On May 23, 1959, Shunryu Suzuki (then age 55) came from Japan to San Francisco to serve as head priest of Sokoji—a Soto Zen temple then located at 1881 Bush Street in Japantown. He was joined by his wife Mitsu (also from Japan) in 1961. Sokoji—founded by Hosen Isobe in 1934—had been housed in a former Jewish synagogue that is now Kokoro Assisted Living. Upon Suzuki’s arrival at Sokoji, the congregation was composed entirely of members of the Japanese-American population. Unlike his predecessors, Suzuki was a fluent speaker of English who actually wanted to come to the United States. Suzuki's arrival came at the tail end of the Beat movement and just prior to the social movements of the 1960s, both of which had major roots in San Francisco. Before long, Sokoji had non-Japanese Americans — mostly beatniks— coming to the temple to sit zazen with him in the morning. Soon these Westerners participated in regular services, and new non-Asian students came to outnumber the Japanese-American congregation. This change in demography caused a rift in the Sokoji community. The tension was alleviated when Suzuki’s Western students began gathering for separate services, albeit still at Sokoji, in 1961. Some of these students began calling their group City Center, and they incorporated in 1962 as the San Francisco Zen Center.
The number of practitioners at SFZC grew rapidly in the mid-sixties. Within a couple of years, Suzuki considered founding a monastery to host more intensive practice for those students who were interested. In 1966, Suzuki and Baker scouted Tassajara Hot Springs, located in Los Padres National Forest behind Big Sur, as a possible location for the envisioned monastic center. After a major fundraising effort led by Baker, Zen Center purchased the land—which contained a rundown resort and mineral springs in 1967. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center ("Zen Mind Temple" or Zenshinji) was the first Zen Buddhist monastery built in the United States, and the first in the world to allow co-ed practice.
1967 also saw the arrival of Kobun Chino Otogawa of Eiheiji, who served as assistant to Suzuki. Kobun was resident teacher at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center until 1970. Around 1970, he began sitting regularly with a group in Santa Cruz that went on to form the Santa Cruz Zen Center. In 1971, he became resident priest at Haiku Zen Center, a practice center in Los Altos where Suzuki-roshi had been giving lectures, and soon after the sangha there grew and changed its name to Bodhi. He served as Abbot there until 1978, moving the group to Jikoji in Los Gatos, California in 1979.
Another assistant priest at SFZC was Dainin Katagiri-roshi, who served there from 1969 to 1971. Katagiri would go on to establish his own practice center—the Minnesota Zen Center—in 1972 in Minneapolis.
In 1969, Sokoji's board of directors asked Suzuki to resign his position as the temple's priest, asserting that he was spending more time with his Western students than the Japanese-American congregation. Months later Suzuki—with the help of his American students—purchased the current (and larger) City Center building, located on 300 Page Street.
In 1970, Suzuki gave Dharma transmission to Richard Baker, his only American Dharma Heir and chosen successor at SFZC. Suzuki planned to give transmission to Bill Kwong but died before his completion. Kwong's transmission was later completed by Suzuki's son, Hoitsu.
Suzuki died of cancer on December 4, 1971. He was 67 years old. Despite having only had 12 years in the United States, Suzuki had gone a long way toward establishing Soto Zen in America. His death came shortly after the publication of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a collection of lectures translated into numerous languages considered a classic of contemporary Zen literature.
Suzuki had asked Baker to locate a farm in the area for entire families to live a Buddhist life while working together. Green Gulch Farm ("Green Dragon Temple", or Soryuji), located in Sausalito, California in a valley on the Pacific Ocean, was acquired by SFZC in 1972. The land was purchased from one of the founders of Polaroid, George Wheelwright. Despite hesitance of some members of SFZC due to the size of 80 acres (320,000 m2), Baker felt that acquiring Green Gulch Farm was very important for Buddhism in America. Members soon raised funds for a zendo to be built there, and over time the farm transformed into a monastery and retreat center for residents and guests with an organic farm, flower gardens, a teahouse and a plant nursery.
