Book Sense Pick

The story of Shoes Outside the Door 
When I first heard about Zen Center, I was astonished that the remarkable history of the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia was unwritten. I began to ask why no one had told this story. “I’m living proof of why you better not speak out,” explained one ordained Zen priest. “The degree to which I’ve been scapegoated publicly was most effective in keeping everyone else quiet.”

In 1959, a Japanese priest started to practice Zen in America with a few students, poets, painters, and drifters, and by 1980 the San Francisco Zen Center had become huge and hugely successful, accruing wealth, property, and prestige. And its exquisite aesthetics were tinged with the glamour of celebrity. Zen Center’s real estate holdings included the Tassajara Hot Springs near Big Sur, Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, a clothing company, and a bakery. Longtime member Ed Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book was riding the bestseller lists, and Zen Center’s popular upscale vegetarian restaurant, Green’s, was inspiring a generation of cooks and chefs. Zen students found themselves working as waitresses and busboys, serving dinner to Ken Kesey, the Dalai Lama, Stewart Brand, Gregory Bateson, and then-Governor Jerry Brown.

In 1983, this hot core of the counterculture experienced a meltdown. And the most prominent community of Buddhists in the West found themselves at the vanguard of a cultural revolt against spiritual authority.

For more than three years, I researched this story. Ultimately, I interviewed more than a hundred people associated with Zen Center. I spent months reading everything from personal diaries and letters to meeting minutes and budgets as the first non-member given access to the Zen Center archives. And I carried with me the words of one of the first young men to practice at Zen Center: “Everyone was desperate,” he told me. “The quality of practice then—it was like being in the catacombs. We were fugitive heretics—junkies, prostitutes, screwed-up adolescents, and runaways—and most of us were too young to know what to do with the serious life experiences we’d had in the world.”