Events Are the Teacher Working Through the Crisis at San Francisco Zen Center

Coevolution Quarterly. Winter 1983
By Katy Butler

“DO NOT BELIEVE IN in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Winter 1983

THIS PLEA FOR COMMON SENSE HAS BEEN HANDED down as the words of the Buddha, a man born in 560 B.C.E. in India, who studied with many teachers before finding his own way, through meditation, to enlightenment.

Last April 8, the day commemorated as Buddha’s birthday, Zentatsu Baker-roshi — abbot of San Francisco Zen Center and dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi and a line of teachers tracing back to the Buddha himself — was at Tassajara monastery near Big Sur, leading the intense meditation period called sesshin. At the same time, the sixteen members of the Board of Directors were sitting on chairs in a circle inside the center’s Zen Center’s Victorian guesthouse in the city. Three senior priests (a woman and two men) told the group that Baker-roshi had recently become sexually involved with a woman student. Her husband, whom Baker-roshi had described as his best friend, was extremely upset.

Each Board member then spoke slowly and carefully in turns around the circle. All came to know what some had known for years, and others had suspected. There had been at least two other affairs with women students, both of them damaging to the efforts of those women to practice Zen. For Blanche Hartman, a 58-year-old former chemist and statistician who had been ordained a priest by Baker-roshi, “The meeting was devastating. A sinking feeling in my stomach, like, I knew it was coming, and here it is. My life is smashed. Our life together is smashed. Something very precious in me is destroyed. At that point, I couldn’t see how we could continue.” It was a moment that changed Zen Center, I believe forever.

Yvonne Rand, another priest who was first introduced to Zen Center by Richard Baker, said of the meeting, “It seemed very clear that this was an event that was out of whack. For myself, my sense was that there was a real shift in authority which I don’t know how to describe in any other way but moral authority.”

THE BOARD MET AGAIN THE FOLLOWING DAY. The senior teaching priests, Lee Richmond and Reb Anderson, had met with Baker-roshi and brought back the news that he did not appear to understand how seriously the Board felt about the matter. At this meeting, Blanche Hartman began to understand that something had changed on the Board, which in the past had almost always acquiesced to Baker-roshi’s wishes. This time, nobody tried to explain away his actions. Nobody tried to ostracize those who were critical of him, as had happened so often through the previous twelve years.

Remembers Blanche, “I began having a sense of the commitment of the group, the unanimity of concern and care. It reassured me that this time, there wasn’t going to be any sweeping under the rug. We were going to face it together, and I wasn’t going to have to leave (Zen Center).”

Baker-roshi appeared at the next Board meeting, the following day, by invitation. He walked into the room where the priests and students sat on chairs in a circle, wearing their black robes. He knelt on the floor in seiza, a strong, formal zazen position, and began to explain. Yvonne Rand, who was chairing the meeting, asked him to sit in a chair like the rest of them, and to listen to what the Board had to say. At first, he remained in seiza and continued to try to explain. Yvonne asked again that he sit at their level. And again. Baker-roshi rose and sat on a chair.

Many Board members later fell that the meeting had come to an impasse. Baker-­roshi was “obviously distraught,” remembered Ed Brown, the author of the Tassajara Bread Book and co-manager of Greens, the highly-regarded vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco run by Zen Center.
Brown came away from the meeting with the feeling that their words had not really penetrated.

ONE BY ONE, BOARD MEMBERS spoke to Baker-roshi, the man who had been their teacher for twelve years, for whom many felt great gratitude.

They have since told me that they spoke of their own collusion in allowing him to become so removed from feedback. Said Blanche Hartman, “It was something we had done together; something we had to straighten out together. In the middle of a lot of anger, we knew it had to be done with a sense of right speech.”

Blanche, and others, apologized to this man who had spent so many years trying to practice Zen and to lead this relatively young Buddhist community. “I told him I thought it had been doing him no service to say nothing about my suspicions. It was a mistake to protect him from the consequences of his own consequential actions,” she said.

Another Board member said to Baker-roshi, “Listen. Please just listen.”
Said Yvonne, with great passion, “I want you to stop.”

SO, LAST SPRING, WE BECAME THE first new American religious community to effectively tell its leader to stop. It has been painful, but I think that the way the people of Zen Center have faced this crisis could be an encouragement to other religious communities facing similar problems.
A process began which I and other Zen students are still living through. There has been shock, love, pain, grief, and anger. Some students have left. Others have likened their feelings to going through a divorce after a long marriage.

