Hardcore Zen
Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and
The Truth about Reality

Brad Warner
Our touchy-feely vision of a Zen master is that of a bald sage in his flowing robe, sitting calmly in front of the thirty or forty students, each on their zafus, as he expounds lucidly on an insight he came to over his years of study and meditation. Forget it. The books "don't give you much of a sense of how truly grating Zen masters can be."

    They're the ultimate in know-it-alls. You can't tell them anything. And Nishijima [Warner's master] may be the very worst of the lot. He seems to delight in throwing lines into his talks that are guaranteed to put everyone in the room on edge . . . Nishijimas's talks are never stilling --- they're downright irritating.

And enlightenment ain't what it's cut out to be in Western literature, probably the result of Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen, which tells of "guys watching the sky open up and start laughing with them, and there were tears and shouts and drama all over the damn place." Warner has been meditating for years, and "in my years of zazen nothing like what was written in Kapleau's book had ever happened to me . . .

"There's an old Zen tale about a monk who got enlightened when he heard the sound of a pebble hitting a tile. So every time I heard a sharp little sound like that I'd think, 'Okay! Maybe I'll get it right now. Wait for it, wait for it . . . Nope. Nuthin'. Crap!'"

Zazen --- the sitting on the cushion, looking at a wall for an hour or two or three? --- what's it really like? "Pain and boredom."

    It's your head hitting the wall in front of you when you can't fight off sleep any longer. It's your brain full of thoughts so asinne you have to believe they're really yours. It's feeling like your knees are going to seize up permanently at any second and thinking you'll never walk again.

"For everyone --- everyone --- who first takes it up, zazen is tedious and awful. Your brain is in constant motion like there's a hive of angry wasps in your head . . . Anybody who doesn't feel that way about it at least sometimes, is not doing the practice very sincerely."

    Zazen isn't about blissing out or going into an alpha brainwave trance. It's about facing who and what you really are, in every single goddamn moment. And you aren't bliss, I'll tell you that right now. You're a mess. We all are.

For me, Hardcore Zen is an elegant mix of J. D. Salinger and Alan Watts, jumbled up with some monster movies and a page out of Rolling Stone. Because when he isn't railing at his master and bitching about another hour listening to the babbling mind, Warner is going around in love with a Japanese movie character called "Ultraman," telling us that the high point of his life was when the production company responsible for this ongoing monster hired him on, which leads him to ask the reader "What more could any human being possibly want?" Well, I could think of a few other things that might entrance me a tad more.

The other high point of his life --- outside of getting this book published by Wisdom a decade or so ago (this is the second edition) --- was the day in Tokyo when Warner got to go to dinner with Jean Simmons of KISS. Say who? Which leads him to some rather fanciful thoughts that rock stars may be secret Zen masters because they "understand the philosophy of action through action itself."

Possibly. It occurred to me, if this is true, and since Warner explains that we are all partially enlightened anyway, people driven to the limit in their chosen field --- lawyer, auto mechanic, cook, doctor, baby-sitter, philosopher, book reviewer --- can well be on the path as long as they are deeply immersed in their work. I hope so. This means that as long as I keep on writing these dratted reviews, I am nudging myself further along on The Path, and when I do the 10,000th one, I might see the light (instead of cursing the darkness).

Hardcore Zen is never a drag, although some of the rants on the wonders of rock musicians who paint their faces funny colors can take some getting used to. To my relief, I found here and there some great throwaway lines to leave you with:

  • "Your life and the life of everyone else in the universe are one seamless whole. To cause another living being pain isn't evil --- it's just stupid. Because that being is you."
  • "Appreciate your life and help others appreciate theirs. Stop the racist, gay-bashing Nazis from going to war to club baby seals in the burning South American rainforests if you want --- but also clean your room."
  • "Where is the person who will fill your casket?"
--- Carlos Amantea
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