Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The San Francisco Zen Centre and Therafields

I am well and truly back now from my wonderful experiences in Italy and Egypt with my husband, Mark Hall and some others with whom we were on tour for a time in Egypt. I want to continue writing about issues related to the history of Therafields as I experienced them, relying also on the interviews that I conducted in 1997-8.

I’ve been reading Michael Downing’s book Shoes Outside the Door about the troubles in the Zen Centre in San Francisco that came to a head in 1983 and led to the forced resignation of their abbot, Richard Baker. There is much in Browning’s account that bears resemblance to the dynamics in Therafields that ultimately led to its succession of crises and its dissolution about this same period. There are many important differences as well, but it is instructive to look at another community formed in the 1960s, with a practice at its core – in this case meditation, and with charismatic leadership which went awry, confusing and dividing the core members – not just with one another, but within themselves as well.

The responses that long time members gave about their feelings toward the Zen Buddhist priest, Suzuki-roshi who came from Japan in the early 1960s to found a Zen centre, read very like those given by people who knew and were involved with Lea in the early days of her practice, in the days when her practice was the true and dynamic centre of her life. People said: “I loved him; he was my teacher, my friend; I felt that he saw me and accepted me to the depths.” “I wanted to be around him, there was peace with him; I’d go with some neurotic problem and in ten minutes it didn’t seem like a problem any more. The words would just fall out of my mouth like a pool on the floor and all I would want to do is to be with this beautiful man;” “I loved Suzuki-roshi: he was the most important influence in my life.” “We were his students; he loved us; he would have died for us; he was devoted to us.” “He taught me to trust.” One woman said when she came for the third time to sit at the centre she feared that he would throw her out because she couldn’t sit still like the others. He came by and adjusted something in her posture. “He touched me and there was such love and acceptance in his touch: it was like I had been in a drought. Here was a loving person at last.” “He was what we were doing there.” “What I had to hold onto was my meditation and my helpless transference to Suzuki-roshi.” A man who had been in and out of Harvard a couple of times and had sought out many teachers and philosophers said “When I met him, I knew that he was the guy. I never try even to praise him; I don’t have the words.” “He unequivocally changed my life forever.” “Just watching him, the way he sat (in meditation), the way he stood; we were learning by watching, by imitating. He was just there. He sort of captured all of us.” Browning, pp71-73)

It’s rather like an ancient myth: a mature person comes from afar with an unknown practice and a charisma that together give to some young, idealistic, searching people in the 1960s an emotional home as well as a location for growth within that same practice. Browning captures the power of their capitulation into disciple-hood in these words: “Sometimes it reads like a love story: falling in love with a stranger, falling so far that you forsake all others; falling away from yourself until you are not an American and you are not Japanese and you are not a layperson and you are not a monk and you find yourself wrapped up in a black robe and falling on your knees to bow down in gratitude to the person who occasioned this fortunate fall.” (Pg.71) A major difficulty with losing yourself so entirely to a stranger from afar is that you don’t know what you don’t know. What Suzuki-roshi’s disciples didn’t know was that he had been given a mission to found a centre for the Japanese already living in America, to develop a monastery from which some few could go for training in Japan and ultimately secure the lineage and traditions of Japanese Zen Buddhism among the diaspora. But Suzuki was a bit of a rebel. He had his own ideas about the development of Zen in America. Two key pieces thus were brought into forms as they developed in the Centre: “monks” could be married (certainly not unknown in Japan but still a disputed reality); and, the Centre could be self-sustaining through the entrepreneurial spirit so much a part of the American scene. When Suzuki died in 1971 at the age of 67 of pancreatic cancer, Richard Baker became abbot.

Richard was 33 years old, married with children, and had been for years the spearhead of a number of businesses run by the Centre which made it an extremely profitable enterprise. He had been practicing zazan, the study of the self especially through the practice of meditation, for close to 20 years, and had received Transmission from Suzuki: -- the passing-on of his teacher’s dharma and lineage within the Zen tradition. He was Suzuki’s heir and was accepted as such by the membership – in part because he was Suzuki’s choice and in part because of his own considerable charisma. Over the next 12 years he developed his own way of being abbot. There were problems with that way that created divisions within the membership and within individual members but there was no forum within which these could be addressed. Finally they came to a head in 1983 when Richard was seen to quite openly have an affair with the wife of a wealthy and influential layperson. The crisis occasioned by the husband’s public outrage gave the Board and the Abbot’s Council – many of them the same people – a space, a perceived permission to speak of, to acknowledge their hitherto unexpressed, unshared concerns and doubts about Richard’s stewardship. He was asked to resign. The problems had come to a head over a sexual issue but had their roots more in the extravagant life-style that Richard had assumed for himself as the head of the Centre. The regulars, students who lived and worked at the Centre and in its multitude of businesses received a small stipend in addition to room and board. Richard had ways of manipulation, unacknowledged even to himself most likely, to protect himself from criticism and dissent. Sex, money, power, charisma, obedience, the desire for things to be alright, a leader who cannot grasp or acknowledge his own failures and limitations, self-censorship, and the censorship perpetrated by the leader through denial, rejection and shunning: all familiar pieces to anyone close to the centre of Therafields over the 1970s.

In the Japanese Zen tradition the teacher is viewed as enlightened but not perfect. The teacher can make mistakes; the student needs to see these and to learn from them as things to avoid. Enlightenment or Kensho, literally means, “Having seen a corner of the nature of things,” or, “Getting a glimpse of it from time to time.” It’s like Winnicott’s “good-enough mother.” You do the best you can but you can never be perfect and to try to be perfect or to set yourself up as being perfect is a distortion that divides you from yourself and from others. This was the missing piece for the membership at the Zen Centre over the years of Richard’s stewardship. It was also the missing piece in Therafields from the days when Lea’s core connection with her clients and students changed profoundly in its nature. The core changed but that fact could not be acknowledged. Too much was invested in the way things had been, both for Lea and for us. We didn’t have the perspective to see Lea as one of a possible number of teachers who could help to give direction to our lives. We couldn’t, as a nascent community, accept her fallibility. We had no experience of a person like our own stranger from afar and like the people who met Suzuki in the 1960s, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. People who had worked with Lea, who loved her and owed a great deal to her and who were committed to being a part of the community that had formed around her, became divided within themselves in the same way that she was divided. No one could say that the emperor had no clothes. No one could say: Lea has made some bad decisions and is not being open or honest about them. This is not working; we have to acknowledge that fact and so does Lea; we have to get back to basics and see what we are about. Others need to come forward to carry on not just her work but her leadership. There were people who had the capacity for doing just that. Why this did not happen both early on and much later in the history of Therafields involves all of the usual sources of human failures to which we are subject, some of which I hope to explore in future posts.

I appreciate hearing from people about the posts and would be happy to speak with anyone interested in contacting me about their reactions or their own personal experiences.

1 comment:

  1. Brenda, thank you for bringing in so many different perspectives to the Therafields story. I need to say that, as a birth mother who was brainwashed into giving over care of her child to others, I was extremely traumatized by my Therafields experience. And these many years later, after years of good therapy and with a relationship with my adult child, spouse and grandchildren, I still need to access help to make reading this blog possible. I am amazed to realize I had no meaningful contact at the time with other mothers in the same situation. Did your research give you any insights into how they coped and what kind of life they had in the intervening decades? For my part, the damage done to me and other mothers as well as to our children by Therafields experiments in social manipulation needs to be acknowledged somewhere. I do not deny that I needed help with my mothering skills. I was by no means the perfect mother but I loved my child more than life itself and losing him an agony I would wish on no one.