There has been intense self-questioning, as people try to unravel the role they played in effectively isolating Baker-roshi from meaningful feedback. The community has seized this crisis as an opportunity to re­create itself, and to change so that in the future its leaders may be less isolated from students. Nobody yet knows how it will all come out, or exactly how it happened.

After the first series of meetings, the Board members met in small groups with students, telling them what had been discovered and allowing them to express their emotions about it. Most students took the news of Baker-roshi’s sexual involvements veryseriously – something that has puzzled people who point out that we are not a celibate community, and that such relationships take two people.

But within the context of a religious community, the news was shocking. Baker-­roshi, who is married, had not followed the code he had clearly described to Zen students who were having affairs: no deceit, no manipulation, and no harming of anyone else’s spiritual path. Leaders, he had often said, were expected to set an example judged by tougher standards.

Hearing about the affairs was especially confusing to some priests because Baker-­roshi had discussed such situations at a monks’ meeting some months before the crisis. Baker-roshi had referred to-another Zen teacher, Eido-roshi, with a reputation for sexual relationships with students. He had expressed his disapproval, saying that the teacher’s board of directors should have strongly confronted the situation.

As a woman student, I felt particularly threatened. I felt burnt, as though my tongue had been singed with boiling tea. When I first approached the man whom I hoped would become my teacher in the deepest sense, I hoped to establish a relationship of trust. I wanted to reveal myself, to drop the games I used to survive in the “outside” world. I hoped he would help me continue to practice zazen (meditation) through times of self-doubt, frustration, and fear.

Given my own hopes, I see why some women might be very vulnerable to sexual advances from a religious teacher. It must be hard on these men: another woman student has told me she watched women flirt with Baker-roshi for years. “Of course there are sexual feelings,” she said of her own close teaching relationship with Baker-­roshi. “I was aware of it and working with it. I learned how not to take these feelings and run with them.”

Although Baker-roshi gave me much helpful advice in the two years I was his student, we did not succeed in building a deep, trusting relationship. Hearing about the affairs has made me wary about trying again.
After the Board members told students about the situation, they asked Baker-roshi not to lead services or give lectures, and he agreed. He was also asked not to perform the jundo, the silent morning walk during the first period of zazen, when each student responds with raised, palm-pressed hands. Some students began to refer to him as Richard Baker instead of roshi (teacher); others did not know what to call him.
Students began to talk to each other in a more open way, and all the other resent­ments about Baker-roshi boiled up as though a lid had been removed from a pot.

Uneasiness had been growing, especially during the last three years. He had traveled to Russia on a mission of world peace, but he had been seeing students increasingly rarely. He was almost never in the zendo. He seemed to be involved in a whirl of meetings, trips, telephone calls, and shopping, unable to rest on the ground. Decisions, it became clear, were made by him, and community meetings and the Board of Directors had little weight. While students worked for minimum wage at Zen Center businesses, he spent more than $200,000 a year. Many of these expenditures related to his role as abbot; for instance, his office expenses and trips. But while students at Green Gulch Farm, Zen Center’s Marin County practice centerand working farm, lived in trailers and showered outside, he spent money impulsively on art, furniture, and expensive restaurant meals. One year, Zen Center paid $4000 for his membership in New York’s Adirondack Club.

The contrast between the abbot’s and the students’ lives was symbolized for many by his car. About three years ago, he had asked the Board if he could buy an expensive BMW. The Board had voiced widespread uneasiness, but when Baker-roshi asked the treasurer to go to the bank with him and sign the papers, he had done so.

Now, suddenly, the emperor had no clothes. At the end of April, after numerous discussions with Baker-roshi, the Board reported that he had “requested” a leave of absence for an indefinite period, to be reviewed in a year. Baker-roshi, the statement said, would continue to ‘live, practice, and work with us.” They quoted him as saying, “I want to understand this matter to its depths but I don’t know how to do that. The best answer I have to this question now is to immerse myself in the practice of the sangha [community] for I know Suzuki-roshi is there.”

