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Zen Center

February 8, 2002

Mel, former Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, said, “I really can’t sit through meetings anymore.”

This made me laugh. Not at his suffering, of course.

But there is irony in a Zen monk saying he can’t sit anymore. After all, the instruction from the Zen Center’s original teacher and master, Shunryu Suzuki, was simple: “Just sit.”

It’s one way to do the least damage.

As told in the book, “Shoes outside the door,” Mel sat through endless meetings about policies and rules, and this would take its toll on anyone. The Zen Center students struggled for two decades, not with success as a religious and cultural center, which they achieved, but with how to live together.

What struck me about this story also struck me about another book, “Sleeping where I fall,” which covers some of the same culture in the same area at the same time. Both stories reveal the challenge of living together. Neither group created anything new in this way; in fact, both seemed to be re-inventing the wheel.

Peter Coyote’s book, “Sleeping where I fall,” chronicles his experiences as a hippie/biker/Digger in the Haight-Ashbury culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He and his compatriots had occasionally high-flying notions of a new order they couldn’ t quite explicate, or accomplish, not least for the distractions of sex, drugs, and alcohol. But they tried nonetheless.

Michael Downing’s book, “Shoes outside the door,” is subtitled “Desire, devotion, and excess at San Francisco Zen Center,” which is what it’s about — sort of.

Both Coyote and Downing tell of people trying to create something they think is new. In both stories, the efforts were ultimately reduced to the same struggle that people everywhere across time have faced — how to live together. Perhaps there’s a Zen lesson in that.

The most basic problems intruded: relationships, money, health and sanitation, “desire and excess.” Both efforts were distorted by sex, drugs, and alcohol, especially in Peter Coyote’s tale. Coyote is unblinking in his telling of the trials of unbalanced, strung-out young people living together.

In his story, the fascinating idea of starting a commune quickly succumbed to basic problems of hygiene, property, responsibilities, and charlatans.

Even the Zen Center battled some of this, i.e., what to do with freeloaders. But in all fairness, the Zen Center was successful, and they began with a much different purpose than did Peter Coyote’s strung-out hippies living by a vague new consciousness (when they were conscious).

The Zen Center was indeed creating something new. They were building the first training center for Zen Buddhists in America. Its success is largely attributable to Richard Baker. According to the story in “Shoes outside the door,” so were its troubles.

I’m not done reading it, and so I don’t know the book’s conclusion. It makes for interesting gossip, though, in the way of political memoirs, and perhaps more titillating because Richard Baker practices in Crestone.

There’s also some irony in the very production of a book of gossip by and about Zen Buddhists, but in the end, even Buddhists are people, too. A certain unwillingness to accept this fact may have contributed to the festering problems that came to a head in the Zen Center community back in 1983.

Does this story matter? As much as any human tale, and for caution, more than many.

I remember seeing friend Dave’s pottery brushwork for the first time. I blurted, “Oh, are you a Zen artist?”

“No,” he said. “Just an artist.”


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