October 30, 2012

Sex, Sin & Zen: An Interview with Author, Punk Rocker & Zen Priest Brad Warner.

Photo: Susanna Kekkonen

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate (with a side of Godzilla).

CG: There seems to be a way in which many spiritual teachers from the various wisdom traditions present themselves and their teachings. It’s sort of like they have a stick up their ass, but you’re obviously quite different. Can you tell me about your approach to all things “spiritual” i.e: practice, teaching, writing, lecturing etc.?

BW: Well I’m not one of those people who sits around thinking of himself as a spiritual person. Sometimes people will label me as such, but I don’t feel it at all. I spent a very brief time in my late teens cultivating that image, maybe for about six months or so and finally thought, “fuck it, that isn’t me anyways.” Since then, my approach to all things spiritual is rather cynical you could say.

When somebody presents something to me as spiritual, my first instinct is to be cynical and think, “oh yeah, one of those again.” You see so much of it see in “spiritual culture” and people get very excited about it. It’s all very “hoo haw.” So I’m skeptical and cynical about the whole thing and it’s only if something seems to be genuine that I would pursue it. That’s why I’ve stuck with Zen for so long and not gone on to some other path with it.

CG: That was actually going to be my next question, why Zen instead of other lineages of Buddhism or other wisdom tradition in general? So maybe you’d like to incorporate that with my first question?

BW: Sure. What attracted me to Zen was my first teacher, Tim McCarthy. He was extremely genuine. It wasn’t even really a Zen thing, that sort of came along later. So I was first exposed to this guy Tim McCarthy, and he’s talking about Zen, but deeper than that he was a genuine person. I thought maybe he’s someone I can trust and follow this thing he’s talking about all the time. I guess what attracted me about the philosophy aspect was that it was realistic. It didn’t go off into the realm of imagination land, which I find a lot of religious teachings, actually almost every religious teaching does.

I keep meaning to write this up as a blog post, but lately, while driving in my car I’ve been listening to a religious station that comes on out of Cleveland from the Moody Bible Institute. At first, I was listening to it to hear the goofball shit. I stumbled across the station by accident initially during a program on the evils of pornography and masturbation and was like, “Haha, that’s great, masturbation and pornography? I’ll keep listening” but now I actually listen to the station often. After a few days of listening to it, what I heard was a mix of stuff, some of which I have to admit however grudgingly, was really good.

I’d say more than half the stuff I hear when I randomly turn on that station is good advice for how to live your life and be a decent person. How not to fly off the handle and do many of the terrible things people do, but then they’ll mix in a bunch of weirdo shit that comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t seem to me to be related at all. There’s fantasies about what heaven is like and who Satan is and why you shouldn’t masturbate or why you should vote Republican. It’s funny because it’s an election year and their news broadcasts are constantly talking about “Vote Republican.” I think that they think they’re being subtle about it, but that’s definitely not the case. So I’m like, “What does this have anything to do with the nice advice you were giving about how to live your life, how to get along with your spouse etc?”

So, what I liked about Zen was that it never goes off into the realm of imagination land, or if it does occasionally, the good teachers will openly address it specifically as only imagination. Both of my teachers were very good at that. At times, Zen does get into some Buddhist Cosmology. Nishijima Roshi, my main teacher would talk about that and almost every time immediately say that it was only one way of looking at it. Whenever addressing realms of Heaven or Hell, he’d also address that it was just a psychological state. So I was very attracted to the way that Zen did not go into the imagination land. And now I’ve forgotten what your first question was and how we were going to tie this together.

Photo: Warner

CG: It was regarding your approach…

BW: Oh, right. I guess that all figures into my approach because once I start hearing the imagination land stuff (that’s my new phrase now I guess) I tend to tune out or start laughing at it like, “Haha, you guys really believe there is a heaven.” It’s crazy to me how concerned people get with what it looks like and what you can do there. People may as well be talking about J.R.R. Tolkien or Star Trek or something. I mean, I can do that all day long. I can tell you the Vulcans are not actually devoid of emotion. That they work hard to suppress their emotions (laughing). And of course, there actually are no real Vulcans, though I know the ins and outs of them as fictional characters.

