Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Brad Warner's "Zen Dipped in Karma Wrapped in Chocolate": Book Review

A sophomore slump personally and in print, even if numbered third of his now four books. He deals with what went down after ”Hardcore Zen” (see my review) made his reputation for better or worse. The year 2007 as the subtitle "a trip through death, sex, divorce, and spiritual celebrity in search of the true dharma" says it all, but what may elude a casual reader is the seriousness beneath the Ed Hardy-tattoo like cover and the tone that Warner prefers, to keep it snappy, snide, and snickering as much as profound, philosophical, and even poetic. Both modes alternate and this makes it a book that secular skeptics will welcome perhaps more than "drippy" Buddhist types.

That's his intention: to get a Soto Zen message of facing down reality on the cushion and then getting up to do better than you do habitually. He rejects fantasies and fear, to as "Sit Down and Shut Up" (see my review) used the Soto founder Dogen's precepts to keep a balance and to live life now, in the moment, while admitting that "I Don't Know" can be a fine way to navigate its challenges.

He can write movingly; much of this book concerns his mother's slow death from Huntington's Disease and his fears of inheriting the same when he grew up. This pragmatism made him determined to sort real from false desires, and even if he calls it "a ball of big snarly confessional vomit," he can reach beauty. Considering his grandfather's death, he notes how even if he himself does not believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, he admits how Grandpa's presence remains: "The same thing that stared out of my grandpa's eyes and wondered what he wondered what the f[--]k it was all about stares at the world out of your eyes and out of mine." (191)

This tone reminds you this is not an ordinary Buddhist book; it can be profane as well as pretty. Warner's impatience as a punk-priest with piety and dogma makes this a great recommendation for a more open-minded approach. He tells us how Zen is there so we don't add more garbage to the pile, no more tension than what we're already stuck with. In his own weaknesses as he recounts, he shows how responsibility beyond ourselves is essential for morality.

Narrating how he and his wife became "distantly polite roommates," he anticipates his fourth book, "Sex, Sin, and Zen" (see my review; also featured 9-15-10 on PopMatters--) to show how sexuality and temptation complicate a modern Buddhist's daily challenges. He loses his coveted dream job, he takes on morality as based in reality for all its messiness, and he reflects how even life and death somehow in Dogen's estimation constitute nirvana. This makes sense if you stick with it; as with his other books, Warner wanders around a topic or chapter before wrapping it up neatly.

Of all his books, this one does roam about the most. 2007's difficulties do cause Warner to zig-zag and duck and bob a lot. For good reason he warns how distractions in zazen come like wheels left spinning upside down in a bicycle shop. Such metaphors keep the book quirky and the message accessible to the doubtful. While at first the book may seem too glib for the serious reader, Warner varies his pitch and knows his wider audience demands a repertoire of tunes, as it were, to entertain them as he delivers his message within a deeper, more fragile and sensitive exploration of his own setbacks as his hard-won lessons to share with us in relating his ups and downs to Zen's practical, steady reaction to whatever we face.

He's good at explaining such tricky topics as absolute vs. "relative" reality and how atheism in his mind differs from a non-theistic Buddhism that still expects ritual and devotion for their own sake of respect for each other even if ultimately no god or gods in the conventional sense exist for its practitioners. He even expounds on the problem of evil, and how it starts as does anger and fear from within.

Warner advocates intuition along with action; he compares his musical zone when playing on stage to that of meditation, to "uncover the intuition you already have" to perform well. Zazen or sitting still does not seek any other goal than the reality of the moment, as he concludes: "enlightenment is for those who can't face reality." (Posted to Amazon US 9-2-10 & 9-24)

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