Sunday, January 20, 2013

Shoes Outside The Door (Book Review)

Shoes Outside The Door (Book Review)

The photo above captures something about the split in idealism about the spiritual life (bottom), and what it's really like (top). Buddhism is about seeing how things really are. Disillusionment is good, you are taking your blinders off. You can always recover your true motivation if it's been hijacked by illusions. Maybe the top one is more beautiful because it is more true. We need our ideals to move us forward, but they are just carrots, and they can mislead us when reality doesn't jive with it.

This book made me think of a lot of things, it's about complications, multiple viewpoints, and displays a rich reality about many thing, and my review will in some ways mirror it's messy inclusiveness.

Michael Downing is the author of many books, and is on the faculty of Tufts. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Centerwas published in 2001, and has 385 pages, without footnotes, or index.

Through tape recorded interviews, Downing puts together a portrait of a sangha, that includes a meteoric rise through a charismatic but flawed leader Richard Baker at the San Francisco Zen Center. Other teachers are discussed, including Reb Anderson. At the beginning, the writing style is too much tilted towards a teaser, to my taste, but soon enough he's into the story, or setting the background and conditions for the 1983 resignation of Richard Baker, and the aftermath. In a way that's a focus point in the book, but when I read it I'm also thinking about developing a sangha, and Zen culture. I have seen the movie about Edward Espe Brown, How to Cook Your Life. He's famous for his cookbook, which the story mentioned he only got 20% of profits, the rest going to the center. (I reviewed the movie.)

At the heart of the story is the life of Shunryu Suzuki, who's lectures Zen Mind, Beginners Mind is a classic. I've read it many times, and will reread again. My memory of it is to try and be present in the moment by not thinking so much, but by just bringing a beginner's mind to things. I struggle with the anti-thinking way Zen comes off. Thinking is very important, and as my teacher says, you transcending thinking by pushing through and developing thinking, not by avoiding it. My fear is this Zen teachings sometimes subtly suggest avoiding thinking instead of going through and transcending thinking. Here is a quote from the ZMBM:

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means "beginner's mind." The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner's mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.

When I read that this book was from recordings an obscure disciple made, who died of cancer, I thought of Suvarnaprabha, who has a cancer blog.

Shunryu Suzuki's own son inherited his temple back in Japan, and he worried this was not good for Zen. Transmission was essentially about families, not necessarily about the Dharma. Suzuki died in 1971.

Dainin Katagiri is included in this story. I read a book by one of his disciples about him, Dosho Port, who has a good blog.

Gary Snyder is also someone interviewed for the book. He is a treasure of a poet, including No Nature: New and Selected Poems. Also Philip Whalen is part of the story and many others, who I need to look into.

The journalist, just trying to understand what is going on, is a familiar kind of Buddhist account. One strand of this book reminded me of The Buddha from Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction, about a charismatic teacher that was recognized as a Tulku.

The book is about a bunch of people who sought to practice Zen Buddhism in San Fran from 1960's to 2000. The stories of how people came, how they were treated, what their experience was, what made them move on, is fascinating.

The was well researched, well written, and it's a compelling story. It's sketchy about administration, there's a lot of general talk, but that's part of administration. You're never at a meeting in the book, but you meet people who never want to go to a meeting again. Sitting in on a meeting might be boring. The running of the center was a major part of the narrative. Mostly you feel there is objectivity, but when the writer pipes in, you feel like it's good to get to know him a little too. In a way this was like a soap opera, with rich vivid characters whom you became interested in. Downing isn't a believer, but he he's sympathetic enough. He never actually states what he believes in, which makes him a little Baker-like. At times something outrageous suggests a belief, but he never formulates it. Perhaps he didn't want to insert himself into the story more.

Also fascinating was how the 3 different centers worked together, the layers of administration, and the businesses that supported it. I think of the right livelihood business in the TBC. I think of Housings Work, Inc.'s book store, and thrift shops. I'm fascinated by these interlocking institutions that had a spiritual base to them. It's too bad, most of them in SFZC were sold off.

Richard Baker ended up using transmission as a carrot to get away with all kinds of shenanigans  which is surprising for a so-called spiritual teacher. It calls into mind questions about trasmission.

Suzuki's son, who was consulted at times, suggested that the teacher never run the place, and not have money, and just focus on teaching the students. Baker was a rain maker, a visionary, and a teacher. I've always thought a charismatic but flawed leader must be the one to start up a center. Is anyone not flawed? Life is messy business. I knew someone who worked for a visionary once, and she found it very tedious at times.

After Baker resigned, the question became "why did we tolerate all that." Literal mindedness and not hearing your own voice led to people being conned.