In 1976, SFZC purchased the Gallo Pastry Company to found the Tassajara Bakery, which became popular before being sold to the company Just Desserts in 1992. The bakery was closed altogether in 1999. Tassajara Bakery was a Zen Center venture promoted by Richard Baker as an extension of the baking practices at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Tassajara baked bread for student and guest consumption since 1967, and Edward Espe Brown's Tassajara Bread Book, demonstrated consumer interest. The bakery supplied Greens Restaurant and some local grocers.
Greens Restaurant, opened in 1979 in Fort Mason of San Francisco, was another business venture by SFZC under the influence of Baker. A pioneer of gourmet vegetarian cuisine in America, the restaurant's first chefs were Edward Espe Brown and Deborah Madison. The duo published a book of recipes in 1987 titled The Greens Cookbook. Throughout the 1980s Greens, which obtained produce from Green Gulch Farm, was one of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco.
The center received significant media coverage concerning the 1984 resignation of then abbot Zentatsu Richard Baker, who was ousted after it was alleged that he had been having an affair with the wife of a prominent Zen Center member. In the wake of Baker's resignation, SFZC transitioned to a democratically elected leadership model until in 2010 there was a new introduction of a predesignated slated of board members.
Additional businesses run by SFZC were the Alaya Stitchery storefront, which made zafus, zabutons and clothing, and Green Gulch Grocery, which sold produce from Green Gulch Farm. Neither business is today operative.
In 2000 Jiko Linda Cutts was appointed Abbess, having received Dharma transmission from Tenshin Reb Anderson in 1996. In 2003 Paul Haller, who received transmission from Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1993, was installed as co-abbot with her. In 1987 SFZC started the Zen Hospice Project, a volunteer hospice program run out of a guest house on Page Street with five residential beds. Zen Hospice Project also continues to train and coordinate volunteers who provide non sectarian, non-medical care to residents of the hospice and palliative care ward at Laguna Honda Hospital, a skilled nursing facility operated by the City and County of San Fancisco. The volunteer project's founding director was Frank Ostaseski, who served until 2004. Zen Hospice Project provides hospice care for individuals of any or no religion who are looking for a compassionate end to their life. Today SFZC is the largest Soto organization with a foothold in the West.
Located atop a bumpy 10-mile (16 km) road which is difficult for some vehicles to climb, Tassajara offers shuttles to and from the retreat for those inclined to forgo trying to make the trek on their own. Visitors can enjoy the springs, go swimming or on hiking trips, and have the opportunity to arrange for practice with the community living at the monastery for a few days. The monastery is closed to outsiders from the months of September through April, then opens to the public by reservation from May through August - offering retreats, seminars, and workshops. Students that come to practice at the monastery from September through April must undergo the tradition known as tangaryo. They will sit for five days or longer in the zendo before they are formally admitted into the monastery—a physically daunting challenge.
The organic farm at Green Gulch supplies local restaurants and food suppliers and sells flowers, produce and herbs at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. Guests stay at the Lindisfarne Guest House, a traditional Japanese building with a wood-burning stove as the heating source. Zen practice is not required to stay at Green Gulch, though guests are welcome to participate in zazen or any other activities. Tenshin Reb Anderson-roshi, former abbot of City Zen Center, is senior Dharma teacher at Green Gulch——training priests and laypeople, leading sesshins, giving talks and conducting workshops while also living onsite.
In March 1983 Baker was accused of engaging in a sexual relationship with the wife of an influential sangha member. Although Baker claimed that his relationship was a love-affair which had not yet been consummated, the outcry surrounding the incident led to accusations of impropriety, including the admissions by several female members of the community that they had had affairs with Baker before or during his tenure as abbot. The community's sense of crisis sharpened when the woman's husband, one of SFZC's primary benefactors, threatened to hold the organization legally responsible for its abbot's apparent misconduct.
