Richard Baker and the Myth of
the Zen Roshi
Stuart Lachs, October 2002
Most people think of Zen as being iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian,
simple, direct, and unattached. Its raison d'etre is to produce
people who possess a fundamental insight into life, people who are
not fooled by appearances or ideas. The fact is that almost everything
about Zen's presentation, practice, and rituals is aimed at producing
people who give up their good sense with the promise of a greater
gain in the future. While this is obviously a general statement
that demands further qualification, it serves to introduce some
of the basic problems to be dealt with here. Please keep it in mind.
This is not a new idea nor is it unique to Chan/Zen. David Hume
said in his Of the First principles of Government (1758) that "Nothing
appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with
a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed
by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their
own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers." I believe
that the reason for this surrender, in the case of Zen, is clear,
structural, and self-perpetuating.
What I mean by the "Zen" institution, for the simple purpose
of this conversation, is the organized set of structures that support
the standard model of Zen. According to this model, mind-to-mind
transmission began with an encounter between the historical Buddha
Sakyamuni and Mahakasyapa, and continued, in an unbroken lineage,
through twenty-eight Indian Patriarchs. The last of these was Bodhidharma,
who began the patriarchal line in China that led to Hui-neng, traditionally
considered to be the sixth and last Chan patriarch. This scheme
was later institutionalized through the ritual of Dharma transmission.
Mind-to-mind transmission implies that the student has attained
an understanding equal to his Zen master/roshi and so on backwards,
hence being equal to the original, unmediated wordless understanding
that supposedly passed between Sakyamuni and Mahakasyapa. Supporting
tools to make this narrative seem real and unconstructed include
the particular methods of meditation and interactions between teacher
and student as well as an abundance of validating mythologies most
often presented as history in the form of biography, along with
accommodating literary and ritual devices. It is this idealized
version of Dharma transmission that claims the master is an enlightened
being that is the source of the Zen master's extraordinary claim
This is not to imply that there is no value to be gained in the
practice of Zen. It simply means that a power structure has evolved
that will perpetuate itself even if it means imputing "attainment"
to people who don't really have it. To legitimize the various family
lines within Zen, Zen's self-definition necessitates establishing
a continuing unbroken lineage of transmitted masters connected to
the historical Buddha. The conception of an unbroken lineage based
on the idea of mind-to-mind transmission going back to the Buddha
superceded a previous idea of authority that was based on texts,
i.e., the sutras, which were understood to embody the words of the
historical Buddha. You can see how much more potent it is to have
a teacher presented as a living Buddha or at least Buddha-like,
who, instead of simply interpreting and explaining the words of
the Buddha, actually speaks with the same voice as the Buddha. This
new Buddha is also alive and homegrown and hence more immediate
and real. All of this authority and potency is manifested in the
rituals of the Zen master commenting on and judging the words and
actions of not only their disciples, but also of anyone in the lineage
going all the way back to and including, the historical Buddha.
It is a performance meant to confirm and display the current master's
significance, authority and attainment.
Michael Downing's book, Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion,
and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center (2001) describes much of
the sexual scandal surrounding Richard Baker, as well as financial
problems and Baker's generally arrogant behavior. Not only is the
book a compelling read; it also, more importantly perhaps, provides
raw data for observing Zen mythmaking in action. It allows us a
much closer look than we get through, say, looking at the many biographies
of past masters from Chan in China during the Tang dynasty (CE 618-907).
Richard Baker is an extremely bright and talented person and a born
salesman. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, shortly before his death in December
1971, gave him Dharma transmission in the Soto sect of Zen, thereby
making Baker, for his students and for all future people in his
lineage, an authentic link to the Buddha. At that time, Baker also
became the official leader of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC).
Baker is the sole western heir of Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese Zen teacher
who founded the SFZC and its mountain training center, Tassajara
established in 1967. Downing interviewed roughly eighty people,
most of them Baker's students, approximately eighteen years after
Baker was forced to resign. The San Francisco Zen Center "scandal"
was not unique in American Zen history. In fact there are few major
centers not touched by sexual or other scandals, but the SFZC case
suffices for the discussion we will have here.
The idea of the enlightened Zen master authenticated through the
ritual of dharma transmission and maintained by an unbroken lineage
going back to the historical Buddha is at the heart of the Zen tradition.
In this scheme, each teacher can trace his lineage and hence, authenticity,
back to the historical Buddha. The implications of this authority
in some ways far outstrip that bestowed upon the highest secular
authorities, since there is the implication that the Zen master
is enlightened, a fully attained being.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Baker case is that the
people at the SFZC did not change their fundamental understanding
of the process they had gone through for, in some cases, twenty
or more years. This is not surprising, being, as it is, a natural
result of the customs and environment created by the Zen institution.
The Zen Institution
[Note: This section offers background mostly not covered in Downing's
For some thirty years a significant group of scholars have been
investigating the development of the Chan sect in Chinese Buddhism.
They have shown us clearly that much of what has been presented
by the tradition as "history," is really a myth created
with two purposes. One was to make the state consider Chan the primary
sect of Buddhism. The other was to establish Chan's primacy over
the indigenous teachings of Confucianism and Taoism in the eyes
of the state and the elite of society. The same myth was later used
in Japan for similar purposes, with Shintoism being the competing
Despite its iconoclastic image, Zen has in actuality been a remarkably
conservative institution throughout its history, almost always tied
to and controlled by the state and elite elements of society. There
is certainly nothing anti-authoritarian about the notion of unbroken
lineage going back to the historical Buddha. Likewise, Dharma transmission
was as much about institutional prosperity, prestige, authority,
continuity and acceptance and control by imperial authorities as
it was about notions of enlightenment and spiritual perfection.
The Zen master is a role that stands as a representative of the
entire Zen institution. He occupies an authoritative place in East
Asian cultures that have already been imbued with a special level
of hierarchy since ancient times. It could fairly be said that what
is effectively transmitted by Dharma transmission is institutional
authority, rather than religious wisdom. However, I do not mean
to imply there is no inner spiritual content to the Zen tradition.
Dharma transmission has been awarded and is still awarded for many
reasons besides spiritual attainment. In fact, it was often not
based on spiritual attainment at all, most especially so in Japanese
Soto Zen, which is the sect of Suzuki, Baker and the San Francisco
Zen Center. In this sect, Dharma transmission is commonly a father-son
transmission ritual culminating in the son's inheritance of the
family temple. Spiritual attainment, insight into timeless truth(s)
or any other profound changes in one's inner life play virtually
no part in the majority of these Dharma transmissions or in the
every day functions of these roshis.
But the Soto sect tries to have it both ways. It allows bureaucratic
transmission, but it also uses "historical" biographies
of eminent masters presented as desireless beings, the koans, and
the many Zen stories and dialogues (mondo) to legitimize and to
enhance authority, that make clear that transmission is given because
of a deep insight into reality or spiritual attainment. Read any
of these texts of Zen, The Book of Serenity, a Soto sect koan collection,
being one prominent example, and this will be abundantly clear.
