Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Brad Warner: Hardcore Zen Buddhism

Brad Warner is not your typical Zen Buddhist; he’s especially not the typical Zen Buddhist monk, either. His appeal to the younger Buddhist generation, younger people seeking a spiritual philosophy to follow of any sort, or to people who are what you would call “spiritual misfits” have made him one of America’s most popular of Buddhist teachers. He’s been listed as an influential Buddhist teacher you should be following on Twitter by The Huffington Post, he’s been interviewed on CNN, he’s written pieces for the alternative adult website ‘Suicide Girls,’ and he’s authored 4 books: 'Hardcore Zen,’ ‘Sit Down and Shut Up,’ ‘Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate,’ and ‘Sin and Zen.’ Brad Warner is a native of Akron, OH and was part of Akron’s hardcore punk scene in the 80s; he played bass for Zero Defex; he later went on to form his own group Dementia 13. He eventually found himself living and working in Japan playing the roles of foreigners in various programs, and he was also involved with the popular long-running Japanese show “Ultraman.” While he’s a Zen teacher, he’s also a huge science-fiction connoisseur, still continues to play music and has played in reunion shows with Zero Defex after returning to Akron, OH from Japan, and does speaking and teaching engagements around the world.

Brad Warner’s books are not what you’d generally read in any book written on the subject of Zen or Buddhism. He has extensive knowledge of a variety of teachings in Zen Buddhism from his formal practice that he discusses in his books explaining his own journeys in life in Japan, working on ‘Ultraman’ and other science fiction based productions, being in Zero Defex, his college years, and part of his childhood growing up abroad due to his father’s foreign job assignments. He’s able to keep readers of his books entertained with humor, stories, and yet translate these teachings all at the same time, which makes him a unique teacher and has earned him a following. At the same time, there have been many who have criticized his books and his teachings. He’s also proudly stated that one of his books is “Zen for people who don’t give a rat’s ass.” In today’s society while people are still seeking spiritual walks of life, a philosophy to find themselves engaged to, or some sort of a religion that they can feel comfortable with, it’s easy to relate to Brad’s straight-talking, sobering, against the “new age” concept, and yet positive writings.

I decided to talk with Brad about his roots in Akron, his love of science-fiction, his approach to Zen Buddhism, his writings, and some other related subjects.

You grew up living abroad, but you mostly lived in Akron. Being a native of Cleveland myself, the things I think of when Akron comes to mind are working and middle class families, the tire companies, and the music. I would even consider it more culturally vibrant than Cleveland. Akron’s music scene has been unique with who is either from there, or what has come out of Akron when you look at iconic bands and musicians like Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, The Cramps, and The Black Keys who have all come out of Akron. It’s obviously still a significant city in Ohio and has a vibrant history in many aspects. At the same time, it seems that Devo and The Black Keys have a love/hate relationship with their hometown. As a native of Akron yourself, and someone who has been part of Akron’s music scene, what do you think it is about Akron that gives it that rare cultural history, music history, and just general atmosphere as a city?

Akron is kind of a hellhole, really. This is probably one of the reasons so many creative things have come out of the city. If you want to see any good live music you have to make it yourself. Nobody ever comes here. Until the advent of the Internet, even if you just wanted to hear some good music you had to make it. Nobody can afford to even go to Cleveland let alone New York City and see what’s going on there.

It seems like it’s pretty rare that any great culture comes out of big vibrant cities like New York or Los Angeles. When it does, it’s usually because whoever is making that stuff moved to those cities from a place like Akron. Artists need something to fight against. So people here make their own culture. And sometimes it’s really amazing stuff.

In Akron we’re working in kind of a vacuum. We don’t know what the trends are so we can’t follow them even if we want to. The mainstream culture here follows the lowest of the lowbrow in terms of mass culture. But nothing “hip” ever comes here; no art exhibits, no bands. So people have to create their own reaction to that lowbrow mass culture without having a viable “alternative” culture to fall back on. Really, so-called “alternative” culture is usually just a minor variation on what the masses are doing anyway. People who are truly different aren’t any more accepted by the so-called “alternative scene” than they are by the mainstream.

I also have some terrific friends and there’s a real sense of camaraderie and community among those of us who see things differently from the rest of this town.

On the other hand, now that I’m back living in Akron again and I can see that this is a city where it seems like most people think baloney and white bread are what normal people eat and anyone who doesn’t must be a “commie fag.” And they’re pissed off because the economy is shit. No one has jobs. The weather is awful. Sweltering summers and winters like the Antarctic. I don’t have any trouble understanding why DEVO and Chrissy Hynde and LeBron James and the Black Keys and all the rest got out of here.

You have such an interest in some of the most obscure and classic forms of science fiction films and the culture that’s related to it going back through several eras. It seemed that you were living a dream by working in Japan in the industry there where so much of the world’s most notable science fiction films like Godzilla originated. At the same time, you’ve also been heavy into music and you’re a musician yourself. Do you feel that music and science fiction films have been as influential to you as Zen Buddhism? And did you ever feel during any part of your Zen training that these interests were going to have to be put aside, or that they were a distraction along the path of your Buddhist practice?

