Michael Downing’s Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center is a difficult book to write about. Not because it is about Zen–although the mystification that often characterizes statements by the greatest sages of this tradition might contribute to the difficulty– but because it wrestles with, without ever solving, the nasty question of spiritual authority in general.

     There’s a great review that summarizes the book’s contents in Tricycle, so I’ll won’t go into the details of the history discussed here. In short, the book focuses on the transmission of the famous Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who arrived in America during the 1960s, to Richard Baker and then to his disciples. The central event of this book is the 1983 Buddhist Peace Conference which was organized in Tassajara, a former hot spring resort in Northern California that became the first Zen monastery in the United States. The conference was attended by a who’s who of American Buddhism, among them Thich Nhat Hanh, Gary Snyder, and so on. However, during the conference the news broke that Baker, the only successor to Shunryu’s Suzuki’s Zen lineage, had been sleeping with the wife of one of his students. During the days and weeks that followed the incident, former and current female students of Baker stepped forward and said that they too had been sexually involved with their teacher. This led to the eventual abdicacy of Baker as abbot of Zen Center, and a thorough restructuring of the institution.

   The book is admirable not only because of the wealth of information it presents—it reads as a primer for Zen in America at times—but most of all for its refusal of easy narratives. In Baker’s case, it would be easy to follow the crowd that has condemned his actions as hypocritical (Baker was not open about the affairs, and was married the whole time) and unworthy of Zen teachers. Just as easy it would be to take the traditional Japanese position that Zen teachers are allowed to do whatever they want—their enlightened behavior cannot be measured by standards of the unenlightened, and may be motivated by a desire to bring students to insight. Downing does not choose either of these paths, and instead presents the complexity of the situation by largely letting his many interviewees do the talking.

    The result is a book that is a deep examination of the possibilities and problems of Zen (and I would say Buddhism in general) in the West, in which the problem of spiritual authority takes center stage. Why is it that so many of Baker’s students willingly subsisted on a stipend of $100-500/month while their master regaled his guests to feasts in his luxurious residence (called a “Zen Versailles” by one of the people interviewed in the book)? Why did they forego meditation, ostensibly the reason why they came to be students at Zen Center in the first place, to serve long days as unpaid labor in Baker’s many projects, including a sewing factory for meditation pillows, a (still famous) famous vegetarian restaurant  and a Buddhist farming project?  Why did the board not object to their abbot splurging the Center’s money on these projects plus a plenitude of expensive Japanese and Western art objects plus a $25,000 BMW for his personal use? Downing writes: “Sometimes, it reads like a love story: falling in love with a stranger; falling so far that you forsake all others; falling away from yourself until you are not an American and you are not Japanese and you are not a layperson and you are not a monk and you find yourself wrapped up in a black robe and falling on your knees to bow down in gratitude to the person who occasioned this fortunate fall” (71). A participant says: “Richard [Baker] wanted to keep everyone relating to him directly […] As a result, the community itself did not develop the kind of substance that would have served him. When the break [of 1983] came, we were not ready to meet him as a sangha. There was no equivalent power to his.” (144).

   Baker’s strategic use of charismatic power to put himself at the center of the Zen Center, allowing him to do as he pleases with its members, reminds Downing of a cult. Although he hesitates to label the Zen Center under Baker as such, the idea is a powerful, if uncomfortable, category to analyze Zen in general. Historically, the school has put the master at the center of everything.As an enlightened being, only the master understands the secret teachings of the Buddha. Only he can transmit that knowledge to students he deems worthy. In the process, he can do whatever he pleases. If we do not understand or disapprove of what he does, this is only true from our un-enlightened perspectives. As I’m arguing in a forthcoming article (more on this soon), in such a manner of thinking ethics fade into the background. Thus, key Buddhist principles (such as ahimsa, not harming others) can be blithely ignored by the master as he goes about his enlightened business.

    Such a master’s authority does not radiate from himself alone. It is enhanced by a circle of legitimation. As one witness tells Downing: “There was a reciprocal dynamic, […] We figured, Richard seems more than a little strange for a Zen master, but look at all these important people who are here and listening to him. And I think the important people who are here and listening to him. And I think the important people were thinking, he doesn’t act like a Zen master, but look at all the students he has. It was mutually reinforcing, and both of those communities, which were kept rather separate, saw the other half  as proof that was a good thing.” This quotation draws attention to what enables a Zen master to be a master, namely the approval of those around him. If Baker was “more than a little strange,” even for a Zen master, no one really called him out on it until 1983.

     Downing finely satirizes the responsibility of the whole sangha (the traditional name for a Buddhist community) for Baker’s actions. Because the things that they did object to seem minor to those they silently allowed. “Richard’s former colleagues point ot this episode [Richard wanting to take a job at an investment firm to support Zen center, indeed a non-traditional occupation for a Zen master] as evidence of his insincerity or his greed. Meanwhile, they had installed themselves in a monastery, declared themselves conscientious objectors to celibacy, and many of them figured it was up to someone else to foot the bill for their independence, not to mention any dependents that might be born into the situation. And from their remote purches, they could evidently see that it was noble for Richard to beg money from Fidelity and Xerox on their behalf, but it was ignoble of Richard to want to earn it” (133-34). The ethical looseness that characterizes Baker’s behavior thus also extends to a significant part of the larger Zen Center community, who sought to rein in their master’s ability to earn money but not his ability to spend it, nor his having sexual relations with dozens of students.

    A large reason of this silence might have been that Baker held something they wanted. Enlightenment, as certified in the transmission of the teachings. When Baker so openly disgraced himself, their careers in Buddhism were ruined: they would never get transmission from this discredited master. In addition, their efforts seemed pointless: “There was a kind of complacency. We were doing zazen. And the main point was, zazen leads to enlightenment, enlightenment leads to perfection, and the rest will work itself out. We were Buddhist heroes. That was part of the shock [of 1984]. We were blind. We’re not so special” (91). The combination of these disappointment might go far in explaining the rage against Baker. For them, his problem was not that he behaved unethically with his students. It was that he revealed that Zen masters are still human beings.

     Several images remain with me after finishing the book.The first is of a BMW driving down the road. In the background is Tassajara, the first Zen monastery in the United States. In the car is Richard Baker, at the time the only Dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki. On the side of the road are black-robed students, their head shaven. As the car drives by, the students, one by one, bow down. The second is of Baker describing the end of his long-term friendship with the painter Edward Avedisian: “I’ve broken with him—some years ago […] He just did too many outrageous things.” The third is of an academic conference on LSD Baker organized in 1966. The conference featured free acid and a concert by the Grateful Dead. At this concert, a newcomer to the scene, Paul Lee, sees the following happen: “One guy had his head in the speakers the entire time [The Grateful Dead] played. I asked everybody who he was. It was Neal Cassady [Jack Kerouac’s On the Road companion], of course. Man, was he gone.”

(image: Tassajara, (c)San Franscisco Zen Center)

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