"Hollow" transmissions such as those between father and
son are incorporated into the unbroken lineage to the Buddha. (If
the reader wants to argue that Dharma transmission in the Rinzai
sect or in the modern Sanbokyodan sect so popular in the West matches
the ideal of Zen rhetoric, please feel free to email me at my address
listed in the Notes.)
Even when Dharma transmission does reflect some level of something
we may call spiritual attainment, it is not based on the idealized
version proffered by the Zen institution: a mystical meeting of
minds between teacher and disciple sharing a timeless truth that
unvaryingly matches the minds of all teachers going back in the
lineage, through the six Chan Patriarchs in China, and the twenty
eight generations of the supposed Indian lineage going back to the
historical Buddha, and beyond. This is a mythology of Zen, a pure
fiction. The Zen institution requires the master because he is supposedly
a living example of the ideal of Zen and, as such, represents all
of its legitimacy and authority. A large institution like Zen requires
hundreds of such living role players. This necessitates the production
of virtual quotas of such highly exalted people, while in the realm
of "spiritual attainment" it is rare to produce just one
such person. Therefore, in the living world of flesh and blood we
have people with some very limited level of attainment occupying
a role that is defined as Buddha-like, actualizing perfect freedom
and unfathomable compassion beyond the ordinary person's understanding
and hence above question. However Zen texts may define the role,
Zen masters have not been fully enlightened beings beyond question.
In the 1960's and 70's, San Francisco Zen Center students, like
most other Zen students in the U.S.A., thoroughly accepted (among
a range of glaring historical inaccuracies) the idealistic Zen rhetoric,
including the notion that Dharma transmission is only about spiritual
attainment, that all roshis are essentially equal, and that Zen
institutions in East Asia are apolitical and divorced from the state.
It is interesting to note that these beliefs persisted strongly
even into the year 2000, roughly the time of Downing's interviews
when there had been thirty-five years of sexual and financial scandals
in the Zen community in America. This would have led any impartial
observer to question the spiritual implications of Dharma transmission.
By this time there had also been an abundance of scholarly writing
and empirical evidence exposing much of the mythology surrounding
So why did none of Baker's students, as expressed in their interviews
with Downing, show any awareness that institutional self-definition
encouraged their idealization of Baker, which allowed, perhaps even
fostered, the occurrence of many of the alleged abuses? No one took
the opportunity to stand back and view the entire affair from any
sort of sociological, anthropological, psychological or religious-historical
perspective. Nor did anyone even think to view the situation through
the lens of the Buddhist teachings themselves or even the particular
teachings of their beloved founder Suzuki. I think this happened
because Zen's teaching to avoid words and explanation was taken
too literally and has fostered an unfortunate narrowing of perspective.
This is also extremely disempowering which can lead to all sorts
of problems, as the SFZC case clearly shows. With one or two exceptions,
the only views expressed of Baker's errant behavior among the Center's
members was in the context of their personal experience. I assume
that Downing would have included a broader view if he had heard
it from any of the interviewees.
In the West in general, but particularly in America, we place great
importance on each person's individuality and uniqueness and hence
on our personal experience. We seem to forget that we live with
other humans and that society is a human product that we act upon
and that acts upon us and in a sense produces us. Our personal experience
is socially constructed in dialogue with society and with ourselves.
In the case of Zen, students usually come to the teacher with a
set of preconceptions, acquired mostly through reading, about the
fully attained Zen master as being virtually beyond their comprehension.
The historical Zen masters we have all come to know are always presented
in terms of supposedly real people, with names, dates, and locations,
and reports of purportedly real conversations and interactions with
other monks and sometimes lay people as if there is no doubt at
all that we are dealing with historical individuals.
This "history" has added weight because it is presented
as biographical fact. Practitioners are given the ultimate encouragement
of knowing that real people "attained enlightenment" and
therefore so can we. But how real is this history? Most of the narratives
of the early heroes of Chan that we have today were composed hundreds
of years after the ostensive events, complete with verbatim accounts
of the master's interaction with a disciple presented as if a court
stenographer had been recording the entire interaction.
Interestingly, the later versions of the supposed events often have
more detail than the earlier versions, implying that we are dealing
with literary creations rather than historical biography. (See Foulk,
"Myth, Ritual, and Monastic Practice," listed in the notes
for a fuller discussion.) There are also accounts of people receiving
transmission from masters who were dead by the time the supposed
transmission took place. In short, the biographical approach to
history seems to be used because it has intimate real-life immediacy.
Writings featured as biography in Zen are most often an idealized
presentation of how a master should perform his role rather than
the life of a real person. This is hagiography, which is necessary
for Chan's self-legitimating claims of mind-to-mind transmission
and unbroken lineage. The past generations are presented in a saintly
and exalted manner, which adds to the prestige of the tradition
as a whole, but most importantly, to the prestige of the last name
on the lineage chart, the living teacher. In the end, both teacher
and student fall prey to these fantasies. In this regard Mr. Downing
has offered an excellent example in Richard Baker and the SFZC.
I am thankful for Michael Downing's work, which is extremely valuable.
However, it should be noted, that he let interviewees voice any
number of inaccuracies without comment. For example there was the
claim that Zen monasteries in China were self- sufficient, which
makes it seem that they were not dependent on the state and elite
elements of society and were not actively promoting themselves to
get this support and patronage. The historical fact is that monasteries
actively courted the state and elite elements of society, depended
on donations from wealthy patrons and or the state, had tenant farmers
work their often vast donated and inherited land holdings, etc.
Another error is seen in the statement that Yasutani roshi rescinded
the Dharma transmission he gave to Philip Kapleau. In fact, Kapleau
never received Dharma transmission in the first place, so there
was nothing to rescind. There is a whole lineage built on the idea
that Kapleau had transmission. (I don't mean to say that Kapleau
is any more or less qualified to teach for receiving transmission
or not, and in fact he is one of the few major teachers not involved
with sexual or other scandal though one of his disciples did have
a major scandal.) Cases like this are important simply because the
study of Zen history has shown us the whole lineage tradition is
built so heavily on questionable written and word-of-mouth accounts;
what is said in the present will surely be repeated long into the
Trouble At The San Francisco Zen Center
I believe the trouble at the San Francisco Zen Center, and at many
other prominent Zen Centers, across the country to this day, is
caused by a lack of understanding as to how the ideas of Dharma
transmission, unbroken lineage, and Zen master have been used historically.
The meaning of these terms evolved as a means of self-definition
for the Zen sect to differentiate itself from other Buddhist sects
in a way that particularly matched the Chinese social system based
on genealogy and to gain legitimization and authenticity from the
imperial powers that always maintained tight control over Buddhism.