But people do the same thing with the Bible. They memorize all the fictional characters, the parameters and the rules of the game and think it’s important, but I can’t get excited about that myself.

CG: (laughing) I like it. So you mentioned your blog, which I often find myself visiting and my next two questions were regarding a couple of topics you recently posted.

BW: Okay.

CG: Okay, so my first inquiry is regarding a question you recently addressed which is, “What is sanity and how does it relate to enlightenment?”Can you talk a bit about that for me?

BW: Funny, because I remember writing the post but not what I said specifically, so I’ll either repeat myself or say something completely different and baffle everybody.

CG: Excellent.

BW: Sanity and enlightenment…I’ve been reading a new book Dogen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries, and it contains a commentary on Genjo Koan by Shunryu Suzuki, the author who wrote Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. He doesn’t mention sanity at all but I think that one possible definition of enlightenment would be a kind of profound sanity, where being insane is no longer an option.

There’s also something that is often mistaken for enlightenment which is a kind of insanity. Often, people will have some kind of weird experience which is quite abnormal and think, “Oh my God, that’s it, I understand everything” because they start seeing things in a very weird way and think that’s how enlightened people see things as well. A lot of seriously insane people have managed to acquire huge followings based on the idea that  their insanity is a kind of enlightenment.

An obvious example would be Charles Manson or Shoko Asahara who is the person responsible for the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Since I was living in Japan at the time, Shoko Asahara was an important figure and you could say his name and people would immediately know who you were talking about but since being back in America I’ve realized most people don’t know who he is, which I find odd because he was far worse than Charles Manson. He killed many more people than Manson and was actually trying to kill thousands but wasn’t careful enough in his process.

So he was insane but managed to convince a couple thousand people that he was enlightened. Western culture, which Japan is now definitely a part of, doesn’t have an understanding of what enlightenment is. I’m not sure that Eastern culture does either, but I’ve never lived in India etc so I couldn’t tell you. I can say we definitely don’t. So people will sometimes come in contact with something strange and think, “Oh, it must be like this” and have a lot of fantasies about it, and somebody who sort of looks like our fantasy version of what enlightenment is can be very convincing in seeming like they’ve got something and then play that role. I think real enlightenment is total sanity, a kind of acceptance of what actually is. It does involve a kind of different way of looking at things.

As I’ve done this Zen practice for years and years, I’ve acquired what I realize is an almost upside down view of life compared to what most people think, which is just what I used to think it was too. It’s not really an insane view, at least I hope it’s not. I used to worry when I was a teenager, even into my twenties, after I’d heard something about schizophrenia and how people just suddenly become schizophrenic that I was insane. Sometimes people pick up pet worries that they’ll entertain themselves with and that was my big one. So as far as thinking about what that means, one of the definitions of insanity is that you lose your ability to communicate to anybody because your frames of reference have become so different from the rest of the world that you can’t communicate anymore.

If you come across an insane person who’s talking gibberish, you can’t make any sense of it at all and that would be one way that enlightenment is different. If you read Dogen, a lot of his stuff is very strange and is coming from a different place than what we’re used to, but at the same time, it’s not senseless ramblings and that’s part of what attracted me to Dogen. I didn’t get it, but it was sane. It’s not some guy raving about UFOs or Moses living in his bathtub, it’s was actually something sane that I just didn’t get, if that makes sense?

CG: Actually, from my own personal experience it definitely does.

BW: Okay, good.

CG: So I have one more blog questions for you.

BW: Okay.

CG: Yesterday you posted a blog about our interconnectivity or oneness in which you used Moe and Curly of The Three Stooges (nicely done) to humorously elaborate on a very deep subject. A subject so deep however, you also mentioned it’s resulted in people being killed for even talking about it. Can you elaborate on both, the subject matter of oneness and said death of individuals please?

Photo: Grosso

BW: I think the understanding of oneness and interconnectivity of the whole Universe is something we have innately, something we’re born with. We are however very skillful at ignoring and pretending we don’t have or know it. So when we come across somebody who does understand this and makes an effort to try and explain it to us, some people freak out and turn that person into either an object of worship or, some people freak out and want to kill that person.

