Shoes Outside the Door:
Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center
Counterpoint: Washington, DC, 2001
448 pp.; $26.00 (cloth)
Michael Downing’s Shoes Outside the Door is an account of San Francisco Zen Center’s growth from a small circle of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s students into one of the largest and most culturally significant centers of Zen Buddhism in America. While Downing seeks not to make the much-publicized scandals of 1983 the primary focus of the book, his lengthy narrative returns to them repeatedly in the telling of the history of Zen Center—and the rise and fall of Suzuki’s charismatic heir, Richard Baker Roshi.
The title of the book is a reference to the shoes of a female Zen student that were discovered outside the door of Richard Baker’s private cabin at Tassajara. The cabin was one of several homes belonging to Baker, who, as the center’s abbot in 1983, held residential quarters at all three of its institutions: the main City Center on San Francisco’s Page Street; the Tassajara monastery, a training temple primarily for ordained students as well as a retreat center/hot springs resort during the off-season; and Green Gulch, a farm in Marin County oriented toward lay practice.
In 1983, no other Buddhist organization in America owned such vast properties, with hundreds of members participating in a holistic vision of Buddhist practice (city/country, monastic/lay, meditative/engaged). The organization was largely self-supporting. In addition to its three main practice facilities, Zen Center owned and operated several businesses, including a restaurant and a bakery, which, by the early eighties, brought in several million dollars a year in revenue. The influence of the center, and particularly that of Richard Baker, extended into the political realm. Then-governor Jerry Brown, for instance, and members of his staff were frequent guests. By most accounts, Zen Center was an unqualified success, a measure of what Buddhism could achieve in America. There were problems, however. Some of them were to be expected in light of the center’s dramatic growth and the ambiguities of a semi-lay, semi-monastic arrangement; others were specific to Richard Baker’s style of leadership and his alleged financial and sexual improprieties.
The discovery of the student’s shoes outside Richard Baker’s cabin, and the subsequent revelation of their affair (both were married at the time), opened up a Pandora’s box of resentment and uncertainty about the conduct of the spiritual and organizational leader of Zen Center, especially regarding what were considered to be his extravagant spending habits, celebrity lifestyle, and autocratic control of the organization. Other members of the community came forward to acknowledge that Richard Baker had sexualized the teacher-student relationship. Readers of Downing’s book will hear many voices chronicling the details of these accusations and counter-accusations, including those of almost all of the subsequent abbots of Zen Center as well as many longtime practitioners.
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