Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tangled Shoes Outside the Zendo

I just read Shoes Outside the Door for the first time, a book that every Zen student should read. Honestly, I don't know how or why I took so long to read it. The book chronicles, in an engaging non-linear fashion, the outrageous exploits at the San Francisco Zen Center throughout the '70s and early 1980s. All of which culminates in the 1983 "Apocalypse" where the delicate deck of cards that is the SFZC topples.

The picture that the author Michael Downing paints is a complicated one where the lines between teacher, student, and lover blur. In which exploitation and surrender are not so easily definable, where careers/businesses and spirituality are strange bedfellows. It's a complicated scenario to say the least.

The sprawling, labyrinthine structure of the San Francisco Zen Center, coupled with ambition, deep financial debt, and dozens of other factors, certainly played a hand in the unfortunate dysfunction that marked the decade of Richard Baker's abbotship.

Complicated, that's the only word I can think of to describe the confluence of forces at work in this book.   Reading Shoes Outside the Door is great Zen practice for the sheer fact that it challenges us to suspend our judgment--that all too human tendency to blame, reduce, minimize, and bifurcate.

That kind of thinking often amputates compassion.

Studying this book can be very helpful to spot our own delusion, due to psychological projection, insecurity, prejudice, you name it. For instance, why do we feel the need to blame someone? Blame, after all, while a natural human reaction, is dualistic, and thus limited.

There's no doubt that Shoes Outside the Door displays a lot of unskillful action. But we can learn a lot from this book, about wisdom, compassion, deception (and self-deception), systems of power, sex and spirituality, Western Buddhism, devotion, loyalty, Zen masters, gender roles and sexism, the role of Buddhist teachers in the West, and much more.

This is an important book, both for what it contains, and perhaps even more so, for what it can reveal about us and our practice.


  1. Strangely, I was required to read it before being ordained.

  2. That's actually a really good idea, I think. It can help prepare priests for the kind of transference and dysfunction that can arise in spiritual communities. It can also serve as a "what to avoid" map. lol