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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.

 

Zen and the Art of Air Travel,” a short article about airline delays in the Dallas Morning News, doesn’t have much to do with Zen, but that’s sort of the point. Going all the way back to Eugen Herrigel’s 1948  Zen in the Art of Archery (Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschießens) and Robert Pirsig’s 1974 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the first books to use the “Zen in/and the art of…” titles, there was little connection to Zen Buddhism. The ubiquity of “Zen in/and the art of…” speaks to the increasing dissociation of Zen from any historical and cultural context, as well as the perception that Zen is embedded in the arts. Anything can be a Zen art, to the benefit of lazy headline and title writers.

The author here at least makes an attempt to draw on something Asian, but chooses the legendary Daoist sage Lao Tzu (Laozi) rather than a Zen, or even a Buddhist, figure. Zen Buddhists adopted many ideas from the writings attributed to Lao Tzu and the later Daoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), but I suspect that the use of a Lao Tzu quotation in this short article bespeaks the conflation of Asian religions rather than an acknowledgement of Zen Buddhism’s debt to earlier Chinese traditions. Incidentally, Lao Tzu described the ideal country as one in which people felt no need to leave home, so he probably wouldn’t have made the best airline customer.

Phil Jackson made a name for himself as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, but another frequent title of his is “Zen master.” In this screenshot, Sports Illustrated dispenses with his name completely in asking how much the Zen master would cost New York if he came out of retirement to coach the Knicks. Just last year, Audi referenced his Zen master persona in this commercial:

The ad presents Jackson as a Zen sage, advising the irate head chef, “You know, I’ve found that anger is the enemy of instruction.” Jackson also thanks the valet by name after the valet says, “Nice wheels, Zen master!” Jackson’s image is one of calmness and humility: he may be a championship-winning coach, but he cares about service staff.

There’s no question that Jackson is a Zen Buddhist — in his autobiography Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior he describes his zazen (seated meditation) practice and his reading of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — but what does it mean to call him a Zen master?

One of the key elements of Zen Buddhism is lineage. Masters are those who have received confirmation of their awakening from their teachers, and who then have the authority to confirm their students’ awakening. Traditionally (i.e. in premodern Asian Buddhism), these masters were monks who renounced family life for religious training.

Jackson does not recount having studied with a Zen master, nor does he identify as a Zen monk or priest. His understanding of Zen comes from the modern conception of Zen as more of a philosophy than a religion, which allows him to combine Zen with Christianity and Native American spirituality. If Phil Jackson is a Zen master, he is a Zen master in the broadest sense of the term.

There are ways in which Jackson’s experiences in the NBA might overlap with a Zen master’s (as his chapter, “If You Meet the Buddha in the Lane, Feed Him the Ball” implies): both are in charge of all-male communities that champion macho ideals, and both encourage their students to reach a level where they can act spontaneously and achieve their desired goals.

Some might see his role in the Audi ad as anti-Zen. Would a Zen master shill for a luxury car company, and even use his own image as a “Zen master” to do so? Anyone familiar with Zen economic history would say, “well, yeah.” Contrary to the view that Zen Buddhists are free from greed, or financial concerns in general, Zen history is full of monks who relied on lay patrons, and even used those patrons to accumulate considerable wealth. In this sense, Phil Jackson is indeed a “Zen master.”

Tazo Zen™ Tea

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Tazo’s partnership with Starbucks means that a lot of people are familiar with their Zen™ tea, which combines green tea with lemongrass and spearmint. According to the packaging, the resulting flavor is “nearly impossible to express in words,” so people should “simply experience its sweet, lingering taste.” This idea of ineffability recalls the Zen maxim about not relying on language, and reflects the idea that Zen is about pure experience rather than words. Of course, this attitude can be found among Zen Buddhists, but that hasn’t stopped them from writing copious records.

We also learn from the packaging that the green tea in Zen comes from China (maybe it should be called Chan, the Chinese pronunciation of Zen). A text box on the side of the package states:

Did you know?