Over the next six months, Richard Baker’s expense accounts were stopped, and he and his family were limited to a stipend of approximately $2500 a month, plus the use of his two Zen Center houses. His three anjas (attendants) and three administrative assistants were given other jobs, and their offices turned into temporary dormitory rooms. The notorious white BMW was garaged, and the Board announced plans to sell the vehicle, which is extremely expensive to maintain.

Richard Baker told people he wanted to walk alone from Zen Center to Tassajara, the Center’s monastery near Carmel Valley, a distance of 175 miles. The trip was interrupted by visits to friends’ houses, a weekend in Palm Springs with his wife Virginia, and detours to New York. Once at Tassajara, he worked for several days’ side by side with students. Then he left for Europe, where he appeared at a conference, and then traveled to the south of France to spend time with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk for whom he has great respect. He has mostly been absent from Zen Center, and has not met publicly with students since the crisis.

In his absence, Zen Center began to experiment with new ways of doing things. Meetings at the city center, which in the past had been extremely subdued, erupted with new frankness. At one meeting, a priest said he had never before felt free to speak his mind.

A volunteer committee of students brought in consultants and psychologists. Recognizing the lack of “horizontal” communication between ordinary students, theyled small groups and workshops in communication skills. I began to feel free to express parts of myself, which I had previously tried to leave at the door of Zen Center, and to talk in my own language. Other students underwent similar transformations.

One student, Betsy Sawyer, told me she has returned to her first questions about Zen practice, and has begun to examine her own need for psychological growth as well.

“This big boo-boo has liberated me,” she said­.

“The students woke up,” said Lew Richmond, the head of religious practice at Green Gulch Farm. “Something had been lifted, and they were who they were – and that’s the way Buddhism is supposed to be.”

The Board of Directors, which had been almost dormant for several years, began to meet every week and take on the running of Zen Center. Its meetings were opened to small groups of students, and its minutes made available. In a community where information had previously been tightly guarded, it was a radical change.

“Affinity groups” of eight to ten students and an overseeing “spokes council” were formed to discuss Zen Center’s direction. There is now a new mood of shared decision-making, as people struggle to create a healthy community for the study of a profound teaching.

THE PROBLEMS ZEN CENTER BEGAN to face last spring are not new.

Abuses of power, money and sex occur within the Catholic Church, political parties and corporations – as well as within non-Western religious movements. Buddhism, for all its intellectual elaboration and long tradition, is not immune. It was brought to the West by pioneering individual teachers, most of them far removed from those who taught them. In America, teachers are too far apart – both in style and in geographical location – to supervise each other as an effective community of peers.

In New York, the community of Eido-roshi has been repeatedly split by accusations, which he has denied, of sexual relations with students. Elsewhere, another Buddhist teacher with a serious drinking problem openly and cheerfully sleeps with women students. Some Buddhist leaders are terrible administrators, some experiment with drugs, some are homosexual, and some think homosexuality is wrong. I believe that as our communities mature, we will learn to treat these talented teachers with a realistic American kind of respect they need. We have been driving them crazy by accepting everything they do as an expression of religious teaching. Living without feedback in a community of emotionally dependent people is something like living in a sensory deprivation tank. It distorts the perceptions and isolates the leader.

I think that something like this happened slowly and gradually at Zen Center as it grew. I believe that Zen Center had developedweaknesses as a community that made it hard to stay in touch with common sense, self-assertion, and trust in one another.

IN NOVEMBER OF 1971, RICHARD Baker, a former Harvard student and organizer of conferences for the University of California’s extension program, put on blue and brown robes. In what is called the Mountain Seat Ceremony, his dying teacher, Suzuki-roshi, made him abbot of Zen Center, entrusting to him his gentle brand of Japanese Soto Zen.

Dick Baker was not then, and is not now, your typical monk: Maine-born, energetic, bright, talkative, hungry for new experiences and ideas, headstrong, and epicurean, he faced at 35 the difficult job of following a beloved Japanese teacher who had died too soon. I was not there, but the image I get of the community that watched this ceremony is that it was stripped down, oriented more toward zazen practice, with Suzuki-roshi’s example of its effectiveness before it.

