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Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center 

Written by Michael Downing (Counterpoint, 2001, $26)

Wednesday, Oct 31 2001
Shoes Outside the Door tells the story of how the San Francisco Zen Center came into existence 40 years ago; how its members survived a spiritual and sexual firestorm in the 1980s; and how the institution, based in ancient traditions, struggles to be relevant. Michael Downing's exhaustively researched work should be of interest to Buddhists, near-Buddhists, and those curious about Buddhism -- not to mention anyone with an ear for delicious gossip and intrigue.

Downing, who has written four novels, interviewed 80 Zen Center priests and lay practitioners at length and talked to countless others in the course of writing this book. He also spent several years immersed in our local Zen culture, originally imported from Japan by beat poets and artists in the '60s who revered a Buddhist priest named Shunryu Suzuki-roshi. The center grew quickly under the guidance of Suzuki-roshi's American successor, Richard Baker. In the early '80s, Baker was kicked out for abusing the center's finances and for using his position to obtain sex from women students.

Downing explains Baker's rise and fall from the points of view of many different participants. This technique makes the book something of an oral history, which is both its charm and its failing. Although a chronological history of the center emerges from the memories of Downing's many sources, the reader is forced to endure a fair amount of narrative and descriptive repetition. Downing appears to have emptied his notebook into his word processor, and the result begs for a ruthless editor to bring coherence to the somewhat rambling final product.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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