Zen teacher Richard Baker was born in Maine in 1936. He studied architecture and history at Harvard College and in 1960 left the East Coast for San Francisco. A year later he began studying Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In 1962, Suzuki Roshi established San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), the first residential Zen center in the West. In 1966, SFZC expanded to include the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where Zen practice adhered to the traditional modes of a Japanese Soto monastery. Shortly before his death in November 1971, Suzuki Roshi installed Richard Baker as the abbot of the extended community. Over the next twelve years, Baker Roshi’s work included the founding of the Green Gulch Zen Practice Community in Marin County, the Tassajara Bread Bakery, and Greens Restaurant. In 1983, under pressure from senior members of the community, and amid accusations and subsequent denials of sexual and financial misconduct, Baker Roshi resigned from his position as abbot. The rift between Baker Roshi and SFZC remained bitter for many years and still lacks resolution.

After leaving San Francisco, Baker Roshi started the Dharma Sangha, with centers in Germany, Austria, and Crestone, Colorado. For the past six years, Baker Roshi and his companion, Ulrike Greenway, have divided their time between the United States and Europe. His forthcoming book, Original Mind: The Practice of Zen in the West, will be published by Riverhead Books (Putnam). The following interview, parts of which first appeared in German earlier this year in the May and July issues of the bimonthly magazine connection, was conducted in Germany by connection’s editor and publisher, Sugata Schneider, following a workshop-seminar that Baker Roshi led on the Heart Sutra. Photographs of Richard Baker and Ulrike Greenway were taken in New York by Sally Boon.


Sugata: I would like to ask you about the Heart Sutra—the topic of this weekend’s workshop. Why did you choose it?

Baker Roshi: I didn’t. Actually, I had some reservations about it, but Martin Kremer, who organized the seminar, kept asking me to speak on it.

Sugata: What were your reservations?

Baker Roshi: Although the Heart Sutra is the most commonly chanted Buddhist sutra in the world, it is a deep, difficult teaching. Hard to approach on a weekend, especially when some people are new to Buddhism.

Sugata: What is so special about the Heart Sutra?

Baker Roshi: It is really a kind of prescription for—and description of—the mind taught by the buddhas. The Prajnaparamita [literally, “Sutra of the Wisdom that Reaches the Other Shore”] is a series of about forty sutras from two thousand years ago. The Heart Sutra is often considered to be their essence. These teachings address the two worlds of the relative and the absolute, form and emptiness, and so forth. What is especially interesting about the Heart Sutra is that it emphasizes the experiential knowing of the mind of emptiness and compassion. It is a very beautiful and effective—and literally mcmorable—mantric presentation of the source of the Buddha as compassion and wisdom.

The Heart Sutra represents a shift from the lineage of a historical teacher, the Buddha, to the lineage of realized Mind–the Mind that taught the Buddha. It changes the idea of lineage and of practice. This is a shift from early Buddhism to late Buddhism. And it is understood that practice and the mantra can implant and awaken this realized Big Mind of the Heart Sutra.

Sugata: Then who is the teacher?

Baker Roshi: What teaches us is a particular state of mind, a present mind which we already have but don’t know how to enter. It is not only a mind of the buddhas of the past—a vertical lineage—but a present mind, a horizontal lineage. So the teacher doesn’t teach us, so much as shows us how to realize and cultivate this state of mind and then this state of mind teaches us. The pre­sent Mind—the present ancient Mind—teaches us, if we know how to embed ourselves in it. One way to do that is to turn dead words into living words. Ordinary life into the living Path.

Sugata: How do we use ordinary life?

Baker Roshi: The words can be from our life. It could be “Why do I relate to my spouse in a certain way?” or it could be “How do I find myself more at ease with myself?” You might repeat, “More at ease with myself.” Or just, “at ease.” Or “ease.” Or “Arriving in the pres­ent.” Or “Already arrived!” And when you repeat that­—or any phrase or word that can reach into you—it enters into the fibers of the present Mind.

Sugata: What have you created for yourself?