When Suzuki-roshi died two weeks later, Zen Center was little more than a place to sit zazen; there was the city center in the heart of the slums, and Tassajara monastery in a deep canyon near Carmel Valley. As Baker-roshi assumed leadership, Zen Center changed in many positive ways. He worked with other students translating chants from Japanese to English; he encouraged single women and families with children to try monastic practice at Tassajara. He engineered the acquisition of Green Gulch Farm, supported Buddhist scholars, and, his longterm students say, was a helpful Buddhist teacher, especially at Tassajara, or in sesshin. He had a genius for entrepreneurship and a vision of a vigorous, self-supporting Buddhist community. But over the next 12 years, something happened. One older student told me that while Baker-roshi knew how to give help, he did not know how to take it. He knew how to nurture people who felt weak, but he had a harder time encouraging them to be strong.

Marc Alexander, Zen Center’s current president, described it as the “frog in hot water syndrome”: put a frog in boiling water, and he’ll jump out. Put a frog in cold water and slowly heat it and he’ll stay and boll to death.

Said Alexander, “The businesses began after students began coming back from Tassajara wanting to have some continuation of working throughout the day with other people doing the same Buddhist practices – mindfulness, compassion, right livelihood. Supporting ourselves was the secondary reason. But little by little, supporting ourselves became the stronger motivating factor. Baker-roshi was creating all these things while we didn’t have the staff to take care of them fully. As a result, it became less interesting to work there.”

From places devoted to “work practice” that were incidentally businesses, they became Buddhist-flavored businesses. It’s a sad irony that over the years many of them became more successful to their patrons than to the people who worked in them. They are places where you can sit still. The Buddhist qualities of wholehearted attention, of a calm non-interfering kindness, permeated them. They are beautiful spaces, their clean Japanese aesthetic spiced with luxury. Every time my family comes to San Francisco, we have a ritual dinner at Greens, and things get said that haven’t been said elsewhere. But students who worked in the kitchen began to complain that the frenetic restaurant work had gone beyond any conception of Buddhist practice, and the hours made it difficult to get to zazen.

John Bailes remembers working at Green Gulch Farm, which is an oasis of quiet for interested non-Buddhists who visit for Sunday lectures. “I’d be down in the fields struggling with the carthorses, sweating and not too happy, and Baker-roshi would arrive in his golden robes with a group of dazzled Marinites. They’d ask me, Wasn’t it wonderful to be living here? There was agreat gap that I would describe as feudalistic. I was enraged. It was coming out of my pores. But there was some kind of tension against speaking out.”

As the businesses needed more workers, confusion developed between serving the needs of the institution and serving Buddhism. Being serious became equated with one’s willingness to work within a business or live in a residence, When I told Baker-roshi I was serious about studying Zen, he jokingly suggested that I quit my job as a reporter, move into the building, and start working at Greens, Doing what I did – working outside Zen Center – was subtly denigrated, and what might be called “lay practice” was not sufficiently respected for its ability to contribute another perspective and some form of reality check.

While students worked long hours in the bakery, the restaurant, or the fields, they tried to live as though they were in a monastery. Zazen began at 4:30 in the morning, and students often nodded off in lectures. The monastic style of life that worked so well for a limited period of training at Tassajara – hierarchy, no discussion, and little sleep – was exhausting for families, city dwellers, and farm workers.

I still do not understand exactly why people had such difficulty talking openly about their reservations, but I can describe my own experience. I came to sitting by accident. I was visiting Tassajara on a summer camping trip six years ago when met an old friend, a student there, who invited me to sit. I remember walking out of the stone send at six a.m. into a clear morning light. I had time, and I had space in a way I had not experienced before.

Another summer I spent six weeks following the schedule of work and meditation at Tassajara, and began to feel there might be a place where I could allow my deepest, east-articulated motivations to come forward. Making beds with other Zen students, I did not have to prove I was the best; I could just try to be wholehearted about whatever I was doing. Rising at 4:30, sitting zazen, eating and working with long periods of silence, I did not have to manufacture an interesting “personality” in order to make conversation with people. I had been a union organizer and an investigative reporter. I knew how to assert myself and make trouble. But I was tired of it. I had felt starved for most of my life for a wayto question and express my deepest self. I wasn’t about to throw it away to raise questions about a crummy $26,000 BMW. And yet my common-sense questions kept rising. Like many other students, I thought I was the only one that had them.

