Sunday, March 15, 2009

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate - a book review.

Re: Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate - by Brad Warner

I like this guy, we are a lot alike in many ways. He's been practicing longer than I have even though he is four years younger, but our interest in zen more or less coincides. He says repeatedly in the book that he's been sitting for 25 years. If my math is right, that goes back to 1983-ish. I began studying zen in 1981, but I didn't have a regular practice until 2003, so Brad sat for 21 years before I stopped thinking I didn't need to. This means his butt is a lot flatter, and you might not know that one can tell how enlightened someone is by the flatitude of their butts.

He has two other books, which he says aren't as good as this one, so I'm probably not going to read them. I've picked them up repeatedly in bookstores, but I harbor such a cultivated distaste for punk rock that I let that cause me to put them back down and never buy them (Brad is also a punk rock artist). This guy has a life in my head, he has for years, even though I've never met him, and we're still circling each other warily in this little play in my mind, so maybe I will read the other books someday when I lose this need to feel superior to my little mental statue of him.

He comes from a different lineage (Gudo Nishijima Roshi, who received his transmission from Rempo Niwa Roshi), though he is reverent of mine (Suzuki/Katagiri). His teacher sounds pretty cool. When he does talk dharma in the book he makes sense, which distinguishes it from most Zen-y literature. He's not a phony, he clearly has a strong practice, and it comforts me that he knows that he is full of shit a lot of the time.

He uses the term "zen master" self-referentially a little heavily in the book, but it is not incorrect. He has a valid zen license--dharma transmission--and he is not caught by the trappings of his worldly authority, so he probably deserves the title. My little snit is about my own preference that "zen master" is one of those titles like "hacker," i.e., really only something other people should call you. He tempers this by calling out the irony, but it's not clear that he really means that. Oh well, this is all the Brad Warner I create in my mind anyway, so that all says something more about me than him.

He takes us through the death of his mother, family dysfunction, day-job career wheel-spinning, a creeping divorce, sleeping with a student, a very sweet affair with a Japanese woman, and the death of his grandmother--all in 2007. His description of his Japanese fling-object sounded so much like a close friend of mine that I did a mental double-take to assure myself that we weren't referring to the same person. That was weird.

In the last part of the book he reveals that he decided to "be an asshole" before he wrote the book and let all this out, like he was lancing some boil he was hoping would just go away someday because he could no longer stand the pressure. He's not an asshole even when he says he's trying to be one. He's a thoughtful, rigorously self-honest, zen practitioner who is trying to find his way around 21st Century life not unlike the wandering monks of 1000 years ago.

Dogen would have had a blogspot account, I'm sure of it.

So, who should read this book?

Anyone who wants a glimpse into American Zen Practice through the lens of an authentic practitioner, a master, even, who also realizes that you never get anywhere with zen, because there's no where to go. As David Chadwick says, Buddhism is the religion that promises nothing, and delivers.

Also notable is that this is the first book I have read on my iPod Touch, using the Amazon Kindle app, exclusively while sitting (or standing) on the NYC Subway system. Awesomeness. I doubt I will buy a book on paper that I can get this way again. Ironically, the last few pages of the book proudly detail the recycled paper, earth-friendly processes and soy ink used to print it.

Well eff that, I didn't use anything at all to read this book! I paid money and got, well, nothing!

I am such a Bodhisattva.