Shoes Outside the Door

February 22, 2012

Is it fair to call a book “notorious”? If Shoes Outside the Door is not actually notorious, then its subject, the near-dissolution of the San Francisco Zen Center in 1983 over allegations of sexual and financial misconduct and abuse of power, certainly is.

The book’s subtitle, Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, is certainly designed to elicit a strong reaction and I was fully prepared for a tabloid-type portrayal of what had happened. Given that I had already read about this episode online (here is one book review and another), and more recent episodes of misconduct and abuse have provided additional fodder, I was uninterested in wading through another sordid account. In fact, I actually avoided the book for several years. But then it occurred to me that I might learn something about how Zen communities work and how they deal with ethical problems. Michael Downing’s book provides a nice look at both issues and is a must-read for those on the spiritual path.

To call Shoes Outside the Door a history of the SFZC affair would be inaccurate. The story is presented in a way that not only encompasses history, it also penetrates deep into the heart of human relationships, of memory, of organizational structure and finance, of cultural misunderstanding, and more. Best of all, the story is set out in an unusual, non-linear style that succeeds brilliantly. The result gives you the feeling that you are actually sitting down to chat and reflect with the various participants. Because no single conversation ever covers the entire ground of one’s memory, we get together with these participants again and again to revisit the past and reconnect. I can’t say if this sequence actually reflects the way Downing conducted his interviews, but it produces a completely engaging account of the Zen Center’s “Apocalypse.”

Ultimately what are we to make of the Apocalypse, its fall-out, and similar affairs from other Zen communities? Does Zen contain an ethical blindspot?

It seems that the people who enter into Zen practice for any substantial length of time adopt a new language, what I will call Zenspeak, that often sounds totally at odds with the speaking habits and ethical principles that normally guide human conduct. We can find this contradiction right inside the Zen Buddhist literature itself. Compare the contents of the Buddha’s first sermon with that of the Heart Sutra. The Buddha tells his listeners about the four Noble Truths: that suffering exists and is to be understood, that grasping is the cause of suffering, that there can be an end to grasping and an end to suffering, and that there are eight practices that move one along this path. Midway through the Heart Sutra we read, “no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering, and no path.”

These contradictions can be reconciled, but to do this we must assume differing perspectives or frames of reference for the two speakers. The Buddha delivers his sermon as a man who is speaking to several old acquaintances about a problem they have shared: how to live in the world. The bodhisattva Avalokita, the speaker in the Heart Sutra, appears to be up to something completely different. He is trying to help his listener, the Buddhist monk Sariputra, understand a universal characteristic of all things: emptiness. In order to reconcile these perspectives, Buddhism gives each a special name: Relative and Absolute, or Personal and Universal. Whatever labels we use, it is essential to remember (and this is easily forgotten) that one point of view is not superior to the other. Just because the Heart Sutra tells us that ideas like good and evil are empty, it would be a mistake to ignore them. One can see that good is empty and still work for it. Likewise, one can also see that evil is empty and still resolve to turn one’s back on it. Food is empty, but it is what we eat when we are hungry. Laughter is empty, yet it is there to be shared when we are happy. The Relative and Absolute viewpoints always coexist.

An analogy from my favorite science, quantum mechanics, may help. Electrons and photons, one a type of matter, the other a type of energy, both display what is called “wave-particle duality.” This means that some experimental data can only be interpreted successfully if we apply a “wave-like” picture to electrons and photons. It also means that some experiments can only be interpreted successfully by applying a “particle-like” picture. Electrons or photons do not actually change from one experiment to the next, but the humans who work with them must be willing to adopt whatever point of view best fits the experimental data. This is how it seems to be with the Personal and the Universal. Love is empty, but it sure feels good.

The Zen practitioners who are quoted in Shoes Outside the Door fall into Zenspeak a lot, but they can also see and talk about the world in terms that anyone can appreciate:

(From chapter 13) Dan says, “This is what Suzuki-roshi taught me. If you feel you want to do something, if you want to do something as small as picking up a speck of dust, you should know unequivocally, it is going to cause myriad problems. Don’t fool yourself. Be fully prepared to pick up all of the suffering of the world with that speck of dust.”

(From the end of chapter 12) “See, you commit harm whenever you do anything,” says Lew. “You cause harm when you breathe. This is one of the realizations of Buddhism. The first precept is to do no harm, but everything you do causes harm.”

(From earlier in Chapter 12) Suzuki-roshi said many times, “It may be quite difficult to know how to help another person.”


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