Friday, September 24, 2010

Brad Warner's "Sex, Sin & Zen": Book Review

Punk bassist and Zen priest, columnist at the Suicide Girls website, and marketer of Japanese monster movies, Brad Warner’s resumé’s not the Dalai Lama’s. His “Hardcore Zen” replaces the material-spiritual, body-mind split, reincarnation and mantras, and “cheesy” or “drippy” Buddhism marketed as pop culture. However “dubious” may seem to earnest adepts his four books, they articulate an existential, realistic approach to dharma. They also feature his raunchy, erudite, self-deprecation. He blends philosophical ruminations with raw memoir, confessional admissions, and textual explication.

In his mid-forties now, Warner’s practiced Zen since starting college. He embraces a common love in Buddhist and hardcore communities. He loses himself in the moment, free of the material world or the spiritual deception, and here he enters the space free of time, the place where he’s fulfilled. This simple but profound quest energizes his books. Hardcore Zen ([my review] 2003) narrates his coming of age, his move to Japan working for the company who gave us Godzilla, and his understanding of zazen, “just sitting.” It confronts the mess we’re in. Its combination of mental discipline and bodily balance seeks to overcome daydreams and stiff knees in bringing the practitioner closer not to enlightenment but reality. This approach, shorn of exotic trappings or false hopes, resembles Stephen Batchelor’s recent Confession of a Buddhist Atheist [reviewed by me]. Both authors free Buddhism from its own delusions, as peddled in pop culture.

Warner’s 2009 follow-up to Hardcore Zen reveals in its subtitle what’s happened since: Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma ([my review] 2009). Despite his typically phrased summary of this as a “ball of big snarly confessional vomit,” his insights into his mother’s death from Huntington’s Disease, his exasperation at Zen pieties while on a stifling Great Plains retreat, his brushes with trendsetters and metal rockers in Los Angeles, and his calm explanation of how he and his soon-to-be ex-wife drifted into being no more than “a pair of marginally friendly roommates,” assured that he knew how hard it proved for him to take responsibility for his own life. His struggles resonated with his intuitive code that demanded truth-telling. He takes us on his global and interior journeys while he tries to sort his real destiny out from his false desires.

Warner’s collaboration with the Suicide Girls site in explaining Buddhism beyond a New Age fringe or earnest do-gooders deepened his determination to articulate how his philosophy addressed sexuality. In his slightly more traditional 2007 "Sit Down and Shut Up"  [my review], he explains the intricacies of Dogen’s 1234 A.D. treatise Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye. Warner blends the founder of his Soto Zen school’s iconoclastic attitudes into his own “punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death.” He cites Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips: “I was resigned to believe in ‘the real,’ but I longed to be immersed in the ‘Guiding Light.’” Warner shares his fellow musician’s yearning for uplift, while he gazes unflinchingly at the intangible turned cruel or lovely, moment by moment around us.

Again, as the book’s subtitle promises in its consideration of verities as constructions of our minds and predicaments of our bodies, Warner stresses the everyday as the only enlightenment we will obtain. He emphasizes the “eternal now” as all we can grasp, as the past and future stretch beyond our control. This ambiguity, he argues, represents the closest we can come to any breakthrough into higher awareness of what “Spiritual Masters” err in claiming as awaiting a gullible seeker lining up to pay for such a magic entrance to an elusive attainment. Coming from the Straight Edge punk scene of the early 1980s that advocated freedom from intoxicants or “meaningless” sex, Warner found its tenets compatible with his youthful Zen interest. Even if, as he adds, the sexual temptations for his band, Zero Defex, appeared as illusory as the “materialism” overcome in the precepts preached by old Dogen.

His chapter on “Sex and Sin” in Sit anticipates, in advocating a “Middle Way” for those not celibate, and in denying “sin” as a Buddhist conception, his contributions to Suicide Girls. These in turn led to his newest work, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. As his début surely marked the first time a toilet graced the cover of a Buddhist primer, so Sex claims, unsurprisingly, to sit on its own crossover shelf, the first mass-market paperback about sexuality from a Buddhist perspective.

