The Long Learning Curve

An Interview with Richard Baker RoshiSugata Schneider

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Zen teacher Richard Baker was born in Maine in 1936. He studied architecture and history at Harvard College and in 1960 left the East Coast for San Francisco. A year later he began studying Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In 1962, Suzuki Roshi established San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), the first residential Zen center in the West. In 1966, SFZC expanded to include the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where Zen practice adhered to the traditional modes of a Japanese Soto monastery. Shortly before his death in November 1971, Suzuki Roshi installed Richard Baker as the abbot of the extended community. Over the next twelve years, Baker Roshi's work included the founding of the Green Gulch Zen Practice Community in Marin County, the Tassajara Bread Bakery, and Greens Restaurant. In 1983, under pressure from senior members of the community, and amid accusations and subsequent denials of sexual and financial misconduct, Baker Roshi resigned from his position as abbot. The rift between Baker Roshi and SFZC remained bitter for many years and still lacks resolution.

After leaving San Francisco, Baker Roshi started the Dharma Sangha, with centers in Germany, Austria, and Crestone, Colorado. For the past six years, Baker Roshi and his companion, Ulrike Greenway, have divided their time between the United States and Europe. His forthcoming book, Original Mind: The Practice of Zen in the West, will be published by Riverhead Books (Putnam). The following interview, parts of which first appeared in German earlier this year in the May and July issues of the bimonthly magazine connection, was conducted in Germany by connection's editor and publisher, Sugata Schneider, following a workshop-seminar that Baker Roshi led on the Heart Sutra. Photographs of Richard Baker and Ulrike Greenway were taken in New York by Sally Boon.


                    Sally Boon

Sugata: I would like to ask you about the Heart Sutra—the topic of this weekend's workshop. Why did you choose it?

Baker Roshi: I didn't. Actually, I had some reservations about it, but Martin Kremer, who organized the seminar, kept asking me to speak on it.

Sugata: What were your reservations?

Baker Roshi: Although the Heart Sutra is the most commonly chanted Buddhist sutra in the world, it is a deep, difficult teaching. Hard to approach on a weekend, especially when some people are new to Buddhism.

Sugata: What is so special about the Heart Sutra?

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