Under the Zen approach, the Chan masters are clearly more potent
than the monastics of other Buddhist sects, who merely explicate
the Dharma through texts, often texts that are further distanced
from their authoritative origins by the act of translation. This
imputation of power and attainment has given one Zen roshi after
another the power to abuse their position while remaining beyond
reproach. Under the Zen form of legitimization, each Zen roshi is
viewed as a saint. In the last few decades as opposed to the past,
we have had a clear personal view of the actual people involved,
Richard Baker being only one. If the past is any indication these
present teachers will be referred to as honored patriarchs in the
For a peek into a period only shortly before our own, we can use
Brian Victoria's book Zen At War. Victoria describes how the most
prominent roshis from all sects of Japanese Zen interpreted Zen's
teachings to support the imperial and militaristic goals of Japan
from the early twentieth century through the end of World War II
and beyond. Before Victoria's book was published these people, many
who were influential in bringing Zen to the west, were routinely
presented as flawless examples of Zen attainment. This has a direct
bearing on the Baker story and the way mythology continues to be
constructed even in the present.
Baker wrote an introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, an edited
collection of Suzuki's talks, in which Baker said (p.17), "During
the Second World War he [Suzuki] was the leader of a pacifist group
in Japan." This is a very interesting piece of "history"
which is no doubt destined to be repeated. In fact, David Chadwick,
a student of both Suzuki and Baker, lent some credence to this assertion
in his 1999 book about Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber. Nevertheless, following
extensive investigation, even Chadwick was forced to admit: "Anything
Shunryu had done that could be considered remotely antiwar he had
done before the Pacific war started" (p. 97).
Brian Victoria was so interested in the possibility of a public
pacifist/anti-war Soto monk that he contacted Suzuki's son Hoitsu
who told him: "I don't know where all of this antiwar talk
comes from, but my father and the rest of the family supported Japan's
war effort just like everyone else." (It should also be noted
that Victoria is fluent in Japanese while Baker and Chadwick are
not.) Furthermore, Chadwick told Victoria that when he (Chadwick)
had once asked Baker himself about the basis for the claim, Baker
replied that he could not remember! Perhaps tellingly, Baker made
this claim at the height of the Vietnam War, when virtually 100%
of Zen followers were opposed to the war and hence having an anti-war/anti
-government roshi in his lineage was good currency. This story appears
to be an example of modern day creation of hagiography that will
be repeated in the future. Furthermore this creation has to be ongoing.
It will not do for future generations if there are gaps in the line
of saintly figures.
You have to ask whether Suzuki was aware of the claims made by Baker
and, if so, why he permitted them to stand without correction. (It
should be noted that Suzuki could read English.)
We see in Downing's book that it is precisely the idealized notion
of Dharma transmission that pre-empted anything that Zen Center
members saw for themselves when viewing Baker, their Dharma-transmitted
leader, at least prior to the rupture in 1983. Baker and the senior
priests dismissed any questioning of Baker's behavior or activities
as a lack of insight into enlightenment on the part of the questioner.
Hence, questioning and dissent became a shortcoming of the person
expressing such a view. At times, senior disciples needed to reassure
newcomers who questioned Baker's behavior that all was in order.
One student said that when the senior priests were questioned about
some aspects of Baker's behavior, the answer was, "Richard
has Transmission." A senior member relates in Downing's book
that Suzuki himself refused to hear criticism of Baker by other
members of the Center because, as he said, " To his [Suzuki's]
way of thinking, Dick's commitment was at another level, so the
rest of us were not in a position to criticize him." Because
the newcomers' indoctrination into Zen ideology was incomplete,
their unfortunate reliance on common sense prevented them from viewing
Baker's eccentricities as qualities of an enlightened Zen master.
Baker himself was quick to remind his flock that he was the only
American to receive Dharma transmission from Suzuki Roshi. This
reminder served an important purpose: the Center's members viewed
Suzuki's authority as if it were a divine fiat, so that any dissent
or criticism was ended.
San Francisco from the 1960's into the 1980's was considered by
many to be the freest city in America, especially when understanding
"libre" as freedom from ideological constraints. Zen Center
members did not think there was any thought control or propaganda
necessary to escape when it came to Zen. Members had not the slightest
inkling that their view of Zen was controlled. They believed their
way of living and of practicing Zen was the best alternative available
in America. People put their hearts into the practice and the Center,
sometimes going as far as asserting that the Center represented
the cutting edge of Zen in the America. When one member was about
to leave (after the Baker scandal), rather than receiving well wishes
or a word of advice from his teacher-who happened to be the new
abbot after Baker, he was smugly told that he would be back in a
It is clear from Downing's interviews that Zen Center members assumed
that there was no ideology to be questioned, i.e., the unreliable
history of Zen, the hagiographic picture of the lineage, along with
its mythology of Dharma transmission, unbroken lineage, and enlightened
Zen masters. A number of Downing's interviewees spoke of receiving
the true or pure Zen teaching from Suzuki Roshi. It was not surprising,
then, that when trouble arose at the Center it was mostly assumed
that something must be wrong with the members themselves; that it
was because they did not use or handle well Suzuki's pure teaching.
One older student expressed it this way, "In our hands, and
it was in our hands, it [Suzuki's pure teaching] became a bludgeon
of power, a source of competition, jealousy, and paranoia. That's
what we made of it." All trouble at the Center was internalized
and personalized by its members. Institutional mythology, which
created a seamless picture of unbroken lineage along with pure,
desireless perfection and attainment housed in the body of the master,
was not questioned, and hence, remained intact.
Baker manifested his authority by giving his followers two choices:
obey his words without question or be marginalized, which was tantamount
to being forced to leave. The latter choice was too painful for
many for any number of reasons, including: 1) many believed that
the Center was the best place to practice Zen and so leaving meant
giving up what made life seem most meaningful, 2) their self-identities
as Zen practitioners were connected to the Center, 3) loyalty to
Suzuki Roshi, 4) leaving close friendships established through communal
living and especially through practicing meditation together, 5)
loving the lifestyle and 6) fear of losing one's position in the
hierarchy and the possibility for future higher positions culminating
in being Dharma transmitted oneself. Therefore, in the need to remain
at the Center, members had a powerful incentive to fully buy into
Zen's mythology. This was especially true of people wanting to climb
Zen Center's ladder to positions of authority, power, and prestige,
which was totally dependent on Baker's sanction. There is a saying,
"It is difficult to convince a man of something if his paycheck
depends on his not understanding it." Obedience, subservience,
and discipline were well rewarded at a large institution like the
San Francisco Zen Center, as Downing's book amply shows.
Baker and Suzuki themselves were rewarded by this system. Besides
the personal power of his position Baker lived with paid travel,
an abundance of high-priced worldly goods, a number of well-appointed
residences, a steady supply of household help and assistants, sex
with his students and access to high profile friends. Suzuki's prestige
grew enormously. He was leader of the largest Zen center in the
United States and founder of Tassajara, the first Zen monastery
in America; he sent a number of American disciples to study in Japan
and was surrounded, as was Baker, by hundreds of devoted, unquestioning,
often young and energetic followers. But in truth, neither Suzuki
nor Baker fit the saintly mold.
Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and its
leader until his death in 1971, was an impressive person, sincerely
loved by most all the Center's members. Baker's introduction to
Suzuki's edited words in the well known book, Zen Mind, Beginner's
Mind gives a description of Suzuki as the ideal of a fully realized
What the teacher really offers the student is literally living proof
that all this talk and the seemingly impossible goals can be realized
in this lifetime. The deeper you go into practice, the deeper you
find your teacher's mind is, until you finally realize that your
mind and his mind are Buddha's mind.
Baker then quotes Trudy Dixon, the editor of the book, thus endorsing
A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which
is the potentiality for all human beings. He exists freely in the
fullness of his whole being. The flow of his consciousness is not
the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness,
but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances
of the present. The results of this in terms of the quality of his
life are extraordinary-buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity,
humility, security, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity and unfathomable
compassion. His whole being testifies to what it means to live in
the reality of the present. Without anything said or done, just
the impact of meeting a personality so developed can be enough to
change another's whole way of life. But in the end it is not the
extraordinariness of the teacher that perplexes, intrigues, and
deepens the student, it is the teacher's utter ordinariness.
Suzuki indeed had ordinary and even tragic circumstances in his
life, as is shown in Downing's book, who references David Chadwick's
book, Crooked Cucumber, for the following details. He was married
three times. His first wife contracted tuberculosis and returned
to her parents shortly after marriage; his second wife was brutally
murdered by an erratic, antisocial monk whom Suzuki had retained
as a temple assistant, despite contrary advise from neighbors and
colleagues. His youngest daughter, Omi, committed suicide after
spending nine years in a mental hospital; he gave Dharma transmission
to his son Hoitsu, who did not study with him or even get on with
him, but who inherited his temple (this is standard Soto Zen procedure);
he gave, as a favor to a friend, Dharma transmission to someone
he did not know or have any contact with. He also ran a temple virtually
under the control of Japan's repressive fascist era government.
This is the sort of detail, which might be useful to both present
and future students, but it is absolutely missing from all of the
completely standard biographies of Zen masters through the ages.
A theme repeated in Downing's interviews is Suzuki's seemingly quirky
idea of reforming Soto Zen in Japan by having his American students
go there as living examples of reform. His American students accept
this theme unquestioningly. Yet, after Tatsugami Roshi, one of the
important training teachers from Eiheji, one of the two main Soto
Zen training monasteries in Japan, conducted only one training period
at Tassajara, Zen Center's monastery in California, Suzuki "arranged"
for him not to return because his American students were so dissatisfied.
In addition, the few American students of his who went to Japan
came back disappointed, which upset Suzuki because he thought these
students would then think less ofBuddhism. There appeared to be
a vast cultural divide between the Zen Center students of Suzuki
and Japanese Zen monks that showed itself both in America and in
Japan. Suzuki surely knew that his fellow Japanese Soto roshi and
priests would hardly accept Americans as examples for the reform
of Zen, especially in Japan. So it is natural to ask, why did Suzuki's
and Baker's students mention this so often? And what was Suzuki's
intention here? In addition, if there were something to reform in
Japanese Soto Zen, the automatic Dharma transmission for virtually
all priests, often between father and son, would be high on the
Why did Baker perpetuate such a simplistic view of Suzuki? I don't
know for certain but Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind was published in
1970, only one year before Baker himself received Dharma transmission
and the title, Zen master. Downing reveals that by 1969 Suzuki had
made it known to Baker and others at the Center that Baker was to
be his Dharma heir. Baker's use of Dixon's words begins the description
of Suzuki Roshi, with the strange phrasing "a roshi is..."
This substitutes what is supposed to be a description of their close
and beloved teacher Suzuki Roshi, a real person, with an abstraction,
"a roshi." Yet Baker certainly knew that, at best, few
if any roshi are so fully realized. More tellingly, Baker, inserted
the very idealized description of qualities and characteristics
supposedly of Suzuki Roshi, generalized to all roshi, knowing it
would inevitably, indeed shortly, be applied to himself.
Even though the bureaucratic "transmissions" in the Soto
church have nothing to do with spiritual insight, the Soto institution
does nothing to dissuade people thinking that there is a mind-to-mind
connection between its "roshis" and the historical Buddha.
In fact, Suzuki's lineage, now and as long as the line survives,
comes through his son Hoitsu and Baker and that unknown person.
In particular, Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center lineage continues
through his bureaucratic "transmission" to his son Hoitsu.
In time Suzuki, Baker, Hoitsu, and Unknown will blend into that
"history" of immaculate patriarchs. This is not ancient
history. Before our eyes we have a living person becoming a faceless,
a-historical person. It is a sanitized description wherein any one
roshi is replaceable by any other roshi, which is really no person
at all. There is nothing in the description that allows someone
in the future to distinguish Suzuki, Hoitsu or any of their heirs
from any of thousands of hallowed ancestors.
This formulaic collection of qualities of a Zen master, is not neutral.
The experience of legitimacy, realness and of being believable hides
the underlying power relations. This "non-person" i.e.,
a roshi, is a generic person, who supposedly is a real member of
the Buddha's family, the holder of absolute truth, whose function
besides producing an heir to keep the lineage alive, is to wield
authority: to be listened to, obeyed and bowed down to.
And perhaps most importantly, his authority will be understood with
a taken-for-granted quality of being natural. Institutional power,
authority, hierarchy and order are, hence, accomplished through
self-censorship by the members, a more effective method for controlling
dissent and questioning than coercion by the leaders.
It was not mentioned in the interviews that Suzuki himself might
be partially responsible for the ensuing trouble. It is possible
that Suzuki had a paternal attachment to Baker. Suzuki enabled the
ensuing trouble by transmitting only to Baker to the exclusion of
other westerners, by failing to understand Baker's character, by
failing to mitigate his authority in any way, and by failing to
explain clearly the historical and common way that Dharma transmission
was and is used in Soto Zen. In not clearly explaining the meaning,
to his disciples at the SFZC, of his transmission to Baker, while
stressing that it was "real;" Suzuki chose to perpetuate
a fiction and to dishonor the trust they had given him. His focus
on having the Center grow quickly and on reforming Soto Zen in Japan
may also have contributed to the problems.
Understandably, Suzuki may not have been able to read across the
Japanese-American cultural divide and therefore not see the character
flaws of Baker that were obvious to some of his unenlightened American
students. Finally, as Suzuki apologized to Baker for what he was
going to do to him, i.e., give him and only him Dharma transmission,
Suzuki knew that all was not right or ripe or both with Baker. Yet
for reasons known only to him he proceeded to make Baker his only
American Dharma heir. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Suzuki,
in so many ways an admirable person, had a large hand in the problems
that followed his death.
Why should we think that Suzuki chose Baker as his only American
Dharma heir based on his level of "spiritual attainment?"