I think it’s because they know what’s true but they don’t want to know, they don’t want to face up to what that actually means. So they’re going to kill the messenger and hope that by doing so they’ll destroy the message so they can go back to living their ordinary life again.

The obvious example would be Jesus. Jesus is an object of fascination for me. He’s an interesting historical character because we don’t know much about him. He seems to be a guy who was in touch with something deeper than most people around him were and someone who was very concerned with trying to communicate that. He was probably a guy who thought, “This thing that I’ve discovered can save the world and everybody is miserable without it.” So he was probably a very kind and giving person and thought he had to give it to people, even if it killed him. He had to make sure they got the message, and he paid the ultimate price as they say due to his insistence.

If he’d been a little more concerned for his own safety and well being he may have toned things down a little bit and probably at best he’d be remembered as a rabbi who said some cool things but that nobody really reads anymore. There’s tons of them. Rabbi Hillel is probably the most famous among them. He’s quite famous in a way but nowhere near as famous as Jesus.

So it’s a dangerous thing and conversely, the other thing I mentioned in that post was that people see guys who are kind of in touch with that and become famous for it and then think maybe they can get in on it. Maybe they’re not quite as cynical as that and there’s some sincerity about them, but they don’t really get it so they just imitate what they’ve seen from people who’ve done it before and of course you can make big money that way.

The thing with the question of oneness or non-oneness is that you can literally discuss it forever. You can go into the philosophy section of any library and you’ll see people have been discussing it forever and will continue to do so. The fact is that there is a contradiction going on but our brains don’t like contradiction. So when Moe hits Curly on the head with a sledgehammer and Curly says, “ow” and Moe says, “Serves you right, Numbskull,” you can say that’s because they’re separate beings, and that’s true.

There’s also an aspect which I tried to express yesterday by saying the same “something” that looks out through Curly’s eyes is also the same exact thing which looks out of Moe’s eyes, and that’s harder for people to grasp. So the thing is, you have to find a way to ultimately embrace both sides or else you can’t function. If you only embrace the side of pure oneness then you end up sort of spacing out and sitting under a blanket. People will come and give you sandwiches every six hours but you’re really of no use. A lot of people get excited about guys like that but I can’t get too excited about it because I think he’s sorta useless. He’s just sitting there in India under a blanket looking beautiful, so what.

CG: So in relation to saying that it’s the same thing looking at Moe as it is Curly, I can’t help but think about a lot of the work Quantum Physics has done in offering scientific explanations to elaborate on hypothesis like that through the use of the Unified Field Theory or the Planck Scale, etc.

BW: It’s interesting to see what’s going on with physics these days because they’re starting to come out with stuff that sounds remarkably like Buddhism and even more specifically like the ancient Hindu Vedas. Physics isn’t necessarily saying the exact same thing but I think eventually it will merge. It’s sort of another innovation, probably a good innovation, of Western culture to separate the ideas between science and philosophy, but it’s important to remember they weren’t always separate realms of inquiry. For a very long time science and philosophy were considered part of the same continuum and it was only within the last few hundred years they’ve been considered different areas of inquiry, and now we’re starting to go back to the idea that maybe they aren’t two separate realms of inquiry.

So with science, it’s original idea was to ignore the spiritual or nebulous side of reality and to strictly work on concrete things. Say there’s a brick which we cut it in half and then see there’s two halves of a brick. If we keep cutting we can then see there’s particles and so on and so forth. As you’re implying, there’s a new technology that can look even deeper into that brick and we can start getting into a level where it breaks down so that the brick isn’t even there, but obviously it is because Moe can hit Curly on the head with it. It’s quite bizarre and all relative.

CG: Yes, bizarre indeed. So in your most recent book Sex, Sin and Zen, you explore sexuality in relation to “spirituality” and you’re also are a blogger for the Suicide Girls website, which is obviously very sexual in nature, so I was hoping you could discuss the relationship of sexuality with the spiritual realm as you’ve come to understand it.

BW: Well it’s always been an interesting area for me. In referencing something I just reread from Dogen it says, “Enlightenment doesn’t break the person anymore than the reflection breaks the water” and Suzuki in his commentary is saying you don’t lose your personality once you acquire some sort of Buddhist understanding.

