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Thursday, 21 March 2013

3/21 - San Francisco Zen Center

               The San Francisco Zen Center is an appropriate place to begin these interviews. It played a major role in establishing Zen in North America. It was not only one of the earliest established practice sites in America, its practice center at Tassajara is the first Buddhist monastery ever established outside of Asia. It probably remains one of the largest Zen communities anywhere in the US, and in terms of holdings must be the richest.
                My meeting took place at 300 Page Street, a former Jewish girls residence (the outside ironwork, each landing of the fire-escape for example, is graced with stars of David). When I arrive, a chanting ceremony is taking place in the Buddha Hall (the Zendo is down a maze of stairs in the basement). I wait in the entry hall by a large statue of Avolakitesvara--the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Banners and paintings depicting Shunryu Suzuki decorate the walls. The window by my seat looks out upon a small inner courtyard very prettily laid out. Later Blanche Hartman will draw my attention to a “peace bell” surrounded by a halo of rifle cartridges [photo].
                When the ceremony ends, people come out to the kitchen for lunch; people—abbots included—serve themselves. Today there is squash soup, grated carrots mixed with raisins, rice, and lots of bread. I have lunch with Abbot Steve Stucky, and two former abbots—Hartman and Mel Weitsman, founder of the Berkeley Zen Center. All three wear rakusus, Steve over brown robes, Blanche over black, and Mel under a worn jean jacket. Hartman and Weitsman are both in their 80s; Stucky is probably closer to my age. He has a friendly, open manner, and a great smile. 
                Zen Center had had a reputation for austerity, and Hartman tells us that during her term as abbot she had made an effort to have people smile at newcomers. Several times people come up to me and ask if I’m enjoying my visit. Everyone seems friendly and approachable, so apparently she had been successful. Abbot Stucky relates the story about the first time he came to the door and knocked; someone opened it partially, peeked out and asked what he wanted. When he said he’d come to find out about Zen, they told him to wait a minute and closed the door in his face. Hartman lowers her face to her hands and shakes her head.
                Since Richard Baker’s departure, Zen Center has had a structure in which abbots are appointed for a four year term with the option of another three. There have been two concurrent abbots until recently; now there are three. Unlike other Zen centers elsewhere, students do not come to work with a specific teacher but rather to become part of a community, in which there are several teachers and several layers of organization. There is an abbot for Page Street and another for the Green Gulch farm; the central abbot has responsibility for the whole operation. The abbots each take turns taking responsibility for Tassajara’s practice sessions.
                In addition to teaching responsibilities, the central abbot is also responsible for the operations of what must be a multi-million dollar entity.The property holdings of Zen Center are enormous. Three buildings in a row on Page Street in addition to Green Gulch farm and the Tassajara Practice Center, which had been a hot springs resort to which the wealthy had come for “cures” since the beginning of the 20th century.     
                The focus of Zen Center under Shunryu Suzuki had been lay practice; however—according to Weitsman—Richard Baker was primarily interested in the residential program, and as a result that became, and remains, the focus of the work done at Zen Center. One of the three buildings on Page, in addition to the accommodations at 300, is a residence. In Berkeley, however, the members are primarily lay people with families and jobs.
                There are people who come to practice zazen in the mornings, entering through a side door. The front door (despite a sign which says Welcome) is locked. The neighborhood has been gentrified—in part due to Zen Center itself—but, as Hartman points out, it still isn’t a neighborhood where one can leave the door unlocked. The reason they have a large donation box in the entryway is that the smaller box had been taken along with its contents.
                As we wait outside for my taxi to arrive, Hartman tells me she wishes Zen Center had been able to reconcile with Baker—but, she says sadly, he couldn’t admit that he had done anything wrong. They all recognized the contribution he had made to establishing Zen Center, Hartman emphasized that if I really wanted to know about Zen Center I should speak to Baker (who was the only teacher I wrote to who did not reply to request for an interview). He still casts a shadow that touches the center.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 23-38

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