After all, the only two previous Dharma transmissions Suzuki gave,
to his son Hoitsu and to Unknown, were not based on attainment at
all. Remember the senior student who quoted Suzuki as saying, "
Dick's commitment is at another level, so the rest of us simply
were not in a position to criticize him." Interestingly, Suzuki
did not mention "spiritual attainment," but rather commitment.
This is not surprising if we remember that in Soto Zen "spiritual
attainment" is rarely a criterion for Dharma transmission.
We may however, ask, "What commitment was Suzuki referring
to?" Was Baker's commitment to Zen practice much greater than
a number of other of Suzuki's close, very committed senior disciples?
Or was it that Baker, in addition to his commitment to Zen, was
more committed to institutional growth than the others, and importantly,
was the only disciple who possessed the necessary skills and qualities
to achieve the growth; the growth that Suzuki desired?
All of this is in the context of Suzuki, the Zen master, being a
man whose quality of life is described as: "buoyancy, vigor,
straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, security, joyousness,
uncanny perspicacity and unfathomable compassion." This is
a person without a defect, showing no self-interest, desire, interior
calculation, or a shortcoming. Yet we all know that no human is
like this. Suzuki or any other Zen master only looks this way if
we avoid looking at their real life. But that is the way that Suzuki
or Baker or any roshi is presented. And that very presentation is
the freight of the Zen machine. It means, "Don't ask. Trust
me." It is an institutional dream that needs to be analyzed
using its own description.
Richard Baker is a man who through the ritual of Dharma transmission
has been installed in the Soto Zen sect's "authentic"
unbroken lineage going back to the historical Buddha. In the future,
his name will be used as proof of authenticity for someone else
that is also claiming this authentic connection to the Buddha. This
is one reason why we are looking at his case, to see how the system
works, how it has always worked.
When it came to Baker's transmission from Suzuki, virtually all
the students interviewed by Downing assumed that it was a "real"
transmission. It was considered "real" because it came
from the saintly Suzuki and Suzuki made a point of saying it was
"real." By saying this, he was emphasizing his guarantee
that the essence of the Zen lineage resides in Baker. One student
stated it as, "The one thing that seemed unquestionable was
Richard's Transmission." It did not matter that Baker did not
appear to offer his students the "living proof that... the
seemingly impossible goal [of Zen] can be realized in this lifetime"
as Baker himself described the function of the teacher. In fact,
a number of older students who had known Baker for years left the
Zen Center when he was installed as both abbot and roshi of SFZC.
If someone attempted to question some aspect of Baker's behavior,
both Baker and senior disciples reminded them that Baker was the
only American Dharma heir of Suzuki. The senior disciples consistently
stressed that Baker's transmission was real; it made him into a
"pure vessel of the Dharma," a man of wisdom, far beyond
the questioner's obviously limited understanding and suspicion.
It was almost like a magic theater, where if someone received Dharma
transmission, and hence, was a supposed enlightened being, he would
become a different person who could do anything he pleased. One
justification sometimes heard, glib to my ear, is that enlightenment
is not about morality. Not surprisingly, virtually 100% of the time
these breaches of morality serve the pleasure and interests of the
supposed enlightened one. It seems that Zen's emphasis on wisdom,
while giving compassion only lip service, is really about power.
It is clear that the senior members of Zen Center surrounding Baker
were well-indoctrinated vessels of Zen ideology.
As long as it was understood that Baker was the only Dharma heir
of Suzuki, it was exceedingly difficult for any one to question
Baker's behavior and style. Hence, a number of questions were never
openly raised: Was he acting in an arrogant fashion? Had he misused
confidences given to him in dokusan (a private meeting between teacher
and student pertaining to the student's practice, an extremely important
element in Zen training) for self-serving reasons? (Downing's interviews
showed that he did.) Was he hypocritical for reprimanding his students
for flirting while he carried on numerous affairs with his female
students, including one that ruptured his best friend's marriage?
Was his lifestyle less than exemplary? Was he acting primarily with
his own self-interest in mind? What was or was not implied in Baker's
transmission from Suzuki? Was he perhaps not a fully realized person?
These and any number of other questions, complaints, hurts or criticisms
harbored by his disciples, were not raised. In America, it is common
in Zen and other communities led by a charismatic teacher to view
events that could generate questions such as these not as real life-problems,
but as "skillful means" employed to convey the essence
of "the teaching." I have seen such a view expressed in
four other major Zen communities as well as in a Tibetan community.
It is fashionable among practitioners in the West to consider critical
thought as "un-Zen." With this view in place, the entire
spectrum of permissible thought is now caught and limited within
Zen's mythological presentation, which was a completed creation
by the eleventh century in China. Analysis or active use of "the
discriminating mind" is frowned upon, or worse, it is viewed
as a sign of having too large an ego. Any genuine interpretation
or questioning of the meaning of Dharma transmission, lineage, the
Zen roshi, their place in the institution, their accountability,
and so on is made to seem absurd. The idea and ritual of Dharma
transmission rather than the meaning or content of that transmission,
becomes the prominent and meaningful fact. Zen elevates its leaders
to super-human status, then emphasizes that we should be obedient
and subservient to a powerful and supremely accomplished authority
figure, precisely because he is powerful and supremely accomplished.
Is it any wonder that the inevitable abuses that we have seen for
the last thirty years should follow?
Zen Center Members
San Francisco Zen Center practitioners did make a serious commitment
to their practice. A theme repeated throughout Downing's book is
Suzuki's injunction to "just sit," which means to do seated
meditation. It is mentioned often enough that Downing, interestingly
calculates the hours that individual senior members had meditated.
By the seventies he calculates 10-15,000 hours and that by 1987
the most senior practitioners had each meditated some 20- 25,000
hours on the cushion. With this investment it is understandable
that one might not want to question too closely the teacher's behavior.
It should be kept in mind that the senior members, by 1982, were
often over forty years old and had been practicing at Zen Center
for fifteen or more years. Besides Suzuki's chosen heir Baker's
questionable behavior, Downing reveals many of the senior people
scrambling for positions of authority, power, money and perks.
Some of the most senior members appeared afraid to raise difficult
questions with Baker perhaps for fear of losing their own privileged
positions. One student expressed it as, "some of the senior
priests were in it for a payoff-Transmission," another stated
it as, "They were ambitious, and only Richard could give it
[transmission] to them, because he was the only one who had it."
One of the oldest and perhaps most outspoken members who was eventually
forced out by Baker stated, "this was a system that was about
staying asleep because it was too risky to wake up." Newcomers
naturally looked to senior priests as guides or friends, but in
doing so, they may have been mistaken. It was like a "game"
of Zen where if any one speaks out or asks the wrong question, the
"game" is ruined or finished, at least for that person.
