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Zentatsu Richard Baker (1936-)

禪達妙融 Zentatsu Myōyū
リチャード・ベーカ ー

Zentatsu Richard Baker
(born Richard Dudley Baker)
Zen teacher Richard Baker was born in Maine in 1936. He studied architecture and history at Harvard College and in 1960 left the East Coast for San Francisco. A year later he began studying Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In 1962, Suzuki Roshi established San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), the first residential Zen center in the West. In 1966, SFZC expanded to include the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where Zen practice adhered to the traditional modes of a Japanese Soto monastery. Shortly before his death in November 1971, Suzuki Roshi installed Richard Baker as the abbot of the extended community. Over the next twelve years, Baker Roshi's work included the founding of the Green Gulch Zen Practice Community in Marin County, the Tassajara Bread Bakery, and Greens Restaurant. In 1983, under pressure from senior members of the community, and amid accusations and subsequent denials of sexual and financial misconduct, Baker Roshi resigned from his position as abbot. The rift between Baker Roshi and SFZC remained bitter for many years and still lacks resolution.
After leaving San Francisco, Baker Roshi started the Dharma Sangha, with centers in Germany, Austria, and Crestone, Colorado. For the past six years, Baker Roshi and his companion, Ulrike Greenway, have divided their time between the United States and Europe.

Zentatsu Richard Baker line

Baker, Zentatsu Richard

See more at:

Original Mind : The Practice of Zen in the West
by Richard Baker
London : Thorsons, 1999. 320 p.
Cf. http://dharmasangha.org/dharma/original-mind


PDF: Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi
by Stuart Lachs
October 2002


PDF: “Beautiful Women Dig Graves”
Richard Baker-roshi, Imported Buddhism, and the Transmission of Ethics at the San Francisco Zen Center
by Jason C. Bivins
Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 17, Issue 1, pp. 57–93.


Excerpted from
Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center
by Michael Downing
Counterpoint, Washington, D. C., 2001


reviewed by Vladimir K.
reviewed by Dorie Clark

The story of Shoes Outside the Door

When I first heard about Zen Center, I was astonished that the remarkable history of the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia was unwritten. I began to ask why no one had told this story. “I'm living proof of why you better not speak out,” explained one ordained Zen priest. “The degree to which I've been scapegoated publicly was most effective in keeping everyone else quiet.”

In 1959, a Japanese priest started to practice Zen in America with a few students, poets, painters, and drifters, and by 1980 the San Francisco Zen Center had become huge and hugely successful, accruing wealth, property, and prestige. And its exquisite aesthetics were tinged with the glamour of celebrity. Zen Center's real estate holdings included the Tassajara Hot Springs near Big Sur, Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, a clothing company, and a bakery. Longtime member Ed Brown's Tassajara Bread Book was riding the bestseller lists, and Zen Center's popular upscale vegetarian restaurant, Green's, was inspiring a generation of cooks and chefs. Zen students found themselves working as waitresses and busboys, serving dinner to Ken Kesey, the Dalai Lama, Stewart Brand, Gregory Bateson, and then-Governor Jerry Brown.

In 1983, this hot core of the counterculture experienced a meltdown. And the most prominent community of Buddhists in the West found themselves at the vanguard of a cultural revolt against spiritual authority.

For more than three years, I researched this story. Ultimately, I interviewed more than a hundred people associated with Zen Center. I spent months reading everything from personal diaries and letters to meeting minutes and budgets as the first non-member given access to the Zen Center archives. And I carried with me the words of one of the first young men to practice at Zen Center: “Everyone was desperate,” he told me. “The quality of practice then—it was like being in the catacombs. We were fugitive heretics—junkies, prostitutes, screwed-up adolescents, and runaways—and most of us were too young to know what to do with the serious life experiences we'd had in the world.”

