Brad Warner’s first book Hardcore Zen was an attempt to bring Zen Buddhism to the very people who might never have bothered with it, but at the same time might benefit most from it. I liked the book because it attempted to undo the decades of pop-cultural manhandling that Buddhism has suffered, often at the hands of its own well-meaning proponents. It was not designed to tie in with the feel-good New Age leftovers that, in Warner’s view, make up too much of the writing on Buddhism.
Sit Down and Shut Up is in some ways even more radical, since it tackles as its subject matter one of the more esoteric, impenetrable, monolithic and challenging texts in all of Buddhism: Dogen’s Shobogenzo, an eight-hundred-plus-year-old text that has appeared in various translations (Warner’s master Gudo Nishijima produced one himself) and attracted only the most, well, hardcore of readers. It is the Being and Time, or maybe the Being and Nothingness of Buddhism: a text more famous for its influence and the shadow it casts than for it having been actually read.
The real value of SDaSU is in how Warner takes an extraordinarily difficult piece of writing—and a philosophy and practice path that is more often than not terminally misunderstood—and relates their sometimes cryptic insights right back to the real lives we are living here in the year 2000-whatever. His approach is a little scattershot—it isn’t always clear how one chapter flows into the next except by fiat—but that actually makes the book more readable, since it feels more like a casual conversation and not like a formal lecture. Buddhism is something Warner has been doing for a good chunk of his life, and so he’s that much more capable of showing how Dogen’s insights connected directly to things he himself did. He has the mileage.
He also has the humor. This book, like Hardcore Zen before it, is a funny and breezy book without being lightweight. There are passages which are laugh-out-loud funny, such as one segment where Warner lampoons the concept of a “spiritual climax” (read it out loud to someone you want to see spit their drink through their nose). They make it easy to assume, as some people have, that Warner does not take his subject seriously. The way I put it, he takes it seriously enough to know when not to take it seriously at all. With a subject this rarefied, a few laughs are helpful even to those who know the territory.
Shobogenzo itself is a compilation of ninety-plus shorter works—essays on various subjects in Zen Buddhism—which Japanese Zen Buddhist master Dogen compiled in the 1200s. They were read not at all during his own lifetime and little for decades thereafter, and have only recently surfaced in English translations that make them readable. (The same seems to be happening with Buddhist literature generally, as new generations of translators come forward to free those works from the fusty, lockstep incoherency that made them the province of academics or the initiated.) Warner was turned on to Shobogenzo courtesy of his own masters, and after being initially baffled by its peculiar language realized it was among the very best expressions of Buddhist concepts via the written word he had ever encountered.
This is remarkable for reasons that are not obvious at first. While there is a wealth of writing about Buddhism, a common admonishment about such writings is that they themselves do not constitute Buddhism. Buddhist “scripture” as such—whether it be the Tripitaka or the various tales compiled from before the Buddha’s life, or the Blue Cliff Record—is not to be taken as doctrinal writ. The Bible is considered the wellspring and foundation of Christian beliefs, but Buddhism can be practiced without reading a single koan or a single statement attributed to the Buddha. Buddhism is in the practice of it, and both Dogen and Warner are adamant about this. Reading Shobogenzo (or SDaSU) is no substitute for implementing the practice in your own life and applying the insights derived therein. It is Buddhism 301 at least, more likely a 400-level course or higher, but Warner does an admirable job of making this most intimidating piece of work into something almost brotherly and familiar.
If Buddhism is not in books, so to speak, why read, or talk about, Shobogenzo at all? In large part because such writings serve as a leg up for the curious, can clarify common misunderstandings, and can help people focus their practice all the more effectively. SDaSU begins with an explanation of Shobogenzo’s reason for existing and Dogen’s idiosyncratic use of language, both of which are closely related. Dogen’s strange, looping-back sentences and paragraphs are designed to force the reader to experience, if only in a somewhat removed way, some taste of the insights Dogen is speaking of. To simply talk about the experience is one thing, but Dogen attempted to go a step further and make his very use of language do the heavy lifting as well. The effect is deeply disorienting at first, and many people—even those who have some experience with Zen’s tradition of paradox and contradiction—are rightfully put off by Dogen’s work. Warner walks you through it, not just once but again and again as it crops up, and connects it all to the commonplace, happenstance life that Buddhism is supposed to be about anyway.
