‘News That Stayed News’ (1986)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

3 minutes

In 1986, Katy Butler’s essay ‘Events Are The Teacher‘ was reprinted in News That Stayed News, 1974-1984, a collection of articles from the magazine CoEvolution Quarterly. The introduction to Butler’s text ran as follows:

“In the Winter 1983 issue this piece ran immediately after one called ‘The Secret Lifeof Swami Muktananda,’ by William Rodarmor. It chronicled the decline of the founding guru of the Siddha meditation movement, with thirty-one ashrams around the world. In his final years, in the late 70s and early 80s, Muktananda had sex with young female followers, misappropriated major funds, and threatened and authorized beatings of departing malcontents by his bodyguards, Rodarmor reported. The charges, abundantly testified to, were stonewall-denied by Muktananda’s surviving followers. And so this article on the San Francisco Zen Center stood out in contrast.

There were three things I hoped for in running the article. I hoped it would not undo my decades-long friendship with Dick Baker; total failure on that score. Dick doesn’t talk to me now. I hoped it might be of some use to Zen Center in refinding its balance. That one’s hard to assess. Many people in the community critiqued Katy Butler’s article through a sequence of drafts, till it became almost an official document, though still intensely her own. Some were deeply unhappy with its existence and its content; some felt relief that a compassionate, fairly detailed account was what finally went out to the world.

Events since Fall 83. On December 20, 1983, after months of turmoil, Baker resigned as abbot of Zen Center, and the Board of Directors accepted his resignation. A dozen or so students followed Baker to two new Buddhist practice centers he founded and funded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Many senior students left Zen Center, some continuing their Zen practice, some not. Katy Butler still works at the San Francisco Chronicle, and in her home she still sits zazen in the early mornings. Zen Center itself reorganized around a wider distribution of responsibility. Each piece of the whole has greater autonomy—the practice centers in San Francisco, Tassajara, Green Gulch Farm, the businesses like Greens restaurant, Green Gulch Grocer, etc. Finances were brought under control—the fundamental financial legacy of the Baker-roshi years is a sound, even spectacular, one, which he can well be proud of. Zen Center is taking its time finding a new abbot; the current part-time teacher possibly becoming full-time is Katagiri-roshi, of the Minneapolis Zen Center. A long, careful healing with strength where the scars are is well along.

The third thing I hoped for, and the entire reason for running the piece, was that other religious communities might be shocked to awareness and might find a handle on their own problems. That seems to have happened. Voluminous mail confirmed that Zen Center’s situation was the opposite of unique. Problems of sex, money, control, runaway charisma, and denial were found in the leadership (and hence the followership, since they make each other) of probably the majority of new religious groups in America. Not all, but most. Some undertook the labor of reform. One Buddhist group confronted their teacher’s alcoholism, and he dutifully joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Some set about freeing the teacher from total administrative control. Some simply employed, even encouraged, a new wariness in the students. And some insisted There’s No Problem Here. They’ll be sorry.”

Included in the reprint is a contemporaneous letter to CoEvolution Quarterly in response to Butler’s article. The letter runs as follows:


We have just read ‘Events are the Teacher’ by Katy Butler. We read this with awe, trying to imagine all those flourishing industries, all that money flowing in, all those students, and all this in the Paris of the West. We drooled and our fantasies went wild. What we wouldn’t give to trade Roshis.

Our Zen center is in one of the smog city’s worst ghettos. Every time we start a business to earn enough money to get out, our Roshi shuts it down. We tried raising vegetables in a window box and he turned off the water. We opened a diner and our Roshi called the health department and finished us off. We started a publication and our Roshi sued us for publishing him. We bought him a secondhand Datsun and it was stolen and wrecked. Our priceless bells and statue were stolen twice. There are too few students, so scholarships are offered strangers off the street to fill the zendo. Our Roshi prefers beginners anyway …
he says it’s much better than TV. Reflecting on the San Francisco Zen Center controversy, we were even more in awe … could there really be a Zen Center with only one controversy in ten years? Our Roshi specializes in continuous multiple crises with palace intrigue. Upon further reflection, maybe our Roshi is now the one for Dick Baker to study under…?

Seiko Long
Joshin Bigelow
Shuko Green
La Jolla, California
{Spring 1984}

P.S. The women students are sad to report that our Roshi has never once tried to romance any of them.”

Butler - Events Are The Teacher (Winter 1983) (1986) REDUX

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.