At some point during the late spring of 1983, Richard Baker
realized he was in a pickle. He wasn’t alone. Hundreds of people
were stewing in the same juice. But Richard was an enlightened
Zen master. He was the chief priest of the San Francisco Zen
Center, the most influential Buddhist training and teaching center
in the country. He was Abbot of the first Buddhist monastery
established outside of Asia in the history of the world. Even
people who didn’t particularly like him or his flamboyant style
conceded that he was an intuitive genius, reliably able to
anticipate cultural trends and to dream up events and enterprises
to exploit them. So it surprised a lot of people in and around Zen
Center that Richard hadn’t smelled trouble sooner.
“I was at Tassajara during the Peace Conference,” says John
Bailes, who was Richard’s student for more than a decade. “And
you had to wonder, Is this guy stupid?”
It had been going on for years, says Paul Discoe, a carpenter
and ordained priest, but “most people didn’t want to see
One of Richard’s personal attendants remembers how he
told himself the story of his teacher’s behavior until that
weekend. “I thought, I wish I could say to [Richard] Baker-roshi,
‘I know that nothing is wrong, that it is all aboveboard, but you
should be careful of appearances as well.’” He shrugs. “I didn’t
know his history.”
He was not alone. After Richard was installed as Abbot in
1971, dozens of Zen students rotated through his three residences,
earning their room and board and tiny monthly stipends as
household staff. Most of them saw nothing that unsettled their
faith in their teacher; within the year, most Zen Center students—
the largest and most seasoned community of Buddhist
practitioners in America—terminated their relationships with
Richard in the aftermath of the revelations, accusations, and
hijinks referred to by Abbess Linda Cutts as “the Apocalypse.”
This apocalypse was not occasioned by a sudden, eyeopening
moment of satori, the instantaneous enlightenment that
incited so many Americans in the fifties and sixties to explore
Buddhism and other yogic cultural practices. Whether they were
busy contemplating their navels or trying to come up with a
passably irrational response to a question about the sound of one
hand clapping, those early enlightenment groupies wanted to be
splashed with the cold, clear waters of awakening.
The San Francisco Zen Center Buddhists are descended from
the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. They like to wake up to their
Buddha nature softly, gradually, slowly; they’re sleepers who are
reluctant to get out of bed, just like the rest of us. This may
explain why so many of them didn’t respond to the many alarms
they heard in the years before 1983. Who hasn’t hit the snooze
button a few times?
So, it was not an insight into the nature of all things that
attracted their attention one sunny weekend in March of 1983. It
was a dusty pair of women’s slip-on shoes. The shoes were
spotted several different times outside the door of Richard’s cabin
at Tassajara, an old hot springs resort 150 miles south of San
Richard was in one of the little wooden cabins. He had first
visited the resort in the early 1960s with his wife, Virginia, and
even then “I thought it was great,” he remembers, though “it
looked pretty run down—the kind of place you bring your
girlfriend or boyfriend, to be away from your spouse or job or
something. It was pretty tacky, but beautiful.” By 1983, when
Richard invited his friend Anna and her children to join him there
for a long weekend, the buildings and landscape at Tassajara had
been subtly and thoroughly transformed. A pearl had been
The Esselen people and other Native Americans visited the
Tassajara hot springs for centuries before the first white settlers
arrived in the 1860s. These settlers named the place Tassajara, a
coinage that probably derives from the Esselen phrase denoting
“the place where dried meat is hung.” Tassajara acquired its
basic shape as a rustic resort in the early years of the twentieth
century, long after the anonymous Chinese laborers cleared and
dug the road, and long before one of Joan Crawford’s husbands
bought it and, like almost every other owner, could not manage
to make it pay. It’s not a gold mine. Even today, after thirty
years of extensive renovation by the current owners, including a
few new residential buildings and some low-cost improvements
to a couple of saggy old barns (where they stick the kitchen and
cleanup crews during the summer guest season), Tassajara can
only accommodate about seventy overnight guests.
Tassajara is far from anywhere. On a map, it is about ten sky
miles east of Big Sur. When you look inland from California’s
