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On Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center

Letter from DC to the New York Review of Books on the review of Shoes by Frederick Crews in the March 28th edition of the NYRB.

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To the editors of the New York Review of Books:

Frederick C. Crews' review of Michael Downing's "Shoes Outside the Door," of 3/28 demonstrated that Mr. Crews knows something of Zen, San Francisco Zen Center, and some of the events that took place there mainly two and three decades ago, particularly events that marked the moral faults of its members as persons and the institutional failings of their life together as a religious community and a cultural experiment. As a SFZC alumnus and historian of sorts, whose work both Crews and Downing cite, I can affirm that it's vital to look at our shortcomings. Indeed, we have been doing just that over these many years, as Downing's book makes clear, and doing a great deal more in order to come of age and practice what we preach in responsible relationships and shared self-government. I depart from Downing's point of view, however, and especially from its oversimplified characterization by Mr. Crews, insofar as they paint a narrowly partial and monochromatically negative picture of Richard Baker, of what was happening back then, and the conditions under which he and the rest of us lived.

Institutions need to be criticized and kept in line, as do the people within them, because we're always a little crazy, a bunch of imperfect people trying to do our best while constantly screwing up. At its best, religion relinks us to the deepest truths of our interdependent existence. But religious institutions are always skewed to some extent and need to be scrutinized so that they serve people rather than people serving them. The same goes for political, business, academic, journalistic, and any institutions. We need the people who help to create and lead these organizations, but because they inevitably get off course, we also need to give clear, honest feedback within a public conversation that reveals vice and virtue alike and enables us to respond to both in order to keep our bearings and correct our course. Mr. Downing and Mr. Crews have joined in this conversation. I'm grateful to them for that. It can't help but to make us all wiser and stronger, particularly if we emphasize the good along with the bad.

Zen Center is a vibrant institution through which thousands of persons have passed and thereby come to clarify their own way of life a little or a lot. Zen Center would not now exist, as far as I can tell, had it not been for Richard Baker. However imperfectly, he has worked for forty years to create conditions in which people can seek truth in all its unity and diversity, alone and together, while we also continue to irritate each other. He's got his problems, he's caused trouble, and he's hurt others. Maybe he'll never be able to say he's sorry sincerely enough and often enough for his detractors. We can enumerate one another's faults endlessly, and to some extent I'm sure we will--they're a lot more interesting than the virtues. But the good done by Richard Baker and others at Zen Center, including his critics, will be appreciated by future generations as it is by many of us in the present one. I had a great time there, I never felt taken advantage of, I learned a lot, and because of Richard my life has been much richer.

Further comments on this subject appear on my website, For a profile of the options for study and practice available these days at the SFZC, see an article I wrote for the current issue of Shambhala Sun.

David Chadwick

To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki - Editor - Broadway Books, 2001.

Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki - Broadway Books, 1999.

Thank You and OK! an American Zen Failure in Japan - Penguin Arkana, 1994.

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