Senior members also appeared blind to the voices of others and closed
There was a widespread conceit in their thinking that they were
the center or "cutting edge" of Zen in America, not cognizant
that many other Zen groups were forming city/country Centers and
also experimenting with the ideas of setting up monasteries, group
practice, communal living and forming a sangha. Downing shows that
even in their every day negotiations for used restaurant equipment
when they were opening Green's Restaurant, they held a disproportionate
sense of their own importance in the wider community. The senior
members blindly and unquestioningly bought into Zen's mythology
and Baker's transmission being above and beyond question. As is
common among members of new religions, they viewed themselves as
special. One has to ask if something is not missing in Suzuki's
simple prescription to "just sit?" Unfortunately, this
issue is not raised or considered by any of the Zen Center members
interviewed in the book. It is noted that after 1983 the study of
sutras, Zen texts and history was instituted. But, given that no
one interviewed in the book expressed any view outside of the standard
Zen model, one may ask, was the Zen history taught at the Zen Center
just more of Zen legend?
I too was a member of a Zen center where we also felt that our group
and style of practice were in some ways unique. The issue here is
not how individual students behave foolishly or even in a self-serving
way, it is the admonition to "just sit" - even for twenty
thousand hours - is no guarantee against foolishness or delusion.
The admonition to "just sit," to "just practice,"
is one more way in which trust in one's discriminating faculties
or any other Buddhist practice are cut off. In reality it means,
"don't question, don't look!"
It is important to remember now that the interviews Downing conducted
in 1998-2000 were long after the events at the SFZC took place.
People interviewed had the luxury of hindsight. Despite this, few
people interviewed seemed to be aware that by continually repeating
the transmission story without reflection and without making the
effort to understand what they were part of, they were in fact becoming
an integral component in the creation of a new myth-which was then
used by people like Richard Baker. San Francisco Zen Center students
and other students throughout history were also one cause of the
The student who enters the "practice" having read a myth
will expect to find the myth, and will think they have found the
myth. What they really found is another story of flawed human behavior.
Baker Sums It Up
In 1989, some six years after Baker was forced to leave, he threatened
to take back Zen Center by going to court. Baker claimed the Center
was "denying 2,500 years of how Buddhism was developed and
continued..." He made a number of other historically inaccurate
claims, and finally dropped the suit saying that he was pressured
to institute the threat by a lawyer student of his: "There
was a lawyer who kept bugging me." Baker also claimed that
he was trying "to protect Suzuki Roshi's legacy and lineage."
Downing quotes a prominent older student who expressed it differently,
"Dick tried to take over Zen Center again." The suit cost
the SFZC $35,000 to $40,000 in legal fees at a time when it was
under financial pressure.
While leader of the SFZC, Baker's purchase of a new white BMW became
a focal point for much of the anger and resentments that Zen Center
members felt towards him. At the time of the purchase, Baker claimed
he needed so expensive a car because of the amount of driving he
did. "It was a fantastic drive," he said, it was safe
to drive and that he liked to keep his legs in zazen posture. Baker
adds he was "on a roll," was in love with his latest girlfriend
and that his peers, est founder Werner Erhard and the well known
Tibetan teacher Trungpa, had chauffeurs and large Mercedes, so "I
thought I should buy a car." During his interview with Downing,
Baker Roshi explains that having a "nice car," girlfriends
and going out to dinner were implementations of Suzuki Roshi's commitment
to lay practice.
Not what the holy man is but what he signifies in the eyes of those
who are not holy gives him his world- historical value. It is because
one was wrong about him, because one misinterpreted the states of
his soul and drew as sharp a line as is possible between oneself
and him, as if he were something utterly incomparable and strangely
superhuman-that he gained that extraordinary power with which he
could dominate the imagination of whole peoples and ages.
---Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1878)
I welcome any comments from the reader. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a very fine book review of Shoes Outside the Door, see Crews,
Frederick, "Zen & the Art of Success," The New York
Review of Books, 28 Mar. 2002: 8-11.
I have been involved with Zen in America for over thirty years during
which time there have been many upheavals and problems, some similar
to the Baker case described in Michael Downing's, Shoes Outside
The Door, others more subtle and less obvious in nature. A good
part of the goal of Buddhism is to reduce illusion and suffering.
One component of Buddhism is to recognize cause and effect. Yet,
I have found that within the Zen community there is little self-examination
about Zen as an institution and its self-definitions and what the
effects of these are in the world of flesh and blood people. In
Downing's book we see that much illusion, suffering and pain has
been part of Zen in San Francisco, a situation that, unfortunately,
has been repeated in most every other part of America over a thirty-five
year period. Others have told me that my view, informed by historical
scholarship (as opposed to Zen's own fictional history), sociology,
political and social analysis as well as long personal involvement,
has been helpful in clarifying some of the illusion and in reducing
some of the pain. I hope this is the case with this paper. Peter
L. Berger, the well- known American sociologist writes, "Unlike
puppets, we have the possibility of stopping in our movements, looking
up and perceiving the machinery by which we have been moved. In
this act lies the first step towards freedom."
This article is not saying that there is no place for a Zen teacher.
As in any field, there is a need for experienced and knowledgeable
teachers. However, crediting a teacher, by definition of their role
or title, with exalted qualities he does not really possess, is
begging for trouble. A Zen teacher can certainly assist his students
in their practice, can encourage the students to be diligent, guide
their meditation practice in both public and private meetings, offer
aid in difficult times, talk about Zen texts to enrich the student's
sense of the tradition and explicate Buddhist and Zen ideas. Importantly,
teachers can inspire followers by setting a living example through
interactions with their students and others and, with the conduct
of their own life, demonstrate that Zen practice can make one a
wiser and more compassionate human being. In addition, as there
are other practitioners around the teacher, it is helpful to be
part of a community of fellow practitioners.
Baker's case took place within a certain context, and to understand
what happened it is helpful to look not only at Baker, but also
at Zen institutional self-definitions and the patterns of social
life they have engendered in the United States. Until one begins
to view religious institutions as institutions that function in
a particular context, subject to the same problematic power relationships
as secular institutions, problems such as those that arose at the
San Francisco Zen Center and Buddhist organizations across the West
will be almost inevitable. The current crisis in the Catholic Church
proves the need for such an institutional analysis. Public opinion
shows that while parishioners are, of course, disturbed by priests'
abuse of children and young teens, they are more upset by the institutional
cover up and denial of that behavior. The Church hierarchy has displayed
a consistent concern for protecting and maintaining the eminence
of the abusive priests and the holiness of the institution of the
Catholic Church, rather than concern for the children and teenagers
trusted to their care.
My view of Zen as an institution, some of its problems, and how
it operates is most completely expressed in my paper, "Means
of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Zen Buddhism in America",
delivered as part of a panel on Chan at the American Academy of
Religion Conference in Boston in 1999. It is available on the internet
at http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~buddhism/aar-bs/1999/lachs.htm (here
you can also access the other papers from the panel on Ch'an ) or
at /Articles/meansofauthorization.htm (one
can also find other essays on Zen at this site). This paper can
also serve the non-scholar as an overview or introduction to modern
Zen scholarship and introduce a critical view of the important Zen
ideas of master, Dharma transmission, and unbroken lineage.
