My Meeting with God, or Enlightenment Porn

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin


The following is excerpted from There is No God and He is
Always with You. Published by
New World Library.

Detroit looks like something out of one of those sci-fi movies set after the collapse of human civilization. Once home to nearly two million people, Detroit now has a population that is less than half that. Whole skyscrapers stand empty, some covered in graffiti up to their highest floors. Multilane roads that used to be full of traffic are now mostly empty. The crime rate is so bad that at a rally on October 17, 2012, the Detroit Police Officer Association passed out flyers warning visitors that they entered Detroit “at their own risk.” It’s a scary place.

I was invited to Detroit by Vince Anila, whose Buddhist name is Koho. He’s the head of a Korean-style Zen temple called Still Point in one of the city’s roughest areas. Vince assured me that as long as I was careful I’d be fine walking around the neighborhood. And I was. People do still live in Detroit, and not all of them are thugs and criminals. Vince has made a nice garden of serenity in a tough town. I’ve visited several times and it’s always a lot of fun. A little scary, sure. But so are a lot of cities.

I gave several talks about Zen the week I was in Detroit. I also played a show with the hardcore punk band I play bass in, Zero Defex. We used to play in Detroit back in the 1980s when, unbelievably, it was an even scarier place than it is now. Back then we’d pile four bands, along with our equipment and girlfriends, into a rusted-out Econoline van and drive six hours from Akron, Ohio, to do a show in Detroit. Then we’d load everyone and everything back into the van and drive six hours to arrive back in Akron around dawn.

This time I traveled by train to Detroit from another Zen gig in Montreal. The next day I woke up before dawn and did 108 prostrations to Buddha, which is what the folks in the Korean style of Zen Buddhism do every morning. After that I led a daylong silent Zen retreat. When night fell, I made my way to the Magic Stick nightclub right in front of Tiger Stadium, and Zero Defex rocked out with the Amino Acids, a local surf-punk act. Loud never sounds so loud as when you’ve spent a whole day being quiet.

The following morning I got to sleep in. But that night I had another lecture to do. After that talk a guy came up to me and told me that he’d been really moved by my first book, Hardcore Zen, especially the part about my encountering an apparition near a lake.

The part where I encountered a who by a what?

I had no idea what he was going on about. There’s nothing about encountering apparitions or even about lakes in any of my books. But he was emphatic that it was Hardcore Zen he was referring to. Finally, after we had chatted for a while, I figured out what he was talking about.

In the book I mentioned crossing a footbridge over a narrow section of the Sengawa River on my way to work one day and there encountering a glimpse of God — though I described it a bit differently. In my reader’s mind the river became a lake, which is one level of misunderstanding. But it was a whole other level of misunderstanding to read what I tried to describe about my experience that day as an “encounter with an apparition.”

This was not the first time that particular part of the book had been misinterpreted. Clearly I made a mess of things. I’ve come to understand that one can only make a mess of such things by attempting to write about them. But since I’m writing here about God and what God means in terms of Zen practice I thought I needed to address that incident again. No doubt I will make a mess of things again.

There is a style of writing in books on spirituality that I like to call “enlightenment porn.” My friend Jim Millar, formerly the guitarist of the Zen Luv Assassins, used to talk about what he called “guitar porn.”*  He was talking about magazines with glossy photos of rare and beautiful guitars whose appeal to guitar players is precisely the same as the appeal of porn to just about everyone else. They incite you to lust after things that are not yours and never will be. The object of guitar porn is to get you to spend money on both the porn itself and other guitars that are like the ones shown in the porn.

Enlightenment porn functions much the same way as guitar porn. Enlightenment porn comes mainly in the form of books whose centerpieces are stories of the authors’ enlightenment experiences. In hushed and reverent tones the author tells you about how he was in a hut in the deep canyons of Tibet or perhaps on a mountain peak in the Mojave Desert, when all of a sudden he became one with the universe. The story is intended to make you lust after an experience just like the one you’re reading about. The author very often hopes you will pay a handsome sum for this privilege, usually at a seminar advertised in the back pages.

In the Soto tradition it is seen as a mistake to talk about these so-called enlightenment experiences publicly. All Dogen, the founder of our tradition, says about his own enlightenment experience is that while he was at Tendo Nyojo’s temple in China he experienced “the dropping off of both body and mind.” He gives no further details. But, of course, all of his writing is in some respects the story of what he experienced that day.

I, on the other hand, stupidly decided to write about what had happened to me that day by the Sengawa River. I spoke to my teacher Nishijima Roshi about it and showed him what I had written. He seemed to think it was okay, so I published it. But probably Nishijima already knew what I needed to find out through experience. In the end, I inadvertently created my own piece of enlightenment porn. This may be why that book still sells pretty well.

