Saturday, September 18, 2010

Brad Warner's "Hardcore Zen": Book Review

"You eat God and excrete truth four hours later." (3) There's a toilet on the cover, a first for a Buddhist book, I reckon. Punk, monster movie making, and a decidedly raw version of dharma enliven this bracing introduction.

Warner's only a few years younger than me, so I could relate to his story of growing up in the time when music mattered enough to rouse idealistic, pessimistic, and frustrated youth to lash out. His fury muted, however, as the "weirdness" of his existence hit him one Ohio winter in the bathroom of a dingy bar. He tells- in energetic prose that reminded me of an update on the Jesus freak, denim bible retellings of a counterculture a decade earlier-- of his life's progress from nihilism to meaning, not via creepy Ken Wilber New Age nostrums, but by hard-won wisdom. His Soto Zen practice emphasizes the tedium, the boredom, the pain of "zazen," "just sitting," and the tough truth that any enlightenment is elusive, illusory, and if it does happen, it's in the everyday confrontation with our limits.

The best way to get a feel for this memoir-primer is to sample its flavor. He starts by warning us off of elevating any concept as more sacred or profane than any other. Until we learn this, "kids will keep getting new dates to memorize for history class."(2) The holy is not apart from the rest of the universe. Truth evades belief; it transcends religion; it denies negotiation.

He dismisses those who think that an attitude or a cause will change the world. He urges us to look within, and first to heal ourselves, to find balance. This comes in Zen, for example, by staring down one's self, and facing the Big Questions and finding our own answers. An aside from the punk scene illustrates this: spray-painting the letter "A" on a wall teaches nobody about true anarchy, and only makes more work for the poor schlub stuck cleaning the building up. While taking on the evils of the world may help, what needs to be done before that is to clean up one's own act.

He tells his own difficult journey; he lands after an early-80s stint in a hardcore band, Zero DFX, and then a neo-psychedelic project, Dimentia 13, a dream job in Japan helping to make monster movies, his childhood love. Still, he's unhappy. He shows this as the Buddha's "first noble truth," that of dissatisfaction as our mundane human condition. "The pain of having your dreams come true appears vividly when you realize that even if your dreams really come true, they never really come true." (58)

He explains the lofty concepts of Buddhist philosophy in his struggle to understand the evanescence of our experiences. This is challenging, but Warner's discussions reward attention. (You may want to read a brief overview such as David Fontana's "Discover Zen" -- see my review-- for some practical pointers; Warner has a 2010 follow-up memoir documenting the apparent difficulties of his life after this book-- see my link below to "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate.")

Summing up the "Heart Sutra" teaching, he renders the "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" core as the way "here and now all of creation blossoms into being," and how we cannot perceive this easily as the present moment's "obscured by the present itself and by the act of perceiving it and conceiving of it." (80) Yet, that's about as clear as it gets, from my past study of this idea. "The entire universe is created by us and we rule over it unopposed-- but for the oppositions of our own minds." (108) Goodness occurs when we fit our own longings into the moral order, the precepts suggested for us and those around us. He tells us how: "morals are rules you have willingly imposed upon yourself," so "it's easy and natural to act in a moral way." Existence bursts each second into being, the universe appears and disappears while we are in the midst of it all.

He can rise from sarcasm (I can sympathize but this can lower the tone of his exhortations) to poetry. "The universe desires to perceive itself and to think about itself and you are born out of this desire. The universe wants to experience itself from the point of view of a tree, and so there are trees." (124) I know this may sound as ethereal as in the pop-guru claptrap Warner avoids, but it's an honest attempt to convey Zen mindfulness, where the divisions between subject and object, perceived and perceiver, even mind and body, disappear into the flow of oneness. Beyond past and future and self, Warner adds, sense recedes into illusion.

Our self, our "me" merges rather than separates itself from creation. That present moment that we experience is eternal. "It's always there. It is unborn and cannot die. And it does not reincarnate." (131) The challenges in this book may unsettle readers expecting a slight or sensationalistic account, but within the (sometimes too-subtly arranged or occasionally too-casually told) chapters that unfold Warner's tutelage under his master, Nishijima, we find-- even if you resist Authority Figures, cultic chants, and name changes-- there is a movement towards insight and equilibrium. Warner knows we have to return to the workaday routine, the chores and frustrations that fill our lives, and he aims to offer us some shared guidance in how to reconcile our reveries with reality.

Whatever freedom to act we have therefore does not lie in the vanished past or the unattainable future, but only now. This allows us to gain control over our mindset. That's the summation of Zen's message. The arduous journey to our own awareness of truth will not happen with drugs or ecstasy, for when the bliss ends, we're stuck right back here all over again. Warner warns that Buddhism gives us no answers, but it may help us ask ourselves the right questions. Nobody else's responses will satisfy us. The Buddha told us to test what he told us by our own experience and intellect, and Warner shows how he over the decades learned to apply this direction.

Where he wound up is not in an otherworldly trance, but in the tedium of "zazen." More than most books on Zen for Westerners, Warner stresses the dullness of this. It's not a shortcut to "enlightenment," but a confrontation with one's self-image. "You'll eventually see that the 'you' that's a mess isn't really 'you' at all." (92) This may sound as illogical as the disappearing universe, but such concepts lie at the heart of Soto Zen, and Warner presents them fairly and briskly.

He admits that in his Zen practice, the "social organization known as Buddhism" has become a facade. The "real Buddhism" as a flower (a lotus?) blooms out of the muck, but it's beneath the trappings of religious institutions and cultural traditions. He cites Johnny Rotten: "It isn't a rip-off if you tell everybody it's a rip-off." (160) That is, the sham if declared as a sham reveals its own construction-- the con-artist lets us in on the trickery of his legerdemain.

Not that Warner denies the efficacy of Buddhism, but he emphasizes how unlike religions, it denies "the self" as "a substantial entity" and shows how the foundation for our self-image is imaginary, impermanent, and "a convenient reference point and nothing more." (93) This "useful fiction" stands in for the fact that our truer identity lies in our self's passing away. No afterlife that we can perceive awaits us; these sorts of imaginings are non-starters for the Buddha. Rather than worry about reincarnation, which Warner dismisses (for an advanced follow-up, see "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" and "Buddhism without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor, both reviewed by me), he encourages us to find our meaning in the mundane, to reject illusion or salvation.

"The best thing you can hope for in life is to meet a teacher who will smash all of your dreams, dash all of your hopes, tear your teddy-bear beliefs out of your arms and fling them over a cliff." (184) Surprisingly to many who may open this book, he closes it insisting that in this transformation, one can find balance, duty, and transformation by accepting our own nature. After all, "our ordinary, boring, pointless lives are incredibly, amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly, mercilessly joyful." (197)

(Posted to Amazon US) 6-17-10; since then I've reviewed his other books on my blog and on Amazon US & "Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's 'Treasury of the Great Dharma Eye'", "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma" and --also featured 9-15-10 on PopMatters-- "Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sexuality, Celibacy, Polyamory, and Everything in Between.")

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