central coast, you see the outskirts of the two-million-acre Los
Padres National Forest. Near its center is the Ventana
Wilderness—200,000 acres of rugged and profound sanctuary. It
is ringed by a snaggle-toothed grin of granite peaks more than a
mile high; inside, the sloping land is dense with stands of conifer
that give way to sudden, almost purely vertical ridges. A single
dirt road winds slowly upward for more than ten miles and
plunges down the last four toward Tassajara Creek in a series of
switchbacks that sometimes will spare a car’s transmission (if a
recent rain hasn’t washed a lot of trees and rock into the road)
though often at the cost of the brakes, which go mushy and can
melt under constant pressure in summertime temperatures of 110
The road ends—it just ends. You’re almost there. It’s a short
walk down a soft hill to the valley floor, where the little village
spreads out along the creek. A central stand of long, low
buildings houses the kitchen and dining room, a large deck
overlooking the creek, and an administrative office. There is one
telephone (sometimes), and four giant propane tanks provide fuel
for cooking and hot water for cleaning up, but the guest rooms
are not electrified, and every night the paths and cabins are lit by
kerosene lamps. This keeps the nightly fire-watch crew alert, as
wildfires have more than once nearly burned Tassajara out of
Follow the dusty footpath to the right, and you pass a short
string of pine and stone rooms set along the banks of the creek.
Only one building project—a large concrete bathhouse—was ever
completed across the creek, where a steep piece of ridge intrudes
almost into the water. It is now in ruins. Erosion has turned the
big old bunker into a temporary retaining wall. It’ll be gone soon.
The path winds through the narrow valley floor—you’re at the
bottom of an ancient gorge, and the land rises so precipitously
from the creek basin that sunlight slips inside for only a couple of
hours every day, even in the summer. A few hundred yards
further on, you pass the new Japanese-style wood-and-tile hotbath
complex, and then you head into deeper woods, where land
begins to rise toward the ridge and the path dwindles away and
you are hiking out of the gorge on a narrow trail.
If you head left from the central courtyard and dining room
along the footpath, you pass painted wooden huts clinging to the
creek’s edge, and then the men’s and women’s “dormitories”—
two little rustic motels for solo travelers willing to share one of
the five twin-bedded rooms with a stranger. The valley floor is a
little more generous over here. There is room enough for a few
big public buildings, a neighborly cluster of eight-by-ten coldwater
cabins, a flower and vegetable garden, one strange
cylindrical cabin with a deck that is bigger and much less
charming than anything else on the property, a couple of refitted
barns where students live, and a swimming pool filled with a
temperate and blend of creek and hot-spring waters.
Every night there is nothing but the unsteady amber glow of
glass lanterns lined up like jarred fireflies along the path, an
embarrassment of stars overhead, and the creek water smoothtalking
its way around a lot of rocks.
Richard’s wife Virginia and their two children had decided not to
join him at Tassajara that weekend in March of 1983. Anna and
her kids had their own cabin, but the neighbors—most of them
not more than ten feet away—figured those dusty shoes outside
Richard’s door were Anna’s. “They were,” Richard says, years
later, nodding. Several people also remember Richard and Anna
holding hands as they walked along the path toward a trail into
the woods. When he hears this, he looks genuinely confused.
“Could’ve been,” he says, and then he smiles briefly, as if he
wishes he had held Anna’s hand. “I actually don’t think so, but it
could’ve looked like it. It was impossible to hide what we were
feeling. “
Hiding? Who said anything about hiding?
No one in this story supposed that Richard and Anna had
traveled to Tassajara for a clandestine rendezvous. Just for
starters, Richard is six-foot-two, with dark eyes, a big Roman
nose, and he shaves his head. He attracts attention. Anna was
lithe, blonde, and “so beautiful”--according to a young female
Zen student who remembers the first time she saw Anna on Zen
Center property-- “so beautiful that I didn’t ask her if she needed
help, even though she looked lost. I immediately thought, She
must be here visiting [Richard] Baker-roshi. No way he doesn’t
know this woman.”
On the merits of their appearance and behavior alone,
Richard and Anna might reasonably have expected to excite
passing glances no matter where they were that weekend. And
secrecy was not served by their selection of a resort with one
public byway, a communal dining room, and sleeping
arrangements only slightly more private than bunk beds. Also,
Richard sort of owned the place.
Since 1967, the Tassajara hot springs resort has been owned
and operated as a summer-season business by the San Francisco
Zen Center, a nonprofit corporation sole at the time, with Richard
as its legally designated Chief Priest. Tassajara is also Zen
Center’s monastery. Here, for the first time in the 2,500-year
history of Buddhism, Zen priests and monks were trained and
ordained in the West. And though the guest season was still a
few months away and Tassajara typically is closed to all visitors
from September until May for intense monastic practice periods,
that spring weekend in 1983, Richard had invited the most
eminent Buddhist teachers, scholars, and poets in the Western
world to the first Buddhist Peace Conference. Thich Nhat Hanh,
spiritual pioneer of the Buddhist Mindfulness communities was
at Tassajara, along with poet Gary Snyder, American Zen master
and founder of the Diamond Sangha Robert Aitken, Esalen
cofounder Michael Murphy, former California governor Jerry
Brown, and most of the senior priests of Zen Center. Richard was
spending the weekend at the one place on earth where every
sentient being he passed was bound to recognize him--and to
miss him when he wasn’t around. “He and Anna didn’t make it
to most of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks,” a former Zen Center Board
member recalls. “Of course, by then, Paul was there.”
Richard had invited Paul Hawken to the conference, too.
Paul was Richard’s friend. Paul was Anna’s husband. Paul had
recently turned over to Zen Center 200 shares of stock in his new
business enterprise, the Smith and Hawken garden-tool catalog
company. He and Anna had also made a recent donation—
$25,000 in cash and a $20,000-dollar loan—to Zen Center in
exchange for a home that had been built for them on the Zen
Center farm and practice center in Marin County, twenty miles
north of San Francisco, where Richard’s wife and two children
lived most of the year.
And yet, everyone who lived through the Apocalypse will
tell you, as more than eighty of them have told me, it was not
about sex.
Okay; but it was not not about sex.
“How could these people not have known there were other
women in his life?” Frederique Botermans had spent several
years at Tassajara and was on her way back from a stay in Japan
when she heard the news. “I was shocked by the community
more than Richard. Did they think he was perfect?”
By 1983, John was not looking for perfection. “I didn’t care
who Dick slept with,” he says. “I did care that he cared who I
slept with and told me who I could or couldn’t. That he did.”
John had taken a leave of absence from college in 1972; it was not
until February of 1984 that he left Zen Center and returned to
Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree. Fifteen years
later, John is a married investment advisor, and he is training to
spend the year 2000 as a crew member (“one of seventeen in a
seventy-two-foot boat,” he says) in a sailing race around the
world. “I like situations,” John explains. “That’s why I like Zen.”
John remembers Richard, at his best, challenging and
pressing people to exceed their own perceived limits, “and people
rarely do that,” John says. “The relationship with Dick was
always one of love, and it made me strong.” He smiles and takes
his big hands through his curly brown hair. John is taller and
more obviously muscular than Richard, but as a young Zen
student, “I used to feel I had gone fifteen rounds with
Muhammad Ali. As my practice matured,” says John, “well . . . I
think it was difficult for [Richard] to acknowledge the growth of
his students. He couldn’t do it.” After several years as Richard’s
student, “there was always this confusion: Is this Zen practice of
is this just a power trip?”
John attended a public lecture in San Francisco given by the
Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh during his stay at Zen Center
in early 1983. “I remember sitting in the back of the theater. [A
lot of us] had worked to get Thich Nhat Hanh here. Dick
introduced him. And I realized I was fed up,” says John. “I
thought this had Nobel Peace Prize written across it—everything
people imagine Harvard is about, not Zen.” John is one of several
Zen students who were “shocked and not” in March of 1983.
“Dick stated, before the Hawken affair—I heard him say—‘The
shit is going to hit the fan.’ As far as Dick could make a plea, he
was making a plea,” explains John. “But he couldn’t give anyone
an opportunity to help him.”

pp. 3-9.