In the Kunlun Mountains of China, monks spend days meditating in hopes of reaching enlightenment. Periodically they stop for a cup of tea quite like this.

The Kunlun Mountains stretch along the far western part of China in primarily Tibetan areas, making it unlikely that those meditating monks belong to a Zen (Chan) lineage. However, it is certainly true that tea has been an important part of East Asian Buddhism since the 8th century. John Kieschnick’s book, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, includes the translation of this passage on the growing popularity of tea:

[Originally] southerners were fond of drinking tea, but at first few northerners drank it. During the Kaiyuan era [713-41] there was one Master Xiangmo of the Lingyan Monastery at Mount Tai who propagated the teachings of Chan with great success. When practicing meditation he emphasized the importance of staving off sleep. Also, he did not eat in the evening. For this reason, the Master allowed all [of his followers] to drink tea. Everyone then adopted [the habit], and tea was boiled everywhere. (p. 267)

In other words, monks like caffeine.

Tazo’s Zen™ tea packaging might reinforce some stereotypes about Zen being about pure experience beyond words, or mystical mountain monks, but the product isn’t too far from what Zen monks actually drank. Plus, Tazo notes that they’ve teamed up with Mercy Corps (another Portland, OR, institution!) to help tea-growing villages with water sanitation and economic development, so their claim to good karma might be legit, too.

Deluxe Zen Garden

Toysmith makes this “deluxe” version of an office-friendly Zen garden (though in true  kōan-like fashion, the box proclaims “This is not a toy”). It comes with a 9 x 9 inch tray that you can fill with sand and decorate with rocks and two ceramic cranes. A wooden rake, bamboo rake, and brush allow you to rake the sand into patterns that you can then contemplate with the enclosed book of meditations. The box is decorated with the kanji (Sino-Japanese character) for “meditation,” meisō 瞑想, and the book of meditations reproduces the kanji for several Buddhist terms (Buddha 佛, Chan/Zen 禪, charity 布施, contemplation 觀想, enlightenment 覺悟, four great elements 四大, karma 業, nirvana 涅槃, and wisdom 智慧) with only two errors, but apparently without any reason for including these particular terms. The use of kanji is decorative, and probably meant to enhance this product’s exotic aura.

More interesting is how the idea of the “Zen garden” developed. The “Book of Meditations” claims:

Zen-inspired gardens took root in Japan, where Zen Buddhism has heavily influenced Japanese culture for centuries. In Japan, the physical makeup of the country — mountains and sea – is reflected in garden design. Through the use of rocks and plants, the gardens are symbolic, scaled-down representations of Nature. In a garden, a meditative mental plane is reached by viewing this physical plane. A Zen garden is for contemplations, for finding truth and personal enlightenment. It transcends space and time.

The purpose of cultivating a Zen rock garden is to learn to open your mind and see more than what is before you. This kit includes a base, sand, rocks, and a wooden rake. These elements when combined allow the Zen gardener to experience what Zen masters have practiced for centuries. You can experience Zen gardening on a personal level wherever you choose.

It is certainly true that for centuries, Zen monasteries have had gardens, but Shoji Yamada shows in the second half of Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West that the idea of a “Zen garden” as a place intentionally designed in accordance with Zen principles for the purpose of meditation only appears after World War II. This doesn’t make the Zen garden “fake,” but it does remove the patina of historical authority it might otherwise have.

The idea of having a Zen garden in your backyard or on your desk also ties into the emphasis on the “personal” that comes up in the “Book of Meditations.” This vision of Zen is detached from institutional, social, historical, political, and economic contexts, and can thus be anything anyone wants it to be. Of course, this vision of Zen is part of its own historical context, and owes a debt to modern Protestant definitions of religion as a matter of personal, interior faith rather than socio-historical practice.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have my own Deluxe Zen Garden (a tounge-in-cheek gift from a kind colleague) on my office desk, but it mostly languishes there behind huge stacks of papers. Maybe I would benefit from following the “Book of Meditations” more closely and busting out the rakes every once in a while.