Monday, September 20, 2010

Brad Warner's "Sit Down and Shut Up": Book Review

Second in his series of now four titles mingling his "hardcore Zen" punk-monk experiences into his Japanese fluency in its culture and language, this comments on Dogen's 1234 A.D. Soto Zen teachings. Warner unlocks their compressed, intricate, enigmatic utterances and explains how the Japanese concepts unfold as he compares this wisdom to his own life during a chaotic few years of the past decade.

”Hardcore Zen” (see my review) told how he got to be a bassist-monster movie marketer-Zen priest, so "Sit" continues his own stint as a reunion player in the Akron scene, but this work concentrates more on Dogen and less on his own adventures. Therefore, being grounded in the founder of his tradition, Soto Zen, I think Warner succeeds in keeping this the most serious (with lots of room for his snarky humor and snide footnotes) of his works. He lets Dogen's practical insistence on the balance of zazen, the body-mind mix of the material and the mental, to dominate his pages. They may roam and suddenly veer off, as in a deftly told chapter on his shaved head that somehow winds up making the analogy of our life to a bubble on a stream. But, he keeps Dogen as the core of his message, and that helps him balance his own prose.

He sums it all up late on, expanding the "eternal now" focus: "Dogen's Buddhism is all about understanding what you really are right here and right now. And reality often includes the fact that you cannot see reality as it is. The ability to understand that you do not understand is what real enlightenment is all about." (239)

The book starts off confidently and never falters. He alternates his "punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's 'Treasury of the Great Dharma Eye" with his own life's lessons. (For more, go on to "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma" for the aftermath of what happened mid-decade, and then "Sex, Sin, and Zen" (also featured 9-15-10 on PopMatters--  for his full-frontal look at Buddhist sexuality. Both reviewed by me.) The chapters may seem ramshackle if taken out of context or read at random, but there's a flow, speaking of the stream, that shows how Warner's decades of staring out reality in zazen and the rest of his life permeate these lively, raunchy, calm, and hard-headed reflections. He reminds us that punk and Zen share a distrust of pat answers, how ambiguity is the message of enlightenment, and how the Big Questions may never get solved.

His skepticism, as a punk philosopher, is welcome. He tells us to look at things and people as they are, to focus on the "eternal now" rather than the fled past or intangible future. This may sound like platitudes, but if you take these chapters slowly and with an open mind, you start to gain a sense of the long-fought and long-sought commonsense that Buddhism presents via Dogen as what we always knew deep down. He draws attention to the "Bodhi Mind" and the "it" that we cannot quite articulate but which we intuitively know as the direction to follow.

Without preaching, he shows us how to welcome each moment as a "once-in-a-lifetime" one, and not to let life pass by in delaying fulfillment. He does not promise ease from zazen, but boredom; he does not believe in easy insights, but in honest ethics. His practice equals a lifetime of hard work every day. He warns that if we seek Ultimate Truth, that it comes only at the present instant, as inescapable and as fleeting as that. This, he concludes, is the only reality we can find, and here, he tells us, we must work out our own encounter with a quiet truth deep down. (Posted to Amazon US 9-2-10 & 9-24)

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