Friday, November 20, 2009

Buddhist Cowboy Songs

Last night just before the howling winds started and in the middle of a torrential downpour, in the dark of night (7pm eek) we went to hear Brad Warner's public talk at UVic's Interfaith Chapel. After all the vitriolic commentary that swirls around him in the blog world I was too curious not to go. I will confess that I don't read his blog on a regular basis and that I did read his book "Hard Core Zen" when it came out. I bought the book for my daughter who was seriously into the "Punk" music at the time, thinking it might appeal to her. In last nights talk, someone asked about his books and he said he originally thought of "Hardcore Zen" as something he was writing for his 14 year old nephew and never really expected to get it published.

It was an interesting evening. Warner presented as a very youngish looking (my friend asked if he'd written the book when he was 12!), reasonably at ease looking guy. He looked like he needed a shot of sunshine or geritol. Some of my meat eating friends might have suggested he looked like he needed a good steak! My preconceived ideas about him from "Hardcore Zen" and the second hand commentary I'd heard in the blog world, had me thinking he was a bit of a provocateur and a little cocky. I watched my own reaction as the talk opened and I thought to myself, "I can feel myself getting ready to bristle and be all fault findy. I can look at him through the jaundice tinted glasses of preconceived opinion. I can let other people make up my mind for me OR I can just take him at face value. I chose face value, instead of value loaded. I could feel the shift. I was just listening now. I was not searching for things to prop up any "ideas" I might already be holding about him. It was a much more pleasant way to receive his words.

He was low key and pretty soft spoken. He is irreverant, but frankly that's a quality I like. And he was not the least bit confrontational or provocative. He described himself as a pretty conservative Soto Zen kinda guy. I could see that perhaps his inclination to be a little flippant could get him into trouble, but it didn't last night. I cannot refer to any of the content in his latest book which some find offensive, because I haven't read it.

My agreement with myself was I would take him as I found him. He was not a particularly engaging speaker. He was not an orator that fired you up and inspired even the unconverted. He chose to simply answer audience questions rather than deliver a talk which is a responsive point of view. I didn't disagree or find fault with any of the answers he gave. He seemed to know his Dharma. He didn't seem full of himself or impressed with himself. He seemed very human, sometimes mumbling or loosing his train of thought. He didn't appear to "need" to be anyone in particular. He didn't appear to need to be a punk rock guy (he actually reminded me of my electrician, a t-shirt, jeans a hoody, slightly messy hair and some facial hair). He didn't appear to "need" to be a good speaker or be overly concerned that we like him, no fabulous stories, no name dropping. Just honest answers to the questions posed.

He talked about the need for some form in practice and that he had tried it with none and that it didn't feel right. He pointed out that different practitioners opt for observing different aspects of form. Someone asked him about transmission but not as a personal affront and he answered in a very non defensive way. He said his teacher described transmission as a recognition by the teacher that the student has understood the teachings in some deep and essential way and is therefore qualified to teach.

Someone asked about enlightenment and he gave the good Zen answer, that you may have an experience that matches your idea of an enlightenment experience but that doesn't make you enlightened. He told a story of how he had described such an experience to his teacher and the teacher said something to him like " you're a comic book kinda guy, you have a pretty active imagination." He talked about how there are references that show that even the Buddha continued to meet Mara after he was enlightened.

Initially, Eshu and Warner shared a little banter and conversation over the on-line Sangha thing verses the real life Sangha experience. They had a little fun with this, comparing it to internet sex with Eshu asking well isn't some better than none? Eshu even pulled a local paper out of his robe and showed the write up about Warner on the page opposite adds for "consenting adults". Everyone had a little giggle over that one. Zen for consenting adults... In the end Warner's comments were that virtual Sangha is not a replacement for the real life experience but that it can augment practice.

I asked Warner about all the who-ha that goes on out in the blog world about him and if he is intentionally provocative. His answer was that people get all fired up over things that he doesn't intend as provocative and then seem not to bite when he is intentionally provocative. And perhaps this all ties in with the virtual/ real life based meeting of teachers and students and Dharma practitioners. Maybe the people who froth and fume over Warner might feel differently if they were sitting in the same room with him. Maybe that face to face interaction would diffuse some of the reactions that seem to arise in response to Warner's on-line presence. Or maybe a Zen punch or two might be delivered. You may love him or hate him or perhaps you couldn't care less. But if he makes you think deeply about how you view the Dharma, well then he's done his job.


  1. "if he makes you think deeply about how you view the Dharma, well then he's done his job"

    Yeah. He does this for me. I pestered my old zen community to bring him in for an interview when we were falling apart. He came, mostly out of curiosity I think. He attracted lots of young, hip types. I was to be his chauffeur and he neatly ditched the old, not-so-hip one pretty quickly. I very much appreciate his seeming irreverence because he jars me out of "nesting" in any singular view of dharma practice. And I just like bringing pop culture into the mix of practice. There's so much there to have fun with! On the other hand, lately I've been disappointed with Warner, especially with his last book. For me he's gone too far past reverence with his public shenanigans, using cheap thrills to keep the publicity going as tho he doesn't recognize he is surrounded by buddhas. I love him. I have a lot of doubts about him. But he's just one thread (a brightly colored one!) in the fabric of buddhist practice.

  2. Interesting and helpful comments for me. I did wonder about the big disconnect between how he presented on Thursday night and what I've heard about his latest book. The book does sound likes it gone to far and so I don't feel interested in reading it. My teacher's teacher used to say "just because there's mud out there doesn't mean you have to roll around in it." I get the feeling sometimes that there are people out there who read Warner just to get inflamed! I guess you really get to see where your buttons are then! Just look at the latest Tricycle vs Buddhist Blogger stuff going on out there.

  3. I expect a fair degree of authenticity and maturity from a Zen priest and “Buddhist authority.”

    Calling Dogen a “dude” and claiming that “there are a Hell of a lot more laughs in my book than there are in any of the Dalai Lama's” may be entertaining … but how does it ameliorate suffering?

    As Brad Warner says: "Spiritual fame is an extraordinarily dangerous thing.”

    * Quotes are from his blog:

  4. It's interesting. Is it possible to like and dislike someone at the same time. And perhaps that is an incorrect statement of it. We might find some of the things they do offensive and others within our realm of understanding. Can someone be right and wrong at the same time? Can we hold all that in our minds at once.

    Warner does seem to be a controversial figure. And I like Kris' take on him. Perhaps he has just gone a little to far in his latest book?

    I do think Warner likes to give the stayed and proper among us a little poke with a sharp stick. Not the first Zen teacher to do this (if you choose to regard him as one) but his stick (or should I say schtick?) is a modern one.