Placed next to the appalling ego circuses of Eastern gurus such as Sai Baba or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the goings-on at Zen Center were pretty tame fare. But the real lure of Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center (Counterpoint; 385 pages) isn't the abuses and failings it chronicles, so much as the fact that they happened in the ever-elusive, and ever-alluring, world of Zen. Of all the Far Eastern spiritualities that Americans began importing as replacements for their own moribund faiths in the '60s and '70s, Zen has always been the favorite to actually survive the trip and work a genuine change upon the American psyche. So unorthodox is Zen in its very orthodoxy, so hyperdistilled and culturally neutral are its tenets (when it admits to having any at all), that it is the obvious candidate for a metaspirituality immune to the corruptions that always seem to end up plaguing religious institutions and their all-too-human members.
The only problem with this way of thinking is that Zen never really was such a pure beast, even before America got its hands on it. One of the hardest things for many of the Americans who fell in love with Zen in the '60s and '70s to accept was that Zen didn't grow grubby with its arrival on American shores—it was that way already. While Zen insights may transcend the limits of culture, Zen as an organized religion doesn't, and never did. Zen is a school of Buddhism, and organized Buddhism is an institution—a product created amid the sludge and ambiguity of history by human beings with human failings (even if the best of these individuals might have suffered from rather fewer of those failings than most of us do).
Michael Downing, the author of four novels, including Breakfast With Scot, was an outsider to Buddhism before beginning the three years of research that went into his latest effort. With a newcomer's sense of discovery, Downing lays out the crowded, complex and extremely unlikely story of how the San Francisco Zen Center became the first genuine Buddhist institution ever established outside of Asia, and how it transformed from a roomful of earnest protohippies trying their hand at an exotic religious practice into what, for a time at least, was arguably the single most significant center of alternative spirituality in America.
Downing begins in 1961, when Shunryu Suzuki, a quirky but brilliant monk in Japan's Soto Zen lineage, hung out a shingle in one of San Francisco's bohemian neighborhoods offering instruction in zazen. Unlike Rinzai Zen, which uses intellectual methods like koans to free the mind from itself, Soto Zen has few features that are susceptible to coffeehouse dilettantism. Zazen, the Soto school's central practice, is a unique method of wordless, thoughtless "just sitting," in which the mind seeks to become as empty as a puddle reflecting a cloudless sky. It is demanding, frustrating and not for the easily bored. It turned out to be just what many of the more energetic and sincere young people on the hunt for answers in post-Beat, prehippie San Francisco were looking for. Suzuki soon had a small coterie of serious young disciples, and the San Francisco Zen Center was officially born a year later, in 1962.
One of the first of Suzuki's visitors was a charismatic but rudderless young Harvard dropout named Richard Baker. Baker soon became Suzuki's primary student and confidant, and through their combined charms and abilities, the center grew from a shoestring institution with a handful of members and an annual budget of around $2,000 to something of a mini empire. At the height of its popularity and influence in the '70s, Zen Center's assets included a best-selling cookbook, a hugely popular vegetarian restaurant, and Tassajara, the first American Buddhist monastery, located amid rugged, gorgeous forestland 240 km south of San Francisco.
Jumping from year to year and narrator to narrator in a patchwork style that mirrors his cluttered subject matter, Downing chronicles the predictable drift from the heady promise of Zen Center's early days to the sourness and disillusionment that followed its growth into a spiritual brand name. As Zen Center's membership and renown increased, so too did Baker's sense of self-importance and entitlement. In 1971, Suzuki died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 69. Before he did so, he established Baker as his sole American dharma heir, making him the uncontestable arbiter of Zen Center's fate. The honor did nothing to curb Baker's more questionable character traits. "In a time when we had very little money," one Zen Center member tells Downing, "he thought nothing of spending $20,000 on a statue that he happened to like. He loved objects ... He liked objects in the way someone else likes a man or a woman—he got erotically charged about things."
Procuring such objects only got easier for Baker as the years went by. Zen was now a business, and a booming one. The center's droves of eager young disciples turned out to be the next best thing to slave labor as they were willing to work tirelessly for almost no money as part of their spiritual training. Female acolytes ready to have sex with Zen Center's new master were another perquisite of Baker's office. Driving a white BMW and consorting with the likes of Jerry Brown and Linda Rondstadt, Baker grew increasingly out of touch with the center's early, earthy spirit, and ever more adept at concealing or justifying his behavior with an arsenal of Zen-style obfuscations and semantic tricks.
Then, in 1983, a full-fledged sex scandal involving the wife of one of Zen Center's supporters plunged Baker and his institution into a long, ugly drama of accusations and recriminations so far-reaching that they ended up sullying the ideals of all of American alternative spirituality. By narrative's end, Baker is in many ways scarcely distinguishable from the long, sad list of other modern con men-cum-spiritual masters who started out well-intentioned but became damagingly seduced by the prestige and power that their legitimate abilities had earned for them.
Downing hunted down and talked to many people—there are a few moments when it feels like too many—to tell this story, and he tells it with a deft combination of gravitas and chattiness. Baker himself is heard from frequently, though his remarks aren't always all that satisfying. Is he a complex and tormented visionary, a sage victimized by his own abilities or just another jerk in ceremonial robes? Ultimately, Downing leaves the decision to the reader. There are really no completely clean, morally unambiguous figures in Downing's story—and that includes even Shunryu Suzuki himself, who, wise and lovable as he might have been, certainly suffered from his own distinctive set of follies and foibles. Evangelizing America, it turns out, was only part of the master's plan. He also nurtured the somewhat grandiose dream of using his new American followers to help him revitalize Zen in Japan itself, where empty formalism and corruption were increasingly becoming the norm. By almost all accounts, Suzuki's choice to leave Baker as his only legitimate American dharma heir was a disaster, and Suzuki himself even seemed to be aware of this fact beforehand. Why, then, did he insist on doing so? Keeping the enormous enterprise of Zen Center going, Suzuki knew, would require the abilities of a fund-raising Svengali, and he may have overlooked flaws in Baker of which he was perfectly well aware because Baker was so good at roping in the support of the rich, the famous and the powerful. Then again, Downing's interviewees explain, Suzuki may have meant to give dharma transmission to other members but simply not got around to doing so. Sometimes, there's just no getting to the bottom of what these Zen masters do.
That Zen got off to such a rocky start in America isn't really such bad news as Downing and his subjects sometimes intimate it is. If the insights made available by a spiritual institution are separate—and bigger—than the imperfect individuals who achieve and transmit them, that means they're still valid even after those individuals lose the thread and mess up. American Zen, that peculiar hybrid of Japanese and American sensibilities that was planted on California's shores in the '60s by Suzuki, Baker and others, may have been damaged by the scandals and embarrassments that Downing chronicles, but that's a far cry from saying it was done in by them.
The San Francisco Zen Center is part of a story that is still very much in its infancy. As one member put it of Zen Center's early days: "We knew what we were doing, but we really didn't know what we were doing." Whatever eventually becomes of Buddhism in America, the fact that such a disparate group of ragged, countercultural anybodies could—through naiveté, prescience or some combination of the two—manage to engineer Zen's establishment as a living practice as well and as swiftly as they did remains something of a miracle.
"I'm sure," the poet Gary Snyder remarked, "the Japanese are mind-boggled by the historical accident that American bohemians became the caretakers of Zen in the West." In the sections of his book where he celebrates this mind-boggling aspect of the story, Downing shows that the things that went right at Zen Center are in the end much more important than all that went so sadly, and so predictably, wrong.