I myself had read my share of enlightenment porn just after I started doing Zen practice. In particular, I read a book called The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau, in which the author reproduces the diary entries made by several Zen students about their enlightenment experiences. Just like what happens when you look at a nice juicy piece of that other sort of porn, I wanted one of those experiences for myself. As a matter of fact, this was one of the things that made Zen appeal to me more than the other approaches to God I had been exposed to. Zen seemed to offer you a chance to actually see God for yourself.

Granted, lots of other religions make this claim too. But in those cases, the evidence seemed weaker. There were evangelical Christians who said you could meet God. But they said it would happen after you died and only if you had followed the vague plan laid out in the Bible. And it was always impossible to know if you were even getting that plan right. In their scheme of things, it seemed very likely that a person could think she was doing the right thing all along, only to be told after she’d died that, no, she’d blown it and was therefore damned to hell for eternity. Sorry. You should have read the fine print!

The Hindus also had their ways of experiencing God for themselves. But their methods always seemed too elaborate and painful. Guys would starve themselves or undergo really severe, intense training. You’d see paintings of yogis who’d sat still so long that vines had grown over their bodies, and their eyes were bugged out, and their bones were showing through their skin because they hadn’t eaten anything but raisins for twelve years or something. It was pretty insane.

Then you had the Hare Krishnas, who preached exactly the same thing as the Christians — that if you did everything right, maybe you’d get to see God after you were dead. But again, you could never be certain you were doing everything right by God until such time as you got to meet him. Or not. And some of their guys seemed to get in even more trouble in terms of sex and money scandals than the Christians.

None of that appealed to me. I am not a gambler. Nor do I want to run off to the secluded mountains and drive myself so crazy with isolation, lack of food, and bizarre mental and physical gymnastics that I start believing my own hallucinations.

Zen seemed to offer a middle way. It required me to put in a certain degree of hard effort. Yet it didn’t require anything that was beyond what I knew myself to be capable of. It did not guarantee enlightenment. But my teachers told me that if I did the practice long enough it was almost inevitable.

Neither Tim McCarthy, my first Zen teacher, nor Gudo Nishijima, my second, was too fussed about whatever enlightenment experiences they’d had. I never heard any details of such things from either of them. And yet there was definitely something different about them. I could feel it when I was in their presence. And I knew they wouldn’t lie to me. You can just tell that about some people.

There are two main schools of Zen, Soto and Rinzai. My teachers were both from the Soto tradition. I knew that the Rinzai tradition was much more focused on enlightenment. It is designed to foster these experiences and to test students on their levels of attainment. There is a series of training exercises called koans that are supposed to indicate deepening levels of understanding. In this system, the teachers ask you strange questions — koans — and you have to answer them.

Certain koans seem worth more enlightenment points than others. Koans such as “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” and “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” are freshman-level koans, while others, such as “All things return to the One, but where does the One return to?” and “What was the shape of your face before your parents were born?” are more like senior-level koans. I never followed this system myself, and I understand that not all Rinzai teachers do, either. But roughly speaking, this is how it is usually presented.

When I was in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a few years ago I was introduced to a guy named Ton Lathouwers.** Ton is in his seventies but doesn’t look it. He’s slim and fit, and he assured me, “I do not paint my hair,” even though his hair is still mostly jet black. He started his Buddhist career in the 1970s by studying Zen with Masao Abe (which is pronounced “ah-bay” and does not rhyme with babe), a famous author and professor of Buddhism who came to the West to try and stimulate dialogs between Buddhists and Christians.

Ton said that Abe was in great distress during a Zen retreat and screamed at his teacher, “I cannot find any place to stand!” His teacher told him to stand right at that place where there is nowhere to stand. That’s how Abe found God. Although Abe was not a Rinzai practitioner, his experience with this question is something like what happens in the less rigidly structured versions of koan practice.

I used to find the idea of koan study very attractive. At least you knew where you stood with a Rinzai teacher. In Soto it was all very vague. One teacher I spoke to told me that people in the Rinzai tradition almost always have some kind of enlightenment experience. But according to him usually their experiences are not very deep. On the other hand, he said, in the Soto tradition relatively few people have enlightenment experiences. But the ones who do tend to have really deep ones. How one measures such things I do not know.

As for my own incident, I haven’t reread what I wrote about it in Hardcore Zen, so chances are I’ll probably contradict some of what I said in that book. But the superficial facts are quite simple. One day, in the early autumn, I was walking to work. As I got to a little bridge that crossed over a very narrow part of the Sengawa River, I suddenly became open to everything in the universe throughout all of time.

