Community Values

Community Values

Allison Xantha Miller reviews The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia, by Rod Janzen, and Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Downing.


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.

Suzuki was on a mission–literally. By teaching monastic Buddhism to Westerners, particularly Americans, he wanted to reform Buddhism in Japan. "[Suzuki-roshi] was opposed to the whole tradition that temples are passed from father to son," points out Richard Baker, a dissatisfied fortunate son who turned to Zen as a young man and eventually became Suzuki's chosen successor. "Suzuki-roshi thought that the fact that Buddhism would have to be reconceived in America gave it a chance to survive."

Without Baker, college students today might not lug futons from dorm room to dorm room. With his guidance, in 1967 Zen Center established a real monastic practice at Tassajara, an idyllic old hot-springs resort in the Sierra Nevadas. "In the first summer that we took ownership of Tassajara, everyone was desperate," remembers an initiate, who had dropped out of Harvard in the early 1960s. "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."

Yet they belonged to an institution many Americans wanted to believe in, a new "karma-free zone" plopped into a time in history when such a thing seemed long overdue. Though Buddhist monks traditionally beg for their livelihood, in order to pay for property, renovations and student stipends Zen Center embarked on a journey of near-constant fundraising and entrepreneurship. In the 1970s, Downing notes, it magically managed to "translate its spiritual practice into cultural, retail, and social experiences that made it possible for a few hundred devoted Zen Buddhists to transmit the ancient teaching of the Buddha, the dharma, to countless Americans who might not be ready or willing to meditate or bow nine times at four or five in the morning." It did this by publishing cookbooks, welcoming guests for the summer at Tassajara, serving high-end vegetarian food at the San Francisco restaurant Greens (still going strong), selling fresh-baked bread, sewing meditation cushions and growing organic produce.

The businesses grew from Zen Center's mission and led to friends in high places. Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog) remembers that "important ideas were in the air" there. The place had the feeling of a university. Downing recounts that "you could listen to astronaut Rusty Schweickart talk about walking in space, or a harpsichord concert, or a Dave Fishberg performance; take a course with poet Diane DiPrima, translator Thomas Cleary, or Buddhist scholars Masao Abe and Robert Thurman; attend a special dinner meeting of the California Coastal Commission; spend an evening with actor Peter Coyote; or sign up for a conference at Green Gulch [Farm, another Zen Center property] led by Gregory Bateson on the pathology of mind/body dualism." Jerry Brown and members of his staff even put in appearances.

Why, then, were people there so unhappy? "I got up at midnight and worked [at the bakery] until noon, or two in the afternoon, six days a week," a longtime resident says. "I was not on Dick Baker's A list…. And most people weren't, so maybe it didn't occur to him to ask, How are these people in the bakery finding any time to practice?" "Zen slaves," they called themselves. Baker, who was married, was also having sexual relationships with female students, some of whom also served as his personal assistants. Then there was the matter of his expense account, which seemed to grow in proportion to his profile among the Bay Area culturati, and which paid for a very un-Zen-seeming white BMW, which students bowed to as Baker drove away from Tassajara.

Shoes Outside the Door actually begins with "the Apocalypse"–when, in 1983, Zen Center's board ousted Baker for conducting an affair with a student who was married to a benefactor–then flips back and forth in time, closing in on the events of that pivotal year. Woven throughout are reflections by the people who were actually there. Kicking out its abbot was traumatic for Zen Center–it caused a reckoning with authority, both that of its beloved founder, who had chosen an imperfect successor, and that of its own authority to teach Zen. "There were people lined up around the block waiting to tell [Richard] what a piece of shit he was," says one of Zen Center's original members. "And people who should have left Zen Center for all the right reasons stayed for all the wrong reasons." "Zen Center was in decline for at least five years," one abbot in the 1980s told Downing. "We had meetings where people were saying, 'Why should we have to obey the rules?' It became anarchic…. [People] had lost their faith in the practice."

In his introduction, Downing (who isn't Buddhist) calls zazen "the unspeakable truth of this story." "Unspeakable" in the sense that Buddhist truth, of course, must be perceived, not explained. But also in that zazen led plenty of seasoned practitioners to do nothing when they knew what Baker was up to. "There was a kind of complacency," one said. "We were doing zazen. And the main point was, zazen leads to enlightenment, enlightenment leads to perfection, and the rest will work itself out. We were Buddhist heroes. That was part of the shock. We were blind. We're not so special."

Like Zen Center, Synanon was a residential community of ideals, and it too developed a practice that was supposed to lead to an understanding of truth but figured in the group's decline. It was called the "game," and it was a noisy, confrontational two-to-three-hour encounter-group session in which players were "indicted" or "gamed" by the group in "collective bombardments of radical intensity" for hypocrisy in their behavior. As Rod Janzen explains, "game conversations allowed employees to criticize employers, newcomers to criticize old-timers, with whatever words they chose, all with general impunity." Players became adept at defending themselves with equal bombast and wit, and learned to empathize with those doing the accusing as well as the accused. Distinctions between self and other fell away; prominent psychologist Abraham Maslow, an early supporter, said the game was like "a candid motion-picture camera that could show me myself as other people see me."

