Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Dude and the Zen Master

The Dude and the Zen Master has a good title. People who would be interested in the book are likely to know who the Dude is: Jeff Bridges’s character in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Though the Zen master of the title is less well known to the general public, it makes perfect sense for the Dude to dialogue with such a figure, in this case, Bernie Glassman. The Dude and the Zen Master also represents the nature of this book as an extended conversation between Bridges and Glassman on existential issues, with an emphasis on Buddhism.

Unlike some of the other pop culture ephemera I’ve discussed on this site, there is a strong connection to Zen Buddhist history and practice in this book. This comes from Bernie Glassman, who trained at the Zen Center of Los Angeles with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and went on to found Zen Peacemakers. Glassman places himself within the movement of socially engaged Buddhism, a modern form of Buddhism that advocates active participation in social issues (and other public issues) from a Buddhist perspective. Throughout the conversation he refers to several texts and figures from Zen, or Buddhism in general, such as the Chan/Zen masters Huineng and Dogen, the legendary figure Hotei (the fat buddha), and the Heart and Diamond sutras. Glassman’s Zen is modern American Zen, that is, a form of Zen that privileges individual practice outside the context of celibate monasticism, and generally understands Zen as universal experience. American Zen tends to be pluralistic, and Glassman several times proclaims that all religions have the same goal.

For his part, Bridges recounts several of his own experiences in which he applied, or should have applied, Zen ideas (broadly defined). Of course, for him these experiences mainly come from his job as an actor, and the frequent references to well known movies and entertainers can be alienating. Who among us can’t relate to the frustration Bridges feels when the on-set makeup artist wants to cut his hair, when Bridges wants to maintain control over his appearance?

Glassman’s socially engaged perspective lends some balance to the book, which otherwise would present Zen as another kind of individual self-help regimen, totally cut off from political, social, and economic structures. Both Glassman and Bridges discuss their activism, especially attempts to end child hunger, in terms of Zen. The problem is that they offer few new insights into these issues, which is the main problem of the book as a whole.

The Dude and the Zen Master reads like a conversation between two good friends about existential problems. I understand the desire to present their ideas in this format – it seems like something the Dude would do, and conforms to the notion of Zen spontaneity – but, as Bridges and Glassman discuss, masterful improvisation requires a lot of training. Another format, or tighter editing of the conversations, might have conveyed their insights more effectively.




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Van Halen originally included a Knoxville date in their 2012 American tour, but it was one of the concerts they cancelled due to “exhaustion,” which seemed to be a euphemism for “wanting to go to Europe instead.” I was even supposed to go to that show, but now I’ll probably never get to see the original line-up, including Diamond Dave himself. John Scanlan’s 2012 book about the band makes me even more sorry that I didn’t get to see David Lee Roth in person, as Scanlan presents him as a Zen master — or is it a Taoist sage?


Reaktion Books published Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’roll in its Reverb series, which “looks at the connections between music, artists, and performers, musical cultures, and places. It explores how our cultural and historical understandings of times and places may help us to appreciate a wide variety of music, and vice versa.” Scanlan, a sociologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, claims that Van Halen represented 1970s California culture, and that the band — or at least the David Lee Roth part of it — embodied a kind of Zen spontaneity and playfulness.

As with many other uses of “Zen” in the modern West, Scanlan wields the term casually, and draws on Kevin Starr’s idea of “Zen California,” though Starr primarily uses this term for the many spiritual and physical self-improvement regimens popular in California by the 1990s. Scanlan’s understanding of Zen relies heavily on the work of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, who present Zen as a universal quality rather than an historical tradition. “Zen” (and “Taoist”) here refer to ideas of spontaneity, harmony with nature, going with the flow, accepting impermanence, unstudied artistry, etc. Scanlan’s conflation of Zen and Taoism also seems indebted to Watts, as the following quotation from Watts’s The Way of Zen serves as the epigram for chapter six: “It is really impossible to appreciate what is meant by the Tao without becoming, in a rather special sense, stupid.”

