Desire, Devotion, and Excess: Second Thoughts?

This is a brief excerpt from The Classical Ideas podcast of “Michael Downing on Zen in America.”  Greg Soden graciously invited me to take a deep dive back into the research and writing of Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center fifteen years after its publication. (Greg’s podcast is a treasure trove of interviews with some of the most original and influential spiritual thinkers and searchers on the planet.)  As most of the text of Shoes Outside the Door is direct transcription of the words chosen by the scores of practitioners I interviewed, this was a chance for me to reflect on the enduring effects of this project–which ultimately absorbed the better part of four years of my life–on my sense of self and my work as a writer.

You can listen to the entire conversation by following this link to The Classical Ideas home page.



DOWNING:  I have a built-in resistance to and reluctance about religion.  The [Zen Center] community’s reluctance—or, I should say, many people’s reluctance to label what they were doing as religious practice was really intriguing, to say the least, and one of the avenues that really opened up the story for me because I was so taken by how resistant they were to call what they were doing religion. 

SODEN:  So do you disagree with their take?  Would you classify it as a religious practice?

DOWNING:  I think that’s what it is.  It’s where it begins. . . Lots of Americans had engaged with the idea of Buddhism as a philosophy or a psychology, or a number of other -ologies.  But these were the first people to rigorously adopt the practice. It seems to me that is one of the fundamental elements of what we mean by the word religion—which is the practice that supports the lineage of teaching and beliefs.  But it is the practice which is the religion—that’s the rite.  So for me there was no question.  I don’t mean that authoritatively.  It was instinctive for me. . .

It was Gary Snyder who, when I asked him directly about this—I was very confused by people’s reluctance to call it religion—he said, That’s a false note.  If you can’t call it a religion, you can’t talk about it.  It may be many other things, but certainly it’s a religion.  And then he said something very beautiful.  “Trying to say Buddhism is not religion is trying to clean up your dreams.”


SODEN: Suzuki-roshi has this legendary book—Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind—and in your book, you have a fantastic quote [from one of Suzuki-roshi’s students]—that it is a book rife with things that he hadn’t exactly said that can be quoted out of context.  So, this accidental man who becomes the most famous Zen master in American history . . . it was totally accidental.  And the book is used—often.  How is that book important today?

DOWNING: In a number of ways.  Most scripture has a similar history, which is to say that it’s not typical that the great teachings we inherit were given to be written down or were written down by the teachers.  So, in that sense, Suzuki-roshi falls into the lineage of many great spiritual teachers through the ages, who gave lectures or just spoke to people.  He explicitly asked that no one record him or take notes during his lectures.  I think he understood that he was speaking in a moment to particular people for a particular reason.  And I think he understood the limits of language.  I don’t think most Americans had as sophisticated an idea of the limits of language as did he.  And because there were people who were practicing in Los Angeles who couldn’t attend his lectures, he was finally cajoled into having them recorded.  So his ideas about Zen, questions people asked spontaneously in specific settings, got written down and codified.  So, the book does carry a decidedly original sense—and a charming sense, I should add—of the man because you’re reading a book that allegedly was written by him, thought it was wildly edited and condensed . . .

So, I think two things.  The spirit of the book has inspired a lot of people, and you have to believe that there is something genuine about the book that is being transmitted.  And, on the other hand, written down and codified, we lose the contextual moment, the lived moment . . . It’s very easy to get charmed by the ironies and apparent contradictions that inhere in the language of Zen, and to have the delight of the mind’s turning those over become a substitute for thinking clearly or acting properly.  It becomes an occupation of its own.


SODEN:  So, we have to talk a little bit about the former abbot, Richard Baker roshi, who is currently still teaching and practicing at Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado.  So, there was a sex scandal that your book describes . . . But it seems to me—and I was talking to [Zen monk and writer] Brad Warner about this—the opulent spending of money may have been a greater concern.  What do you see as the central problem as it grew into this Zen empire in California?

DOWNING: I want to say two things about that.  I’ve thought about this a lot.  Obviously, it is not a singular problem that Zen Center had, but it was really a problem that Zen Center had.

I think it makes us feel unsophisticated or puritanical to say sex was the problem.  And, therefore, I think, we like to say it wasn’t sex.  And I also think that reflects the ongoing truth that it is most often women who are harmed in these situations, and [our] language reflects our willingness to tolerate and accept the harm of women as natural.

Here’s what I think.  And I don’t want to sound pious here.  But I really have thought about this.  If a person cannot understand in the most intimate of situations that the situation is harmful, and problematic, and confusing both for the other person involved in the physical intimacy and for people who might become aware of or be affected by that physical intimacy—if the body, the most precious of our currencies, doesn’t register with an individual, I can’t think of a more serious flaw in a human being than to repeatedly cause harm to other people—the currency of the self—never claim it, in fact deny it and repeatedly try to essentially vilify the person who was harmed for being harmed, as if that’s a flaw in that person. That seems to me a much more dire failure, and much more threatening to an institution of any kind than any other currency, like money or power.