Two summers ago, I sat sesshin at Green Gulch Farm. We were visited by a respected Japanese teacher, and the day he left we lined the driveway at Baker-roshi’s request to say good-bye to him. Sesshin has a way of producing an intensity of awareness. I clearly remember standing in my black robes with some 60 others that gentle summer day. One of Baker-roshi’s assistants drove the white BMW up. Another cleaned the windshield and the trunk. A woman stood at the side with a basket of flowers. Baker­roshi, his visitor, and other guests got into the car. As Baker-roshi’s assistant loaded in the luggage and prepared to drive the entourage to the airport, we all bowed repeatedly, and I thought, with a smile, this is being in a cult.

I don’t think Zen Center is a cult, of course, and I think the way this crisis has been handled proves it. But the day I stood there in front of that car, I was doing something I didn’t understand, taking on a piece of Japanese behavior, simply because I had been asked to. I didn’t tell anyone I felt that way.

Despite growing unhappiness and increasing resistance to Baker-roshi’s expansion plans, the community could not effectively tell him to stop. Among the senior students, who might have said stop, the atmosphere was like a medieval palace, one said. The courtiers strove to outdo each other for approval of their insight. Said one senior monk, ‘Then, when it comes time to confront Baker-roshi, you don’t feel like the person you are competing with will support you.”

Other senior students were not caught in this web of competition, but felt too dazzled to challenge him. He seemed so articulate and worldly to these men and women who had become monks in their early 20s. And so many of the projects for which he argued so convincingly had worked so well.

When a friend of Blanche Harman’s hinted that Baker-roshi had been involved in affairs she said, a little too quickly, “That’s hearsay.” Now she says she thinks she was saying, “Please don’t tell me. I don’t know what I’d do. I might have to leave, and I’m 58 years old; my whole life is here.”

Among newer students like myself, a confusion about certain Buddhist ideas contributed to people’s inability to trust their own common sense or speak out about their doubts. The first of these ideas is the concept of Dharma (teaching) transmission. Most simply put, as I understand it, the goal of each Buddhist teacher and student is to gain or allow access to the student’s enlightened mind through meditation and practice together. The ceremony of transmission acknowledges that the student has found access to this clear, big mind, which all of us have the potential to find, which is the same as the teacher’s mind, and ultimately, Buddha’s.
It is a tricky concept. We speak of a Zen “lineage,” or dharma “heirs,” as though the essence of Buddhist teaching had been handed down through the generations like a patrimony. The language can lead us to think that the teacher who is a dharma “heir” possesses something as physical as the brown robe and bowl that symbolize it.

At Zen Center, the idea of dharma trans­mission became a way of keeping Suzuki­roshi alive. Richard Baker was conceived of as a fragile vessel that contained Suzuki­roshi s pure mind. Many senior monks told me they felt powerless to disgrace or stop Baker-roshi until he transmitted Tenshin Reb Anderson, so that Suzuki-roshi’s lineage would survive. Thus, the concept of transmission began to tyrannize. In 1972, when the Board of Directors resisted the purchase of Green Gulch Farm, Baker-roshi threatened to leave if it wasn’t bought. The Board then acquiesced. “He used the authority of dharma transmission to frighten us. I e said, I’m going to take my baseball bat and go home, and you guys won’t be able to play Buddhism any more,” remembered one senior monk.
The conception of dharma transmission is intertwined with a popular image of a perfectly enlightened human being whose every gesture is a teaching – an image that makes it hard to question a teacher’s actions even when one’s common sense cries out for an explanation.

‘The idea is out of context here,” said Lew Richmond, the head of religious practice at Green Gulch Farm. “In the Orient, every craft has transmission from master to disciple. Its purpose is to protect against unauthorized and self-appointed teachers. But this aggrandizement of transmission in the minds of young meditators has not served our interest. What are you authenticating? Every word and deed for the rest of your life? We have an idealized image of an enlightened person. It’s not, strictly speaking, accurate to speak of an enlightened person, but rather of enlightened activity.”

This is not a simple issue. Some trust is crucial. Reb Anderson likes to tell the story of helping Suzuki-roshi build his rock garden at Tassajara. Suzuki-roshi would ask Reb to lever a huge boulder into one position. Then to another position. Then back to the original position. When Reb protested and asked if they couldn’t think it through first and then move rocks, Suzuki­roshi told him to shut up. Finally, Reb simply let himself go wholeheartedly into moving the rock and not thinking ahead.

