Brad Warner discusses Buddhist blogging, power and the generation gap
Brad Warner is known around the Buddhist world as the proprietor of the rollicking blog Hardcore Zen, and a contributor to the alternative adult site Suicide Girls, as well as the author of irreverent and very personal books about Zen practice, most recently Sex, Sin, and Zen.
Warner was introduced to Zen Buddhism in the early 1980s at Kent State University in a noncredit course offered at the school’s Experimental College. In 1993 he moved to Japan and worked for several years at Tsuburaya Productions, a studio that produced monster movies. In Japan, Warner met Gudo Nishijima Roshi, who gave him dharma transmission in 1999. While studying under Nishijima Roshi, Warner began his blog and published his first book, Hardcore Zen. On his return to the United States in 2004, he started a sitting group at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, California. Since then, Warner has relocated to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, but he is a frequent guest speaker and teacher at dharma centers around the world. He’s also a bassist for the punk rock band 0DFx and appears in the independent film Shoplifting from American Apparel, produced by Sangha Films.
Tricycle’s Philip Ryan got a taste of Warner’s maverick approach to Buddhism when they spoke in July 2011. Whether you agree with Warner or disagree with him or just can’t figure him out, you can rely on him to call things as he sees them. And can’t we all use more of that?
You talk about being a Zen teacher, not as a profession, but as someone with experience who tells you what they know. Well, yeah. It’s pretentious to start likening it to art, but if somebody has been painting for 50 years, and they understand a thing or two about how to make a picture look a certain way, they can convey that to you, and you can absorb that and use it. But the picture that you draw is going to be different, because you’re a different person. So if somebody who’s had experience with meditation can convey her or his experience, maybe you can use that as a guide for yourself. But the idea of a profession— for one thing, you’re getting involved in money, which I think is a whole huge topic.
At the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, you had people coming regularly, but while lots of people showed up for talks, not as many people showed up for actual sitting. Yeah. The Hill Street Center was not my center. It still exists, and there’s a guy—I didn’t give any transmission or anything, but this guy John Graves is out there running the same Zen class that I used to run. I suppose “the same” is a weird phrase to use, but anyway, same time, same day.
I was doing these classes every Saturday. And really, ten people was a big day for us there. Usually five to seven people would show up on a Saturday to do zazen, and it let me know what the actual capacity for real Zen practice, as opposed to the desire to read about Zen practice, was. When Hardcore Zen came out, I was living in Japan. The book had been out maybe two years before I moved back to the U.S. and started giving talks and lectures and things. I was naive at first, but I quickly realized that most of the people I was talking to were never going to do Zen practice. Essentially, when I’m giving a lecture, I just view it as entertainment for the audience. I try to put on a show that will have something of value within it, rather than seeing the audience as potential practitioners, because most of them, realistically, are not.
But if it’s a situation where people are actually really practicing, and the format is that these people are practicing zazen with me, that’s where I feel like real Zen teaching can happen. As far as Zen centers are concerned, I look at the audience, and most of the time I’m invited to speak at a Zen center—I can’t tell you how many times they’ll tell me, and I think this is why I get invited often, is that, wow, we have three times as many people here this morning as we’ve ever had. Which, on the one hand, is sort of gratifying to hear, but on the other hand, it lets me know that about a third of the audience is really genuinely interested in practice, and two-thirds of the audience is there for the show.
How did you go from being a student in Japan to a teacher in America? I never had an ambition to become a Zen teacher. It was Nishijima Roshi who really wanted me to do that and kind of forced the situation by asking me to do certain things. He kept giving over certain of his teaching responsibilities to me, until I basically had all of his teaching responsibilities, and that’s how I became a Zen teacher, and that was in Japan, but I was mostly speaking to non-Japanese. There were a couple of Japanese people who would show up to these lectures, but it was almost entirely foreigners, and not necessarily Americans. So then, going back to America in 2004, I had the book out by then, and people were asking for it. I didn’t really intend the book as a way to launch a career as a Zen teacher in America, but that’s what happened. I don’t know what I intended the book for.
