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Zentatsu Richard Baker

Richard Baker is an American Zen Buddhist priest in the Soto tradition. He is the principal dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki, and was instrumental in the growth of San Francisco Zen Center.

Baker was ordained a priest in 1965, which made him one of the first American-born Caucasian Buddhist clerics. He travelled to Japan and studied at the Soto Sect training temple of Eiheiji. Baker received dharma transmission from Shunryu Suzuki in 1970, shortly prior to Suzuki's death. This act made Baker Suzuki's only formal successor among his American students.

Prior to Suzuki's death, Baker had been one of the most active members of the San Francisco Zen Center; particularly notable was his leading role in purchasing and building Tassajara, the first Buddhist training monastery outside of Asia. Following Suzuki's death, Baker himself became abbot of SFZC, a position he held for fourteen years. In 1984, however, he precipitated a major scandal within the Zen Center, which related to the way he used the influence of his position. According the complaints against him -- which for the most part are not contested in factual terms by Baker, although he might be expected to characterize them in a very different way -- he slept with some of his female students, used students as unpaid laborers at businesses and social events, and spent the Center's funds on an expensive automobile and a significant amount of rare artwork. By some accounts, Baker may have explained these actions as part of his teaching.

In 1984, members of the sangha of Zen center started a difficult process in which they dismissed Baker and reorganized Zen Center into a more democratically run membership organization. Baker has never apologized directly for what some have characterized as abuses, while many of his former students now criticize their own roles, in part, for letting the abuses go unchallenged for many years.

The story of the Baker scandal and its fallout was significant in the history of Western Buddhism because when Baker was forced to leave Zen Center, it required some persons to rethink the role of a Buddhist dharma teacher in American society that values democracy and egalitarianism. Among the writings which have addressed this subject are How the Swans Came to the Lake by Rick Fields, Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing, and "The Myth of the Zen Roshi"[1] by Stuart Lachs.

Baker later founded the Santa Fe Zen Center, which failed, and then the Crestone Mountain Zen Center near Crestone, Colorado. He also established the Dharma Sangha, a network of centers which is active in Europe. Baker currently lives at Crestone Mountain.

In 1989, Baker began legal proceedings which, if successful, would have resulted in him regaining control of the San Francisco Zen Center. He argued that he was never legally removed from its leadership under the terms of the bylaws in effect at the time, which gave almost complete control to the abbot. Baker later dropped the suit, stating that his intention had been "to protect Suzuki Roshi's legacy and lineage". According to Lachs, the "suit cost the SFZC $35,000 to $40,000 in legal fees".[2]

During his time at the San Francisco Zen Center, Richard Baker gave or began to give dharma transmission to only one student, Tenshin Reb Anderson. Since Baker's split with SFZC, he has stated publicly that Anderson's dharma transmission was never finally completed and so it cannot be considered valid; on the other hand, Anderson still considers himself Baker's successor. This is seen by some as an important issue, because Anderson later went on to become abbot of SFZC himself and his link to Baker at the time made him the only other American with a direct link to Shunryu Suzuki, SFZC's founder. After leaving San Francisco, Baker did go on to give full dharma transmission to another of his students. Also, two other influential members of the San Francisco Zen Center, Mel Weitsman and Bill Kwong, reestablished their own link to Suzuki by receiving dharma transmission from Suzuki's Japanese successor, his son Hoitsu.

Books

Richard Baker-roshi is the author of 'Original Mind: The Practice of Zen in the West', (2004) ISBN 1573221104

See also