Most folks think of Buddhism as a complicated practice, plied by holy men in far-off monasteries. “It’s really not,” says Brad Warner. “That’s a misconception. In fact, Buddhism is extremely direct and practical, and there’s no (expletive) to it.”
Most folks think of Buddhism as a complicated practice, plied by holy men in far-off monasteries.
“It’s really not,” says Brad Warner. “That’s a misconception. In fact, Buddhism is extremely direct and practical, and there’s no (expletive) to it.”
Warner laments the esoteric mystique associated with Buddhism; he sees it as a grittier, honest, in-your-face force of life, closer to the roar of a rock concert than the prayer mats of a secluded retreat. That’s about right because Warner, the 43-year-old former bassist for the band Zero Defects, is a Zen Buddhist priest.
Can a punk-rock mentality thrive within Buddhism? If so, maybe both deserve a second look. That’s a chord Warner strikes with his second book of Zen-based commentaries, “Sit Down and Shut Up.”
That was zen…
”Sit Down and Shut Up” ($14.95, New World Library) is an eclectic riff on Buddhist philosophy and Western conceptions of God, truth, life, sex and death. Warner, the author of “Hardcore Zen,” combines the teachings of Dogen, a 13th-century Japanese monk, with perspectives from a rocker who once shared the bill with punk bands like Starvation Army and the Meat Puppets. In a recent phone interview, Warner chuckles at the idea that the caustic punk scene drove him screaming into Buddhism.
“One really kind of led to the other,” he explains. “One thing punk rock shares with Buddhism is a sense of frustration with mainstream society.”
The early ’80s punk scene was more diverse, he says, than people imagine. “People see punk as a noisy, nihilistic scene with lots of drugs and no philosophy. That exists and I can’t refute it, but our stream of punk was different.” Warner’s Ohio band was influenced by the Washington, D.C., punk scene, which foreswore drugs and even drinking.
“Our core music was fast and loud, because that was what kids wanted. But when I got into it, the idea was 'Take it all away, form something different.’ It’s a philosophy punk never went far enough with. Instead of holding a mirror up to society, they settled for a new haircut and clothes.”
The son of a traveling tire company executive, Warner was looking for something beyond the music when he enrolled at Kent State University. “We had lived in Nairobi, Kenya, for three years,” he says. “My dad’s best friend was Hindu. I used to be fascinated by the pictures of Hindu gods on his walls. I couldn’t find a course in Hinduism at Kent. But they had Zen Buddhism,” he laughs. “I figured, 'Close enough.’ ”
In Buddhism, Warner discovered an approach with the blunt honesty of punk and the feel of real life.
“It’s not a neat philosophy,” he says. “It’s about taking a questioning attitude, relying on your experience and not accepting what’s handed to you at face value. I did look into different religions, and many expect you to take what they say and be punished if you don’t believe it. Buddhism doesn’t tell you what to do. You can question it, and it doesn’t fall apart if you question it. A lot of religions are terrified of people asking too many questions.”
… this is TAO
Because Buddhism is light on dogma, finding answers isn’t simply a matter of looking up doctrine.
“You find answers through the practice of Buddhism, but they aren’t answers as such,” Warner says. “The answers are unique to each person. People seem to want a formula: 'If 'A’ happens, just do 'B.’ … They want to reduce everything to that, and keep it in their minds, so they’ll feel safe. But real life is messier than that.”
Buddhism, he says, relies less on intellectual understanding and more on personal experience.
“Being too cerebral is a human problem. We have these big, intelligent, useful brains, and we think we can work everything out that way. But you can’t, which is something Buddha himself recognized only after the painful experience.”
Answers come through one’s own hard-won understanding. Warner’s title, “Sit Down and Shut Up,” is actually a call to listen and connect more deeply to the present moment. “It allows you to establish a certain balance,” he says. “Zen offers solutions that are reasonable, and they work. But they don’t fit intellectual categories.”
Warner’s book tour includes two East Valley stops before returning to his California home … at a far-flung monastery? Not exactly. He’s got a day job.
“I market Japanese monster movies to Western markets,” he explains. “I’ve loved Godzilla movies since I was a kid. When I lived in Japan, I saw that this movie company had an international division, and … it’s something I like.
“At first, I was worried about the contradictory nature of studying Buddhism and making crazy monster movies. But my teacher encouraged me to stick with it. You can’t sustain a world with everyone running off to a monastery. It’s more important to have a philosophy that works in any setting.”
MEET THE AUTHOR
Brad Warner, Zen priest, former punk musician, Godzilla aficionado and Buddhist author/blogger, will appear twice in the East Valley:
1 p.m. Sunday, June 3: Barnes & Noble at Desert Ridge Marketplace, 21001 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix
7 p.m. Monday, June 4: Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe
Warner’s writings are also available on his Web site