I think it’s part of my personality to find sex really interesting. Not just in the puerile way of, “Oh I want to go and have some sex” (Note: Brad adopts a weird old guy pervert voice for that quote and did so rather quickly which in retrospect has me wondering…). It’s fascinating, there’s an entire realm of human activity that’s important and literally vital to our survival and yet we’ve vilified it.

That’s one of the reasons that religious station is so fascinating to me. They really make sex into such a horrible thing and how terrible anything related to sex is, but isn’t that why we’re all here? We wouldn’t be here at all if two people in our past hadn’t been horny for each other, that’s how it works. So we can’t continue unless people keep being horny for each other, that’s just the way it is.

One of the things I regret about not putting in that book or I think it’s there but I didn’t really elaborate on it, is contraception. I came across someone who articulated very clearly  that one of the things which makes our approach to Buddhist practice in regards to sex different these days than it was in Buddhist times, is the simple existence of reliable contraception, which is a no brainer but I missed really addressing it in the book. I never really got around to discussing that specific topic which I think it crucially important to understand.

If you were a monk in early Buddhist times and you had sex, there was a good chance a child would be conceived. Then, because Buddha was a responsible guy and believed in his monks being responsible, their responsibility would no longer be to their practice or to the sangha, but to their child because that’s the only honest way to do it. You can’t have it both ways. So anytime a monk would have sex, there was always that possibility and it was a very big deal.

Now however, we have contraception and it’s mostly reliable, so you can have sex without that happening.  So then you start vilifying the act of sex itself. I don’t think Buddhism has ever done that necessarily, or at least I’m not aware of Buddhism taking  the stance that Christianity often has which says that sex itself is a kind of evil act, which is a really weird idea. The reason I wrote that book is because I think a lot of people trying to follow Buddhism these days are getting confused about sex and they don’t understand what’s going on. They’ve been exposed to a contemporary Christian idea that sex itself is evil and bad, which I’m not so sure was Jesus’ idea.

For me, the Buddhist approach isn’t that sex itself is evil or bad but that sex is neutral. It’s the way you do it that can problematic. So I thought that deserved a book and feel like the door needs to be open so people can say, “Okay, here we go, let’s deal with this” because we’re not dealing with it. I’m waiting for somebody to write another book but it hasn’t happened yet, though I guess mine’s only been out for a year and a half. I mean, somebody could write another book and say Brad’s idea about Buddhism and sex is wrong, and here’s mine, and that would be great. Just the fact that it would exist would be good because nobody is saying it, it’s like they’re trying to pretend it’s not there.

CG: You certainly made some very valid and insightful points there. So let’s complement the topic of sex and move into Rock ‘n’ Roll.

BW: (laughing) Sounds good.

CG: So you grew up in the punk/hardcore scene and have been playing in bands for many years, which I certainly relate too. What are you up to musically these days?

BW: Well, I just bought a guitar. My Dad actually came across a bank account he’d opened for me when I was a teenager that we’d both forgotten about and recently said, “you know, there’s some money in there” so I used it buy a guitar. I play guitar and bass but have really only had a beater guitar for a few years now so I’ve concentrated mostly on bass. Now that I have a nicer guitar, I can play that in a band as well.

CG: Nice. What kind of guitar did you get?

BW: It’s a Schecter Robin Finck model. It’s a really interesting looking guitar. I saw it hanging up on the store wall and thought it was a 60s Japanese guitar that they’d found at a pawn shop, but when I got closer it was obviously new and then I played it and had to get it. Anyways, Zero Defex (0DFx) is the hardcore band I’m in and we’ve been recording for the last couple of months.

We have a set of fourteen new finished songs, the entirety of which times out at about twenty four minutes. Not only that, but within that twenty four minutes is a song that is eight and a half minutes long, so I think that will tell you what the rest are. I contributed that eight and a half minute song as I’ve been listening to a lot of psychedelic stuff lately. I’m sorta anti-drug in my public work. I have a big campaign against people thinking drugs are the way to Buddhist enlightenment, but I’m not a big anti-drug guy in general per se. So I’ve been listening to this so called “stoner” music, which I love and I’m listening to totally straight and really getting into. I don’t know if the people playing it are smoking a lot of dope or not. I’m sure some of them are and I’m sure some of them aren’t. So I contributed some stoner rock to 0DFx. It’s a slow song which I also contribute some sitar, and mellotron too (laughing). And to be extra contradictory, when I played the sitar part I wore this flowery, hippie looking shirt. So we have that and hopefully it will come out soon. I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to do with it. Maybe shop it around and put it out ourselves if no one is interested.

