Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing
Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center

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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.

About Michael Downing

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Downing teaches creative writing at Tufts University.
Published October 1, 2001 by Counterpoint Press. 384 pages
Genres: History, Religion & Spirituality. Non-fiction

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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.

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In the '60s, before the Beatles made their turn to the psychedelic, before Ram Dass became Ram Dass, before Allen Ginsberg went Zen, before most people understood anything at all about the mysticism and questing spiritual life of the East, there was the San Francisco Zen Center.

Jan 23 2011 | Read Full Review of Shoes Outside the Door: Desir...

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