Zen Buddhism is about, among many other things, paradox and contradiction. Likewise, Zen masters have a history of being iconoclasts, which is a contradiction right there: how can one be an iconoclast and yet at the same time a proponent of a tradition? Maybe the best way to avoid that dead-end is not to think of Zen as a tradition, but rather an evolving continuum, the way rock’n’roll is at least as much about paying your dues as it is about killing your idols. The expression flowers differently in each soil and from each planting, but the colors and scents are always vivid and fragrant, and nobody would ever want to confuse Bob Mould with Bob Dylan anyway.
That brings me to Brad Warner — an American Zen master, emphasis on American. Not just in the sense that he was born here, but in the sense that his approach to Zen is unmistakably a product of Life In These Here United States, and that such a transformation is positive and crucial, not an affliction he needs to rid himself of. He is also funny, and not merely in the sense that he does eccentric things for attention: he understands humor is powerful and uses it well. He was also, and still is, a rock star, albeit a minor one, but he’s evidently more famous as a Zen master than as a rock star — something he’s himself as amused about as we might be.
When Brad sat down to write Hardcore Zen, he did it out of a sense that Buddhism in the U.S. needed writings that appealed to a group far beyond the typically urban, college-educated, socially-conscious crowds found in San Francisco and New York City. He wanted to create texts aimed at people who might benefit best from Zen even though they most likely knew nothing about it, and might not care to know, either. He sensed, quite correctly, a kind of stagnation — or maybe better to say a lack of daring, a deficiency of the kind of courage that sent Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn to the U.S. without a cent in his pocket or a word of English. Seung Sahn ended up establishing an American tradition of Korean Zen that flourishes to this day. Warner is attempting something that in a way may be even more difficult: taking existing American Zen traditions, blowing the dust off them, and communicating their importance to a 21st-century audience steeped in media and noise, for whom “Zen” is a buzzword hollowed out by decades of commercialization, soft-headed good intentions and slovenly thinking. Someone had to do this, so why not the bass player for an Ohio punk band?
Warner admits right up front he was nobody’s idea of a likely candidate for Zen Buddhism. He was born in Rubber City, Ohio (a/k/a Akron) and grew up partly overseas due to his father’s travelling for the chemical company Dad worked for. As a teenager Brad embraced the burgeoning local punk scene, eventually playing bass for a minor local legend of a band, Zero Defex. Later he founded his own solo psychedelica project, Dimentia 13, and eventually paid high homage to his love of monster movies by becoming an employee of the Japanese company that produced the Ultraman franchise. All along, he’d been troubled by the Big Questions that buzz out and annoy most people during their adolescence — why live? why die? why do anything at all? — but found both Christianity and Krishna unsatisfying as responses to those questions. The former was too dogmatic and rigid; the latter he fell out with when he realized the very person he’d idolized in its ranks was the last person in the world he wanted to follow anywhere. He eventually discovered Zen thanks to a Kent State University teacher, Tim McCarthy, and was in time also instructed by and received transmission from Soto Zen master Gudo Wafu Nishijima.
What makes Warner’s story worth reading are not just the topical details — his punk origins, his cheerful steeping in sci-fi pop culture, his misadventures in various parts of the world — although that’s all fun and funny. It’s how he looks back on his own experiences with Zen (and his own experiences, period) and refuses to varnish them. The first time he sat zazen, it bored the living hell out of him. It was physically painful. It seemed like the single dumbest thing a person could bother doing. And yet something about it called him back again and again — the sense that within this very odd cultivation of doing nothing as intensely as possible was a very realistic and truthful answer to the questions he’d been looking for. Eventually he realized the fact that zazen was boring was exactly the point. Zazen, and Zen practice generally, is a deliberate antidote to the way our brains frantically try to make everything as interesting as possible, often with side effects we never notice because we identify too closely with said side effects and confuse them with our “selves”.
Warner stays grounded the whole way through — he’s somewhat self-conscious of not being able to do much more than that, it seems — and does a fine job of making Zen and its concepts accessible to people who’ve never read a single “Buddhist” book in their lives. Me putting the word Buddhist in quotes is, I admit, an affection I freely lifted from Warner himself. He feels strongly that Buddhism is a practice, not simply a saintly and detached attitude manifested by people who choose that label. Buddhism is something that must be done every single day, and for him the practice of zazen is a crucial component of that. From said action comes everything else: the practice provides you with a glimpse of the state of mind required for Zen, and in the words of computer pioneer Seymour Cray you can’t fake what you don’t have.
