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Zen Trickster: A Talk with Brad Warner

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With bare-knuckle book titles like Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up, author Brad Warner is not your hippie aunt’s idea of a tranquil, exotic spiritual master. With a pedigree in punk rock and garage-psychedelia, and a two-decade stint in the trenches of Japanese monster movie marketing, the 47-year-old native of Ohio is nevertheless a certifiable Zen master, part of a tightly-held Soto lineage that stretches back to Master Dogen Zenji in the 13th century. In fact, Warner’s teacher, the well-known Gudo Nishijima, with whom he studied for 12 years in Japan, is one of the chief translators and curators of Dogen’s writings. Nishijima not only transmitted his lineage to Warner, but appointed him President of the organization Dogen Sangha International, which he founded, in 2007.

Warner’s latest book, with the provocative title Sex, Sin & Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, attempts to bridge the divergent terrain of contemporary sexuality to Zen’s often misunderstood — and perhaps equally unpredictable — approaches to morality and sexual relationships. That Warner succeeds in creating a funny, generally balanced, and nevertheless potentially controversial work should be no surprise: Warner has already come to be known as the “Porno Buddhist” by some of his detractors, largely by virtue of his plain-spoken column on the indie-goth porn site Suicide Girls. Sex, Sin and Zen, which includes an interview with surprisingly Zen-versed porn star Nina Hartley, will do nothing to tamp down Warner’s reputation for pushing the envelope, nor will his brand new eBook, Death To All Monsters!, a digital-only pulp novel whose Godzilla-esque plot sounds eerily similar to Warner’s own life, as refracted through the fantastical lens of a Robert Anton Wilson or a young Thomas Pynchon.

Nevertheless, Warner remains in many ways a strict adherent to Zen morays and maxims. Despite his forays into psychedelic music, for example, Warner is decidedly unimpressed by the spiritual claims of medicine workers and ethno-botanical seekers, likening the shamanic drug experience to a kind of “controlled trauma.” A relentlessly independent thinker who still retains an edgy punk rock bite in many of his pronouncements, Warner remains a renegade both in the Buddhist circles within which he travels, and the cutting-edge culture to which he aims his books. Sitting in the crossfire of post-millennial sexuality and ages-old religious tradition was never going to be easy, but judging from the effortless way Warner drops into an otherwise painful-looking full lotus position, the easy path doesn’t seem to be part of his Dharma.


JR: True to its subtitle, Sex, Sin & Zen discusses polyamory, as well as celibacy, in light of Zen teachings on”misuse of sexuality.” This could be touchy stuff. What kind of reactions are you getting?

BW: A certain number of the polyamory people have gotten on my case about it. I don’t hear from them directly, but I made the huge mistake of reading my Amazon customer reviews recently, and there was someone there who complained that I’d completely misconstrued the philosophy of polyamory — so there’s that contingent. Then you’ve got a certain number of the more traditional Buddhist crowd, who’ve never even heard of polyamory, who think I take a much too positive view of it. I feel that if I’m somewhere in the middle of those two sets of opinions, I must be doing something right.

And look, my feelings about polyamory are not entirely negative by any means — I’ve met some people who seem to be able to make it work. But I first heard of polyamory because people had written to me in some distress asking, essentially, “How can I find calmness and centeredness in my polyamorous lifestyle?” My response to them was that perhaps the lifestyle itself was contributing to their mental distress. Now, I’m not even saying that they need to give up polyamory, but at least acknowledge that they’ve chosen a lifestyle that is going to be inherently stressful for certain kinds of people. Okay, it doesn’t seem to be inherently stressful for everyone who practices it, but it causes a great many people a great deal of stress trying to juggle multiple lovers, which is not easy even if everyone, in theory, agrees to it.

I think what they’re trying to do is take away that stigma of “sneaking around” and so forth; they think that the problem isn’t the fact that “I have multiple lovers”; the problem is that “I’m sneaking around” or pretending to only have one lover. If we were just to open that up and everyone was “okay” with it, then all the problems would go away, right? I just think that’s a fairly simplistic view of things. There may be deeper issues at work. I mean, you’ve been culturally programmed to respond to things a certain way, and you can’t expect to simply override your cultural programming. That’s one thing Zen has shown me, on so many levels. It’s not something that works on an intellectual level; yes, you can work on your cultural programming, and eventually even successfully overcome it, but it’s very deeply ingrained, and you don’t simply override it just by deciding that you will.

I speak from a certain degree of experience here, though I decided to leave my personal life largely out of Sex, Sin and Zen, since I’d already discussed that quite a bit in my previous book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. Honestly, that has been my experience with attempting anything like a polyamorous relationship. I was perfectly ready to justify it intellectually, but I was not okay with it. So you have to accept, I’m not okay, so what do I do about it? You can work on being okay with it, but it’s a serious thing; you can’t just will yourself to be okay with it. That’s something I try to bring out in general in the book, regarding any kind of sexual relationship — you have to acknowledge what your real feelings are in a situation. It’s very easy to deny them and stomp them down and intellectualize them away. In principle, I could very easily go along with the”whatever makes you happy” approach; if my girlfriend wants to see some other guy, and she still loves me, why shouldn’t I just let her? But if you’re home absolutely steaming when she’s out with that other guy, you have to acknowledge that. I don’t know . . . clearly, this is not my area of expertise!


Some people might be surprised to learn that Japanese Zen monks do not take a vow of celibacy.