Rare for Buddhist authors, Warner intersects in his writings with wider trends that PopMatters covers. His first three titles all bear “Buddhism/PopCulture” as their back cover classification. Likewise, his musical encounters, his website exchanges, and his personal adventures compel him to look at his own struggles in hopes he can help us with ours. From Gene Simmons of KISS to a dominatrix, from Robyn Hitchcock's guitar to Mr. Spock from Star Trek, Warner integrates apt references to help a non-Buddhist audience appreciate his stories. He's never forced in his musical and cultural examples, even if those footnotes, a feature of all of his books, may slightly annoy as often as they amuse. At least they're pithy, not David Foster Wallace imitations.

Warner's study blends further autobiography with interpretations of what dharma has had to say, suggest, deny, hint--or perhaps never had to confront--about what sexually challenges those who live outside monasteries. Most historical texts from his Soto Zen tradition address monks, so Warner seeks to expand their contexts and to add his own suggestions for moral behavior that balances the erotic with the tempered, the passionate with the controlled, as a “Middle Way” that remains faithful to Buddhist advice yet acknowledges the growing explicitness of contemporary sexual depictions and actions in predicaments that his predecessors never had to witness.

Sex brings attachment; Buddhism resists attachment. Warner counsels moderns to not cling to anyone. That is, to enjoy each other’s company while we can, but not to turn despondent if he or she leaves, if we’re rejected, if they die. His own divorce and his own sober grappling with intimacy deepen his insights. His own fears growing up that he would inherit what killed his mother very slowly, Huntington’s Disease, matured Warner early on. He brings a seasoned sensibility to his reflections. He investigates how the transports of sex may bring many people the closest they may come to leaving behind the senses and merging with a greater oneness, the same direction a practitioner may contemplate upon a cushion while meditating. Some who scoff at a higher realm may be those who long most for intimacy.

Warner as a hardcore bassist wore his hair more like a hippie; on Suicide Girls among the “punk rock nutcases and tattooed women, I got to be the guy who advocated quiet and equilibrium.” He resents the incense-scented whiff of self-righteousness peddled by many Buddhist colleagues, and reminds us how “mystical serenity” has nothing to do with true wisdom. The very lack of fulfillment we suffer, Warner avers, presents us with Dogen’s hard-nosed enlightenment breakthrough. Zazen offers us, he insists, incompletion. This humbling message can be compared to “leaving home” as the Buddha departed his palace, his sleeping child, and his longtime wife. That is, “the pursuit of the truth is more vital than the pursuit of what society—your home—tells you is important.”

In his minor brushes with what his readers and followers expect him to act like as a Zen monk in the world, Warner gets irritated. Considering his modest role as a spokesperson for punk-Buddhism, he suggests why spiritual leaders may succumb mid-life to scandals. His reasoning that these serious men, for many years devoted to study and solitude, when brought into a position of acclaim and power, give in to the fame and lusts that they were long denied makes sense. He also wonders if the jealousy engendered within certain Buddhist experiments in America with coed monastic living (never attempted in Asia) bring on competition between celibate followers of a guru revered as a chaste “father figure” and those who seek to become his more physical partners, as if akin to a sort of “incest” as perceived by the chaste, self-denying brethren.

I am not sure if for many more texts, Warner can sustain his relentless pace. His four books tend to leap from topic to topic; he includes transitions and connects a dizzying array of subjects, but he may run the risk of repetition. This in punk as in Zen's not a flaw, all the same, even if for publishing he may find himself telling the same old stories to the same devoted fans. I hope his audience keeps growing, and that he keeps his balance off the mat as well as his many hours on it, this quarter-century.

He seems to be packing more and more of his experiences into four books now over a half-dozen years. Somehow he finds time for reflection, and this twice-daily exercise exemplifies that he practices what he preaches. Perhaps he's inured to this balance of action with contemplation after his punk formation in the blustery Ohio winters? Warner, as one of the first exponents of a practical Buddhism that takes on the stench of the nightclub, the rush of the drug or drink, the confusion of the morning after, seems well-placed to weigh in to his readers about how to handle such temptations for today’s seekers.