It’s hard to say if music and sci-fi have been influential. I mean, I can say that my early reading of sci-fi novels by Philip K. Dick had some influence on my interest in Zen. He put a lot of Zen-like ideas in his books. Though he got most of it wrong. And I know that my experiences playing live music led me to seek other experiences similar to that great feeling of openness that you get from playing.

On the other hand science fiction is full of a lot of worthless goofball speculation that can seem profound when it isn’t at all. L. Ron Hubbard is a perfect example of that. And rock music is loud and probably potentially disruptive to the workings of the human nervous system if indulged in too much.

I did feel at one point like I was going to have to put that stuff aside to become more “pure” and more like the Zen folks I saw at Buddhist centers. But that didn’t make me happy. And I don’t feel like Buddha’s message was “Don’t be happy” or “Don’t be yourself.”

You can always find a way to make your particular interests part of your Buddhist practice. I still love science fiction. But I now tend to gravitate toward the goofier stuff rather than the science fiction that’s touted as profound. I find the goofy stuff to be more honest, while the stuff that seeks to be profound is usually just pretentious. I always felt this way to some degree. But now I no longer feel like I ought to apologize for it.

As for it being distracting, well maybe it is. But sometimes you need a certain amount of distraction. If you get too single minded about Zen practice it can turn into an unhealthy sort of obsession.

I want to talk about one of your books that I found to be best of your 4 in my opinion, and the reason ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ is my favorite is because of it being an example of how you teach and present material. You took the Zen teachings of Dogen’s Shobogenzo and presented them in a unique way by telling personal stories in that book. Plus you used it to talk about how you were taking a trip back to Ohio and reuniting with Zero Defex at the time, how you accidently botched a TV release for a company in Japan you worked for that your boss took the consequences for on your behalf, and you presented it in such an easy way for people to take something from it. You’ve also done the same things in your other books. Buddhism is a way of life where you apply the teachings to everything you do, and is that how you approach your writing?

We made live-action television programs and once a year we made a live-action movie. It was one of the TV show releases that I screwed up. And I wouldn’t say my boss took the consequences for me. But he did say that as my boss he had to accept some of the blame because it was his job to look at what I was doing and to see that I had a general understanding of what was going on. Problem was, in that specific instance, he didn’t understand any better than I did what the company was doing.

But that aside, yeah, I do feel like Buddhism is a way of life. I approach writing like everything else, as part of my Buddhist life. I try to present something useful. But I also do it as much for me as for anyone else.
Sometimes I make these rather blunt statements in my books to a hypothetical person designated by the pronoun “you.” Sometimes people take that as an admonition. They think I’m saying, “I’ve got it all together, but you, on the other hand, should do better.” But that’s not what I mean at all. The “you” I refer to in my writing always includes myself. I’ve been trying to make that clearer as I go along.

As for Shobogenzo, all I can present is my understanding of it. I can’t dig up Dogen and ask him if I got it right. Some people disagree with my interpretations. I’m certainly not schooled in Dogen studies.

You and Noah Levine, who is another Buddhist teacher who has been involved in the punk rock lifestyle, have both been considered to be the most influential Buddhist teachers to the younger generations. In fact, you’ve even worked with Noah’s meditation group in Los Angeles. Noah is a little bit more rooted in speaking in terms of escaping self-destruction and addiction, and living with compassion for others. Your teachings are based on a more straight-forward, unchained point of view, which makes sense given you come from the Zen lineage. You’ve even said you’re about teaching “Zen for people who don’t give a rat’s ass.” When you take a look at the younger generations of people who come to you for instruction that come from rebellious movements or counterculture, what do you want them to take away from your instruction?

I have no idea what I want people to take from my so-called “teaching.” Honestly. I don’t really want them to take anything in particular.
I’m really not trying to teach anyone anyway. That’s why I don’t take students. I wouldn’t have any idea what to teach them. I can give people information that I have and that they don’t have. But that’s about it. And if you want information, there are better sources than me for just about anything. I really don’t know much in terms of information about Buddhism.

I do feel that there are people who could benefit from Buddhist philosophy and practice who might never encounter it because they’ve already decided like Jello Biafra in his song Religious Vomit that all religions suck. I sometimes think maybe my writing appeals to people who have a sense that there is some deeper truth but who don’t want religion. That’s how I felt.

But as for what I want people to take from my instruction, ugh! I don’t even like the word “instruction.” It makes me feel like we’re getting into some kind of S&M scene. As for what I want people to take from my writing… I can’t even say. I see my writing get misinterpreted in all kinds of bizarre ways. It seems to me like some people read what they want to read no matter what I actually say. I have no control over it at all.

