May 10th, 2007

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.

thinking about tithing

No, I won't be tithing. Come on. Work with me here.

The Mormons have a lot of money. More than any other church in the US per capita, if I recall the quote from the recent documentary correctly. They really, really, really urge tithing. They also have a church welfare system, both for members and disasters (presumably it's part of outreach, but it's hard to be cynical in the face of how much they've done post-Katrina).

SFZC, in the wake of Richerd's departure, unwound most of the businesses that he had built up. (I'm still trying to track down whether that was Baker quoted in USA about finding stuff for all these people to do. I _think_ it was, but I've loaned it out.) There were a whole host of reasons for doing this, not least of which were tax implications. They realized they'd been operating in a very grey area not paying taxes on all this stuff and getting out of it would be easier than most of the alternatives. Under Baker, income and expenses grew very high; the first balanced budget occurred well after his departure, at about half the level of the peak. And of course that income has always included lots and lots of donations, big and small.

But when they were land o' zen slaves, they had a lot of people getting room, board, no benefits (no health insurance, no saving for the kids' college, etc. -- well, other than for Baker) and tiny, tiny, tiny stipends, and working jobs for SFZC. When they did the math, they figured that each hour worked by one of these slaves returned $2.89 to the center. Was that a donation or not? Whatever the case may be, they decided there's no way the slave would, say, live life non-residential, working some regular job for some secular person, and give $2.89 of whatever they made to the center. I inferred that they also thought that $2.89/hour/slave was chump change. Was it?

If someone were tithing pre-tax, they'd be making $28.90/hour to return that much. Call it $30. Multiply that by 2000 to get a full time job. That's $60K a year. I'm betting that's not anything like what those people were capable of making "on the outside". By unwinding the slavery operation, SFZC got rid of a set up that made them more money per person than a 10% tithe (10% of gross is the official LDS tithe, altho there is a lot of weasel room there).

I'm not saying that SFZC should have maintained their slavery operation. There were solid reasons for getting rid of it. But here are some additional comments on the subject. Several of the people who lived at SFZC (including Green Gulch and Tassajara) grumbled about no health insurance, no retirement plan, etc., but of course once you start paying all the expenses of a middle-class life, there isn't going to be anything left over to support the organization, much less enough to let you work part time so you have more time to practice zazen. This stipend/no-bennies/you're on your own when you leave/are kicked out is exactly the same deal at Jehovah's Witnesses "volunteer" run operations like Bethel (including, like SFZC, their farming operations).

I found myself wondering. Was there something in the air in the early '80s? That whole thing at Bethel about Franz leaving, and 607 B.C. not holding up and word getting out and the restructuring of the organization. That all happened right around when the Apocalypse was happening at SFZC. There's nothing particularly similar about the structure of either breakdown or what triggered it or anything like that.

But they do share one thing. The sincerity of a number of people at a relatively high level, when confronted with something they could no longer deny, triggered a massive crisis for an institution that had previously been able to paper over all their difficulties. Both institutions survived, albeit in a reduced form. I think SFZC did a much better job cleaning house and power-sharing in the aftermath. But then, I don't know very much about SFZC, so I'm probably completely wrong.