Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sitting with Brad Warner

"Peeling back the layers of the onion" is a potent metaphor for me. My life seems to me to be more like uncovering layers of something rather than a journey to some destination. As my understanding deepens for who I am, I have this experience of dropping concepts about myself rather than accumulating more. The more that I shed notions about who I am the clearer things become.

Dogen, a 13th century Japanese zen teacher I admire, says that to study the self is to forget the self. Reality ceases to be visible when you decide you've seen it. Once you have set something called "reality" in your mind, against something else, anything else, you are not having a direct experience of Reality.

Studying the self is similar. Once you start to observe "self," you notice that it is insubstantial, i.e., that it only appears to be something because you're not looking at it very hard. Yet, whatever is there is there, we all know and experience something we call "self." You never have to explain the concept to anyone. But, as you observe your self, because you observe your self, you have by these very actions forgotten, however fleetingly, some unspoken alliance with this thing we experience as self, both ours and others'. It disperses like a wave crashing on shore.

Then you notice how cool that is and it all vanishes. Sucker.

I recently sat a shikentaza-style zen retreat led by Brad Warner (who is known as the "hardcore zen" guy) with a dozen or so other people in a yoga studio on the lower east side of Manhattan. From the announcements I saw about this, it sounded a lot like a sesshin, but no one was using the word sesshin. I thought that was curious, because it seemed like it would involve some serious time on the cushion facing a wall with a group similarly committed to doing that. But, whatever it was called, I felt pulled to sit with a group, like something in me needed that, so I went.

Zen practice is hard, and going to sesshin is harder, but life really is easier when you do these hard things. There's something about sitting with a group of people that is restorative, affirming, and balancing. In another way it is like charging something up because after a period of time I want to do it again, even though I always promise myself at some point during sesshin that I will never waste my time in this particular way ever again.

Brad did not call this a sesshin because that's not what it was. There was no vow of silence, we started at the crack of ten a.m., and we were on our own for lunch. Sesshin involves a schedule that moves to a different rhythm, vows of silence, ritualized meals and hours spent in zazen practice.

On the other hand, in some ways it was traditional Soto zen: three bells to sit, two bells to walk, one bell to break. Dokusan, private discussions with the teacher, were offered. Instructions were simple: bow, turn, bow, sit down, face the wall, balance your spine, attend to your posture, be still, be quiet, keep returning to here and now. think non-thinking.

It was the first time I have seen someone run a group sit of any kind exactly the way I would do it. That really startled me. I realized that I had a mostly unconscious but deeply rooted belief that I was alone, as some sort of special case, as an America zen student, specifically as a Dogen student. I thought perhaps I had yet to see the real value in some of the Japanese-ness transferred to popular habits in American lay zen practice.

You see, I think a lot of the way zen students organize themselves in this country is grim, silly, and resembles being an overly committed frat boy, or a Trekkie, or some other kind of nerd (not that there's anything wrong with nerds, this just should be an identity that is held lightly). This sit with Brad relieved me of some of that sense of isolation. He and I seem to be looking at the same things. We seem to think the same things are important. Sitting with him in a yoga studio, on folded up Mexican blankets, next to young hipsters with brightly-dyed hair, I realized some things about my self, and my practice.

I was born in 1960 in Dallas, Texas. In 1978, in Austin, Texas, I was fortunate enough to have been part of the genuinely spontaneous arising of a punk rock scene. I didn't play in a band, I was one of the people who paid the covers, bought the vinyl, and came to the shows. Without people like me there would have been no scene.

For me, punk rock back then bears only a faint resemblance to what is popularly regarded as punk rock today. For a few short years, it was for me the experience of being in a collective of people dedicated to a radical decentralization of music-making. It was in some ways a reaction to late-70's hair bands, and country music, psychedelia, and pop poseurs like Olivia Newton-John and Linda Ronstadt, but it was a lot of other things, too. It was rebellion, it was a new conformity, and it was a search for a community based in Reality.

Something in me knew when it was going on that it was too fragile a thing to persist. I knew it would be corrupted and overtaken by something, and it was, by a horde of jack-booted cryptofacist cultural tyrants in dirty black jeans, Doc Martens, and spiky mohawks who were in search of little more than a novel way to worship themselves. The social contract at punk shows that allowed experimentation with things like mosh pits became co-opted and twisted into a license to indulge in in egotistical sadism and violence.

So, at the tender age of 23, in 1983, I was a guy who had spent much of the last four years immersed in and very supportive of a punk rock scene who was now disgusted by what punk rock had become as it entered the mainstream consciousness. I felt I had created this monster, I felt knew this was going to happen, and I so simply turned away in shame and disgust.

I've just recently learned that Brad Warner was similarly involved with a punk rock scene in Akron at about the same time. He's written a lot about that, and he even made a film about it. I'd known for a long time that he was in Zero Defects, a hard core band, but I had not looked deeply into his experience there until recently, when I read his two first books: Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up.