From the outside, this could look like an eccentric old man forcing a student to meaninglessly move rocks around. For Reb, from the inside, it was a way of learning. There’s no easy litmus test for when a teacher’s actions tend toward liberation, and when they’re selfish. Your own common sense, how your body feels, and the actions’ results can help guide you. There are no teaching stories about teachers enriching themselves at students’ expense or seeping with their students. But how are you to know when your resistance is an expression of common sense, and when it’s the pride of your small mind balking at moving rocks around all day in the sun? Part of Zen practice consists of trust, some willingness to try something out, not to be too sure of yourself.

Another confused notion of Zen teachings played a role in creating a community where plain talk was often discouraged. Zen warns against too much dependence on written teachings. Many of its teaching stories don’t make rational or linguistic sense – in fact they’re designed not to. At Zen Center, some students seemed to interpret this to mean that there was something wrong with speaking in simple English sentences during our student meetings. We were encouraged to practice living without saying, ‘This is good, this is bad,” or “I like this, I don’t like this.” The older the student, the less was said, and this silence was mistaken for wisdom. In our weekly meetings, people, including me, were afraid of looking like fools, of revealing that they did not dwell constantly in their widest minds.

We sat straight-backed and still in the zendo, breathing deeply, inevitably releasing unconscious material. Outside the zendo, we tried to follow practices of right conduct, right thought, and right speech. But it appeared that for fear of harming others, some of us were afraid to express anything at all. It was a pressure cooker. I don’t think that the structure of Japanese Zen provided a way for Americans to work with the unconscious material released in zazen, to release or express it in a way that would not harm others. People also subtly withdrew within a community that had no nonjudgmental way of sharing unacceptable thoughts and feelings.

Suzuki-roshi often described Zen as similar to putting a snake into a bamboo tube as a wayof showing it its nature. How to stand, bow, and sit in the send is carefully prescribed, and very powerful when 70 people do it together. When I first came, I discovered what a relief it can be not to mechanically smile, but to bow instead. Outside the send, after the bow, I didn’t always know what to say. The Japanese forms became a way of avoiding contact. This coldness, awkwardness and this lack of peer contact, contributed to a flow of energy and emotion upward into the hierarchy. Each person thought they stood alone.

Much of this has been stood on its head since the April crisis. As mentioned earlier, there seems to be widespread agreement over the need to separate “church” (practice) from “State” (administration), so that students don’t feel their spiritual understanding is on the line when they question an administrative decision.

A committee of students brought in consultants to teach us to talk to each other, and we have formed affinity groups that meet twice a month to discuss the future direction of Zen Center. The formal structure of the organization is still hierarchical – legal power rests with Baker-roshi and the Board, unless they fail to agree. Then the students would break the tie.

Most of the affinity groups have recently told the Board that they want to resolve our relationship with Baker-roshi, one way or another. Some students do not want him to be their teacher again. Others would like him to return, but not on the same terms. There seems to be widespread agreement over the need to separate “church” (practice) from “state” (administration), so that students don’t feel their spiritual understanding is on the line when theyquestion an administrative decision. The affinity groups are encouraging feedback from the “bottom” – if not outright democracy.

Sonic students are leaving; some feel bitter that their trust and Buddhist teaching have been abused. One student said, “If he could give up all attachment to being a teacher, the student could begin to trust him. As long as he seems to need being a teacher, they don’t trust him. They’re expecting him to transform himself without safety. You can’t learn a whole new way to be, under attack. People are saying, ‘transform,’ and yet they’re still angry.”

Students, and a visiting Zen teacher, have suggested that Richard Baker try working side by side with students, or studying with another teacher, or counseling, as a way of completing his Zen training. How he will respond to such ideas still remains to be seen. Some students say they will never think of him as a Buddhist teacher again, and hope that he will resign. Among some of them, there has been a kind of satanization of Richard Baker, as though all of Zen Center’s ills can be laid at his feet.
To them, he’s too powerful, too manipulative to be safely reined in by ordinary people. It is the flip side of the delusion of the perfectly enlightened person. There are others, like poet Philip Whalen and businessman John Nelson, who would like to see Richard Baker return as Baker-roshi, the same as before.

