Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Michael Downing's "Shoes Outside the Door": Book Review

What happens when idealism builds bureaucracy, asceticism invites affluence, and practice of Buddhism evolves into the palaces of real estate, prime Bay Area holdings backed by some of America's wealthiest scions? Richard Baker, abbot of the first monastery in history to be founded by Buddhists outside Asia, took over San Francisco's Zen Center at the height of the Aquarian dawn. I came to this with only a casual curiosity about how Green Gulch farm worked and a vague idea of misdeeds long ago. I found out more.

Those who followed Baker and ran the Zen Center's empire were a ragtag band of seekers; a few of whom grew more ambitious or grasping along with Baker. But many did not. Greens restaurant, Green Gulch farm across the Golden Gate in Marin, and Tassajara as a remote retreat center all meant that the 350-400 members of the S.F. Zen community had to support themselves. They staffed these places, but they often also lived there or nearby. They earned small stipends, averaging in 1982 $2.89/hour. They also mingled, mated, and made families. This wasn't traditional.

These challenges, unlike any Buddhist institution to date, meant Baker and his Board had to court the rich and the powerful for patronage. Those who chose to join the Center often labored in "work-practice" 12-14 hour days that left them little time at the businesses founded to sustain their devotion by sitting; the demands of keeping the places going and rewarding those who earned the chance to live there or retreat to Tassajara clashed with the original intentions to let men and women join together and make a communal effort at seeking wisdom.

Downing explores, in a roundabout, searching fashion, the story that ensued. (I wish an index and a reading list were provided; illustrations or photos would also have helped us see Zen Center's places so often mentioned for ourselves.) He makes a few great analogies. My favorite furthers Baker's own interest in science, and compares radar to "Transmission" (a key term in this book): for Baker, the force that his teacher Shunryu Suzuki recognized in him that relays the dharma down to a chosen follower. The dharma's pulses of electromagnetic waves, the antenna's the teacher with the radar unit, the student's the distant object in the path who reflects the pulses back to the antenna. The teacher absorbs and interprets the reflected signals from the student, and verifies the student as an object of attention. This looms for Baker's claim: he was the one in the Suzuki-roshi's path.

Many reviewers know this story of how Baker handled and then mishandled his role as Abbot from the inside, or near enough to it; its details have been debated and rehashed. In a restless narrative-- a bit snarky at times, which cuts down posturing and posing by some of the key players interviewed or discussed-- the author labors to align the appeal of Baker and the Americanizing Zen with its industrious ambitions, its financial deals, and the fascinating logistics of how to convert a dream into real estate, and utopian visions into tax shelters.

What kept me reading? How intelligent people gave up their own prime of life to work so hard for so little material gain. How they often, despite decades even of Zen practice, did not oppose whatever Baker demanded in the name not of Buddhism but his own goals-- and how these mixed within his own enigmatic, but for some charismatic, aura.

One former student wonders if zazen worsens the "dissociative process-- as if in some way it cauterizes the personality and seals it off, encapsulates it, widens the breach between heart and mind." (qtd. 26) The narrative circles about before it gets to the 1983 scandal that led to Baker's exile. It then drops off after the showdown into legal and financial wrangles that fill out the story but make it, after the "Apocalypse," feel wrung out and anticlimactic, perhaps inevitably. The heart of the tale, which roams around his followers and contenders, works best.

Downing takes apart Baker's statement of wrongdoing and compares it line by line with testimony or reports from his participants or victims. Downing strives for fairness to all involved. Yet, he knows that the fundamental precept of "Do not harm" has been violated. "If you believed the Abbot was crazy, you would have had to leave Zen Center." (233)

Contrasting, the strange encounters with Baker's hand-picked students sent off to care for and work for wealthy patron Nancy Wilson Ross prove illuminating. It may be harder for a Zen student to display compassion for a socialite than a prostitute, as one Harvard dropout (lots of Ivy Leaguers pepper these pages) finds. John Bailes learns from her the true meaning of the teachings: "not some ancient story, but the facts. "Here we are. We are going to die. I am going to give you what I've got." (qtd. 264)

Deborah Madison, who learned her vegetarian cooking skills as one of those "work-practice" stipended students as well as with Nancy, exemplifies the personal story of one who found her own initial urge to sit and practice Zen as eroded by the demands of working for her room and board and her small wages. Those customers who flocked to Greens or Green Gulch seemed less aware of the truth behind the drudgery of so many who made those businesses work, or who did not if they were supported by those who did work away. This weakened the stability of the businesses, and soon the Zen Center, under Baker's obsessive plans for expansion and his own acquisitive tastes for the aesthetic and the expensive, could not reconcile its hippie roots with its hierarchical structures and imbalanced budgets.

For some, "this was a system that was about staying asleep because it was too risky to wake up," one student remembers. (qtd. 305) But, the wake-up call comes, the disjunct between the Abbot as role model, as CEO, and as miscreant grows. Baker does not go down without a fight, and the impact, it seems from this 2001 account, still reverberates throughout the "palaces" that the Zen Center built. The Buddha left behind his palace, as Downing reminds us. But he too courted patrons, and his heretofore wandering monks stayed in the forest monastery in the rainy season. So, the tension between begging and staying put, seeking alms then and investing in mutual funds today, as Baker learned, shows how Zen met the Fortune 500, and how its practitioners came of age in an era less aquarian, and less utopian.

P.S. This compliments David Chadwick's excellent "Crooked Cucumber," (also on Amazon) about the founder of the S.F. Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki, who chose Baker as his successor. See my review of Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (also on Amazon).

P.P.S. Francesca Woodman's cover photo's strikingly framed, if suitably hard to discern in this, the best image I could find of it. (I hate this dustjacket's font, albeit appropriate for a tale set in the 1970s) This evocative, enigmatic mood's well matched to this elusive tale of "desire, devotion, and excess." (Posted to Amazon US without these postscripts, 7-20-10)

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