In 1968, Alan Watts wrote an essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen“, where he noted that Zen in America even then had two apparent factions: the Beats, like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, who were iconoclasts rebelling against, well, pretty much everything; and the Squares, who were trying to follow the traditions imported from Japan and be very proper in everything. Those two traditions or factions continue to this day, and Warner, as you might imagine, is not a favorite among the current generation of Squares.
When I found Brad’s first book, Hardcore Zen, I really had never heard of him or the controversies, but reading the book made me an instant fan: here was a Zen Master who was writing to be clearly understood. He’s also funny, in a wryly self-deprecating way. It would be easy to suspect that Brad is really just a hipster Zen guy — and presumably Nishijima-sensei had a momentary lapse — but his second book Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye takes its Zen a little more seriously. Brad probably wouldn’t want to admit it, but he’s a serious student of Buddhism and especially of Dogen, the founder of the Soto School.
The third book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma, is very much autobiographical, as his first book was. He writes about coming back to the US, and being a Zen teacher here while the Tsuguraya Company was collapsing, he was divorcing, and he was finding himself in the internal politics of American Buddhism.
What, you thought Buddhism wouldn’t have politics? Oh, you have no idea. Especially now that Zen in America is old enough to have developed an Establishment.
The biggest shock to the Square Zen Establishment was probably Brad’s most recent book, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, largely drawn from his Suicide Girls columns. Sex and Zen have a very strange relationship in America. There’s a tendency for Americans to think “Priest. He’s supposed to be celibate, right? Above all that sex stuff.” Then if some eeek sex happens, they tend to get offended and shocked.