I had crossed that bridge every day for years. It was my customary route to work. I would take the Odakyu train from Shinjuku station to Seijo Gakuen Mae station, get off there, walk by the KFC with the plastic statue of Colonel Sanders out front and down the street, make a turn at the river, walk along the river to the bridge, and cross over. Then I’d walk behind Toho Studios, where they made the Godzilla films. Sometimes I would be lucky enough, when I peeked in, to see them actually filming a guy in a Godzilla suit walking around in a miniature Pacific Ocean, complete with tiny battleships. After that I’d wind my way through the back streets to Tsuburaya Productions, the company I worked for.

The day I met God was completely normal, probably a Tuesday or some other nondescript weekday. One of the oddest things about what happened is that I cannot place a date on it. I suspect it was in the late 1990s. My sense of time was knocked for a loop so hard that it’s impossible for me even to reconstruct events enough to figure out what the hell year it was with any more accuracy than that, let alone what day. That’s very odd, even to me.

The reason I cannot fix a date on it is that the incident occurred outside of time. I know that sounds bizarre. But this was something Tim had told me about so-called enlightenment experiences. We usually think that everything happens at a specific point in time. Well, ?this didn’t. And maybe nothing really does. But we’ll leave that aside for now.

Although this happened to me, Brad, in a city called Tokyo on a certain day of the week in a specific year, the incident did not occur on a specific day in a specific location to anyone in particular. It occurred throughout time and everywhere in the universe. It did not happen only to me. It happened just as much to you.

To even say that it was an “incident” that “happened” does not do it justice. It was not an isolated event. It was and is the true condition of all things all the time. It was as much a living, breathing entity as you or I, maybe more so. It wasn’t merely an incident that happened. It was also a presence that was, is, and always will be there. It underlies everything. It is the very basis of all experience. It was more me than I could ever be. But it was not me at all.

What I had assumed was me, a guy named Brad Warner who occupied a specific location, had a specific history, could do certain things and could not do other things, had a specific height, weight, and shoe size, this thing I called Brad Warner was, I saw, spread throughout the universe and throughout all of time.

This was God. Is God. Will always be God. I can’t deny the experience any more than I could deny I have a nose. It wasn’t Brad Warner at all. And yet Brad Warner couldn’t possibly exist except as part of it. Nor could it — God — exist apart from Brad Warner. Or apart from you, for that matter.

After it happened there was no comedown, no sense that anything special had happened. Yes, it was extraordinary by definition. And yet it was absolutely ordinary. It was the very root of all experience, both ordinary and extraordinary, both mundane and exciting, both now and outside of now. For a short while I could see not only out of my own eyes but also through the eyes of God looking at me. But it was not a short while. It was forever.

And what you have just read is the cheapest, most tawdry piece of enlightenment porn ever written. Absolute crap. I’m not just making it up, mind you. It’s all true. But even so, I have to warn you that you should not believe a word of it. I’m not kidding. You really shouldn’t.

Some people call these experiences kensho, which means seeing into one’s true nature. I once spoke to a Zen teacher who told me that she had only had one kensho experience but that it was enough. She didn’t say this in a way that sounded like bragging, like she’d had the ultimate kensho and didn’t need any more. She said it like you might say, “I ate fried worms once and once was enough.” It was almost — but not quite — like she was glad it was over and she didn’t want to have to go through it again. I can relate.

In a way it’s similar to losing your virginity. You can be like Gene Simmons, the bass player from KISS, and have sex every day with a different partner for thirty or forty years. But you still lose your virginity only once. The sex you experience after that first time may be exciting, it may even be a whole lot better in some respects (or perhaps in all respects). But it’s never the same because the element of surprise is gone forever.

It’s the same with enlightenment. I’ve had other incidents since then. But they were never like that one. They never can be.

For a while after it happened, I kept wanting it to happen again. I would wonder if I was doing something wrong when it didn’t happen again. I would wonder if God had granted me a moment in his presence and then gotten too busy to make time for me anymore. It made me sadder than you can possibly imagine.

This sense of longing led to other incidents that looked like what I thought an enlightenment experience ought to be. Instead, though, they were just my ego trying to grab onto the experience to prove that it was the biggest and baddest ego in the whole universe.

I also wrote about one of those later experiences in Hardcore Zen. If you’ve read the book it was in the part in which I found myself enlarging and enlarging until I engulfed all of creation. Some people have misread that and been really impressed. Nobody should be impressed by a story like that.

I am no more God than you, dear reader, are. The experience itself confers nothing of what we commonly think of as “godly qualities” on a person — though many like to claim it does. It does not give you an understanding of what happened any more than the experience of a car crash gives you an understanding of what caused the crash.

This is why I am so against schemes that claim to speed people along the enlightenment path as quickly as possible. To have such an experience when you’re not grounded as a person is a very dangerous thing. You need to work through a lot of your personal shit before you get into something like this, or you’ll only be able to experience it in terms of your own personal shit. You don’t have to achieve full-scale Buddha-like serenity. But you do have to do some real work to get yourself a little more balanced if an experience like this is going to have any real value.

