, surpasses that of the master.

    It may be more useful to imagine a teacher as a radio station. Anyone nearby with a radio can catch the news. The challenge for the Zen student is to develop the equipment to catch the signal and become a broadcaster. A student who has the equipment and skill to take the dharma signals and make a more powerful, or more skillfully modulated, broadcast than the master transmitted is a legitimate dharma heir. After a protracted series of private ceremonies and ritual tests, the heir's name is added to the master's lineage chart, which constitutes a genealogy of the dharma. A teacher might have one dharma heir or dozens, and some teachers receive ceremonial Transmission from more than one master (sometimes from different schools or sects), but if you trace any strand of this tangled web of teachers' names, it will lead you back to the Buddha.

    Personal encounters between teacher and student are especially significant as Zen is transmitted without regard to orthodoxy or sacred scriptures. The dharma is passed, essentially unworded, from the teacher's "heart-mind" to the student's "heart-mind." In Soto Zen, the aim is not accumulation of insights or ideas but the realization of one's essential nature, Buddha nature, which has no boundaries and no form. It is an awakening to what you are not.

    Even to a relative newcomer like Willem, it was evident that "Reb was first in line for Transmission. Then the master fell down from his pedestal, and where did that leave Reb, who had just professed oneness with Richard? Reb faced an existential dilemma," says Willem. "Was he going to say, 'Look, I will stick up for Richard and be with him. If you throw him out, I will go with him and serve him to the end of my days'?"

    What Reb said in July of 1983 was recorded in the notes of a meeting of the Outside Financial Advisory Board (OFAB). "Zen Center has entered a new phase—it is like these flowers," he said, pointing to a centerpiece on the table. "When the petals fall off, the seeds are left. We would not have chosen this particular catalyst, of course. Fortunately, our meditation practice helps us retain some level of calm. An expansive period has just ended for Zen Center, and a contractive, solidifying period has begun. We don't want to overdo it and get too withdrawn, but the changes we are undertaking are actually two years overdue."

    This speech was perfectly pitched to discredit and dismiss his teacher. But if that was his intent, his method was indirect. Indeed, in the records of this and other meetings, Reb's mannered tone and diction often make him seem somewhat remote from the business at hand, typified by his reference to the flowers. Robert Aitken, who was called in to consult at various stages of the long-running Zen Center crisis, characterizes this quality of voice as "a cultivated habit of making enigmatic, Zen-ish proclamations." Reb's implication is clear enough. As Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest whose speech is never robed or pious, explains, "It was all inevitable earlier than almost anyone could have known. It became inevitable when Richard gave Reb dharma Transmission. Then, we were valid without Richard; he was dispensable for the first time. We turn a corner at that moment." Reb had become an acknowledged master two months before the Apocalypse.

    In July of 1983, Richard was still the Abbot; however, he had begun a year's leave of absence and no one ever seemed to know exactly where he was. Reb's meditation-induced calm at the center of this storm certainly distinguished him; most of the rest of the community was spending more time in meetings large and small than in meditation. "Most people just stopped keeping the schedule," a senior priest remembers. Often, at the first morning period, there were fewer than a dozen people in the zendo, or meditation hall. "We were used to it being full—fifty or sixty people, at least—with latecomers seated on cushions in the hall outside." By mid-1983, in fact, Zen Center had spent thousands of dollars on group-process consultants and psychological counselors, who were hired to bat relief for the exhausted lineup of Buddhist big-hitters who'd stepped up to the plate in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. And this was just the beginning; it would be three years before Zen Center installed a new Abbot.

    What Reb described as a "solidifying period," others recall as "a community-wide nervous breakdown," "a witch hunt," and the beginning of "fifteen years of total reaction" (this is Darlene again), "dead as a doornail, no energy. Everything that was visionary and bright and shining—Oh! [Richard] Baker-roshi would have done that. And that was the end of it. Fifteen years dead as a doornail."

    It was no exaggeration for Reb to call the seventies an expansive period or to highlight the dire need for fiscal restraint. At this same OFAB meeting, the Treasurer reported that Zen Center had just finished two years of deficit spending (at least $155,000 in the red) with a $100,000 deficit projected for the year ahead. In the same period, the "Abbot's department budget" (which had come to mean, "Richard's lifestyle expenses") had grown from $130,000 to $180,000 to $215,000. And most people in the room considered these figures to be fractional estimates of Richard's annual spending. In these same years, Deborah Madison, the head chef at Greens, Zen Center's celebrated vegetarian restaurant, was sharing a monthly stipend of $300 with her husband. "And that was considered a lot of money, something other people in the community might resent," Deborah recalls.

    As a result, there was a lot of discussion that summer about the affordability of a full-scale audit of Zen Center's finances as the accusations about Richard and his use of Zen Center funds quickly escalated from grandiosity toward graver, criminal charges.


Excerpted from SHOES OUTSIDE THE DOOR by Michael Downing. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Downing. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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