Baker Roshi: In the first year or two of practice, the main phrase I stuck to was “There’s no place to go, and there’s nothing to do.” While I went to places I said, “There’s no place to go,” and while I did things I repeated in my mind, “There’s nothing to do.” These two phrases ac­tually came together in me partially from the Heart Sutra mantras: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” and “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate.” Gone, gone, gone beyond, completely gone beyond. 

Sugata: Does “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” correspond to the relative and the absolute levels of reality?

Baker Roshi: To comprehend “relative” and “absolute” means to know that the world is neither permanent nor inherent, that it is interdependent, and that it is simultaneously empty. When we emphasize emptiness, we call it the “absolute.” When we emphasize interdependence, we call it the “relative.” When the world is seen as having an inherent or predictable permanent nature or seen even as interdependent but with an unchanging ground, we call it the “conventional” world. Through practices based on understanding the relative and absolute, we come to know a mind that is always present, but not permanent. This Mind is also called the “absolute.”

Sugata: There seems to be a tendency among Zen students to privilege the absolute.

Baker Roshi: We don’t want to dismiss the “conventional” as only ignorance and a delusion to be done away with. It is where most people live. It is the territory of compassion, of ignorance, of realization. Even when we practice meditation and mindfulness, we are still drawn, through our habits and a love for the world and our friends, back again and again into the delusion of the conventional world. This movement back and forth between the recognition of the relative and the habits of the conventional—if we continue practicing—is actually a source of energy. It builds up in us and often gives us the burst of insight and surrender that releases us into enlightenment.

Sugata: Is absolute the same as the “oneness” in the Zen texts?

Baker Roshi: Yes, to some extent, but really no. The “absolute” is not oneness. We do not say “oneness”; we say, “not one, not two.” And “not-twoness” is not the same as oneness. Oneness is sometimes an experience-a very convincing experience; but it is not an outside reality, something permanent, or a ground of being. “Relative” is not “twoness,” but the pulse of twoness and not-twoness. So truly the idea of the relative arises when we see not only interdependence, but the condition of interdependence—which is emptiness, the absolute. As a Zen koan says, “Hold to the moment before thought arises (dividing the world), and you’ll see not-seeing. Then put that to one side.” This is to know the “unstruck sound” (an ancient Indian phrase). The “sound of one hand”! But we shouldn’t forget that the elbow doesn’t bend backward.

Sugata: On several occasions, I have heard you say that Buddhism in its thinking and craft is positioned somewhere between physics and psychology. Could you talk about this?

Baker Roshi: When Western physicists, biologists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and some philosophers think through things very carefully and practically without avoiding the mysteries and the perplexities than it comes out that what they come up with overlaps considerably with Buddhism and with the way Buddhism is remapping itself in the West. This is true to such an extent that much contemporary science, philosophy, and art are functioning, unintentionally, as disguised forms of Buddhism-in effect, giving us permission to accept Buddhism and to some extent preparing us to understand it. They also are fertilizing Buddhist thought and practice. This is affecting the way people think in a very fundamental way.

Sugata: Where does “religion” fit in?

Baker Roshi: First, just because Buddhism is called a religion and Christianity is called a religion, and so forth, one cannot assume that they occupy the same territory in a culture. For example, Buddhism offers no contradiction to science, it has no problem with science at all, so the deep and fundamental split between science and the humanities that we’ve known in the West simply doesn’t exist with Buddhism.

Sugata: You mean the fear that science would displace God, or jeopardize the construction of who we think God is?

Baker Roshi: Yes, that just doesn’t exist in Buddhism. Also, going back to India before Buddhism, the basic conceptual position that Buddhism grew out of is that the exterior world and the interior world are the same—share the same reality or actuality. Whatever reality is, that’s what we are. We don’t live in the world as in a house. The house is us, and the house is in us. Nowadays, contemporary physicists are asking a similar question: If this is the way physics describes the world, then how should this affect my life? And Buddhists are saying, If this is the way the world is, then this must be the way we are too. So that’s why it overlaps with science. So many of these processes of studying ourselves and others are drawing on Buddhism because it offers the most developed technique of studying consciousness especially our own. And it certainly has the most developed meditation techniques. Every place where people are looking for practical methods of working with themselves, Buddhism is coming in. Not just in physics and psychology, but in painting, poetry, theater, movies, music, and in many personal lives.

