Desire, devotion and excess. The scandal that rocked the San Francisco Zen Center in 1983 was potent enough to cast doubt on the entire mater of alternative religious practice in America. It launched a genuinely American investigation in to abuses of power and spiritual authority. Leaving many at a complete loss, forced to question a path that had consumed their entire lives.
At the age of fifty-five Shunryu Suzuki Roshi left his native Japan to lead a small and fledgling Zen Buddhist temple in San Francisco. The year was 1959 and the temple was housed on the grounds of a former Jewish synagogue. Upon arrival, Suzuki Roshi’s sleeping quarters were located upstairs in a windowless room with an adjoining office. Zen had become a hot topic amongst alternative groups in the United States. Word began to spread throughout beatnik communities that a true Zen Master had arrived in San Francisco and slow but steady trickle of alternative types began showing up to practice. Suzuki Roshi remained steadfast in his openness to any and all who were drawn to the practice, often advising they join him and “Just sit.”
Soon Richard Baker would arrive. A Harvard drop out, recently relocated to San Francisco, Richard quickly fell in with Suzuki Roshi deciding on the spot to dedicate his life to Zen Buddhism and its growth in America. As Richard worked his way up the newly forming ranks of the San Francisco Zen Center his opaque “Americanness” became ever more apparent. He sought investors and forged plans to expand the Zen Center beyond it’s current location. Amid the upheaval and self exploratory nature of the 1960’s the San Francisco Zen Center flourished and in 1966 at the guidance of Richard Baker the community purchased a parcel of land isolated deep within California’s Los Padres National Forest called Tassajara, establishing the first Buddhist Monastery in the western hemisphere.
Prior to his passing in 1971 Suzuki Roshi preformed the Dharma Transmission ceremony, recognizing Richard Baker as his dharma heir; “I’m sorry for what I’m about to do” Suzuki Roshi whispered to Richard during the ceremony. Soon, Richard was installed as abbot. Under Baker’s CEO modeled leadership Zen Center continued to expand. They bought a building in San Francisco’s lower Height neighborhood transforming it into a Zen temple. Then came Green Gulch Farms, a practice center located in Muir Beach California. The Tassajara Bread Book, selling an initial 750,000 copies was soon to follow. The high end vegetarian restaurant “Greens” rounded out the budding portfolio. A uniquely American-Zen empire was taking shape.
There were however, problems. Some of which could be expected, the combination of rapid growth and unclear distinctions between semi-lay and semi-monastic practice proved problematic. However, the tipping point had less to do with ambiguities in levels of devotion and more to do with Richard Baker’s style of leadership and alleged financial and sexual improprieties. The bubble burst in 1983, in an event now known throughout the community as “The Apocalypse”.
The fallout around Baker’s personal indiscretions brought into sharper focus issues of sex, monastic and lay practice and the role of families in Zen communities. In effect the entire model of American Zen practice was brought into question. Ousted from the community, Richard Baker would move on to small practices in Santa Fe, Europe, and the mountains of Colorado in an attempt to reestablish his lineage. A process he continues to this day at the age of eighty-three.