Golly, I feel old sometimes.
I became a buddhist in 1966. It turns out my new favorite Zen Master — boy, he’s gonna flinch if he reads that — is a guy who was about four years old at the time. His name is Brad Warner, and he’s rockin’ the Zen world.
Literally. Brad is a hardcore punk rock bass player, who recorded with hardcore bands like 0DFX (Zero Defex) and started a psychedelic band Dementia 13, and I’m telling you right here and now that my knowledge of punk rock is entirely derived from reading Brad’s books and a couple of Wikipedia articles: when punkers were listening to the Dead Kennedys, I was listening to Styx and Kansas.
I also like Glenn Miller. Sue me.
Brad then moved to Japan, where after a year of teaching English, managed to wangle a job working for Tsuburya Productions, which made Ultraman; he acted in bit parts in a number of Ultraman movies and did promotion in English for the company. He also married. While he was there, he also started to study Zen with Gudo Nishijima, a teacher in the Soto lineage, and as he tells it in his first book Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality, Nishijima-sensei decided to confer Transmission, making him an official certified Zen Master and Nishijima’s Dharma heir. He then moved back to the US, lost his job, got divorced, and began writing for the general public with Hardcore Zen, followed by becoming a columnist for the Suicide Girls website, largely a repository of pictures of young hipster girls with lots of tattoos and few clothes.
Brad has been controversial more or less from the start. (Not every Zen Master writes for a porn site.) First of all, he doesn’t look the part.
This guy looks like a Zen Master.
This guy looks like a Zen Master.
And then there’s Brad.
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.
Now, this is very un-Japanese. Buddhist monks and priests aren’t actually expected to be celibate — the Precepts just say to avoid misusing sex, and even then the Precepts are basically suggestions: there is no special punishment for violating them, they just are hints that, if followed, lead to less unsettling, disappointing drama in life. There’s really no concept of “sin” in Buddhism, so nothing, not even sex, can be “sinful”. But there are a lot of Baptists in black robes in American Zen, and so every so often there’s a furor over a “sex scandal”. In fact, there’s a current furor about Sasaki-roshi (pictured above), who at 105 years old is now at the center of a controversy himself.
(I was talking with a friend in Hiroshima last night; the Sasaki-roshi controversy has now been noticed in Buddhist circles there. Her response, roughly translated, is “Are you guys nuts?” The horny concupiscent priest has been a running joke in Japan for a thousand years, and is considered about as scandalous as Americans would find a Catholic priest who plays golf four times a week and cheats on his scores.)
Brad may be too Japanese now for American Zen; when he pointed out that perhaps people should calm down and ask what really happened and who had been hurt by it, he was called everything from a fake Buddhist to a closet pederast.
Reading Sex, Sin, and Zen is probably a disappointment for the black-robe Baptists and the people looking for a sexual carte blanche both: Brad consistently takes an open, compassionate view of sex, and how the Precept of not misusing sex applies. The book includes an extended interview with Nina Hartley, the porn star and sex advocate, who it turns out was raised in a Zen temple from the age of ten and is shown to have a pretty deep understanding of Buddhism. It also includes discussions of homosexuality and Buddhism, BDSM and Buddhism, pornography and Buddhism … you get the idea. His take I think can be summarized as: no, sex isn’t sinful; yes, if your mind becomes fixated on sex, in whatever form, that is harmful to your peace of mind.
Overall, I recommend Brad’s books. You won’t necessarily learn a lot about the traditions and underlying philosophy of Zen and Buddhism except by osmosis, although he does manage to mention the Four Noble Truths. (If you want to learn that, look for my upcoming book, Undecorated Buddha, he said shamelessly.) You will learn a lot about how one Zen Master thinks, and it will be in an amusing, and even Enlightening way.
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