Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center

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9781582431130: Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center

Words not normally associated with contemplative practice exploded from the headlines when a series of interconnected scandals rocked San Francisco Zen Center.

By the late 1970s, San Francisco Zen Center had -under the spiritual leadership of its founder, Shunryu Suzuki, and his Dharma heir, Richard Baker-grown to be hugely successful, accruing wealth, property, and prestige, its aesthetics tinged with the glamour of celebrity. Zen Center's holdings included Tassajara Hot Springs near Big Sur, Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, a clothing company, and a bakery. The Tassajara Bread Book was riding the best-seller lists and Greens, its wildly successful upscale vegetarian restaurant on the San Francisco Bay, was inspiring an entire generation of restaurant professionals. Hundreds of students who had come to dedicate their lives to Zen practice, to reinventing Buddhism in America, found themselves serving dinner to the famous: Linda Ronstadt, then-Governor Jerry Brown, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Bateson, Paul Hawken, Ken Kesey, Stewart Brand. For a long moment, Zen Center seemed to be the hot core of the counterculture.

Then a sex scandal rocked Zen Center and brought into question Baker's abuse of power and spiritual authority. And before Zen Center had a chance to recover, Baker's replacement as Abbott was arrested for brandishing a handgun at the door of a neighbor's house. The repercussions were so profound as to call some to question the entire matter of alternative religious practice in America. Was this jewel of the counterculture fated to dissolve in a meltdown of its own making?

Michael Downing has spent the past three years studying Zen Center documents and interviewing more than eighty people who were there, at ground zero. Every person who had a role in these events has a singular point of view, and as these multiple tellings are woven together we see a truth as coherent and complicated as Indra's net-a web in which each intersection of thread holds a jewel that reflects all the other jewels at all the other intersections. As engaging as any mystery, as mysterious as any political campaign, as political as any family gathering, this story will haunt and challenge its readers as they attempt to make their own sense of what really happened.

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Review:

Why did the richest, most influential, highest flying Zen center in America crash and burn in 1983? Novelist Michael Downing wondered the same thing, and after three years of interviewing members and poring over documents, his Shoes Outside the Door tells the story. Womanizing, BMW-driving Richard Baker was the abbot and visionary behind the rapid growth of the San Francisco Zen Center, but in many ways he was the antithesis of his teacher and predecessor, the inimitable and revered Shunryu Suzuki, who would choose the bruised apples out of compassion. After the early death of Suzuki, a blind and driven cult formed around Baker, seemingly filling the void until this "Dick Nixon of Zen" finally slept with his best friend's wife and brought his world crashing to the ground. Working with direct quotations from students and workers of the Center and its many enterprises, Downing delivers a page-turning exposé of a community that is as laudable as it is laughable. And as an outsider to both the community and Buddhism, he does it with wit and an even hand. --Brian Bruya

About the Author:

Michael Downing is the author of four novels, Breakfast with Scot, Perfect Agreement, Mother of God, and A Narrow Time, and a play, "The Last Shaker." He teaches creative writing at Tufts University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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