The transmission to, and transformation in, the United States of traditional Zen meditation and Zen community administration are the subjects of Michael Dowling’s Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center (2001), which reviews the recognition and reform of some troubling elements of an organization’s culture and governance.
Dowling chronicles the crisis created in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the management and financial practices, and the sexual involvement with community members, of Richard Baker, who as Abbot and Chief Priest dominated both the spiritual operations and the secular administration of the San Francisco Zen Center (the “Center”).
As one longtime member told the author, “If you were to think of Zen Center as a corporation, and Richard as CEO, [his hyperconnected, high-level swirl of executive activities and networking] would make perfect sense. It’s just that some of us were slow to think in those terms. We thought we were outside of the world of corporate life.”
Of course, as Dowling notes, the Center had been incorporated in California as a corporation sole, enabling Baker to exercise extraordinary authority. For example, in 1979 he used Center funds to buy a $25,000 BMW—on the grounds that it made his extensive driving for Center purposes safer and more pleasurable, and that he was attempting “to prove that you could be fully a layperson and [also] a monk.” (Baker also told Dowling that “I like to drive in zazen posture,” and that “I thought, compared to my sort of peers [Tibetan Buddhist leader Trungpa Rimpoche, and est founder Werner Erhard], I’m being pretty modest. But it was just sheer indulgence.”)
The chair of the board at that time would recall, “The Board actually said, ‘We don’t want you to buy this.’ But he’d already bought it. And what I can’t believe is that we said, ‘Oh, well, then there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Isn’t that amazing?”
According to meeting minutes, the purchase was ultimately approved, “[a]fter a very long discussion”—by, Dowling observes, a “group of senior priests hand-picked by [Baker, which] had effectively displaced the legally empowered Board of Directors in administrative decision making,” even though “many of [its] members. . . were still voting members of the Board.”
Despite its previous and protracted passivity, the community ultimately persuaded Baker to resign, and then revitalized its governance structures and processes. To Dowling, “This was the real work of making Zen American. It was a tireless, often tiresome effort that involved almost every member of the community. . . . . It was a ten-to-fifteen-year effort . . .”
By 2012, the chair of the governance committee could observe, for a magazine’s profile of the Center’s fiftieth anniversary, “Our website describes our governance policies, in detail. There’s an effort to be not only transparent but also accountable.”
Today, the Center’s site includes its bylaws (last amended in 2016), which share with those of some other Zen practice organizations a provision for an “Elders Council.”
At the Center, the Elders Council “provides continuity of religious leadership.” It “meets periodically to reflect on the health of Zen Center practice”; and identifies, and proposes to the board, candidates for senior religious offices (Abbots and Abbesses).
Members of the Elders Council include current and former (serving during the previous ten years) Abbots and Abbesses, as well as some individuals who have not only practiced in the Center’s Zen lineage for at least twenty years—including four practice periods at a specific facility of the Center—but have also served as “Head Student.”
The Elders Council is distinct from two other groups: the Center’s “advisory Council,” administrators appointed by the Abbots and Abbesses to address “administrative and practice leadership” and “review Zen Center personnel to consider what is best for each person in terms of practice, training, and the functioning of Zen Center as a whole”; and the Abbesses/Abbot’s Group, in which current and former holders of those offices “discuss matters. . . including but not limited to priest ordination, liturgy, forms and overall religious policy as well as . . . offer peer support” to each other.
Not all of the members of the Elders Council must be current or former Abbots or Abbesses. Nor does it seem that they all are required to be otherwise currently affiliated with the Center; or even, possibly, to have been “Head Student” of a practice group at the Center (rather than one affiliated with another organization of the same Zen lineage). Moreover, the bylaws provide that the Elders Council can by unanimous vote waive any of the membership requirements.
Both in this situation and more generally, what practical facets of governance might “outside advisors,” or members of an “advisory group” or “advisory committee” (perhaps best not collectively described, at the risk of their being mistaken for actual directors, as a “board of advisors” or “advisory board”) wish to have clarified (especially in writing)?
Some issues are similar to those relevant to so-called “advisory directors.”
A “baker’s dozen” of others:
First, can members of such a group expect to be involved only through meetings of the group, and in the preparation of the group’s recommendations or decisions, or might they anticipate being approached privately by individual directors (or by a committee of the board, or even by the board as a whole) to contribute their personal perspectives on particular issues?
Second, if advisors can be approached individually, can only some (instead of all) of them be asked for their thoughts on specific concerns?
Third, can advisors expect that if they are not asked to contribute their views on a particular topic, they will still be informed that other members of the group were asked, and what the substance of their individual and/or collective responses was?
Fourth, will advisors be expected—or allowed– individually to contact some or all members of the board to introduce, or expand on, their own concerns about particular issues? Or is such information to be presented to the board only through the advisory group itself? Or, are both the group and its individual members expected only to respond to specific questions posed to them by the board?
Fifth, if advisors can contact the board individually, are they expected to share this communication with the other members of the advisory group?
Sixth, can an advisor individually (instead of through the group) request that the board furnish further information on a particular issue—and if so, will this request, and any material so provided, be shared with the other members of the group?
Seventh, is the advisory group expected to conduct and record a vote on specific matters, or simply to convey “a sense of the group”?
Eighth, can members insist that their individual views on particular issues be conveyed, verbatim or in paraphrase, to the board?
Ninth, to what degree will the board communicate with an individual advisor or the advisory group its reaction to information or proposals, beyond informing them of the board’s decision on, or other disposition of, an issue?
Tenth, to what degree is each advisory group expected to interact (or not) with other advisory groups?
Eleventh, can the advisory group select its own leader (if there is to be one), and decide when it will have regular and special meetings?
Twelfth, can the group, as committees of the board generally can, retain counsel or other professional advisors of its own choosing, at the corporation’s expense?
Finally, to what degree is are the procedures and logistics of an advisory group expected (as those of board committees generally are) to follow those of the board itself? Can the group unilaterally adopt its own internal rules, or must it obtain board approval for them?
Some might find in “Shoes Outside the Door” echoes of a poem attributed to Zen master Soen Nakagawa (1907-1984):
Looking for serenity/ You have come/ To the monastery.
Looking for serenity/ I am leaving/ The monastery.
In fact, a poet who lived and practiced at the Center from 1974 to 1982 but “never gave [Baker] authority over my life” told Dowling, “What I love about the Zen tradition is that the idea of leaving is built in. You have an intensive monastic experience, and you take it with you. You really don’t have to feel like a failure when you leave.”
Referring to her, another member from that era reflected, “The people who were most successful at Zen Center had their craft or art and didn’t lose touch with it.”
*With apologies and thanks to Robert M. Pirsig (1928-2017), whose Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), which I discovered at a library book sale two months before I went to college, inspired me to take, the following spring, Professor James Ward Smith’s introductory course on “Philosophy and the Modern Mind,” and ultimately to major in philosophy.
I would never have imagined then that many years later I would cite his book in a law review article, or that I would actually receive from the famously reclusive author a response to a copy forwarded through his publisher.
Robert Pirsig was one of the founders of, and served as a vice president and director of, the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.