Though Zen pops up throughout the entire book, it is only the central focus in chapter six, “The Tao of Dave: Surf Life.” It is here that we find David Lee Roth described as a paragon of California Zen:

What Roth exemplified, however, was ambiguity, which was one quality that seemed to lie beyond the grasp of some critics. His comfort with ambiguity, with self-negation — and as Alan Watts notes, Zen takes “positive delight” in the void — represented not only the denial of that 1970s idea of rock’s cultural significance, but its emerging institutional structure, which in turn presumed to add credence to its cultural significance. (p. 114)

What I found frustrating in this chapter was the ambiguity of whether Roth himself identified with Zen, or whether it was Scanlan who made this identification. The latter seems more likely, but Scanlan reports that Roth used a Zen parable about drawing a leaf to explain Van Halen’s work in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

I was initially intrigued by this book’s title, and I was curious to see how Scanlan would locate Van Halen in the context of California Zen. It’s pretty easy to make the case for a distinctive form of “California Zen” in the writings of Beat authors living in California for significant periods (Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg), institutions such as the San Francisco Zen Center, or the perceived connections between California culture and Zen values. It takes a lot more work to connect these ideas to Van Halen. I don’t think Scanlan makes a strong enough connection between California Zen and David Lee Roth or Van Halen as a whole to justify framing the book in these terms. A more compelling comparison Scanlan might have made to illustrate DLR’s Zen character is to the Japanese Zen monk Ikkyu (1394-1481), known for his fondness of alcohol and female companionship. Ikkyu even celebrated his transgressions in verse. However, an important distinction is that Ikkyu was an ordained Zen monk and went on to become abbot of one of the biggest Zen temples in Japan. This kind of specificity would help Scanlan’s case, but the images of Zen (and California) that Scanlan uses in this book are too impressionistic and vague to prompt interesting insights into Van Halen’s connections to musical cultures and places.

Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’roll is a good history of the band, though it doesn’t appear to use new material. What it tries to offer are new lenses through which to understand how Van Halen emerged from a particular place at a particular time. The problem is that both of these lenses — California and Zen — are too blurry to show clearly why Van Halen embodies exuberant California, Zen rock’n’roll.

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Killing the Buddha, an anthology of creative nonfiction edited by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet (and a website of the same title), is a work that defies easy categorization. Its subtitle, “A Heretic’s Bible,” hints at the unifying theme: this is a book about heresies, a word that derives from the Greek haíresis, the “act of choosing.” Chapters with titles (and topics) taken from biblical books are interspersed with Manseau and Sharlet’s accounts of their travels throughout the U.S. The result is an evocative account of all the American religious landscape and the dazzling array of choices it offers.

I’m writing about Killing the Buddha here because of its title. As the editors explain in their introduction, the phrase “killing the buddha” comes from a story about the Chinese Zen monk Linji (Lin-chi; d. 866) in which he explains to his disciples that they should kill the buddha if they happen to encounter him. Manseau and Sharlet read this as a statement of heresy, and extrapolate that Linji’s “buddha” includes all the dominant ideologies of his day. “Killing the buddha” for them means rejecting a single explanation of anything.

Linji’s instructions to kill the buddha come from his recorded sayings, a collection of teachings attributed to him after his death. The full passage reads as follows:

Monks, if you want to attain understanding of the dharma, just do not be misled by people. Kill everything you encounter, within and without. If you encounter a buddha, kill him. If you encounter a patriarch, kill him. If you encounter an arhat, kill him. If you encounter your parents, kill them. If you encounter your relatives, kill them. Only then can you attain liberation, such that you are not restrained by anything and can be completely free and at ease.

Manseau and Sharlet are correct in their basic interpretation of Linji’s meaning: “The Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed, he will only stand in your way” (p. 1). Zen teachings hold that attachment to external buddhas prevents people from seeing that they themselves are already buddhas. We find in Zen writings many other statements or actions that are meant to shock: calling the Buddha a dried shit-stick, tearing up Buddhist scriptures, burning Buddhist images, etc. Zen rhetoric lends itself well to a book about heresy.

Zen’s heretical side is just one of its facets, and historically it has been a pretty small one. Linji’s buddhacide occurred in a world where Zen temples enshrined statues of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and gods; reserved halls for portraits of abbots; and Zen monks performed funeral rites for lay people for a fee. In some cases monks took steps to preserve their deceased teachers’ bodies through mummification, which is pretty much the opposite of killing the buddha.

