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Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center


Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center

I'm not sure how many of Jivamukti's cool downtown clientele would
tell you much about the principles of Zen, about what the practice
of vegetarianism holds for the spiritual set, or how commercial the
enfranchisement of Eastern ways and means can get in contemporary
America. 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. In SHOES OUTSIDE THE DOOR, Michael
Downing examines the heavy-handed although spiritual leadership of
Shunryu Suzuki and Richard Baker as they built a religious
community that would soon become the "in" place for celebrities and
wannabes in the swinging '60s and '70s.

It wasn't all just fun and games for profit. The original intent of
the center was not to become a LIFE magazine article --- its
celebrity came by surprise, as did its ability to generate cold
hard cash. The Center's impressive land holdings spawned several
successful businesses, including Greens Restaurant, which almost
single-handedly inspired the vegetarian restaurant craze of the
American West, as well as the cookbook, TASSAJARA BREAD BOOK, a
renowned baking classic, which resulted from the Center's own
bakery. The Center took on the shining beacon of cause celebre,
quite literally, when the groovy sought refuge there --- one of its
most ardent admirers and most frequent visitors was then-Governor
Jerry Brown, the one politician whose reputation was almost too
"green" for the rest of the country.

Things moved along swimmingly, and Zen Center proved to be the
promontory off of which the reimagining of Buddhism jumped. In 1983
Baker became involved in a sexual scandal that highlighted what
some thought was a misplaced sense of purpose and authority, an
abuse of power uncommon to the high and mighty intents on which Zen
Center was created. And then there were the finances. All in all,
Zen Center was not all it was cracked up to be, which almost
single-handedly destroyed the religious fervor and desire it had
been responsible for inspiring to begin with.

SHOES OUTSIDE THE DOOR is a rich and absorbing history lesson ---
it is not often that anyone manages to delve into the inner life of
such an institution, and Downing manages to be both analyst and
reporter as he unleashes the remarkable story he has tracked down
on his audience. Reading SHOES OUTSIDE THE DOOR may seem
particularly appropriate for these times, when the spiritual life
of this country is becoming reanimated due to the tensions of the
ongoing crisis. Downing may have written, unbeknownst to him prior
to September 11th, a cautionary tale that will have greater impact
as our life during wartime progresses.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 23, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • ISBN-10: 1582431132
  • ISBN-13: 9781582431130