I once heard a retired Episcopalian priest tell me it seems Americans can’t really be Buddhists because we’re too set in our ways to accept another culture’s religion with such intensive practices. There are obviously formalities that Americans are not used to that you have lived through in the Zen temples of Japan, and even in places where you have done your recent personal retreats. At the same time, when you perform your own retreats and teachings, it’s less formal, but still based in the practices. When you think about your own personal Zen training and the perspective of some of the people who have attended talks and retreats that you have given, do you believe in the idea that Americans can’t be Buddhists?

Well, neither of my teachers was very into formalities. There are Zen training centers that are much stricter and more difficult than anything I’ve personally been to. So I sometimes think I’m kind of a wimp.
And I think that anyone who can’t handle the kind of comparatively easy sort of practice I do is probably pretty hopeless. I don’t really make the retreats I lead any easier than the most of the ones I experienced. On the Zen scale of difficulty in retreats, Nishijima Roshi’s were very low. You woke up at 4:30 AM instead of 3:30. There were long breaks during the day for free-time. He never led a retreat longer than four days.

You do need some kind of discipline to get anything out of Zen practice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be intense discipline. It just has to be discipline.
Some people say I’m disciplined because I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is at least a half hour of zazen followed by a little exercise routine. Then I write every single day and practice my instruments daily. But to me, this really isn’t much. I feel very lazy and undisciplined because I’ve seen people who are way more intense than I could ever be.

You are one figure in modern Buddhism that has earned such an interesting following that has stirred things up for the better; you have such a unique way of teaching and explaining things. At the same time, I have encountered many of your critics, for as long as I’ve been reading your stuff, who say that you have an “immature sense of humor” for a Zen Buddhist monk, that you think you have a superiority over others because you studied Zen in Japan, and that you have enough of a rebellious streak to where it makes you an ineffective teacher. I even had a laugh after I read “BRAD WARNER WRITES PORNOGRAPHY ON "SUICIDE GIRLS!” Plus a blog that you wrote about a book on the subject of psychedelics and Buddhism earned you some scorn from the older Buddhist generation who said that you unfairly categorized them. You definitely don’t teach like some of the American Zen teachers like Enkyo O’Hara does, how Daido Loori did, or the other big names and figures in America who are part of the Zen community. I also don’t think people assume that any other Zen monk would ever interview a member of Devo, or talk about how Gene Simmons of KISS isn’t a Zen master in a Buddhist book. Do you feel that sometimes you are unfairly criticized?

“There’s no fair or unfair to a meteorite. You get hit, you die.” That’s a quotation from the film Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.
I feel like people criticize an image. They don’t know me at all. Nor do I know Genpo Roshi, who I’ve criticized a lot. I just slam his image. And it’s a lousy image so it’s fun to make fun of it.
If people don’t like my sense of humor, they don’t have to read what I write. If they’d rather find a more stereotypically “mature” Zen teacher there are plenty around. It doesn’t matter. If I was the only Zen teacher in the whole world maybe I’d have an obligation to be more universally appealing. Though probably not even then. But in any case there are other teachers people can go to if they don’t like me. So I feel no obligation at all to try to be what everybody wants. To me, that would be the antithesis of what Zen is about anyway.

It’s interesting sometimes, though, to be criticized for not fitting into what has become the standard “Buddhist guy image” that has developed in America over the past fifty years. Because that image is pure bunk. Zen teachers have always been weirdo iconoclasts. I am a rank amateur compared to the likes of Ikkyu or Haukuin. Those guys were really nutty! They make me look like the most conservative guy ever.

The Buddhist magazines and the Internet have really done a lot to solidify this weird phony image of what a Buddhist teacher ought to look and sound like. Those who conform to that stereotype can gain a following of people who like stereotypical teachers. I’m glad those folks don’t like me!

What’s in the future for Brad Warner as a teacher? Do you plan on staying in Akron for the long term? Do you plan to open a center? And how involved are you in playing music?

My future? I have no idea. I’ll stay in Akron at least till Spring of 2012. After that I’m not sure. I have no plans to open a center as such. But some people in Los Angeles are trying to set up a nonprofit religious organization with me as the head. So maybe we’ll start some kind of something.

I’m very involved in music. I just bought a new guitar and that means I need to start a band in which I can play it. I play bass in the band I’m currently in, Zero Defex. Zero Defex, by the way, are currently recording a new album. That’s been fun.

I’ll have a novel out this year and I’ve written a screenplay that I’m hoping we can make. Last year I acted in a movie called Shoplifting From American Apparel. I’m actually the lead role in it. The film should be released in 2012. But it is ultra low budget. So don’t expect to see it at your local megaplex cinema! It’ll probably play festivals and art-houses before getting released on DVD.

I want to do a lot of things. Zen teaching is something I’ve sort of fallen backwards into. I have no idea why anyone respects my opinion on such a deep subject as Zen. I’m still just a punk rock bass player who writes cheesy books.

I want to say that it’s been a pleasure, I always enjoy reading your Facebook and your blog, and that I hope there will be lots more to come from you in the future. And congrats on being one of the “Buddhists you should follow on Twitter”


Many thanks to Brad Warner for allowing me to interview him. You can follow Brad's blog at Hardcore Zen

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