I'm just old enough and haute enough to have been taught that middle-class liberals were all that stood between democracy and Orwellian tyranny. Suspected as fascists in utero was the "uneducated lower middle class," which sought stability in things like unions (and possibly the Communist Party), and teen-agers, who were susceptible to silly trends and thus would be easy pickings for charismatic authority figures.
With the end of the cold war, the true believer as bourgeois folk demon fell into disuse like an action figure from last summer's blockbuster. Since September 11, however, true-believerism has been staging a comeback as experts falter in explaining the mindset of the terrorists: They are desperate men from oppressed and dispossessed nations with nothing to live for. They are "fundamentalists" who believe that God sanctions their deeds. They are in the thrall of a charismatic leader. They are insane.
This child of the 1970s has heard this before (see: Iranian revolutionaries, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the People's Temple). In fact, Westerners, Americans especially, have not made peace with the moment when our great romance with utopianism went sour, when some communities of high principle violated their own precepts and harmed their own members or outsiders.
Reckoning with the intellectual and spiritual legacy of 1960s and '70s California, both novelist and playwright Michael Downing, and Rod Janzen, a professor of history and social sciences at Fresno Pacific University and editor of the journal Communal Societies, have written accounts of an American community of ideals: Downing with Shoes Outside the Door, about San Francisco Zen Center, and Janzen with The Rise and Fall of Synanon. Although, superficially, these groups seem completely unalike–Zen Center was helping to transplant a centuries-old religious tradition; Synanon was experimenting with a garden of social theories to help the human species–both took root in the restless quest for transcendent experience during the Eisenhower years of overabundance, hypocrisy and repression. They proposed universalism and humanism when the cold war enforced a rigid "us" and "them." And they both evolved into multimillion-dollar mini-empires under charismatic leadership before being decimated by scandal.
San Francisco Zen Center, like most Zen monasteries, traces its lineage to the thirteenth-century Japanese master Dogen Zenji, but its real story begins in 1959, when an elderly priest, Shunryu Suzuki, arrived in the Bay Area to become the head of a neighborhood temple. The Beats had broken in Americans to some of the concepts of Buddhism, at least enough for "That's so Zen" to be heard at smart cocktail parties and for a few Americans to recognize an alternative to their own cultural heritage. And as consumerism was coming to dominate life, college kids were inspired by the example of Gautama Siddhartha, the Indian prince who forsook his riches to find an end to suffering. As Emerson and Thoreau had found a hundred years earlier, Buddhism has a beautiful equality–all beings have the Buddha nature within them and are capable of enlightenment.
But the few Americans in those days who made their way to Bush Street at six in the morning to study and meditate with Suzuki-roshi (roshi is the honorific used for Zen masters) were among the first Westerners to engage in the essence of actual Zen practice: zazen, which Downing describes as "cross-legged, mind-emptying, mantraless, motionless…no-point meditation." That is at the heart of Downing's story. Suzuki's school of Zen held that enlightenment was something that happened gradually (not as satori, the Ginsbergian instant of clarity). And before the teacher's death in 1971, he had inspired dozens of students to "just sit," as the Buddha had done thousands of years earlier.