Brad Warner is one of those people who seems so creative they can’t stop moving.
Brad Warner is one of those people who seems so creative they can’t stop moving. His credits include playing bass for hardcore punk band Zero DFX (check the P.E.A.C.E./War comp – they’re on it), releasing several psychedelic rock albums under the name Dementia 13 (playing all the instruments himself on most of the albums), working in Japan for a monster movie production company, publishing three books (with a fourth due in September), shooting and producing a documentary on the early Ohio punk scene called Cleveland’s Screaming, and writing a column for Suicide Girls. Along the way he took up Zen Buddhism, receiving Dharma Transmission (fancy words for “he gets it”) from his teacher, and being named head of the Buddhist group Dogen Sangha International.
I’m guessing the only time he actually sits still is when he sits zazen, the meditation practice in his Buddhist lineage. Brad will be in Richmond this Monday, April 12th, after a having spent a week in Brooklyn and Baltimore speaking about his practice. I was lucky enough to attend one of his NYC sessions, which was more like a group of friends hanging out in a living room than a silent Zen retreat. I was able to catch him standing still long enough to ask a few questions for RVA before he heads to Richmond.
So how is Zen different from other Buddhist traditions?
Whenever I get asked a question like that I always like to point out is that I don’t have a real interest in selling Zen, trying to prosthelytize, or trying to convert anybody. What makes it different for me is that Zen is extraordinarily direct. There is a meditation practice and that practice has absolutely no goal. So there isn’t any specific thing you’re trying to get. You aren’t trying to get peace of mind, you’re not trying to get enlightenment, you aren’t trying to get any of that. You’re just trying to see who and what you are, exactly, in this moment.
Tell me about Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
Well, it’s a few intertwining things, one of which is that I was on tour in 2007 promoting my book, Sit Down and Shut Up. During that time I was doing a lot of Zen retreats where I was supposed to be the cool and calm and controlled guy in the room, and during that year my mom died, my grandmother died, I lost my job, and my marriage dissolved. So it was kind of ironic that all this stuff was happening at the time I was doing these retreats and I thought it was important to write about that. Specifically because there is a lot of misinformation and, myth, no myth isn’t the word I’m looking for, but something like myth. You know how people have these views about what something is? Especially around the issue of what a teacher in an eastern spiritual tradition, they are thought by a lot of people to be a kind of spiritual superhuman who are above all problems and concerns. A lot of things have happened in the realm of various eastern traditions that happened because the followers of some teachers suddenly found out that that teacher was not a spiritual superman. And when they found that out they would typically – and this has happened over and over again – go completely apeshit. Because “Oh my god! He hit on a girl!” or “Oh my god! He drank a beer!” or “Oh my god…” you know there’s usually some kind of sex involved. And it’s kind of ridiculous, but it comes from both sides. It comes from the sides of the students and it comes from the sides of the teachers, some of whom are kind of confused themselves about what they are supposed to be. And they attempt to, either attempt to make people think that they are spiritual superbeings or allow that perception to be without really challenging it, even though they don’t really promote it themselves. And so what has happened over and over is that people have written over and over again about some scandal that has happened and so I thought “Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone in that position wrote that book, but wrote it about themselves?” I’m not so much seen as the great guru, and my scandals are probably not that extraordinary compared to some of the other ones that have come up. But given that I’m the only one who could do this about myself, that’s what I did.
And your next book (Sex, Sin and Zen), is about Buddhism and sexuality. Where did the idea for this develop?
Well I was writing for the Suicide Girls website and, because of the nature of the site – which a lot of people think of as porn – a lot of people seemed to be interested about Buddhism and sexuality. So I had written several article, but it turned out to be quite a difficult book. And it occurred to me during the writing process that no one had ever done a book like this and I thought that was bizarre. It was the first time in my life I had been in that position of coming up with this terrific idea and then researching and finding out that it hadn’t been done a thousand times already. There had been books on Buddhism and sex written by scholars but they wanted to research the history of Buddhism and sex, you know, like what monks did 2000 years ago. But nobody who was actually a monk had ever written a book specifically about sexuality and nobody had really written one about what contemporary western Buddhists are doing about matters of sexuality, so I did it. It’s in the final stages of editing and it’s going to come out in September.
Your Suicide Girls column and interest in speaking about sexuality earned you some grief from parts of the Buddhist Community, right?
Generally, I have to say, before I talk about the bad stuff, even Zen Wrapped In Karma has gotten a pretty good response overall from the Zen community and most of the Buddhist community. I’ve gotten more invitations [to speak] than ever before, and a lot of people really want to hear about that book and why I wrote it. But there has been a certain contingent, which I sort of expected, that didn’t like it. I think what it really comes down to, is that they don’t like being humanized this way. They don’t like one of, supposedly, “their people” coming out and saying “the King has no clothes,” because it’s bad for business. So nobody will really explain that so what they point to is the sexual scandals because that’s the easiest thing. And in Zen Wrapped in Karma that forms a very small part of the book. And I do talk about my sex life and cheating on my wife and things like that. And it’s like “This is not done! One must not do this!” So there has been a lot of finger pointing and saying “Brad is so horrible and he is not a good example of a blah blah blah,” you know? But I get that from a handful of very loud, obnoxious people.
In Zen Wrapped in Karma, you mentioned being invited to a Lamb of God show by Randy Blythe, whom you met at a Zen retreat in North Carolina. Why do so many people have a hard time thinking of Buddhism as anything other than the hearts-and-flowers, zoned-out stereotype?
It has always been presented in a specific way from two camps. One camp is the scholars who want to present it as something they can study and something they can, you know, mentally masturbate over and have a vested interest in keeping it that way. And then you have the other camp that is kind of new age-y people who want to take the beautiful path to a wonderful stoned out or your mind liberation. And I think that Buddhism is neither of those things. It’s completely different from scholarship and it’s completely different from new age-y head-in-the-clouds bullshit, so I don’t present it that way. And I’m not the only one. But those of us who present it in a realistic, ethical sort of way that anybody can get into are in the minority. I think that will change gradually, as more people do the practice. Because if you don’t do any of this Buddhist practice, you can invent anything in your mind about what it might be. And it might look very beautiful and sparkly and shiny in the lotus position floating up in the clouds. But when you actually get down and do the practice yourself and find out what it is it’s actually nothing like that. So as more people start doing the practice, the image of it as pure scholarship or head-in-the-clouds-ish is going to fade. And hopefully it will become something that is done by people. At least, I would like to see that.
Brad Warner, author of Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, will be leading a discussion on Buddhism at the Barnes and Noble on VCU’s campus (1111 West Broad St) Monday April 12th at 1:00 pm. He will also be at the EKoji Buddhist Sangha (3411 Grove Ave) that night from 7-9 pm, talking Buddhism, sex, punk rock, and Godzilla movies. You can find his books on Amazon. His home on the web is hardcorezen.blogspot.com.
Interview by Ryan Mckee
Ryan McKee is the co-editor of Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Human Sexuality (11ed). Keep up with him online at ryanmckee.com