He compares Zen instruction to teaching guitar. You learn the chords, comprehend the scales, and then how you use the training becomes up to you. “You may choose to use it for good, or you can use what I’ve taught you for evil purposes, like playing guitar in a Julio Iglesias cover band, for example.”

Warner’s most inventive technique taught here? He interviews Nina Hartley. For twenty-five years, she’s been in the adult entertainment industry. She grew up in 1970s Berkeley as a “Zen kid,” the daughter of parents who became prominent Buddhist teachers. This “sex activist” and “registered nurse” expounds about pair-bonding as opposed to lifelong monogamy, the pressures of performing with actors, the responsibility for morality among polyamorists, and the difficulties of matching one’s own libido with that of partners. She explains, in short follow-up discussion, a connection between “power balance,” zazen, and “ungulate animals” in a scientific rather than “kinky” manner that shows how well she has reflected upon such disparate material.

As their conversation proves, this book roams far from the expected topics, for sexuality as well as meditation overlap with Buddhism. So does pop culture and life itself. Study this and you may find your expectations upended. The cover may convince you of a wacky jaunt through the wreckage of an Asian fraternity’s lost weekend in Vegas, but as with all of Warner’s writing, the subtlety and seriousness despite the incessant footnotes and goofy asides remains longest with a patient reader. A poignant account of a young student’s abortion after being date raped segues into the Japanese tradition of venerating Jizo, a goddess adopted by those who have aborted and seek reconciliation with the deceased. Warner for all his bluster knows when to step back and listen to the pain and hope of others.

He pivots between the punk concert and the Zen platform, the silent sittings for weeks on end in a remote hideaway and the press of a sweaty moshpit below where he pummels his instrument. “If I’m in a room full of pompous wannabee Buddhists all trying to be pure of heart and mind, I just want to rip my clothes off, plug my Stratocaster into a stack of Marshalls, and blow the fake-ass beatific smiles off their faces. All that lovey-dovey good-vibes shit makes me gag.” But, he goes on to muse over his own lovey-doveyness divvied out at Suicide Girls. Both venues enable him to reach those seeking compassion and questioning emptiness beyond the mundane. He may wander far in his writings, but Sex, Sin, and Zen attests that for all its stage stances, an ethical and sane Warner’s as rooted in the everyday as are you and me.

(P.S. Re: polyamory, see my "Sex at Dawn" review. Also read my "Buddhist Erotic Art: In search of?" This "Sex, Sin, Zen" review's posted in shorter form to Amazon US, 9-2-10 & 9-24); without my review hyperlinks, also featured as above 9-15-10 on PopMatters)


Wim Borsboom said...

Hi Fionnchú,

You are saying. "[Warner] reminds us how “mystical serenity” has nothing to do with true wisdom..."
So true, but it seems to me - from reading your review - that his (shall I say?) banal bashing also has very little to do with it!
I suggest that his “demystifying banality” is just the other side of the same coin that is expected to be dropped in the donation boxes of the market stalls in that illusive and deluded world of spiritual mercantilism.

Thank you for the review!

Wim Borsboom said...

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

I like this phrase, Wim, complementing "spiritual materialism." There's a lively sub-genre as Noah Levine's "Dharma Punx" popularizing this generational iconoclasm, perhaps as Warner & Levine both come out of a post-hippie reaction to its vibes? For comparison and contrast, peek along the way that Juniper: Buddhist training for modern life may be pioneering as a secular-scientific rapprochement, along the lines of Stephen Batchelor, as well as Skillful Meditation Project with its consideration of "unlearning meditation," suggest other, less snarky or pop culture alternatives for the West (and recalling Dzogchen Ponlop's call for a dharma that globalizing Easterners can also accept!).

Juniper takes Tibetan and SMP Vipassana rooted traditions while applying them to Western mindsets and what we know now about the mind and body. Directions such as these may show a more mature reaction to what Buddhism can evolve into, one that may be more integrated than the interim stages that Warner may be reacting to.

(Thanks for responding, Wim; I cross-posted this at your comment on my piece, over at your own Free by Nature.)