Well, during the Meiji Restoration, when there was a huge push in Japan to Westernize, the Japanese Buddhists got rid of the rules of celibacy for the Buddhist clergy. Up until then, these types of rules had been matters of law; it was literally a crime to have sex if you were a Buddhist monk, or to eat meat. I’m simplifying here, of course, but that’s the idea. So, after the restoration, the clergy had a choice: Did they want to uphold these old rules even though they were no longer legal matters, or did they want to abandon them? What they did was abandon them. So these days, the Japanese Buddhist clergy doesn’t have a vow of celibacy, and this makes them unusual among other Buddhists throughout Asia, who generally have a strong belief that monastics should be celibate.

Complicating that matter further is the fact that the Japanese style of Buddhism has been perhaps the most successful in the West, perhaps because it does not require a vow of celibacy. Honestly, I don’t think I would have taken the vows if there had been a celibacy inclusion in there. Look, the basic way to not misuse sexuality is to be honest in your sex life, and balanced, and sure, a monogamous relationship is probably the best way to do that. Although, I have to say that since being divorced, I have been neither monogamous nor celibate, so I have had to figure out a way to make that work, with varying degrees of success and failure!


Many readers of this site will be very familiar with the idea of using psychedelics and other drugs to access so-called spiritual realms that might remain cut off from normal consciousness. Your books suggest that you’re unimpressed by that idea.

Well, the problem with that for me goes directly to the heart of what Zen is about, and what makes the Zen approach different from almost every other spiritual approach. Most approaches to spirituality posit that the normal, everyday state of mind — what you experience at the grocery store or at work — is somehow inadequate, and that what we want to do is alter our state of mind towards something better, purer, more profound; that’s the approach a lot of spiritual paths take, and not just drug-related spirituality. Zen takes a completely different approach.

I was talking to my first teacher the other day, Tim McCarthy, and he gave a perfect example. He was talking to someone about forms of Indian mysticism apart from Buddhism, andthey used the analogy that the mind is like water, and that you have all these waves on top of the water, and the goal of the practice is to calm those waves down so that you have calm, serene water. Zen takes the approach that the waves are also a manifestation of water, so there’s no real need to force them to calm down; you’re trying instead to experience the real nature of those waves. So, sort of ironically what happens during Zen practice, is that by trying to truly and deeply experience the nature of that sort of wavy, turbulent mind, the mind has a tendency to settle itself anyway. But it’s not that the goal is to settle the mind; the goal is to fully experience whatever mind it is that you have at this moment.

I certainly don’t think that everyone who uses drugs for a spiritual reason is insincere and just wants to get stoned. I think there are people who are very sincere, although I think they are in the vast minority, and that there is a majority who simply pretend to be serious about it, but really just want to get fucked up. The other problem with anything that alters the consciousness is this: Sure, a lot of people have had very profound spiritual experiences because of a car accident or a traumatic blow to the head. There’s a well-known story about an Englishman during WWII who was walking down the street when a German bomb fell next to him and he realized he was going to die — except the German bomb doesn’t blow up. And that experience so shatters his mindset that it changes his life.

There are all sorts of traumatic experiences that can give you some kind of deep insight. For me, drugs seem like a way to introduce a kind of controlled trauma, safer than a car accident, but which nonetheless knocks your head around in a fairly violent way. And because you’ve been violently knocked sideways, everything looks different. Personally, I don’t want to knock my brain around like that; I feel that it’s kind of dangerous and I don’t want to take those kinds of risks.


What’s the most frequent question you get as a Zen teacher?

Probably the most frequently asked question I get is, “I’ve been meditating for a while, but my mind is still jumpy and crazy — what am I doing wrong?” And the answer is, you’re not doing anything wrong. And it’s a myth to think that there are people out there for whom it’s not like that. There’s this kind of myth out there that the ancient Indians and Chinese were able to calm their minds much easier, and we’re at such a huge disadvantage compared to them, so we need to find an easier way to practice. Which is just nonsense, because if you look at the ancient literature, it’s full of people describing how difficult the meditation practice is for them, and they’re not saying it’s difficult because of getting your legs into a particular position. They’re having the very same difficulties anyone today is having, which is that your mind is going all over the place. I‘ve been doing this for over twenty years, but I still have days like that, where it’s just a huge, huge struggle just to sit still for five lousy minutes. Those days become less frequent as you continue the practice, but they still come up sometimes, and I’m sure they have for everybody who’s ever done this.


Why do people approach you to teach them? What do you think brings people to Zen?

Look, It’s not an easy practice, so you have to have a certain degree of — I don’t want to say desperation, because that sounds too bleak — but a recognition that something is really wrong, and needs to be fixed. Nobody comes to Zen who is a sort of a happy-go-lucky person who thinks everything is beautiful. A lot of people progress through Zen and become more like that, which I think is interesting, but generally, you have to have a kind of sense that something is wrong and needs to be done. Usually when someone comes to me and is interested in studying, I ask them where they came from and why they’re there. It’s hard to find a pattern to it. But there’s a general sense that society as it exists today is not doing its job of making people happy, either on the global level, or on the individual level. So people have the sense that they’ve been misled by society and want to find something truer and more direct.


You are a proponent of studying Zen with a teacher, at least at some point in your development.

It’s fine to keep your independence, and not join an organization. But the reason for having a teacher comes up later in the practice. There are a lot of problems with people who claim to have what they call “enlightenment experiences,” without having a teacher to bounce those experiences off or discuss them with. Those people have turned out to be uniformly dangerous. The best example being Shoko Asahara, the guy who poisoned the Tokyo subway system with Sarin gas in March of 1995. There are all kinds of examples like that. So I feel like at some point in your practice, you need someone who’s been doing the practice a little longer, and can talk you through certain aspects of it. It’s not like I think you should never do Zazen without a teacher; it’s just that, at some point, you have to bea little bit careful. Y’know, you can bullshit yourself on a very, very deep level, and you can bullshit yourself so thoroughly you can think you’ve become enlightened. And that can be dangerous.                          


Image by Fred Ojardias, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

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