by Gary Gach, The Buddhist Channel, Sept 6, 2007

The Zen Teachings of Brad Warner: Author, Musician, Filmmaker, Blogger, and Soto Priest

"There can't be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves."
- from It Conquered the World

San Francisco, USA -- A radio interviewer once asked me how can I, an American, a Westerner, a Jew, practice Buddhism, an Eastern religion. I reminded him how Judaism is an Eastern heritage. And now that the Dharma has been translated into Western languages and transmitted through a lineage of teachers, there are now European American children raised in Buddhist homes for whom Eastern ideas are not foreign but, rather, are native. Finding the Middle Path between extremes, for example, isn't such a bad idea, really.

<< Brad Warner

When I was first studying Zen, there were more Buddhas behind glass cases in museums, than practicing living teachers. Now that the way of the Buddha has become accepted within mainstream American society, it's reaching new generations, whose realization of the Way offers a great deal to teach the rest of us, even those whose practice might extend back decades and decades; especially those of us.

Consider, for example, the kids who came of age during the Punk Movement, such as Noah Levine, who titled his first book Dharma Punx. Son of noted spiritual writer Stephen Levine, he spent much of his youth in a state of "suicide-ality" before coming round to accepint "hippy values," -- and becoming, himself, a powerful force for spiritual and social change in our time.

It is natural for children to rebel against their parents, so if your parents espoused the hippy values of the 1960s you might find it only natural to rebel against the unfulfilled promises of that cultural revolution. Punk rock rebelled against the mellow, mainstream, symphonic compositions of the Beatles and the BeeGees, featuring instead stripped-down, do-it-yourself (DIY), noncommercial rock.

As punk evolved, and the magnetism of the original bands began to fade, a subgenre emerged in the late 1970s known as "hard-core punk." One hardcore punk singer-songwriter-musician, Brad Warner, happened to find his path also leading him to Zen, and recently wrote a memoir of both his musical and spiritual evolution, entitled Hardcore Zen.. (Subtitle: punk rock, monsteshaper movies, and the truth about reality. Monster movies? He found work in Japan at the studio that produces Ultraman, successor to the Godzilla cycle.)

About 50 pages, maximum, are about Brad Warner's personal career; the rest is devoted to his taking the path of Zen, first at Kent State, then under the tutelage of Gudo Wafu Nishijima Roshi, now also a blogger (Dogen Sangha Blog).

Chapters are each about ten pages, and tend to be a rambling Dharma talk on reincarnation, or drugs, or the precepts, and not just one but a couple amazing epiphanies (including a fantastic revelation followed by an ever better counter-revelation). Like many an author's first book, it crams in everything but the kitchen sink (well, it does feature a toilet on the cover, but that fits in with the book's nominal plot). What plot there is doesn't get in the way of the story (as they say in B-movie circles) and only serves to heighten the book's intentionally rambling quality. Like the essence of Zen itself, it's written free-style. Spontaneous, it's shapely because mind is shapely. As mind seeks mind, there are direct, on-target hits in these pages, like an arrow striking an arrow mid-air.

The kicker is you've never read a Dharma book like this one before. It's written for those who wouldn't ordinarily pick up a book on Zen, particularly readers in their 20's and 30's. But, then, who said Zen isn't iconoclastic? And maybe it's time for even Zen as we know it today to be shaken up a little.

The author's voice reminded this reader of JD Salinger's Holden ("Catcher in the Rye") Caulfield now time-travelling fifty years into the post-Clockwork Orange future. One of the basic lessons of most writing schools are to avoid combining first person AND dialect (in this case heavy use of italics, neoligisms, trademark signs, etc.) but Brad Warner pulls it off. After all, he's trying to express nothing other than the inexpressible, so why not!? And he he also runs a risk of shocking (or boring) only himself when he goes off on his trademark tangents, but he usually manages to land like a cat on all four feet and move on. The net effect of the book is, to this reader, like an implacable zone of utter stillness amid a crazy factory of noise.

Well, it became a runaway bestseller and is now joined by a sequel, Sit and Shut Up. (Subtitle: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye.)

About fifty pages heftier than Hardcore Zen, it follows and extends the previous book's format, intermingling the personal with Dharma commentary, in this case on the epic collection of writings by Dogen Zenji, known as the Shobogenzo, which Brad Warner studies in Master Nishijima's translation. Just as we can read the story of the life of the Buddha as of our own unfolding, (mutato nomine de fabula narratur, "change the name and the story is about us"), so does Brad Warner intertwine his biography of Dogen with his own bio. Interesting.

And his exposition of Dogen plays against a personal travelogue of return for a reunion of Akron, Ohio punk bands: a journey to the American heartland that mirrors a journey to the author's true interior, his own luminous, limitless, precious, everyday heart-mind.

I caught up with Brad Warner, in San Francisco. I was very pleased to discover a calm, genial, gentle, warm, wise young fellow, whose unassuming manner would easily lose him in crowd, but whose natural gift for dialogue revealed a very apt, genuine calling as a teacher.

I began by asking him to define what DIY means, for those just tuning in.

Brad Warner: DIY = do it yourself. It's just the idea you don't wait around for a record company to sign you, you put out your own record. You don't wait for a magazine to commission you to do an article, you publish it yourself. ... It's a kind of an attitude....

Q: Is that similar to the teachings of the Buddha?

A: I think it's similar, 'cuz if you think about the idea of working thru your own salvation ... I don't like to put it in those terms ... a lot of religions you give this idea that some god or savior over there is going to help you [gestures] over there in sky. Whereas Buddhism has thisa idea that, no, you're not waiting for God to help you. You're going to have to work it for yourself. So there's that connection. For sure.

Q: And when you write that the Budha's last words, "Be a lamp unto yourself" is similar to the punk motto "Question authority"...?

A: It's the same sort of stretch. It means you're not waiting for someone else to show you the way. You have to be the lamp. So "question authority" works into that ... but I admit I did stretch it a bit ...

Q: I noticed too that you had a different way of expressing the Zen motto, "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form."

A: Someone was asking me about this yesterday, but he was objecting. His take on it was that he always translated it as "Matter is immaterial, and immaterial is matter." But it's most always widely translated "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form." And my first teacher's teacher translated it this way.

But they didn't like the way I was talking about the way emptiness is the mental side of reality ... and form is the material side of reality (computers, chairs, things you can touch and feel). Buddhism has the idea that these are one and the same. That the side of reality that we know exists all the time but we can't put our hands on, and the side of reality we can put our hands on, that our hands are a part of ... are the same thing.

Q: In your new book, you set forth four levels in the Shobogenzo. Is that Dogen's idea?

A: That's Nishijima's interpretation of Dogen ... based on the Four Noble Truths ... that's also his unique take on the Four Noble Truths ... what he sees is a parallel between the Four Noble Truths and these four ways of expression that Dogens hits on over and over in Shobogenzo.

It took me a while to see that. It took me a few times reading Shobogenzo to understand what the hell Nishijima was talking about. But after working at it for it a while it makes sense and it makes the whole Shobogenzo make sense. So I find it really useful.

Of course, you can't put words in the mouth of a guy whose been dead 800 years and say that's what he really meant, but i think that 's what he really meant.

Q: I'd like to ask you something I'd asked John Cage, after I heard him perform 45' for a Speaker: "If everything is the way you say it is, then why are you up there, doing what you're doing?"

A: Somebody asked me that yesterday, and it was weird ''cuz I never really thought about it. I write 'cuz I like writing.

And I'm not really trying to influence people or anything like that.

Someone once told me, "You're saving all beings," as a means of encouragement, a kind of Buddhist cliche, and I was thinking , "I'm not saving all beings, I'm just writing a book."

I never think of it in those terms. I just write 'cuz I like to write.

It might be useful to somebody or at least they might enoy reading it.

Does that sound pretentious? I'm just doing what I do.

There's tendency to try to make Buddhism into a business or ... to make it quick and easy. That's the thing that bothers me.

People will take this thing called "enlightenment" (in quotes) and, "Ok, here's the easy way to get enlightenment, and you can do it a week, or a day" or whatever they promise. And it's ridiculous.

It's like if a yoga teacher told you, "I'm going to teach you this special yoga position, and you're going to put your leg up behind your neck by the end of the day." You wouldn't want to go to yoga teacher like that ... it's definitely not healthy.

And I think it's like a lot things I see that are being pushed, that are the same kind of thing. It's not good for you. You don't want to have that experience quickly, 'cuz you'd break your leg, to stretch the metaphor ... beyond the point of breaking ...

Q: I noticed that your new book has way more footnotes than your first one. What's up with that?

A: I wanted this book to be more loose. I always like when I listen to someone and they go off on a tangent. That's always the best part. So my way is just to go off on tagnents. I wanted to have a footnote that would go for a couple of pages. I'm working my way up to that.

Q: Where can people find you on the web?

A: Suicide girls and my blog. My website hasn't been updated for two years, it's a precursor to the blog. Technically, a blog is easy to do, 'cuz you just type it up and it just goes, whereas with the website I had to figure out all the bits to make it work.

But think the articles I do for the Suicide Girls is enjoyable 'cuz it's an audience that isn't self-identified as Buddhist. So it's kind of fun to write for that audience ... 'cuz they don't have any background at all. They're a really receptive audience. I get really good response from the people that read it. It's cool 'cuz i get to be the calm stable person, whereas if you put me in a group of Buddhists, I look like the crazy one, altho' I don't think I am, sometimes I think they're all nuts ... ... I shouldn't say or I can get in more trouble.