Some of Shobogenzo consists of nothing more than instructional advice, practical words for the practitioner. In one such chapter about sitting zazen, “Proper Posture Required”, Warner adopts a rather inflexible (pun intended) stance about sitting zazen and meditation. His conviction is that the posture for zazen is not an arbitrary choice, that simply sitting in a chair is not zazen—an opinion at odds with a number of other teachers I’ve encountered, but not so much so that it is unreasonable. To Warner, you either do this stuff right or you don’t do it at all. The “anything goes” ethic that Zen seems to be espousing (it originally appealed to him as a punk because it seemed like what all that talk of “anarchy” was really about) is a conclusion easily drawn by those who only judge Zen by its outermost trappings and its third-hand cultural accumulations. To know what it’s all about, you have to do it, and moreover, you have to do it the right way.
Warner also takes the time to caution against building unrealistic or misguided expectations about Zen. In “Zen and Stress Management”, he shows how the fruits of practicing Zen are best realized over a long period of time—and that most of the things people superficially go to Zen for (like, say, stress management) are actually the byproducts of Zen practice and not its actual goal. The real goal, if any exists, is just to do the practice, and in Warner’s view the most surprising thing about studiously doing something that seems to have no actual application in the real world is how it turns out to apply to everything.
The best parts of SDaSU, and by extension the best parts of Shobogenzo, are the ones that explain Buddhist philosophies of time, mind, and existence. These are counterintuitive subjects, and Dogen wrote about them in a deliberately difficult way. Warner takes apart Dogen’s language to show how it ticks, and then puts it back together again in ways that are linked right back into everyday life. Among my favorite chapters is “The Colors of the Mind”, which lays out with blunt simplicity one of the cornerstones of Zen: don’t confuse the contents of your mind with your mind itself. Said discussion revolves around two phrases: a line from a koan, “I cannot be deceived”; and Dogen’s phrase “The colors of the mind excited by a flower or the moon should not be seen as self at all, but we think of them as our self.” The latter is simple: Zen is about learning that we are not our thoughts or even the contents of our mind at all, the better to avoid being misled by them. The former ties into the same effort: when you’re willing to believe that you are solely responsible for the contents of your mind, then you’ll be that much more free to be master of it.
Other chapters examine subjects that have the same ring of Philosophy 102 about them—God, death, the problem of evil, the conundrum of happiness—and so on. In each case there is a certain amount of abstraction (hard to avoid that when talking about such issues), but Warner and Dogen always bring the discussion right back down to earth and into the present moment. The way Buddhism handles good and evil, for instance, starts with another counterintuitive leap: they don’t really exist as we understand them. But it falls back to a far more relatable position: just because they don’t exist as we understand them doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and so it’s a wise idea to do things that help others and by extension ourselves. One of Dogen’s major contentions, revisited constantly throughout, is the notion that our ideas of things may be formed from our experiences with things, but they do not correspond to those things in a one-for-one way. It seems painfully obvious, but Warner shows us how we hide this truth from ourselves constantly.
In the same way, to take responsibility for one’s own mind seems obvious and uninteresting: aren’t we doing that every time we choose to open the newspaper to the editorial page instead of the funnies? What Warner points out with Dogen’s examples is how it takes a lot of work to actually do this in a consistent, sustained, top-to-bottom way. Early in the book Warner suggests that we try this thought experiment: accept full responsibility for everything that happens in your life, whether or not it’s your “fault”. Sounds depressing? Later on he shows how this is actually an empowering move, since it forces us to stop pushing the blame out onto others—and, by extension, to stop dividing the world into “me” and “everything else”. If you and the universe are far more congruent than you like to believe, it helps to not make things more difficult for yourself by fighting it—and it also helps to understand that how you respond to literally everything that happens to you is one of the few places in your life where you have total and unalloyed power over yourself.
As I noted before, all writing about Buddhism, or any religious / philosophical system, carries with it one piece of baggage that is seldom possible to shed: the problem that most of the people drawn to read such a thing will be people who already have an interest in the subject. The people who really need to hear about it seldom do, and a lot of that is because of the presentation and delivery. Warner’s doing his best to cut an end-run around that problem, and any book that features on the cover a Mohawk-headed Buddha riding a fire-breathing Godzilla through Tokyo is probably a step in the right direction.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind