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S.F. Zen Center Rocked by Theft

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer


Leaders of the San Francisco Zen Center have ordered an audit and called a membership meeting following revelations that their longtime treasurer stole $60,000 from the Buddhist temple and its popular vegetarian restaurant, Greens.

Zen Center President 
Barbara Kohn said the nonprofit group's treasurer of 14 years, Bill Lane, has confessed to stealing the money and has paid it back.

"Chronic alcohol abuse clouded Bill's reasoning and sense of ethics," Kohn said in a letter sent out to the center's 800 members. "Although he had previously been a devoted Zen student, during his tenure as treasurer, he was not practicing meditation."

Reached for comment yesterday, Lane said: "It was completely my doing, and I hope everyone eventually can accept my apology."

Founded in 1962 by the late Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen Center runs a city meditation center at Page and Laguna streets, Green Gulch farm and retreat center in Marin County, and the Tassajara Buddhist monastery in the mountains east of Big Sur.

In her letter to Zen Center members and donors, Kohn said Lane confessed to the embezzlement to Abbots Mel Weitsman and Reb Anderson in June 1995, saying he had taken approximately $60,000 over the past three years.

Lane also told them he had returned the money by making an anonymous donation to the Zen Center before resigning as treasurer.

Kohn said neither Weitsman nor Anderson told her or Zen Center board members about the embezzlement until last month.

"I wish I had been told, but I understand the bind they were in," Kohn said in an interview yesterday. "It's an unknown area when you are confessing to a priest. There are issues of confidence."

Kohn said board members will not discuss the possibility of criminal charges against Lane until an audit has been completed.

"What we have at this point is his version of the facts," said Kohn.

According to Kohn, new accounting procedures have been implemented at the Zen Center, which has $6 million in assets and a $2.9 million annual budget.

Greens, the popular vegetarian restaurant at Fort Mason, is run by a separate profit-making group, Everyday Corp.

Kohn said Lane had access to some of its money by serving on the Everyday board of directors.

Kohn and the Zen Center's chairman of the board, Edward Espe Brown, have called a general membership meeting next Wednesday night to discuss the incident.