I spend more time writing than people realize. Occasionally i put something up on the blog that I type up and send, but generally I work on it. It takes forever. I always think it's going to take an hour but then nine hours later I'm still looking at it and doing [makes sound, like "HHhhghghghhs" ... (how do you write " "HHhhghghghhs" ...?).

Q: So you do a little revision ...

A: I do work it out but then Dogen did too. He did multiple drafts and some of the earlier drafts have been discovered and some of the later chapters were never completed but his successor copied tham out. And then he'll write a little note of apology on the bottom, "This is as he'd written it."

It's interesting to think of this Zen master who had done multiple drafts as a writer, which is something i can kind of identify with ...

You'll find Dogen's books include poems and some are transcripts of his talks and some are comments that he made to his disciples working on them.

Nihshimima has translated him into in modern Japanese. Even Japanese have a hard time with Dogen. So Nishijima wrote a 12-volume edition, with the original and the modern colloquial Japanese facing each other. Then he he did an English version, more or less based on that and work of a student of his named Mike Cross. Q: So you've read the Japanese? A: I lived there for 11 years, and I could look up the words I don't know. Actually, whenever I could, whenever I quoted Dogen, I tried to look it up in Japanese, for myself rather than depending solely on the English ...

Q: And so the reason you include Japanese [kanji] in the text is ...

A: ... 'cuz that's way i learned it.

Q: Interesting. You also studied with Gyomay M. Kubose. What were your impressions of him?

A: He was a nice guy. He was pretty old when I knew him, 20 years ago. I lived in Chicago for three years. During those three years, it almost an interruption. I still did the zazen practice, but didn't have a teacher. Kubose, who I liked, wasnt a Zen teacher. He was Pure Land, but he did zazen.

He was recommend to me by Tim McCarthy. They were located in a bad part of Chicago, but they held service on Sunday, and Sunday is really mellow in that part of Chicago 'cuz you'd see people all passed out and trashed out from partying; the kind of area you wouldn't to be walking on. Q: American Zen owes a great deal to Hakuun Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973), who taught Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau, among others, but you're not in that lineage, correct? A: The whole San Francisco Zen Center is not. I don't think I'm the only one, but I'm one of the few. The Yasutani line in Japan is extremely small ... over here, they're big. So it's kinda weird in that they're largely unknown.

Q: What's your favorite film by [B-movie filmmaker]?

A: It Conquered the World ... Corman directed it himself. He produced Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women which is my all-time favorite. It was the first movie Peter Bogdonavich directed. It's taken from a Russian science fiction film that Corman acquired the rights to [editor's note: Pavel Klushantsev's Planet of Storms (Planeta bur), which Corman used in two other movies, as well.]. In order to jazz it up, Peter Bogdonavich was hired to basically go out to Malibu to shoot a lot of girls on the beach in seashell bikinis.

Q: Why do like that one?

A: I saw it was I like six years old on tv late at night. My dad stayed up with me. I liked dinosaurs, the title implied dinosaurs, so I watched it

Decades later, I tried to find it; I wondered if I'd imagined it. Finally, in the early 2,000s I found a list of bootleg videos. It was on the list. "Ah, that film really does exist!," I thought. So I saw it again and I still thought it was great. I was worried. I thought it was going to be lousy but I still liked it.

Q: What's your favorite Godzilla movie?

A: There are 20. My favorite has always been Monster Zero. Nick Adams is in that. He does such over the top acting and he's Ghidorah, the three-headed monster in it. He was really good. It's kinda too bad, no one knows if he commited suicide or if it was an overdose ... some people think he was murdered ...

* * *
At this point, my recorder ran out of tape. We continued to talk, anyway. Then we went for a walk, to City Lights Bookstore. In the basement, we found Sit and Shut Up! filed in the music section, near a biography of Frank Zappa (that, strangely enough, had a book inside of the book). Afterwards, we walked through Jack Kerouac Alley, connecting Italian North Beach's Columbus Avenue with Chinatown's Grant Avenue. As I walked with Brad back towards the apartment where he was staying, we passed a green dinosaur, sticking its head out of its foot-long box. Brad and the green dinosaur shared a quick glance of mutual recognition. Sweet.

Back home, I wondered: Does a green plastic toy dinosaur have Buddha nature? Right then, outside my window I saw a cow grazing in the pasture look up and murmur, "Mu ... !"

Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism and serves on the five-person International Advisory Panel of The Buddhist Channel. Since this interview was conducted, Gudo Nishijima Roshi selected Brad Warner to be his successor in Dogen Sangha International.

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