I also want to start another band where I play guitar and that would be a totally psychedelic project. I relate to Wayne Coyne’s story from the Flaming Lips. I read some of the liner notes in one of the albums where he said he did acid four times and hated it, which is exactly what happened to me. I did acid four times as well, maybe that’s the magic number, and I hated it, but he makes this music that a lot of people associate with drug use and he himself is not a drug guy. So that’s how I feel, I love this so-called “drug” music but I don’t like the drugs themselves, I just like the music. So yeah, I want to start the druggiest drug band in the world but without the drugs.

CG: And I wish you all the luck in the world with that. So you have a very obvious fascination with Godzilla and I was wondering if you could tell me what it is about him that makes him so amazing?

BW: (laughing) I don’t know. When I first started watching Godzilla, I was a kid and a big dinosaur freak and was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s a big dinosaur.” So I immediately got into Godzilla.

What I like about it are some of the things people often think are negative aspects. For instance, even though I was ten years old I quickly figured out it was a guy in a costume, and I liked that. I could feel something about that. I wondered, “Who is this guy in the costume” (who I actually got to meet years later).

So, I wondered who the guy was and what it was like to be in the costume. I also appreciated how amazing the miniature buildings were. It turns out that the guy who built those buildings was trained as a furniture maker. So Eiji Tsuburaya, who did the special effects, saw some of his furniture designs and thought that if he could build furniture that looked like that, maybe he could build imitation buildings, because he’d made some very detailed pieces of furniture that were very beautiful.

So he asked the guy who said he thought he could do it and he ended up designing some tremendous replicas of buildings in Japan. I loved all of that stuff.

Godzilla also represents the fear of nuclear annihilation, which was something that was big in my mind at the time. It was something that the people of this forthcoming generation haven’t had to live with, but people around my age grew up with the idea that we could all be blown up at any minute.

That’s also what got me into hardcore music. I thought, “Well if this is the end of the world, why not just throw it all into the mix”. I really thought Reagan was going to push the button and blow us all up. It was scary. So when they did the 1998 American Godzilla film, Hollywood didn’t understand what Godzilla was. You know that for sure because Godzilla was killed by an ordinary missile. He spends most of that film dodging them but then the Army finally gets a bead on him and they shoot a missile at him and he blows up and dies, and that’s not what Godzilla is.

Godzilla is supposed to be a thing that you can’t possibly kill, no matter how hard you try. In the Japanese movie’s they’re throwing everything they have at him, every missile, but he keeps coming, he can’t be stopped and that represents death. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, to keep yourself from dying. You can try every trick in the book and it still won’t prevent it. So that’s Godzilla, he’s ultimately going to get you regardless of what you do. Maybe the people who made the American Godzilla film were scared of that. They didn’t want him to represent that, to represent something we couldn’t deal with because, “We’re Americans, we can deal with anything” (laughing).

CG: Hmm, so after hearing that response, I’m really interested to hear your answer on my final question for you which is, Godzilla Vs. Buddha steel cage match, who wins and why?

BW: Oh man, I don’t know. Probably Godzilla because he’s so much bigger.

CG: Okay, I wasn’t sure if maybe Buddha could somehow calm him down.

BW: Well, Buddha might be the one thing that could settle Godzilla down. He might say, “Listen Godzilla, you don’t have to do all this. Just chill out a little bit and everything will be fine” (laughing). I mean Godzilla is eternally pissed off at everything but of course he’s gonna be because every time he pops out of the water for a look around somebody is firing a missile at him. Buddha would probably have to act as a mediator between the people and Godzilla.

CG: And on that note… Thanks very much for your time, Brad.

BW: Sure. Thank you.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

Like elephant spirituality on Facebook.

Read 6 Comments and Reply

Read 6 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Chris Grosso  |  Contribution: 4,880