The game developed partly from the practice of sharing one's experiences with the group developed in Alcoholics Anonymous–a method that helped Charles Dederich, Synanon's founder, turn his life around after twenty years of hard drinking, two marriages and numerous jobs. His belief that AA could help drug addicts, and his enthusiastic participation in a UCLA study on LSD, put him at odds with the AA leadership, so in 1958 Dederich started a residential recovery community for "dopefiends" in Venice, California, which became Synanon.

If Zen had a patina of graceful Eastern timelessness for Westerners, Synanon in the 1960s was about jump-starting the new age. (Dederich coined the expression "Today is the first day of the rest of your life.") By the mid-1960s Synanon began to welcome "squares" (nonaddicts) who wanted in on the lifestyle of equality, integration, social justice and self-knowledge that came out of the game, as well as, oddly enough, the exacting discipline asserted by Dederich (the founder believed in telling addicts exactly what to do to overcome their addiction). "It is possible for us to consciously participate in the evolution of our own species," Dederich said, following Maslow's theory of self-actualization, which would form the basic intellectual underpinning of the human-potential movement. "The power which resides in [man] is new in nature, and none but he knows what it is that he can do, nor does he know until he has tried," read part of the Synanon Philosophy. "Bravely let him speak the utmost syllable of his conviction. God will not have his work made manifest by cowards."

Dederich played the game like everyone else, and though he told members what to do, he brought all new policies to general meetings for exhaustive discussion before they were implemented. But the game began to change around the time Synanon tried to reorganize itself as a church in 1974–ostensibly, this was because it functioned as a religion for many, but the move was actually a strategy to avoid the IRS. The boundary between the game and everyday life evaporated, and people were disciplined for things they said in the game. Instead of responding with "critical analysis," "when the game dealt with social policies, participants tore into those who dissented from community norms," Janzen writes.

Since "the only infallible principle" in this new church "was a commitment to continuous change," Synanites were forced either to accept bizarre new social policies or split. In a radical turn, these policies accepted violence, much of it apparently against the group's own young people and its boot camp for juvenile offenders, which brought negative media attention to the community. In 1976 hostility to children was institutionalized as childlessness became official policy. Men over age 18 with five years' standing in the community were required to get vasectomies; pregnant women were encouraged to have abortions. A year later, in a "moral revolution," Synanon required all married couples to "change partners" in a public ceremony.

By the late 1970s Synanon had dwindled to a population of about 700 (down from about 2,000 in 1971) and had moved to western Marin County and the Sierra Nevadas. Splitting the group seemed less feasible, especially for long-term residents, and "splittees" became the object of "paranoid obsession." Synanon filed intimidating lawsuits against critics in the media, sponsored a "self-described 'holy war'" against Time magazine and went after an attorney representing one of its adversaries with a rattlesnake. Dederich began drinking again in 1978. After years of decline, Dederich was stripped of his authority in 1987; he died ten years later. Synanon disbanded in 1991, after its tax-exempt status was finally rejected by the courts.

I wish Janzen were equal to his promise of providing Synanon "a just analysis," especially because he seems to have done so much remarkable original research. Yet The Rise and Fall of Synanon is stingy with the long, muddled quotations from insiders that make for a complex picture of a community and the motivation of people who willingly stick with it (the kind of quotations Downing provides in abundance). Nor are there examples of the kinds of brilliant exchanges that apparently made the game so powerful; without that kind of detail, the practices at the center of Synanon come off like a lot of macho bullshit.

Janzen also neglects to draw any conclusions about the influence of Synanon and its place in revolutionary California, which succored everything from the John Birch Society to aerobics to the most esoteric stuff to come down the pike since Madame Blavatsky. That's unfortunate, because these histories of Synanon and Zen Center raise questions about the force of authority, especially because American society at the time was evolving toward openness and individualism. These are questions that those of us who have leaned for so long on true-believerism, or Weber's charismatic leader and Adorno's authoritarian personality, are not used to asking. Although Richard Baker and Chuck Dederich were definitely charismatic–in that they inspired people, and in that they usually got what they wanted–they didn't offer their followers an easy solution to social problems or, conversely, a convenient scapegoat. Disciplined self-knowledge, not a surrendering of one's will to the leader, led to enlightenment. Suzuki-roshi said that to sit zazen is to study the self; Dederich wanted Synanon's people to find the self-actualized "wizard" inside them. It is no surprise that Baker and Dederich were both avid Emersonians. As one Synanite explained, "Synanon thinking" was really "a broad American cultural assumption that individuals are responsible for their lives and conditions around them."

Synanon disbanded a decade ago, but San Francisco Zen Center lives on, even though democratic decision-making has proved vastly more headache-ridden and time-consuming. Now it installs co-abbots for four-year terms; its spiritual teachers not only take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha (spiritual community) but also, when necessary, "the newly assembled, cross-cultural, ecumenical Trinity of confession, counseling, and compassion."

Downing's ironic tone scores easy points against the newly demonized post-cold war bugaboo: therapeutic tyranny, which supposedly has everyone agog about "closure" and has left no one "accountable." Instead of fascist teenagers and true-believers, it's self-help books, it's Oprah Winfrey, it's liberal touchy-feeliness and baby boomer narcissism. But Shoes Outside the Door and The Rise and Fall of Synanon seem to make the case that this regime wasn't an inevitable consequence of the openness and humanism that felt so new in the 1960s and so abused by the 1980s. Idealism then didn't necessarily preclude discipline; neither did self-scrutiny preclude engagement with the world at large. These weren't crazy people. They were hopeful.

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