Not only the work of Zen writers, but political analysts, social
critics, sociologists, and my involvement with the practice have
informed my thinking about the state of contemporary Zen in the
West. I have found the work of the following social analysts to
be especially illuminating: Peter L. Berger, Pierre Bourdieu, Noam
Chomsky, Edward Herman, David C. Korten, Thomas Lukach, Howard Zinn
and Angela Zito.
In particular, Berger, Peter,L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a
Sociological Theory of Religion, Doubleday, 1967, pp. 3-101 applies
the social construction of reality theory to religion. Berger begins,
"Every human society is an enterprise of world-building. Religion
occupies a distinctive place in this enterprise." Ironically,
what follows is in many ways a religious text. I highly recommend
this book, especially the first 101 pages.
I am also thankful to Mark Baldwin, Sandra Eisenstein, Simeon Gallu,
Grace Luddy, Kevin Matthews, Bruce Rickenbacher and Marlene Swartz
for many hours of discussion, helpful suggestions, and editorial
The Zen Institution
There is a wealth of contemporary exciting Zen scholarship available
I am greatly indebted to the works of the following scholars, among
critical insights into Zen/Buddhism have strongly influenced my
views: Robert Buswell, Alan Cole, Bernard Faure, T. Griffith Foulk,
Robert M. Gimello, Peter N. Gregory, John Kieschnick, John R. McRae,
A. Charles Muller, Mario Poceski, Robert H. Sharf, Morten Schlutter,
Gregory Schopen, Brian Victoria, Albert Welter and Dale Wright.
Examining the work of any of the above-mentioned scholars will greatly
reward the interested reader who would like to explore contemporary
A good place to begin to examine the scholarly view of early Chan
history and development is Foulk, T. Griffith, Myth, Ritual, and
Monastic Practice in Sung Ch'an Buddhism in, Religion and Society
in T'ang and Sung China, Ed by Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Peter
N. Gregory, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, pp147-205.
To see how the most prominent Japanese Zen roshi as well as some
of the roshi associated with bringing Zen to America, in spite of
the rhetoric of the standard model of Zen, functioned in Japan from
roughly 1911 through WWII, see Victoria, Brian, Zen At War , Weatherhill,
1997. Also see his Zen War Stories to be published December 2002.
Unfortunately, the Western Zen community has not explored the many
important questions implied by Zen At War. There was an article
and follow up piece by Brian Victoria discussing anti-Semitic remarks
made by Yasutani roshi in Tricycle magazine (Fall and Winter 1999).
An interesting debate between Victoria and members of the Deshimaru
group (A.Z.I.) defending Deshimaru's teacher Sawaki roshi's wartime
involvement dating from 1905 through WWII is available on the internet
at, http://www.zen-azi.org/html/guerre_e.html#replybyb. This group
is by far the largest Zen group in France and is active in the U.S.A.
as well as in other parts of Europe.
For a many sided view of the Zen koan see, The Koan, Ed. by Steven
Heine and Dale S. Wright, Oxford University Press, 2000. A special
note is given to the papers of Heine, Wright, Foulk, McRae, Welter,
Schlutter, Michel Mohr and Ishii Shudo,.
For a most interesting examination of early Chan lineage and truth
claims read from a critical textual analysis rather than reading
them "for information about Truth and Practice" or about
"historical claims to own truth", see Cole, Alan, "It's
All in the Framing", a paper given at U.C. Berkeley, March
17th, 2002. Cole, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College, also has
two very provocative books soon to be published, one on the Mahayana
sutras and the other on early Chan texts and the "birth"
of Chinese Buddhas.
That Kapleau never received Dharma transmission was exposed in a
public letter from Yamada roshi dated,1/16/86. Koun Yamada was Yasutani
roshi's Dharma heir. He became the leader of the Sanbokyodan school
of Zen started by Yasutani. Also see the public letter from Mr.
Kapleau toYamada, dated 2/17/86. I have copies of these letters.
If some one would like copies, please email me at: email@example.com
For an outstanding article on Sanbokyodan Zen, a Zen sect important
in the West see, Sharf, Robert, "Sanbokyodan, Zen and the Way
of New Religions", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Fall
1995, Vol. 22, no.3-4. Yamada gave Dharma transmission to Robert
Aitkin, though Aitkin and his Diamond Sangha later separated from
the Sanbokyodan organization after Yamada's death. This was because
Aitkin, being a foreigner, was forbidden by the new leader Kubota
Roshi, from giving Dharma transmission, while Japanese of equal
standing in the organization were permitted this privilege (p.451).
Trouble At the San Francisco Zen Center
For an important look at Buddhist biography and hagiography though
not especially Chan, the reader may look at Kieschnick, John, The
Eminent Monk, University of Hawaii Press, 1997. In some of these
biographies, people later classified as Chan monks were listed in
other categories, such as Master Yantou Huo as an ascetic and Master
Xingzhi as a benefactor. In one well-known collection, the famous
Grand Master Yunmen is not recorded at all. Institutional and personal
motives played an important part in the composing of Buddhist biographical
collections; this was especially so in earl Chan lineage texts.
For a look at how religious fantasies may cause trouble, especially
with leaders, see "Religion and Alienation" in Berger,
Peter L., The Sacred Canopy, pp, 81-101. From the perspective of
power and control, the political and the religious spheres overlap.
For a view from the political perspective that has application in
the religious arena see Edwards, David, "A Chest of Tools for
Intellectual Self-Defense" in Burning All Illusions, South
End Press, pp.177-224.
For Suzuki Roshi's edited words see the well-known Zen Mind, Beginner's
Mind, Weatherhill, 1970. Also see, Brown, Edward Espe, Not Always
So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, Harper Collins, 2002, Branching
Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai, Ed. Mel
Weitsman and Michael Wenger, University of California Press,1999
and for a biography of Suzuki's life see, Chadwick, David, Crooked
Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunyru Suzuki, Broadway
For more on the Soto Zen institution in Japan see Foulk, T. Griffith,
"The Zen Institute in Modern Japan", pp.157-177, Zen,
Tradition and Transition, Kenneth Kraft ed., NY, Grove Press, 1988.
For a history of early Soto Zen as well as how the Soto sect has
understood Dharma transmission since roughly 1700, see Bodiford,
William M., Soto Zen in Medieval Japan, University of Hawaii Press,
1993, p. 215. "Zen Dharma transmission between master and disciple
could occur whether or not the disciple had realized enlightenment,
just so long as the ritual of personal initiation had been performed."
For an analysis of the idealized, one-dimensional style of describing
a roshi, the one of Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind being just
one contemporary example, see "Simpleness" in Alan Cole's
previously mentioned paper, "It's All in the Framing",
Also see his forthcoming book on early Chan texts for a unique dissection
of early lineage claims and their supporting texts . For an analysis
of the inherent power relations in the one-dimensional description
of a roshi and how it is taken for being natural, see "Symbolic
Violence and Social Reproduction" and "Uses of Language"
in, Jenkins, Richard, Pierre Bourdieu, Routledge, 1992, pp.103-110
and pp.152-162 respectively. Also see, The Sociology of Georg Simmel,
Trans.and Ed. By Kurt Wolff, Free Press Paperback, 1950 for a discussion
of authority, prestige, subordination, and sociability.