Sugata: Are you—like many Buddhist teachers—trying to integrate Buddhism and psychology?

Baker Roshi: No. I am trying to relate them, of course, but not to blend them or mix them up. A lot of people are trying to see Buddhism as a form of psychology or trying to make Buddhism into psychology. What I am always pointing out is that psychology is very different, that there is no psyche in Buddhism. The practice of perfecting your personality comes very late in Buddhism and even then is not concerned with maturing your personal story—something very important and necessary in our Western identity, our Western individuality, growth, and stability. Buddhism is more of a mind-ology than a psych-ology. So I am not trying to make a synthesis of Buddhism and psychology. I am trying to show that they work well together when they are seen as separate complementary approaches to our life.

Sugata: Will you say more about the difference?

Baker Roshi: Buddhism does not work with identity being organized through your story. It’s important to see that. Buddhism is concerned with developing an interior consciousness, developing your own consciousness—and understanding yourself, others, and the world through that. And that’s a different process than using Western psychology to deconstruct and reconstruct your storyline. I want to emphasize that Buddhism is badly taught in the West when it doesn’t account for the fact that we Westerners really do need to recognize and mature our personal story—and from the beginning of practice, not late in the game. We do great damage to ourselves and to others when offhand and unstudied Buddhist phrases like “don’t think,” “clear the mind,” and “no-self” are used to repress our identity and deny relevant thinking. Of course, I feel Buddhism is also badly taught when it is inaccurately turned into a form of psychology or reductionistically framed by current dicta and mandates of psychology. Zen Buddhism in the West must be a path of discovery and exploration of the mystery of being and the world.

Sugata: How do you handle psychological problems that are presented to you by students?

Baker Roshi: I send them to a psychotherapist.

Sugata: But a lot of times students come into dokusan [formal interview with a Zen teacher] with their storyline.

Baker Roshi: What I used to do is to listen to everybody and, basically, play back what they said to me. Now I am willing to discuss it with the students, but it is better that it not be part of practice. It is like being a friend, and as a mature friend and person, I am willing to discuss anything. But boy is there a fine line. If a person has gotten their practice mixed up with their story, then I definitely suggest a therapist, or that they talk to someone else. It is so easy to read into playback or commonsense advice the dictums of a “teacher.”

Sugata: Where do you see the most exciting development in the practice of Buddhism?

Baker Roshi: I don’t know. I’m pretty traditional. No one who knew me in my early days of looking at Buddhism would have thought that I would end up being essentially very traditional in my understanding of the teaching and in my conception and practice of the process of teaching. It is possible and even likely that new forms of Buddhism-and positive developments of various kinds-will come forth from this “axial” (to use Karl Jaspers’ term) meeting that is going on with the West. But at this stage we understand Buddhism and the cultures that have produced and nourished it so little—and we understand our own culture so little—that most changes that take place in the guise of development are dilutions, and often outright distortions, in the service of contemporary convenience and our own mental habits. I am not so interested in adaptation, but I am certainly interested in developing greater accessibility to practice. This does not mean simply translating things into our Western languages, for translation is always interpretation. The way to “transport” Buddhism into the West is mostly not through translation, but by imitation and through remapping, into our own experience, culture, and language, the experiences, deep philosophy, views, and yogic insights that are at the root of Buddhist attitudes and practices.

I want to help people, and I want Buddhism to be available and useful. But more than that, I want to present Buddhism as accurately and responsibly as I can and if people understand it, that is good, and if they don’t, well, I just have to keep trying to be as true to my understanding and experience as I can.

Sugata: How do you present the traditional teachings of Zen?