Warner also makes it clear that the process is ongoing — that teachers of every age are still learning. Zen mastery is not an absolute — in fact, it’s typically nothing more than a sign from your teacher that he’s confident you won’t lead other students into a ditch. Warner’s own deep discomfort with authority is clearly a big source of this (when you’re a punk, you’re a punk all the way / from your first Crass EP to the last set you play …), and in his case it takes the form of refusing to further embody authority that he feels would simply be misleading to others.
I agree with this, up to a point. Authority and dominance of some kind exist and spontaneously assert themselves whenever there is more than one human being present. The ways these things evolve and persist are still murky, but it’s become plain that humanity spontaneously creates hierarchies as a survival mechanism. If there is one among us who is stronger, we let him defend; if there is one among us who is wiser, we defer to his word. The problem is when real strength or wisdom are not in evidence, and we let ourselves be bamboozled by exploiters or hucksters for the sake of elevating their prestige or fattening out their bank accounts. It’s not authority, but blind submission to authority that Warner most resents, and he talks in detail about how whenever he tried to subject himself to such authority with his teachers it was always thrust right back into his hands. In the short term, this was frustrating. In the long term, it was a greater liberation than he could have imagined.
Another thing Warner is quick to point out is how his particular path has absolutely not made him superhuman or infallible. He makes it clear that Zen mastery or not, he still gets frustrated with idiots who stop at green lights; he just has a better set of reactions to such things than he used to. In Warner’s purview, no Zen master should deny that these things can or do happen to them. He distrusts the master/student relationship and prefers instead to think of other Zen practitioners as fellow travelers, not infallible authorities. This sort of iconoclasty, common in Zen throughout history (“kill the Buddha”), works best in small groups, though, and most of Warner’s face-to-face practice has been in groups that have numbered in the single digits — by his own preference, since he continues to be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of being anyone’s “spiritual master”. Likewise, conventional religious beliefs bother him not because of the beliefs themselves but because of the way those invested with the power to validate those beliefs — leaders of one kind or another — often end up abusing that power, and not always consciously. Spiritual authority has to begin and end with the self, not become a means to lording power over others.
Warner also deflates a great many false notions that have entered the spiritual atmosphere and gotten stuck there since Buddhism began to first enter American consciousness. The point of meditation and Buddhism generally is not to bliss yourself out: that’s a dead end from which you learn little and most likely nothing at all. For this reason he also explicitly rejects psychedelics, which as he puts it, only show you what it’s like to be on drugs. He may attack the subject a little too venomously for some, but I suspect he only does so because of the sheer amount of flummery already written and passed around on the subject. The point is not to “get high”, but to get around the whole need to get high in the first place.
Odd as it sounds, Warner makes Buddhism (and Zen) all the more appealing and interesting by paring it down so thoroughly. For him that was precisely the appeal. Zen offers no magic and no panaceas, just a way to look at the self and the world with a few blinders as possible. This is, I think, the right approach for a generation (and a society) that has a streak of skepticism about both conventional authority, and a growing acceptance of spiritual leanings that don’t fit neatly into buckets labeled Church and Prayer. They want something more than just an artifact handed down to them, which they are then told to polish and place on an altar. They want, in short, real spirituality, and while Warner of course advocates for Zen Buddhism being a way to get that, he is less hung up about the label itself than he is about the methodology. The practice of Zen, or Buddhism on the whole, matters far more than what you call it.
Some people will come down on Warner for writing Hardcore Zen in a way that lends itself to be giggled at rather than nodded over. But I like Warner’s breezy, conversational style for those exact reasons. The vast majority of material published in this vein prides itself a little too much on being taken seriously. He takes Zen, and himself, seriously enough to know when not to take it seriously at all. And most refreshingly, he understands that the real miracle isn’t “Zen” but the person himself. There’s no magic, but that’s exactly the point. His down-to-earth sensibilities bring to mind one of the Zen masters John Cage quoted at one point: “Now that I am enlightened, I can expect to be just as miserable as ever.” No contradiction there — unless you’re looking for one, of course.