And how did the Hardcore Zen blog begin? You know, I was actually asking myself that very question, because I honestly don’t remember. I was writing these science fiction novels, and I put up a web page based on one of the science fiction novels that I’d written as a way to get some interest in that novel. And the web page had been up for about a year, and I hadn’t managed to get the novel published, and I wanted to do something else. And I just took it down one day and started putting up little articles that I would write about Zen practice; I don’t remember what motivated me to even do that. I do remember that it was 2001, because I put a couple of pieces up and then all of a sudden, September 11 happened. The third thing I put up had to be about September 11, because there was nothing else you could really write about. What I said then bothered a good friend of mine a lot, because I laid the blame for September 11 on religion, not on any specific religion, but on the whole idea of religion, the idea of escaping from this life into something better. So that was my first big negative thing I had to deal with on the blog, and there was lots more to come. I didn’t even learn the word blog until I had done this thing for about a year.
Your blog is one of the most vibrant, active Buddhist blogs anywhere. You get a lot of comments and maybe you’re ambivalent about that, since you’ve turned them off at times. What is your relationship to the people who follow you on the blog? I don’t know who a lot of them are. I went back and forth with the comments section, because it would be great, and then it would quickly turn into something bizarre and off-topic. There would be a lot of fighting and people slandering each other and having these flame wars and things. And I said, What the hell is this? And there were a few people who were sincerely commenting and asking questions. I turned the comments off and then I turned them back on, and—I don’t know, I looked at the section a couple of days ago, and it was really bizarre again. I couldn’t even understand most of what was written on there. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the topic. So my relationship with the blog readers is that I’ve corresponded with a few of those people, and maybe three or four I’ve actually met. Most of them I have no idea about.
I don’t know if people look at the tone of what I write and imagine that I’m writing very casually and off the cuff, but that’s not true. It comes across that way because I’ve created this literary voice that sounds like a guy just typing stuff up and not even reading it before it goes out. But that stuff is mostly really carefully edited, and takes a long time to do. So what people imagine takes a minute and a half actually takes two and a half hours.
People get annoyed sometimes because I put up promotional stuff on the blog, like “I’m going to be in Rotterdam on October 9,” or whatever it is, “see you there.” And people say, “Why isn’t he talking about real Zen practice?” I know Zen teachers who will give a dharma talk once a month, and that’s all they’ll do. That’s as much dharma as they’ve got in them, and I think those people are intelligent. There’s only so much that can be said.
Do you get invited to places because they think Brad Warner is going to bring the young crowd to their center? Yeah, they do, and people will say that to me, very specifically. And I tell them, Maybe I will and maybe I won’t. It’s funny to me, because one of the standard troll comments to put on my blog is like, “You guys should know that Brad Warner is already in his late 40s.” You know, as if that’s going to dissuade anyone from listening to me, or as a sort of a warning to them: Beware. I find it interesting because in my generation there wasn’t a lot of respect for older people, and I find that when I speak to people who are in their 20s and even into their 30s now, there’s a lot more respect for older people. Even Zero Defex (0DFx), the punk rock band I’m in, we’re all in our 40s, and we’re often playing to an audience that’s half people in their 20s, and they’re interested. I don’t know, if there had been a punk rock band full of 45-year-olds in my day, well, that probably would’ve been enough of a novelty to make it interesting right there, but there weren’t any. And most of the people that were in that age group were playing music that none of us had any interest in it all. So I think that it’s changing. That generation gap thing is largely disappearing.
The people who came to Buddhism in the 60s and 70s were all about being young, and now they’re the ones with this anxiety: Oh, where are the young people? Yeah, it’s kind of ironic. They were telling everybody, Don’t trust anyone over 30. Well, what do they expect?
You’re one of the few Zen teachers who openly criticized Genpo Roshi long before the recent scandal. Is that something you think about, that other people weren’t talking about this and you were? Yeah, I have thought a lot about that. You know, to me the recent scandals that happened with Genpo Roshi, are—I don’t want to completely trivialize them out of existence, but to me they’re really minor things. He was presenting himself as a happily married family man and in the background was allegedly having sex with all kinds of people other than his wife. That’s not a good thing. I think it showed a lack of integrity and so on, in the fact that it was hidden. But the thing that really bothered me and continues to bother me about that guy is not what he was hiding, but what he was putting right out there, which is promoting Big Mind. He was relating it to Zen, if not calling it Zen, and it was intended to give you this kind of mindblowing experience right away, which I think is dangerous. I don’t think that’s good Zen practice.