Baker Roshi: At Crestone Mountain Zen Center we have a very traditional zendo. We do the ancient practice of sitting together for three months—ninety days. It is called ango, which in Japanese means “dwelling in peace.” And if this form has been good enough for a thousand years—in conception it goes back to the way Buddha taught summer retreats in the mountains out of the heat and rain—then it is good enough for me.

Sugata: That does sound very conservative—that its value is established by the past.

Baker Roshi: Well, this form of practice was developed over many centuries by the best minds in those generations. And I find it is so subtle, deep, and revelatory, that I am simply in awe of it. Physical stabilization can be developed through daily zazen. But mental stabilization and the weaving together of body and mind is the practice of the three-month practice period. Three months is not very long for such a great ease. And of course, three months is only the seed and the first taste.

Sugata: And you also do shorter practice periods?

Baker Roshi: If I do a sesshin, it is for seven days. Sesshin means a “gathering of the mind.” And that is a process that takes time—for entry into meditation, abandonment and release of yourself, and two or three days for integration and then for return into our usual mind. There is no such thing as a “one-day” sesshin. Shorter durations of practice are valid, but they have to be conceived and implemented differently from a sesshin.

Sugata: How has your role as teacher changed in the fast ten years?

Baker Roshi: One of the big differences is that at San Francisco Zen Center I never said that I was the teacher. I always said that everyone was a Zen Center student. I felt that was modest and accurate and so forth. But the fact is, if I had said, “Hey, I am the teacher, and these people are my students,” I would have then concluded that I can’t have four hundred dokusan students—and eventually hundreds more. I would not have had more than twenty—or certainly less than I did. Also, I didn’t deal with the projections or the responsibility that comes when you are teaching, when the students are relating to you as a teacher.

Sugata: And now?

Baker Roshi: Now I make clear that I am the teacher. Before I never would do that. And I don’t encourage people to become students the way I used to. At one time I accepted nearly everybody who asked. I had a kind of idealistic, pure idea that everybody can become enlightened, everyone should have a chance, that Buddhism can be made to work for everyone—at least almost everyone. I had a kind of American, democratic idealism that was, in fact, pretty naive and simplistic. Now I am more tired, or a bit more realistic, so if somebody comes up to me and says, “Oh, I loved your seminar, and I’m ready to give up my job and my spouse and all. . .” I say, “Oh no, please, don’t give up anything” [laughter], because I know now that their expectations will in part be measured—often exponentially—by what they think they gave up. Too many expectations is not good for practice.

Sugata: It’s been ten years now since you left San Francisco Zen Center. What’s your perspective on that situation now?

Baker Roshi: I don’t think that the gossipy or official versions of what happened are right, but I feel definitely that if I were back in the situation again as the person I am now, it wouldn’t have happened. Which means it’s basically my fault. I had a kind of insecurity and self-importance, which I didn’t see for a long time, that was a bad dynamic in the community.

I have much more feeling now for what it must have been like to be a student at Zen Center when I was the head, and how difficult that was for some people. I didn’t have a feeling for it before because I only saw my own motivations and I only trusted my motivations. The problem with that is, I didn’t see how that affected others. So I didn’t really have sympathy for people. Or empathy.

Sugata: What did you learn from that experience?

Baker Roshi: The Zen Center situation in San Francisco is so complex, still complex—that’s why people are mixed up—that it’s not easy to say what I learned, because what I learned is also complex. It is as hard to say what I have learned as it is to say what happened. But I definitely haven’t stopped working on integrating what happened. I have never tried to heal it, patch it over.

Sugata: Aren’t patching it over and healing quite different?

Baker Roshi: Well, sometimes the attitude is to put it aside. Sometimes the psychological model of healing, which doesn’t really exist in Buddhism the same way, is like healing a wound. You heal a wound, but you don’t heal a garden, you cultivate a garden. For me, to heal it would be to put it aside and say, Eventually it’s going to be all mended and there will be a little scar, and that’s all. I don’t ever want to get healed. I want to stay open and raw to that situation and to the present. Although I don’t always live there—in that wound.

