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My response to Shoes Outside the Door, and it's two highly significant, major Errors

By Taigen Dan Leighton

Taigen's cuke link page

As one who was there when much of it was happening, from mid '78 on, I remain grateful that I had several years training with a Japanese Soto priest before I ever got to SFZC, to add alternate perspective when all the problems became overwhelmingly apparent, hit the fan, as is said.

I must confess that I quite enjoyed reading perhaps the first half of the book. It is like reading a family history. The long quotes from old friends and fellow students are often interesting and entertaining, and I even learned some little bits of old info I had not known.

However, the book is basically highly offensive. What is there is part of the truth, but often misses the main point. Downing, the author, obviously has derogatory agendas, makes numerous snide comments, and often seems to relish interpreting things in sensational tone, with most negative spin possible. And there are good people who are seriously mistreated by his approach.

The main point is that Downing has no idea what practice is about.

For example, it is certainly true that many of us worked hard at the SFZC businesses in the late 70s and early 80s with little material compensation, while Richard Baker Roshi lived very well indeed, materially. Downing dwells on this perspective at great length. However, having myself worked for a good many years at Tassajara Bakery, and for a year or so at Greens, I know that what Downing totally misses is that for much of that time these were fantastic practice places, where everyone working there was sitting daily and one could work next to a range of very senior practitioners as well as new students. And there was often a serious effort to bring all the details of the work into the context of practice. For those who wanted shared practice experience, the businesses were extraordinarily valuable, and I do not regret any of the years I worked there. It is certainly true that they were not sustainable, but I'm grateful that I was there to participate in Richard's mistake, in many ways a noble mistake/ experiment, at least in part. Nothing of that could be gleaned from anything in this book.

The second major error in the book is Downing stating that students then could only have dokusan with Baker Roshi, and Downing claims this means that students were only allowed to talk about their practice with Richard. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were numerous other "practice leaders" with whom one could talk regularly. In my own case, I was a "practice student" of Richard's for several years. And I will acknowledge that he was a very valuable, helpful teacher for me for at least some of that time. But dokusan with Baker Roshi happened once, maybe twice a year, That was very much the norm not the exception, for most students, even those ordained by Baker Roshi, which I was not.

At the same time, I had extensive practice discussion monthly or more with Reb Anderson, and nearly as regularly at times with Linda Ruth Weintraub, Leslie James, and various others. This was also very much the norm, at least for resident students and most of those working in the businesses. As it happened in my own case, I connected dharmically with Reb very soon after arriving at Zen Center, a good while before I even had a chance to meet with Richard. Reb was very much my actual main teacher, even while I was Richard's disciple. (I went on to later be ordained and receive Dharma Transmission from Reb.) Anyway, the point about the Downing book is that it reads as if everyone was forced to cultishly receive exclusive spiritual guidance from Richard Baker, and that is just not true, an important distortion.

It is possible for those who were not there to read this Shoes Outside the Door book and learn quite a bit of information about what happened. But the book is really a squandered opportunity to clarify some old karma in a way that might have been helpful. Downing sensationalizes whenever he can, and trivializes or demeans values of practice.

The other point is that this is very old history, an important part of American Zen karma, but the book is only about SF Zen Center 20 years ago, and before, and especially about the particular personality of Richard Baker.

We learned a lot from what happened, hopefully, and the current institution is very different, of course with whole new sets of problems, but which are being addressed more openly.

But as a source for learning the "lessons" of SF Zen Center and its failings, this book is a serious distortion and not to be taken as anything like a reliable source. Enjoy it for all the gossip if you want, but don't be misled.

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