These revelations led Baker to resign as abbot in 1984. San Francisco Zen Center's web site now comments: "Although the circumstances leading to his resignation as abbot in 1984 were difficult and complex, in recent years, there has been increased contact; a renewal of friendship and dharma relations."
In the 1980s Baker ordained Issan Dorsey as a priest. This was likely prompted by a conversation between Robert Baker Aitken and Baker at San Francisco Zen Center concerning the question of Zen's availability to interested gays, for Dorsey went on to become abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center.
Following Baker's resignation, Dainin Katagiri led the community until 1985. When Katagiri left, Tenshin Reb Anderson assumed Abbotship of the Zen Center—serving until 1995. In the early 1990s the Board of Directors at the Zen Center created the "Ethical Principles and Procedures for Grievance and Reconciliation" for its members, for conflict resolution mediation guided by Buddhist precepts. The Board of Directors at SFZC also began election of leaders. In 1995 Zoketsu Norman Fischer was installed as Abbot at SFZC, and in 1996 Zenkai Blanche Hartman was appointed as co-Abbot with him (becoming the first female Abbot in SFZC history).
In 1983 Tenshin Reb Anderson received shihō from Zentatsu Richard Baker, becoming Baker's first Dharma heir (though Baker disputes this). From 1986 to 1988 he served as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and from 1988 to 1995 he served there as co-abbot with Sojun Mel Weitsman. Anderson became entangled in an incident in 1987 that reached back to 1983— just after Zentatsu Richard Baker had resigned as abbot. While jogging through Golden Gate Park, Anderson deviated from the path to urinate in some bushes. There he found the corpse of a man with a bullet wound to the head and a revolver nearby. Rather than report this to the police, Anderson returned to the body over several days to meditate over the corpse. On one visit he decided to take the revolver home with him. Upon his final visit he found the body no longer there, and a fellow priest in whom he had confided showed him a newspaper article covering the apparent suicide. Five years later (in 1988), roughly fifteen months after Anderson had become abbot of the San Francisco, Anderson was arrested for brandishing this same firearm in public. He reported being mugged at knifepoint by a man just a block away from the San Francisco Zen Center at 300 Page Street. Anderson remembered stowing the revolver away in the San Francisco Zen Center's garage and quickly retrieved it. He then drove after the alleged mugger and followed him into a housing project with the revolver (unloaded) in hand, being arrested minutes later by a police officer with his own gun pointed at him.
This 1987 incident has had a damaging impact on Anderson's reputation as a teacher, since his arrest received national media coverage. The leadership of San Francisco Zen Center required Anderson to take a leave of absence from his position as abbot. After six months, he returned to his position. Shocked by the series of scandal involving its senior teachers, the organization decided to appoint two abbots, who would share the position at any one time. Zen priest Mel Weitsman served with Anderson as a co-abbot during the remainder of his term, and the tradition of two sitting Abbots continued for the next few decades.
Regarding this ordeal, Anderson wrote:
"On both a personal and a professional level, I am still dealing with the consequences of this episode. Some people felt that I had committed an irrevocable betrayal of trust, and have discounted me and my teaching ever since. Others were more forgiving, but their trust in me and my integrity was permanently shaken. Even newer students, who come to Zen Center and find out about these incidents, are sometimes confused and question whether I can be their teacher. These events are a helpful reminder—both to me and to others—of my vulnerability to arrogance and inflation. I see how my empowerment to protect and care for the Triple Treasure inflated my sense of personal authority, and thus detracted from and disparaged the Triple Treasure. This ancient twisted karma I now fully avow."
SFZC is connected, in an unofficial capacity, to the following Zen Centers:Berkeley Zen Center
Hartford Street Zen Center
Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center
Santa Cruz Zen Center
Sonoma Mountain Zen Center
Austin Zen Center
San Antonio Zen Center
Houston Zen Center