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Posts Tagged ‘Hardcore Zen’

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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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