walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Shoes Outside the Door

A few weeks ago, when I was culling non-fiction, I ran across _Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center_ by Michael Downing. Years ago I had bought and been not overly impressed by Ed Brown's _Tassajara Bread Book_. Around the same time, I'd eaten at Greens and been impressed, once again, how shockingly hard it can be for me to get a filling meal at an ovo-lacto vegetarian restaurant (by the time the milk products are removed, there just isn't much left because all of the fat has been removed, taking with it the calories). It's difficult to recall at this point in time if I read anything by Shunryu Suzuki (certainly I owned at read some of D.T. Suzuki's books). _Shoes_ did an amazing job of connecting all of these experiences.

There are several really great moments in this book. The bit where Bill Kwong says (paraphrasing) change is food in the bowl. I spent the next hour or so (while my reading was interrupted by the kid) thinking about how while that is really great, it is not a great analogy for a person over time, altho it seems to be. Conveniently enough, a parenthetical section in chapter 15 helps out with this -- from Shunryu Suzuki himself -- about ego, time and change. Towards the end of that, Suzuki says, "to strengthen your own ego means to have your own practice, to live in your own world and let everything live in its own world, and let everything have its own position. That is true mercy. To keep a dog in your home is not always to love the dog." And I gotta say, what a lovely little quote. And how obnoxiously clever of Downing to bury it in a parenthetical remark that he advises the reader to skip over as it will induce vertigo.

Flip side being, it explains all of the problems with the massive institutional apparatus of San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara and Green Gulch.

The Americans get a lot of advice that they don't follow, which is appropriate, because Zen is one continuous mistake. Suzuki more-or-less tells Baker not to make it so big. Hoitsu (whose father, it is apparent, did not appreciate him at all -- but then, his mother said repeatedly that Suzuuki was a bad husband and father so we cannot really be surprised) tells them to split it up into its components and otherwise shrink it. He's quite emphatic that teachers should be teachers and not given very many resources.

It is great that by the end of the story, so many of Suzuki's followers have (finally!) gone out and started their own practice.

The structure of the book is clearly intended to reflect Downing's understanding of zen (a point which evaded several of the zen practitioners who posted reviews on Amazon). It is, therefore, frustrating, confusing, highly involving and (depending on the reader) enlightening (some readers, presumably, are far too enlightened to get anything further out of this book). The nature of the story (charismatic leader's fall from grace and the institution he created's successful struggle to "survive" afterwards) is fascinating. Sure, Baker sounds like a sociopath. Yes, he engaged in a whole lot of really creepy information control and generally abused his position of power. It's particularly weird (and not really directly addressed in the book, other than the discussion of the definition of Abbot, located in two different spots) how the expectations of the followers (based on Christian religious orders) shaped the development of the institution in ways that blindsided the leader. If it really _had_ been what Baker thought he'd made it, he could not have been kicked out, altho there might -- or might not -- have been a mass exodus. If it had been a "cult" in the more usual sense, it would have collapsed in the aftermath of the charismatic leader's fall from grace. But it was nothing of the sort.

Other than people who love a great sex-scandal and/or want to know what the heck happened to that segment of the counterculture around 1983 and American Buddhists in general, would I recommend this to anyone? Maybe. The way Downing talks about his interviews is fascinating. He says -- repeatedly -- he didn't want to talk about The Apocalypse (Baker's downfall in 1983). He wanted to talk about the development of SFZC in the 1970s. But no matter who he talked to, and no matter what they said they wanted to not talk about, everything kept coming back to these events. And he does a fantastic job of showing you how perspectives differed from person to person and over time. Because people knew he was working on this book, and because it took him a long time to write it, it is not a stretch to think he may have had an impact on further efforts at reconciliation.

Anyone who is charismatic and has discovered to their chagrin that they had a lot more influence than they realized -- and did inadvertent harm as a result -- could learn a lot from reading this. Anyone who has watched everyone around them be completely suckered by a charismatic leader might, or might not, be pleased to learn they are not alone. Anyone who has put their faith in a person and/or institution and been sorely tested in that faith but nevertheless persisted in trying to make something good out of the experience might find solace here.

If you're human, and you can hear what Downing has to say, this is great stuff. But the presentation is a little rough going at times.
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