Richard Baker is compared to Chogyam Trungpa. Some say he was more honest because he didn't hide anything, the way Baker did. Others say Trungpa was more wild, than was possible in the confines of a Zen tradition. (I reviewed a movie about Trungpa.) It's especially apt when Baker takes the wife of a major patron as a lover, and holds her hands at a huge conference. That is the beginning of his downfall and people wonder if he was sabotaging things by acting that way. His narrative is mostly dismissed in the whole book, or trotted out to show how unthoughtful he was. If there's one point where the writer's ideas come through it's in his portrayal of Baker.

I've never met Baker, and I don't necessarily like him, but direct charisma is missing in the narrative. He discusses a few meetings with him, and he paints him as a materialistic guy who liked the finer things, and liked to run with the rich and famous people, who donated money or attention. Jerry Brown hangs out a lot at the Zen Center, but he doesn't meditate. Baker is supposed to walk to Tassajara from SF, as a kind of punishment for what he did, to refind himself, but he took a detour and went to Disney with Linda Ronstadt. That's probably the weirdest thing about Richard Baker to me. I'd love to sit sesshin with him. If I come across free talks, I'd listen to one, or at least start one to see if it was something I want to listen to.

My problem with Zen is that it filters Buddhism through a foreign culture. Don't get me wrong, I love Japan, and find it a lovely country, which I could study endlessly. If I want to chant in a foreign language, I want it to be Pali or Sanskrit. Not Japanese. The historical Buddha was never in Japan. I think it's cool that Japan is a Buddhist country, but I don't think that in America we have to do things necessarily the way the Japanese do. Maybe we could develop an American Buddhism. Maybe we can find out own way, inspired by Japan, Tibet, India, Sikkim, Thailand, and all the great Buddhist countries, but still not just adopting another culture under the guise that it's Buddhist. I prefer to practice essential Buddhism, not cultural Buddhism. Buddhism passes through many cultures, and in America, we can create our own Buddhist culture. Buddhism has a sense that it will coalesce with circumstances. At least make it a western Buddhism for me. That is what I love about the TBC. Even though it's Victorian English at times, that's not so foreign to me. And I can chant things in English. I also chant things in Pali and Sanskrit, which is closer to the Buddha, though still removed. My mind revolts at chanting in Japanese. Since I wrote that, I should try it, I probably won't mind it at all. I do like chanting.

There's a long chapter on Greens, a restaurant my father and stepmother took me to many years ago, and got me the Somerville cookbook: Everyday Greens: Home Cooking from Greens, the Celebrated Vegetarian Restaurant. It's a beautiful, if pricey restaurant, with an interesting and rich history, which is told a little in the book. It has good views and is in an interesting development. My stepmother and father were pretty cool to pick that as something to do when I was visiting out there. They are so kind.

Literal thinking of lineage is a dead end; Inspiration and relationships are what's important. In the book there's a real question whether Reb got a full transmission, but I guess I feel "who cares". The way the book portrays lineage, it's just about maintaining and expanding power, not about deep practice and heart connections.

So it's hard to have a general feeling about the whole book, except it stirred up a lot for me, and I liked it more than I thought I would, approaching the book. I'd recommend reading it if you're interested in sangha politics and the history of SFZC.

A big question when reading a book for me is: Where does this book lead me next, what should my next book be? Do I read the book about Buddhism in America How the Swans Came to the Lake? Do I read Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It's a Problem, and What We All Can Do? I think what I really want to read is Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, which I already have. That contains some of the positive spiritual force that brought about what is coined as the first buddhist monastery in north america. I want to read Philip Whalen, he goes on my poetry list. I think I'll quick polish off a memoir by someone who grew up at Green Gulch from 3-7. This book suggests a lot of other books.

(They say you can't quote wikipedia in an academic research article, but this isn't an academic research article. I know that it's contents are open source, and you can go on line today and change the contents, but someone will turn around and just change it back quickly. I think it's the mother of all wiki. And I link sometimes in case someone is interested in source material, or just want to follow that interest. Linear narratives are so over with.)

Here is hyperlink an account of a visit to the SF Zen Center. An acquaintance had an interesting experience, which he wrote about.

There were a lot of interesting views about what happened in this multi-determined book, but here is a little of the author's voice, which is used very sparingly. Supposedly often in the TBC the founder of a center is autocratic, and things are more democratic after they leave. The author is into hearing everyone's voice, so naturally he's not like Richard, at least in creating this work. Is someone who impresses their will on others oppressive, or they're just a kind of Ayn Rand superman? To a certain extent, the author weighs in by including many voices, which makes for a great narrative.

End: Here is hyperlink an account of a visit to the SF Zen Center. An acquaintance had an interesting experience, which he wrote about.

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