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Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center Paperback – September 3, 2002

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Editorial Reviews 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This intense investigation/indictment from novelist Downing (Breakfast with Scot, etc.) uncovers the alleged abuses of power of Richard Baker, former abbot of the nation's most influential Zen center. Downing devoted three years to exploring how and why Baker, the only Dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), was toppled from the abbacy of SFZC by popular demand in 1983. He interviewed more than 80 participants in Baker's rise and fall, not including the disgraced abbot himself, who sent Downing a letter explaining his position. Downing tells the story with a novelist's attention to character and detail, and what unfolds is a gripping account of how the bright and charismatic Baker helped Suzuki and Zen gain a foothold in the West; took over SFZC; expanded its activities dramatically (by, among other initiatives, creating the fabled Greens restaurant); grew increasingly alienated from his followers while surrounding himself with celebrities and physical luxury; and finally stumbled by having an affair with the wife of one of SFZC's main backers. The problem with the book, and it's a serious one, is that Downing takes sides; for example, he refutes point by point the text of Baker's letter to him. What might have been a grand account of the making of a tragedy, then, is instead a mitigated tale of villainy. Yet because the debacle at SFZC holds lessons for anyone who cares about how religious structures, perforce hierarchical, can and should operate within a democratic society, this book deserves a wide reading, and not only by the many Buddhists who will buy it lickety-split.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint (September 3, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582432546
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582432540
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #730,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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82 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Maggie the Cat on February 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I'm in a different position from some of the other reviewers because I was there. Speaking from that perspective, the book is dead on accurate. It is not (only) the salacious story which compells, it is the unanswered questions, questions which, I believe, most people who went through the whole thing have to continue to ask themselves. There is a deep human need to give up our hearts completely to something/someone, and in this case, this need was manipulated and abused. This is a simultaneously old and fresh story. How was it that a man convinced highly intelligent well-educated Americans to treat him like a god come to earth? Presidents and movie stars don't get the heroically self-abasing treatment Dick Baker got from his students. Baker is a remarkable person, a genuine Zen master without a moral mirror of any kind. He still can't figure out what he did wrong.
It was enormously educational to be at Zen Center just before the Debacle. In all my varied life, I have never been in a more confusing place. Nothing seemed to add up, and I put it down to my lack of spiritual attainment. It's true I didn't have much of the latter, but that wasn't the confusion. It was that the whole place was a nest of lies and delusions. That came out later.
The amazing and hopeful part of the story is not really stressed in the book. And that is, Zen Center is alive and well. They took a situation which has destroyed many spiritual practice centers, and they survived and learned. That is a tribute to the deep moral and spiritual treasure of the committed students which are still there. If it wasn't for them, no one would bother to tell that old story.
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53 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Reed Malcolm on November 1, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The publishers of this of this book would probably like prospective readers to think that it's a story about sex, greed, and...well...more sex. It's not. Shoes Outside the Door is more like reading about a couple's messy divorce. Who's wrong and who's right depends on who you talk to, while no one is completely free of blame. But like most failed marriages, sex, money and inexperience are at the root of the break up---a split that would topple a Zen community and become legendary on the gossip circuit.
San Francisco Zen Center was established in the early 1960's by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi (author of the classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind) and a group of American-born students hungry for the teachings of Buddhism. Within two decades SFZC would grow from a small handful of students, artists, and house wives to a virtual Zen serfdom. Operations included two large practice centers, a mountain monastery (which doubled as a guest resort), real estate, plus various businesses including a 5-star vegetarian restaurant, a bakery, and a clothing store. This growth explosion can largely be attributed to vision of one Richard Baker--the Harvard educated, dharma heir to Suzuki-roshi (who died in 1971), and arguably the most charismatic, smart, and ambitious of Suzuki's core students.
Baker had an uncanny ability to rally the troops. His passion for Zen was contagious, and so was his dream of building an extended Zen empire. Few could resist falling in line with his grand plans (plans Suzuki himself was not entirely keen on). In time SFZC would become the hang out for rock stars, politicians, writers, and other luminaries. The only problem was it was Baker who was doing most of the hanging out while others put in long hours of unpaid labor ("work practice").
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49 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Charles Vekert on April 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Buddhism is here to stay, and this book will have historical importance. It recounts the crisis that nearly destroyed the first Buddhist monastery ever built outside of Asia, in the 2,300 year history of that religion, after the death of its founder, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. I hope that the author will put his notes and taped interviews in some university library, since historians of religion will want to consult them in the coming centuries. Wouldn't scholars love to have first person accounts of the disputes mentioned in Acts of the Apostles between Peter and Paul about admitting gentiles to the Christian community?
When I first began to read about Buddhism in the early 70's, I thought that a Zen master was a type of saint. He or she could make mistakes, but was infinitely compassionate, above fleshy desires, and as enlightened as the Buddha. But facts in the last thirty years show that Zen masters (and teachers in other traditions) can be insensitive to others' needs, have plenty of desire, and have (so far as one can judge) less than perfect understanding. One can pass many koans or receive transmission from a certified Zen master and still be a jerk--or worse. This book documents the rise and fall of one such man, Richard Baker, the handpicked successor to Suzuki Roshi.
Baker, although married, had affairs with female students, ignored the monastic community to hobnob with the rich and famous, and started zen related businesses that, instead of providing money for the zen community, turned into money and time sponges only profitable because the monks provided practically free labor. People were working so hard in the businesses that they had little time or energy for meditation.
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