Columnist, Brad Newsham, once wrote in the S.F. Chronicle (Nov. 1999) about a visit to New Delhi, India. When the locals learned where he was from, they told him that San Francisco was the spiritual center of the world. They were moved to share this thought with him. “It shifts every few hundred years … now it is San Francisco. All our gurus are moving there to open ashrams,” a New Delhi hotel worker told him.
Brad was so intrigued he went on to interview more of the people he met over the next couple of months. “What is the spiritual center of the earth?” was the main question he asked. Another hotel employee defined if for him. “It is simply the place where new ideas meet the least amount of resistance.”
Some readers may remember the days of spiritual ferment in the San Francisco Bay Area that existed in the early 70's. There was an atmosphere of excitement and discovery. I don’t know if it is still true that the Bay Area is a spiritual center. I know it definitely felt like one in the 1970s, a feeling that changed after the Presidential election of 1980. This era was when the seeds of a healthy interfaith movement were sown.
Most people refer, sometimes unfairly, to the new spiritual movements as cults. We have had dangerous cults arise in this area. One of them, a prominent and respected group at the time, was the Gurdjieff movement, particularly the Fourth Way Teachings founded by Gurdjieff’s disciple, Ouspensky. Some of you may recall that Field's Books in San Francisco was a center for Fourth Way Teachings, AKA "the Work." (http://www.fieldsbooks.com/cgi-bin/fields/index.html) However what started out as a progressive movement about the attainment of self-mastery and wisdom was compromised by a powerful personality who corrupted the teachings and exploited the followers.
In 1978 an even more earth-shaking event occurred in the San Francisco community that seemed to confirm all the collective concerns about 'cults,' and it brought the destructive capabilities of 'charismatic cult leaders' to the world's attention. The event was the mass suicide of 914 followers of Jim Jones who had changed a one-time evangelical Christian church, The Peoples Temple, into his own adulatory machine. Jones had begun to describe himself as an incarnation of Jesus, Buddha and Krishna, and his rule over his disciples was absolute and abusive.
It is often disheartening and disappointing to learn what goes wrong with peoples' earnest efforts to renew their lives, find wisdom, and spiritualize the culture. I'm sure there are lessons in such events to be learned that would strengthen our wisdom to formulate our own conclusions on these outcomes.
Local Buddhism: Asian Influence on the West Coast …
The influence of the Beat Poets who popularized and mainstreamed Buddhism is probably stronger in San Francisco than anywhere else. The Bay Area has always been a place where “East meets West.” Gary Snyder, who spent much time in the Far East, especially in Japan where he studied Zen Buddhism in two monasteries, has put down permanent roots locally in the Sierra Foothills. His wife Joanne Kyger, and friend Philip Whalen also studied Buddhism.
The San Francisco Zen Center, where Whalen eventually became abbot, has been an important part of the Bay Area’s culture. Some think it even achieved political influence when governor, Jerry Brown, visited the Center several times in his first tenure (1975 – 1983). Their director, Richard Baker, was given “special access” to the governor in those days. Jerry was recently re-elected in 2010 to a second run as California’s governor.
Then and Now …
The counterculture days of the 70s and 80s tell the story of disaffected western youth discovering the religious texts, prayers and worship practices of other cultures. The Bay Area has continued to experience an influx of religious communities emigrating from around the world to put down new roots here. Multiple religions are now an established part of the local scene in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We have a real opportunity to take advantage of the religious diversity, and build on the area’s commitment to what Rajeev Bhargava called “the relative autonomy of religious communities and equality of status in society, as well as other more basic values such as peace and toleration between communities … a place for the right of religious communities to establish and maintain educational institutions crucial for the survival and sustenance of their religious traditions,” (writing for Hedgehog Review).
Writer Dr. Eboo Patel, the president and founder of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) is the recipient of the 2012 Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize. He is also an advisor to the White House http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House_Office_of_Faith-Based_and_Neigh.... His recent book (January 2013), "Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America," expresses hope and confidence in the interfaith movement still strong here. The book is about the "promise of American pluralism," because, "Simply put, it is people who have protected the promise of pluralism from the poison of prejudice."