Saturday, March 10, 2012

Moving towards the center

A month or two ago Adam informed me that he'd been cheating on me.  Us, rather.  Adam's a Buddhist friend who encapsulates everything I'd thought Californians would be like when I first came here (which makes sense, since he's from Massachusetts).  He's young, he wears what looks like a shark's tooth around his neck, he spends most of his free time surfing; he says 'hella' and 'dude'.  He's also extremely friendly, and he was the first person to welcome me to the Wind in Grass community I now sit with weekly on my first visit.  But then for a while he disappeared, emerging only occasionally in the flesh at one-day meditation events and more frequently in the virtual reality of Facebook, dressed garishly in a succession of bizarre cotumes.  But there he was that Wednesday night at regular pratice again, sheepishly admitting to us that he'd been meditating with another sangha.

It was, it turned out, the San Francisco Zen Center, which has a fair claim to being the oldest Buddhist temple outside of Asia, and is certainly the biggest and most well-attended I've seen, with maybe a hundred people in the meditation-hall every week.  It was founded in the 1960s by Shunryu Suzuki, a priest of the Soto sect from Japan who came over to San Francisco to serve the emigré community in Japantown, but who was adopted by beatniks and dharma-bums who had a fascination with seated meditation.  After Suzuki died, his burgeoning convert community moved into the handsome and spacious building in the Lower Haight that it still inhabits.  Later on, it acquired two other properties: Green Gulch farm, a center for work-practice and organic farming, and Tassajara, a traditional monastery in the California wilderness.  But you can read all that on the internet.

My own view of the SF Zen Center was formed by a couple of entirely contingent factors.  The first was my reading about the sexual and other misconduct of Suzuki's successor Richard Baker (which I've written about already) and the frankly straight-out weird actions of his successor, Reb Anderson (which I'll write about now).  The story is that Anderson was out running one day in Golden Gate Park (a smart thing to do), when he came across a recently-murdered body and a gun, and decided to sit beside it and meditate (not so smart).  He then took the gun with him and stored it in the Zen Center, only to retrieve it one night weeks later to brandish it at a homeless person who'd tried to mug him (dumb and dumber).  He said he was only trying to scare the mugger, but the police weren't impressed.  Nonetheless he wasn't charged, and I'm told he now greatly regrets the entire incident.

The other factor that did a lot to form my view of SFZC was that a lot of the older people in my own group, Pacific Zen Institute, had started out practising there and had, for various reasons, defected.  One man had done damage to his spine after trying too zealously to sit in full-lotus posture without sufficient preparation.  Another simply found that his practice wasn't progressing.  Another preferred a lay style of practice to one that seemed to focus on training priests.  As various as the complaints were, though, there was a common thread: SFZC was a a very formal, strict, and traditional place.  This struck a chord with me: a couple of years previously I'd been researching retreats online and had been put off by all the black gowns and stern faces on the SFZC website, and by the apparently high bars to being involved in pratice periods and retreats.

The Baker and Anderson stories both seemed to encapsulate the dangers involved in giving too much power to religious leaders, and that has always been a particular concern of mine.  The alleged formalism of the Zen Center was also something I found not to my taste, and although this was more an aesthetic than a principled difference, I do still sometimes wonder whether over-attention to ceremony can be a distraction the direct practice of awareness and compassion.  But Adam's going there made SFZC seem more accesible to me, especially when he pointed out that it was two blocks away from where I lived.  Since I'm still in an exploratory phase in my practice and since I still see San Francisco as a strange foreign city that's to be explored, I decided to go down one morning and check the place out.  I had decided, in other words, to cheat.


  1. Amazing lead. Worthy of yellow journalism -- or maybe even SF Weekly.

    1. Thank you, Lily. One day I aspire to find myself between Dan Savage and Katy St.Clair. (In the pages of a magazine, not in a sexual way.)