Suzuki's prescription to "just sit" as a kind of medicine
to answer all questions and problems apparently did not apply to
his Dharma transmitted son Hoitsu. While in Japan looking to set
up a practice place for Zen Center members, Baker wrote, "we
should make clear to him [Hoitsu] that he is not expected at all
to participate in the practice, least of all as head... He does
not sit zazen and only chants when he has a service to do for someone."
Downing adds, "Suzuki reminded Richard [Baker] that Hoitsu
had a family and two children. Did it not occur to him that Richard
had a family, too, as did many of the priests of Zen Center?"
Shoes Outside The Door, p.135. It is interesting to keep in mind
that Suzuki's lineage is alive today at the San Francisco Zen Center
because of transmissions through Hoitsu.
It was also mentioned that Suzuki believed that Dharma transmission
must be "real", implying that there is "not real"
Dharma transmission. Though these themes are mentioned a number
of times by students, it seems curious that in Downing's interviews,
no one ever questioned what this meant, no one mentioned what Suzuki
meant, why Baker's transmission was supposedly real or if Suzuki
or Baker ever explained the difference between "real"
and unreal transmissions.
Soto temples in Japan often are a family business, handed down from
father to son, as Suzuki himself had done with his son Hoitsu. Importantly,
the head of every Soto temple must have Dharma transmission. Hence,
roughly 95% of all Soto priests in Japan have Dharma transmission,
most receiving it after spending at most three years in a monastery,
some with as little as six months. Foulk, T. Griffith, "The
Zen Institute in Modern Japan", pp.157-177.
In the latter part of the book, Downing points out that the San
Francisco Zen Center has beaucratized Dharma transmission so that
in order to receive Dharma transmission a person must spend ten
or twelve years going through the system. This is very similar to
the Japanese Soto Zen, with minor variances for social and cultural
differences. Ironically, one may ask, is that what Suzuki hoped
to reform? If this was the case, it would seem that he failed this
task in America.
The idea that Zen's emphasis on wisdom while only giving lip service
to compassion in reality is then about power is an idea that I have
just begun to examine. Having wisdom, in the Zen view, is based
on Dharma transmission, which implies that the person is an enlightened
being. More commonly it is bestowed or given by a teacher to some
one with limited attainment in order to keep his lineage alive.
However, this supposed wisdom is beyond words, is not understood
by the unenlightened who are then not qualified to judge or evaluate
it, whether expressed in the words or in the behavior of the wise
one. The supposed enlightened Master gets the last word in judging
not only the student's behavior and verbal responses, but also the
whole of the past enlightened lineage including the historical Buddha
by commenting on and judging any and all of the past Masters in
the old cases (koan) and in their recorded sayings.
Michel Foucault in "The Means of Correct Training" in
Discipline and Punish, Trans. Alan Sherman, Vintage Books, 1995
(reprint edition), 1995, pp.170-195 discusses a number of aspects
of the penal system, its disciplinary power and the simple instruments
from which it derives its power: hierarchical observation, normalizing
judgment, and their combination-the examination. He writes, "
The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a
single gaze to see everything constantly." The Zen understanding
of wisdom imputes Foucault's "single gaze to see everything
constantly" to the Master. It is common talk around Zen Centers
to hear that the Master can tell your state of mind just in hearing
your footsteps in going to sanzen/dokusan, in simply seeing you
in any activity, seeing you with a single glance, or in the most
idealized version, "he just knows from a distance!"
Zen Center Members
What passes for "knowledge" in society is built on the
foundation of language. Zen Center members accepted and internalized
most all of Zen's self definitions, history and social forms. Zen's
highly ritualized activities added a visceral instantiation to the
cognitive edifice. Members along with Baker literally built their
world based on the language and view of Zen accompanied by ritualized
behavior that added to the sense of being embedded in and being
an active participant of that sacred world. One member quoted Baker
as saying, "I always act from pure motives; I never worry about
the world." Shoes Outside The Door, p.237. This is the consistent
view of the master presented by Zen, the pure, simple, desireless
and self-contained roshi, and was accepted unquestioningly by Zen
Center members. At the same time, this supposed desireless image
of the roshi is meant to invoke desire in us for him. See Alan Cole,
"It's All in the Framing."
Under Baker's leadership, it appears that the Center functioned
as a dysfunctional family, denying that anything was wrong or problematic.
As noted in the paper, senior members consistently reassured newer
members that all was well when they raised questions about Baker's
activities. Interestingly, one of the oldest members of Zen Center,
a psychologist, did an "informal poll" of people who had
been at Zen Center for more than eight years. "Something above
ninety percent of us had come from alcoholic families or families
that were dysfunctional with the same patterns." Shoes Outside
The Door, p.289.
Baker Sums It Up
For an earlier view of the immediate events surrounding Baker, see
Butler, Katy, "Events Are The Teachers", The CoEvolution
Quarterly, winter 1983, pp.112-123.
Baker claimed that the Center, in evicting him, was "denying
2,500 years of how Buddhism was developed and continued..."
However, Baker's sleight of hand replaces Buddhism's 2,500-year
tradition with Zen's fictional account of unbroken lineage going
back to the Buddha. Zen is a Chinese invention roughly beginning
in the seventh or eighth century of this era.
Some Zen followers believe that Zen is only concerned with enlightenment
and is not concerned with personal behavior or with ordinary morality.
However, for an in depth review of early Chan monastic codes and
how early Chan viewed and supposedly treated errant behavior by
monks see Foulk, T. Griffith, "The "Ch'an School"
and Its Place In the Buddhist Monastic Tradition," Diss. University
of Michigan, 1987. This dissertation also asks whether the Chan
sect existed at all as a separate and distinct sect in the Tang
dynasty, the supposed "golden age of Chan"). Foulk doubts
that the Chan sect existed as a separate sect with its own monastic
institutions during the Tang dynasty. "To sum up the situation,
we have no sources at all from the T'ang which mentions or describe
explicitly "Chan" institutions," p. 267.
Zen ascribes to Pai-chang (died 814) its earliest monastic code
that supposedly set Chan apart as a separate sect in the Tang dynasty.
However, there is no surviving text of Pai-chang's Rules. One of
the earliest texts extant is "Regulations of the Chan Approach"
(Ch'an men Kuei-shih, which cannot be dated earlier than 988) that
some scholars think was the preface to Pai-chang's Rules. Foulk
disagrees with this view. Foulk gives translations of two versions
of the text, side by side and analyses their internal structure
and contents. pp.347-379. "It is, basically, a description
of a number of monastic procedures implicitly attributed to Pai-chang,
set in a quasi-historical context, and presented with the authors
own explanation and laudatory remarks."