“It worked for me,” said Nelson, who came to Zen Center shortly after graduating from Yale, and found a way to spend time at Tassajara with his wife and children as monastic students, and also build a career. “When he lectured, I was inspired. He never really followed the schedule, but he made everybody else follow it. When I bowed to him fully, I felt I was bowing to our heritage. He represented in his person the legacy of our teachers. He was always helpful to me, even when he was hard on me. I knew he was driving a fancy car and all that, but I feel tremendous gratitude. I see my teacher in trouble and I say wait, let’s take better care of this. I’m willing to let him spend a lot of money. What am I supposed to say? Fine, please go off him?”

WE TRIED TO SWALLOW WHOLE the Japanese form of Zen – or at least, our naive understanding of it. Now we’re in the process of chewing it up, digesting it, making it into an American Zen. For a long time, most of us accepted, without thinking it through, foreign conceptions of hierarchy, of information restricted on a “need to know” basis. Coming from a culture almost devoid of ways of showing respect, some of us hungrily took on another way. Now, those foreign ideas are being tested for their usefulness against the values that are the genius of Western culture: democracy, open information, a free press, psychological development, the separation of Church and State, and systems of checks and balances.

AS I WRITE THIS IN EARLY November, it is unclear exactly how Zen Center’s members will resolve their relationship with Baker-roshi, and what form the community will take in the future. The process is still evolving, and for all the self-questioning by Zen students, I don’t think anyone fully understands exactly how people stopped taking the risks of speaking out.

One senior student has written of “our confusion about how to work with a teacher, our not knowing how to question and trust him simultaneously, our isolation of him and of ourselves, our abdication of our own perspective … our impoverishment with our own cultural inheritance, our emotional immaturity, our readiness to imitate forms not fully understood.

“Our coming to rest in zazen expressed for many of us a great need to deepen our lives and to find satisfactions deeper than our culture offers,” the student wrote. “The fact that this small group of Americans does not yet understand how to take this brilliant. Simple, impossible practice and create a social form around it that supports the individual and the community is the deepest teaching for all of us, and I would hope, the deeper teaching of this event in American religious life.”

© 1983 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.

This article was first published in CoEvolution Quarterly in the Winter issue of 1983, with the following introduction:


The subject of this article, Zen Center abbot Dick Baker, has been a friend and colleague of mine for nearly 20 years. He has been a member of our Point Board of Directors for eight years. A few months ago at one of our Creative Philanthropy conferences he made a remark that impressed me: “In most religious groups, the rules gradually relax as you get more senior. At Zen Center it’s the reverse; the rules are stricter the more senior you are. “ I nodded approvingly, the way I nod approvingly at ideas like that and have done ever since I bought the notion I heard in college days. “Western philosophers teach only with their talk. Eastern philosophers do it with their whole lives.”

A couple weeks later, the events described here became known, and I realized that I too had participated in the conspiracy of diffidence that had helped distort Dick’s leadership and the structure and practice of Zen Center. Out of that sense of shared responsibility. I gradually became peripherally involved in the community’s efforts to understand what had happened and to reshape things so it wouldn’t happen again. This article is perhaps part of that effort.

For years Dick successfully kept journalism out of Zen Center, declaring that it was inevitably intrusive and destructive, and I agreed. I am no longer conger so convinced. When Art Kleiner and I heard that Katy Butler, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, was also a student at Zen Center we sought her out and asked if she was interested in reporting her perspective on the crisis. She agreed, with the caveat that she is neither an expert on Buddhism nor a long-term Zen Center resident. She is a committed lay participant in the community.

I think she’s done an admirable job. To what extent it’s useful to this group and other similar groups – remains to be seen. We invite comment, especially from people in like situations.

My feeling is that once again Zen Center is pioneering, using the fundamental sanity of Zen Buddhism to find a new path of interest and consequence to all of us. When charisma goes unmanaged, by self or others, it becomes unmanageable by anything short of crisis. Dick Baker is one of the most creative people I’ve known: I continue in awe of his accomplishments with Zen Center. He is tireless, fearless, brilliant, charming – a compelling teacher and powerful entrepreneur. His role as a spiritual teacher – exemplar – is now compromised, but his effectiveness in other roles may eventually be increased. Right now events are the teacher, and Dick has perhaps the most to learn from them.

When Dick and I talked, a couple of weeks after the crisis broke, it was a bit of a groping conversation. He had just suffered a deluge of bad news. I was soaring on good news with our software projects, so we were distanced. He said one thing about his situation that got me. “I’m proud of my students.”

-Stewart Brand

©1983 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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