I suspect that some of our worst megalomaniacs and mass murderers may be people who had experiences like the one I had and misconstrued them in tragic ways. I also suspect that a lot of people confined to mental institutions and prisons had experiences like this and did not know how to deal with them. Plenty of people have claimed that I got way too big for my britches after it happened to me. And maybe they’re right.

In and of themselves enlightenment experiences are not something to be envied or sought after. They are not necessarily ecstatic or blissful. In some sense they have aspects of ecstasy or bliss. But they’re not all about good feelings. They cover the entire range of all possible feelings. And, if you’re like me, the ego can even create a story based on the experience that makes you feel pretty bad.

But I came away from the experience knowing certain things for absolute fact. I know now that God exists. I know that I am not nearly so limited and small as I had supposed. I no longer fear death.

I have to qualify that last statement. I still don’t want to die. I still don’t want to get a terrible disease or get into some kind of awful accident. Last year when I was lecturing in Berlin I came down with some kind of weird fever. At the hospital the German doctors told me they were worried I might have meningitis. You’d better believe I was scared. I kept thinking, “Second-rate Buddhist author Brad Warner, who was never nearly as good as Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle, died in Berlin of meningitis during a largely unsuccessful tour of Europe.” That’s just what I need as an obituary. “Warner was known mostly for going on the Internet and making fun of much more important Buddhist masters by using a sock monkey.”***

So I do fear death in the sense that I find the prospect of dying pretty scary. But I no longer fear that I will one day be annihilated and cease to exist. I can see now that the very idea is kind of absurd and meaningless. That doesn’t mean I believe that I, Brad Warner, will live forever. But I understand that what I had thought of as me is not really small enough to have a beginning and end. I’ll talk about this more in a later chapter.

Life is as much a fundamental component of the real universe as gravity and energy and matter. My life as Brad and the universe’s life as the universe are fundamentally the same life. And your life and the universe’s life are also the same. “Do not mistakenly assume,” Dogen says, “that your self is only what you can see and know. What you cannot see and cannot know is also part of your self.”

If my guesswork about the date is correct, it’s been more than ten years since that day by the Sengawa River. What’s left of the experience in my memory is like what’s left of any experience. Memory fades. But more than that, memory is only the traces left in the brain by an experience. The brain doesn’t record everything. It can’t.

I felt it was necessary to write again about the experience because it may help put the rest of what I want to say about God into some kind of context. I am not speaking here just about my speculations regarding God or my thoughts regarding God. I am trying to talk also about my real experience of God.

You may want to ask me how I can know that experience was real and not a hallucination. You may want to challenge me to prove how what I’m saying here about this experience is different from some guy saying how when he was born again God told him to hate fags. I understand that. But I’m not really interested in pursuing those kinds of questions. I don’t want to prove to anyone that my experience was real. It’s not necessary or even possible. It won’t make what happened any less real if you disbelieve or any more real if you believe it.

It’s always a major turn-off to me when believers in God are obviously desperate to convince others. That kind of approach seems to stem from deep insecurity. It’s as if they think that what they believe can only be true if everyone else is convinced.

As I’ve said, my Zen teachers never seemed eager to prove that they’d had some great awakening experience. And that’s one of the reasons I started practicing and studying Zen. I got into it for a number of other reasons too, but the biggest one was that I wanted to know if God really existed. Even at a very young age I could see the rationality for deciding God was no more real than Santa Claus. And yet I felt there had to be something more to the world than could be accounted for by science and rationality. Existence itself is extraordinarily mysterious, no matter how you explain it. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Through a number of bizarre accidents of fate I ended up meeting a couple of Zen teachers. Neither of these people claimed to be special in any way. Yet they seemed to possess some kind of answer to this question. They did not claim their answer was unique to them. In fact, they said it was available to anyone who had the courage and patience to look for it.

The answer they had wasn’t something they could tell me. It couldn’t be put into words. And yet it was there. I remember getting very frustrated at a retreat with Nishijima Roshi and talking to him about it. I felt as if I was getting nowhere in my practice. I’d been at it for ten whole years by then, and nothing was clear at all. I threw up my hands and whined, “But I want to know where the stars and the sun and the entire universe come from!”
Nishijima just kind of smiled and said, “You can find out.” As if it was the easiest thing in the world.
A few more years of hard effort later, one day, during a morning walk by the Sengawa River, I found out.

*    I guess a lot of people use this phrase to refer to a lot of stuff these days. But I heard it from Jim first.
**    That’s not a typo. His name is Ton and not Tom.
*    Yes, you can find a video of me and a sock monkey on YouTube. That’s all I’ll say.

Image by flikrohit, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!