"Starting in the mid-50s and continuing into the 1960s, a series of events and trends turned San Francisco into a hothouse for new varieties and strains of American Buddhism. As unlikely as it sounds, it started at a cluttered little independent bookshop that itself seems like a throwback to another era."
So writes the New York Times in a travel piece about San Francisco. Interestingly, the article digresses into an informative and fairly accurate history of the beginnings of Zen in America, as I understand it.
"At the busy intersection of Columbus Avenue and Broadway," the Times continues, "which separates Chinatown from the bohemian-style cafes, neon-lit Italian restaurants and the block-long red-light district of North Beach, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped found the City Lights Bookstore in 1953 as the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country. Across from where entertainers like Lenny Bruce worked out new material at the Hungry i (now a topless club) and the Purple Onion (still showcasing comedy), Mr. Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956. City Lights became an unofficial headquarters of the Beat literary movement, the hangout of Mr. Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and many other authors who were reading, practicing and writing about Buddhism."
In 1959, Shunryu Suzuki, a Buddhist priest, came to the San Francisco Zen Buddhist Temple from Japan to teach Zen to ethnic Japanese, mostly from the city’s Western Addition and Japantown. I took the photograph of calligraphy in Japantown above during a visit there in 2005. Suzuki later went on to write the English-language book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, in my opinion one of the greatest modern texts on the Zen experience. Much of Zen Mind consists of transcripts of his public lectures to Westerners curious about Zen. in fact, so many Westerners were attending those talks that three years later he established a separate center on Page Street, the San Francisco Zen Center. I had the opportunity to attend a service at the zendo, now called the City Center, during that same 2005 visit.
“It was a time of great foment, when there was enormous interest in one’s inner life,” recalled Yvonne Rand, the resident teacher at Goat-in-the-Road, a Zen center in Mendocino County, who first attended Suzuki-roshi’s meditation classes in 1966 and quickly became his secretary. “Roshi attracted people in the arts, civil-rights activists, and other agents of social change and consciousness — all hanging around the Bay Area.”
The teacher’s enthusiasm for integrating Zen practice into everyday life spawned several offshoots: Greens, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant at Fort Mason overlooking the bay; Tassajara Bakery, several blocks from Haight Street; the Zen Hospice Project, which has become a national model; and three other Bay Area meditation centers, including Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a three-hour drive south of San Francisco near Carmel Valley, which opened in 1966 as America’s first Zen monastery.
Not to take anything away from Suzuki's contributions to Zen in America, it should be noted that he was not the first or the only Japanese teacher to bring Zen to this other shore. In 1939, Soyu Matsuoka-roshi traveled to the United States as one of the very first Zen priests to reside in North America just prior to World War II and became an assistant minister at the Los Angeles Zen Buddhist Temple and later at the San Francisco Zen Buddhist Temple, where Suzuki later lectured.
Matsuoka-roshi later attended Columbia University where he undertook further graduate study under Dr. Daisetsu (D.T.) Suzuki (not to be confused with Shunryu Suzuki). Immediately following these studies, he moved to Chicago, where he founded the Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago. In addition to teaching zazen, Matsuoka-roshi lectured extensively at high schools and colleges, addressing Zen practice as well as the social issues of the 1960s. In 1971, he established the Long Beach Zen Buddhist Temple. Matsuoka-roshi died in November 1997.
One of his disciples from the Chicago era, Taiun Michael Elliston, founded the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in the mid-1970s to carry on Matsuoka's teaching. I am now a student of the buddha-dharma at Elliston-roshi's Atlanta center.