Shoes Outside the Door

Title: Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center
Published by: Counterpoint
Release Date: 2002
Pages: 416
ISBN13: 978-1582432540
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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.”

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“As soon as Downing began work on his groundbreaking history of the San Francisco Zen Center, the first Buddhist monastery established outside of Asia, he realized that Richard Baker, the charismatic and controversial dharma heir of the center’s Japanese Zen Buddhist founder, Suzuki-roshi, was the epicenter of a complex and mutable tale . . . Rather than imposing a rigid narrative structure, Downing wisely takes a Zen approach and weaves together diverse voices, including Baker’s, to create a fascinating, multifaceted chronicle that reveals the monumental challenges the center faced in creating an American form of Zen Buddhism, the intensity of the participants (including high-profile figures such as poet Gary Snyder and former California governor Jerry Brown), and Baker’s mercurialness . . . Downing’s masterfully orchestrated inquiry is an invaluable portrait of the heart of the contradictory, still evolving, and unquestionably significant American Buddhist movement.”
—Booklist starred review

“Dramatic and thoughtful . . . With no prior experience as a social historian or a connoisseur of Zen, the novelist Michael Downing has nevertheless proven himself well-suited to piecing together the facts and assessing their meaning. He has done so chiefly by interviewing more than eighty of the involved figures and weighing each nugget of testimony against the others . . . Downing is no relativist. His narrative line, though continually interrupted, is lucid and convincing, and he challenges his interviewees' occasional half-truths with sharp comments and rhetorical questions that bring buried factors into view.”
—New York Review of Books

“He paints a complex picture of Westerners in a genuine struggle with Eastern concepts and traditions...This is a highly readable book, important for the healing it invites in giving voice to the thoughts and feelings of Zen Center members who have remained silent until now.”
—Los Angeles Times

“Downing unpacks Zen Center's story deftly, drawing the reader in with his comfortable, chatty prose and wry wit. . . The intrigue of the story will draw you near, but it is Downing's nuanced delivery of the facts that will make you stay, hungry for more.”
—Austin Chronicle

Shoes Outside the Door is not simply a narrative history; it raises the larger question of what constitutes the Americanization of Zen...Downing's work is a very important addition to the literature on American Zen and, more broadly, American Buddhism.”

Shoes Outside the Door is a not only a fine history of the San Francisco Zen Center and Zen in the United States, it is a cautionary tale, valuable to anyone embarked on a spiritual practice.”
—San Jose Mercury News