Why aren’t Buddhists talking about sex and power more? They’re starting to talk about it, and that’s a good thing. A lot of people have blinders on where they don’t really look at how things operate in the rest of the world, and when I hear this stuff about the power differential being a factor in romance between teachers and students in Zen, I think, when is it not a factor in any romance? Maybe it’s not a factor in some romances, but a lot of relationships that work just fine are based on a power differential that has nothing to do with the person being a teacher or a student. Everyone knows people are attracted to power, both men and women. And so it happens. Whether you can negotiate that and make the romance about something else, is, I suppose, where the test is.
With teachers, I think it’s up to the students to be wary of who they’re getting into. You actually have to go and listen to a teacher and watch her behavior and see what she’s doing and what she’s really like, and maybe you have to spend some time sitting with that before deciding whether this is going to work for you or not. And that’s just the way it’s got to be. And maybe you wish it weren’t that way, but it’s got to be that way.
At a recent event in New York you were invited to talk about your latest book, and people got upset with the clothes you were wearing. The term “perpetual adolescent” was used. Sometimes that happens. I think there’s a certain kind of person who’s going to respond to somebody who’s dressed in the traditional Zen robes, and I do have a set. I have two sets in my closet that I throw on from time to time. But there’s also a very important segment of people who could potentially find value in Zen, or Buddhist practice, who are going to be turned off by those robes, and they’re not going to listen. I was one of those people, so I know how that is. But I’m not too worried by people who think I present this stuff in a very casual way, that I’ll wear a Tshirt with “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” or Godzilla on it and give a lecture about Zen. I don’t think there’s any problem, and I don’t have problems with people who wear robes, I just have a problem with me wearing robes, because I find them uncomfortable, and I don’t like a lot of the associations of reverence and all of that. I don’t want somebody to immediately revere me just because I have a certain piece of clothing on. That’s kind of ridiculous to me.
Can Zen be taught online? I’ve had some discussions about that, and I’m really suspicious of it. I already knew there was somebody out there giving the precepts online, and now there’s another group doing ordinations online. You could certainly learn how to do zazen online. It’s a simple procedure that’s easily explained. You could learn it from a book or a website, but I always like to give the example of how I remember sitting in Nishijima Roshi’s room one time, having some discussion with him about esoteric Zen stuff, and I look over and see there is a teacup with a dried-up teabag at the bottom that’s probably been sitting there for at least a day, if not several days. And I felt this really human bond with him, like, He’s a person who sometimes doesn’t clean up his teacups. And that made him more of a real person to me, and it was really an important moment in my Zen training, as trivial as it seems. And in a Skype chat, to take one specific example, you’re not going to get that.
What’s it like making a living as a Zen master in the 21st century, or are you making a living doing other things and you’re a Zen teacher on the side? I was hoping to make a living as an author, but the royalty rates I’m getting are so low, I’m not. I see being the author as my job, so I go out and give lectures about the books I write, and I get paid for those lectures. And then, on the side, I do Zen teaching. You can get some donations and stuff and make it work that way, but generally it’s not a job I would recommend, because the pay is much too low to even live on.
I earn just enough. So in economic terms, it’s not that great, but in terms of just enjoying myself, it’s terrific, and I hope it’s doing someone some good. I make a big fuss sometimes, because it’s funny, about hate mail and these things. It’s funny, it’s interesting, and it exposes some things about human nature, and that’s valuable, but if you did the statistical comparison, maybe 5 or 10 percent of what I receive is hate mail and the rest is all really, really positive. People say, You changed my life, and I read that, and say, Wow, that’s nice. I don’t know, maybe what I wrote or said sparked something, but I don’t really think I changed their life. They did it. But I realize that there’s some sort of a need for what I’m doing. In the movie Spinal Tap, there’s a scene where they talk about a critic saying, “Spinal Tap continues to fill a much-needed void.” And I feel like that’s what I do, I continue to fill a much-needed void.
See: Hardcore Zen
Sex, Sin, and Zen:
A Buddhist Exploration of Sex
from Celibacy to Polyamory
and Everything in Between