Sugata: You don’t want it resolved?

Baker Roshi: Resolved, yes, but not healed over in the sense of not feeling it anymore. The outer situation can be solved in reconciliation and healing. That would be great. But inside me I’m not trying to get rid of the pain or suffering there. I just don’t live in it all the time. The fact is, I committed myself to those people as deeply as to my own family. In many ways I sacrificed my per­sonal family to the practice and development of the community. And that commitment was for twenty years or more. There is no way I can take that out of me. And so it’s very painful for me to not have connections to these people and see them develop and see myself develop in relationship to them, because they are part of me, I feel part of them. I think that’s part of the prob­lem for them, that maybe that is to some extent true for them too. It’s definitely true for me.

Sugata: You want to keep it raw?

Baker Roshi: Yes, I do.

Sugata: Why?

Baker Roshi: Because everything that has happened to me I want to remain part of my life. I don’t have to live in the rawness. I can live in the various places in myself. I let it be what it is. All the stuff of my life I live in the midst of, and I live in it quite well. As well as I can, anyway.

Sugata: While there was a lot of criticism of your role at Zen Center; some people felt critical of the students as well, that they, the community, did not see the process through with you. What do you think of this?

Baker Roshi: Well [laughing], I didn’t make it too easy for them. I was struggling with trying to understand what was happening and unwilling to see any side but my own until I understood my own—and my own was accepted too. Then later—fairly recently—I saw I was caught in the idea of justice as a kind of vanishing point, or hierarchical projection point, that organized all my values and mental structures. A few years ago that orga­nizing point (which I couldn’t see around) shifted to acceptance. As soon as that happened, I felt an enor­mous relief. The material remains pretty much the same, but the way I see it has opened up. Compassion based on acceptance is very different from compassion based on justice.

I said to a friend recently, “Looking back, I can see that I was pretty much a complete asshole. Sometimes I think I didn’t know what was going on at all.” He said, “Well, that’s not true, but there must be some things you didn’t see—but then, how could you see everything?” I said, “Okay, but still I had deep flaws which made me deeply inconsiderate of others. It wasn’t my intention, that I know, but I was unwilling and unable to see my flaws too.”

Sugata: Many Europeans think that generally in the United States students go too easily from one teacher to the other and don’t see how truly mutual the teaching relationship is.

Baker Roshi: [laughing] What do you want me to say? It is almost always better to stay with a pretty good teacher (not a bad teacher, of course) over a long period of time than to be with ten really great teachers occasionally. And, as you imply, it is important to understand that the real teacher is not the teacher—the teacher as a sep­arate realized person—but the relationship that is estab­lished, that can be established and sustained, between teacher and apprentice. It is not the “A” or “B,” but “AB/BA” that is essential. In this, the apprentice is at least fifty percent of the relationship. No, both are one hundred percent.

A friend, the writer and teacher George Leonard, says we need patience for the long, flat, sometimes declin­ing slopes of the learning curve. And then too there are Winterzweige [winter branches]. You know how branches look pretty dead in the winter, but in the sky of spring the branches burst forth in blossoms and sub­tle shades? Sometimes a lineage looks dead or dormant through several generations, yet it may still be passing the entire sap of the teaching. And then in auspicious circumstances, the lineage may visibly blossom in some disciple. Well, each of us needs to be the spring for some teacher. If you nourish a lineage, if you nourish the teachings, with your life, everything blossoms. It’s much better to be in for this long learning curve, because so much of Buddhism is only absorbed through incuba­tion. You learn it over a period of time with somebody, maturing the conditions for enlightening states of mind and being. Suzuki Roshi is still the main companion I have today.

What is important is doing things one hundred per­cent—not containing them in “correctness” or meas­ured states of mind. We should just do our relationship with our teacher one hundred percent, that’s all. Do everything as if it were the best. At this moment. As it is. This is to practice completeness. In that way, we hold up our end of the teachings. And somebody else will do something else—and hold up their end. That’s the only thing to do.

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