Killing the Buddha uses an idea of Zen that is common in the American religious landscape: a godless, heretical Zen provides an alternative to the pious theism of Christianity. American Buddhists are also less likely to get mad about a book called Killing the Buddha (though I wonder how Buddhists in Asia would react). Had Manseau and Sharlet titled the book Killing Christ or Killing God, which would better fit the mainly Judeo-Christian content, it might have incited outrage.

One of the goals of this blog is to show how casually Americans throw around “Zen” without consideration for Zen’s historical or cultural context. Perhaps it is only fitting that a book about religious experience in America would reproduce the dominant view of Zen in America, but in such a reflective book I would hope for more serious reflection on this kind of appropriation.



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I’ve seen Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality (Wisdom Publications, 2003) at several bookstores alongside his other titles on Zen, and was curious about what made his version of Zen hardcore. The title alludes to Warner’s background in punk bands, but he also uses it to describe his approach to Zen that emphasizes the boredom and ordinariness of most Zen practice. Hardcore Zen is Zen stripped to its core, at least as Warner defines it.

Hardcore Zen recounts Warner’s punk rock youth, his encounter with Zen at Kent State University, and his move to Japan, where he gets a job working on the TV show Ultraman. As the book goes on, the focus shifts more to the teachings and practice of Zen, including chapters on disturbing meditation experiences, reincarnation, morality, drugs, and dharma transmission from teacher to student. The punk rock and monster movies of the title are part of Warner’s life experiences, but aside from setting the book’s tone to “irreverent,” there isn’t much analysis of how they relate to Zen.

In Japan, Warner studied with a Soto Zen master named Gudo Nishijima and eventually received dharma transmission from him. Soto Zen is one of the two main branches of Zen in Japan (the other is Rinzai). I found Warner’s descriptions of his Soto Zen practice to be the most compelling parts of the book. He writes of the boredom, frustration, depression, and euphoria that go along with seated meditation (zazen) and challenges the view that Zen is all about the enlightenment experience of satori. In doing so, he offers an alternative to the satori-centric description of Zen that comes from modern Rinzai writers such as D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen.

Some of the provocateur trappings of Hardcore Zen are kind of obnoxious, from the photo of the toilet on the cover to the punk rock patois Warner adopts. We get it, this isn’t your grandmother’s Zen memoir. There are some interesting parallels between punk and Zen, though, in that both claimed authenticity in the face of mainstream artificiality, but ultimately became part of the mainstream (or were never separate from it in the first place).

Warner’s take on Zen, and Buddhism in general, is pretty standard as far as modern Western interpretations go. He sees the Buddha as a modern philosopher whose empirical, rational ideas were corrupted by centuries of superstition and ritual: “Gautama Buddha was able to see through the façade of religious organizations and must certainly have realized that his simple method of meditation ran a serious risk of being turned into something cheap and shoddy by association with such nonsense” (p. 159).

Like most religious practitioners, Warner is interested in authenticity: what is real Zen, real Buddhism, reality as a whole? He also claims to have some answers to these questions, which justifies the book project. As someone who studies Buddhism in a university, I was particularly interested in an accusation Warner makes on page 8: “it’s hard to find a group of people who misunderstand Buddhism more thoroughly than Buddhist scholars.” I have no problem with the criticism that I don’t have the same understanding of Buddhism that a practitioner does, because these are different kinds of knowledge. Even so, the question of authenticity arises: who says what Zen is, the scholar or the practitioner? Warner claims that Zen is “resolutely anti-sexist” (p. 35) and that “Buddha was emphatic that women were just as capable as men of reaching enlightenment” (p. 36). Though Warner is free to understand “true Zen” as anti-sexist, I cannot ignore the many examples from Zen history that show it has not always been that way. My job is to examine what Buddhism has been in different cultural and historical contexts, which can conflict with believers/practitioners’ views of their own tradition.

Hardcore Zen is not a good place to look for Zen history, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s a modern Western interpretation of Soto Zen doctrine and practice that might appeal to people who are suspicious of religion in general and suspicious of the New Age aura surrounding a lot of Western Buddhism in particular.

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