I wish I was wise enough to assert that it makes perfect sense to me that Brad and I had eerily similar experiences in Ohio and Texas, but the truth is that it shocked the hell out of me.

For many years I had foolishly dismissed Brad Warner and his books as so much poser bullshit of the kind that manifested when I became disgusted with punk rock. I would see his titles when I browsed the bookstores, sometimes I would even pick up one of his books, but then I would put it back down satisfied that I was far too enlightened a being and too serious of a student to bother with such trivial nonsense.

What I was really realizing was the dimensions of my own delusional douche-baggery.

Had I actually read either of the books I could have saved myself a lot of time as I struggled with far drier discussions of the things I really find compelling about the Soto zen slant on buddha-dharma. Brad discusses the dharma, specifically the dharma promoted by Dogen, a 13th century Japanese zen teacher with whom I strongly identify, in a very accessible way, particularly for someone of my age and cultural background.

Brad's critics slam him for being snarky and having a juvenile sense of humor. They have a point, which is exactly why I find Brad Warner to be such a clearly elucidating teacher. I am a snarky 50 year old adolescent who still snickers about jokes involving the word "boobies."

I realized all this right before I actually encountered Brad as a teacher. My experience of him in person just confirmed it. This sparked another minor realization.

As I have studied Buddhism, I've been turning Japanese, I really think so. Part of that is the influence of some dear friends who are Japanese, but part of it is the fact that I've been studying alternatively in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki and Dainin Katagiri, two Japanese zen teachers who came to teach to Americans. I also read a lot of Dogen, who is also Japanese. Even though I've always encountered the dharma through a Japanese lens, it only really sinks in to the extent that I can tweak it back to my cultural context as an American born in the mid-twentieth century.

Fortunately for me, my face-to-face encounters with zen teachers have all been with Americans, so maybe that's why I have mostly been spared of this propensity among many American zen students to don Soto-shu robes, take dharma names and shave their heads. My face to face encounters with zen teachers (before I encountered Brad Warner) have been with Steve Hagen of Dharma Field in Minneapolis, who is very much the pragmatic mid-westerner, and Barry Magid of Ordinary Mind in New York City, who is a bookish scholar very much in the North-eastern American tradition.

But, until I encountered Brad Warner I had not met a zen teacher around whom I quite plausibly could have grown up. There's a sense of kinship I have with people my age who grew up in middle-class suburban locales not on either coast. This lends a very direct quality to my communication to and from Brad that is really very, very helpful.

So, much like a person in 13th century Japan quite plausibly could end up studying zen with a teacher at whom they might have tossed spit-balls in pre-school, there's a certain authenticity to my relationship with Brad that is quite helpful to me as a student. I get his cultural references. I know the music he knows. We lust after the same women.

When his latest book was published I literally bought a copy as soon as I possibly could. By this time, my attitude about him had already turned around 180 degrees. It is now truly comforting to me that we have so much in common. Reading his books reminds me of thoughtful letters from my life-long friends. I also play bass guitar, as he does.

Finally, I realized I was right about something else. Sitting with Brad in this way confirmed for me that the accoutrement of ritual and form in sesshin--i.e., the vow of silence, the Oryoki, etc--while not useless, there are things genuinely useful about these practices, they do not create one's experience on the cushion. I faced the same mind on the cushion while sitting with Brad in this much simpler, and more culturally apropos setting, as I did when I sat in much more formal, more Soto-shu, more Japanese settings. The challenges were the same, it sucked just as much while I was doing it, I was just as grateful for the opportunity to do it, and I was just as happy I had done it.

You see, I confess this preference. I want an American zen practice, I want to sit in an American zendo. I want to study with an American teacher. I want to help evolve the American buddha-dharma. I want my practice to grow up out of the ground around me, not to be flown in from Japan like so much fatty tuna for sashimi.

Having said that, I also want to connect with the Japanese heritage in zen, but out of respect and curiosity, not out of some notion that real zen only comes from somewhere else. Interestingly enough, concurrently with this internal rebellion against the Japanese-ness of American zen habits, I've also developed a desire to learn Japanese and spend some time living there. But, that's not about learning zen more authentically. It's about considering Japanese women to be the hottest of all. That's right, it's about boobies.

These realizations, that Brad was something other than I thought, that there are others who see American lay practice as I do, were more than just a glimpse into my own delusions, they laid absolutely bare to me my own inability to direct myself as a student of the buddha-dharma. I don't know anything. But, it also revealed that, in spite of that I will eventually wander around to where I need to be because I refuse to rely on what I think. I rely on what I see. That's comforting to have pan-out from time to time. I love it when a plan comes together.

As Dogen says, its good to have a will to find Truth. It's true, even if it ends up revealing to you what a douchebag you can be.