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.
But Shoes Outside the Door is not simply a narrative history; it raises the larger question of what constitutes the Americanization of Zen. Downing seems to suggest that the very questioning of the abbot’s absolute authority in 1983, which led to Baker’s resignation and, in due course, to the implementation of a more diffuse authority structure, was an integral aspect of the process of Americanization. He quotes people who describe a shift from a Japanese-style conception of authority, in which those invested with dharma transmission (such as Baker) held absolute authority, to a more American-style democratic system of leadership, in which co-abbots ensure checks and balances of power. In all fairness, however, Downing’s view of the Japanese system is far too simplistic. In both the Japanese monastic setting and in parish temples, with rare exception, the abbot in Japan has always had to contend with a multitude of checks and balances on his authority. In fact, in many Japanese temples, the chief lay parish representative (danka sodai) is more powerful than the temple abbot. Even in the case of major monasteries, by the late medieval period, the dominant system had become one of rotating abbots (rinban seido) in which abbots served in short-term capacities.
That said, Downing’s book does help introduce the complex background behind the development, after 1983, of an organization based less on charisma than on consensus-building. The fallout around Baker Roshi’s personal indiscretions brought into sharper focus issues of sex, monastic and lay practice, and the role of families in Zen communities. While American Zen practitioners faced the same issues prior to 1983, the maturing of Zen Center’s community (by the early eighties, many practitioners were supporting families, and doing so on meager work compensation) led to heightened tensions and closer scrutiny of leadership roles, bringing the entire model for practice into question.
Lay Zen Buddhists in Japan have always had the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of religious practices, but very few engage in the monastic or meditative practices so closely associated with Zen in America. The traditional hierarchical distinction between the monastic and lay was challenged in the American countercultural context of the sixties and seventies, and these practices came to be seen as not only viable for lay people but a normative aspect of American Zen. The San Francisco Zen Center experiment—which continues today—is a useful marker of how this lay-monastic issue might be worked out in America.
Shoes Outside the Door joins a growing list of works on Shunryu Suzuki and the San Francisco Zen Center, including Erik Fraser Storlie’s Nothing on My Mind: Berkeley, LSD, Two Zen Masters, and a Life on the Dharma Trail; and David Chadwick’s Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki and To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki. Downing’s book, however, is broader in scope; it provides both a history of and context for the events that culminated with the near-implosion of Zen Center in 1983. It includes Reb Anderson’s tenure as abbot and chronicles Richard Baker’s move to Santa Fe, Europe, and the mountains of Colorado in an attempt to reestablish his lineage. The final chapters delve into the various reconciliation attempts over the years between Zen Center and Richard Baker.
Since San Francisco Zen Center offers such valuable insights into the Zen experiment in America, the more accounts of it, the better. Although this book lacks the critical scholarly apparatus (such as footnotes and citations of secondary literature) that would be expected for accuracy and accountability, and although it sometimes reads too much like a novel strung together by a lengthy series of quotes, Downing’s work is a very important addition to the literature on American Zen and, more broadly, American Buddhism. ▼