Top positive review
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Getting even better
on 15 October 2007
How much do I envy Brad Warner? Hard core punk rocker. Japanese monster movie work. Lived in Tokyo. A Zen Buddhist master. One hot book already ("HardCore Zen" and now this one.) A column in Suicide Girls. And in one of his recent Suicide Girl columns he reveals that his well-known master Gudo Nishijima has asked him to be his sucessor ... and Brad has accepted. This from a guy who reveals in this book he hates being a Zen master, hates the challenges, the assumptions of his authority. Yes, I shouldn't envy him, I don't know his actual condition or what awaits him (or me) but it's hard not to envy a guy whose accomplished so much...yet is telling me to just go and sit facing a blank wall. Here's a guy who I expect might next show up on Entertainment Tonight having been spotted clubbing with Paris Hilton (could that be, Brad? Probably not) and yet he's the successor to Gudo Nishijima, who along with Chudo Cross, translated Dogen's masterwork Shobogenzo into English. So impressive it is distracting. Rather than sit down and shut up, I want to fly to Tokyo, I want to enter a cool-sounding rap into my word processor. Did Nishijima have sales of the translations of Shobogenzo in mind when he asked Brad to be his successor? No, I'm too cynical. And Brad's power to explain Zen, to the extent it can be explained, shouldn't be slighted.
Do you recall the Fuller Brush Man? One used to come lugging a suitcase to our neighborhood in New England periodically when I was young. My Mom would always be glad to see him and he's spend time showing her his latest products. She's always buy at least one. He was well-trained, could explain each product convincingly and was polite with her. The Fuller Brush Company (which still exists today although it may have abandoned door-to-door sales which never seemed cost-effective anyway) prepared him. But its an identity one can be proud of and something to keep one busy. Is it perhaps a roughly similar way that Brad Warner was prepared by his Zen teachers, trained using the entire Zen tradition? For a Soto (at least) Zen practitioner, Dogen's Shobogenzo is one element of that training. Another is the sitting method zazen. But Brad is one exceptional Fuller Brush Man. Must be to be selected to be a successor of Nishijima (or so it would seem). Or to hang out with the Suicide Girls. Any can be trained but not all have a gift to teach. I suppose I should be asking myself whether I have the gift to learn.
I confess I did zazen for 5 years every day but wasn't "making progress" and stopped and having been searching around in other ways the past 10 years. Recently I wondered if Zen might be worth a second try, which is why I read this book.
Shobogenzo is long and almost every page of it can be baffling. All four volumes of Nishijima and Cross's translation are available (at the time I write this review), new or used, via Amazon. If you enjoy this book by Brad, you may want to dive into them but don't expect it to be easy. Brad's gifted rap helps. He shares explanatory powers that Baba Ram Dass, who he expressed admiration for, also has.
Brad may seem like he has an answer for everything but he is wise enough to point out firmly that he won't take your own responsibility for yourself from you. And can't. He's strict about zazen posture (a position he clarifies, outside this book, by noting that if he made it easy for people to believe they could do zazen seiza style or sitting in a chair they may well lose the important body-and-mind benefit of correct posture. He has helpful positions, much learned from Nishijima but delivered in his cool punk rocker way, of enlightenment, the will to truth, reincarnation, boredom, and why we aren't happy (or hopefuly sad) all the time.
As in Hard Core Zen, I find his explanations of how I am the universe wanting. For an explanation that connected better with me, I suggest some from the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition (e.g. You Are the Eyes of the World, New Edition. And, as with other Buddhist teachers, the teaching that self is an illusion isn't so reassuring: my boss still expect ME to have my assignment done by the deadline whatever I make of my "self". But as to just what is meant by that Buddhist teaching, more explanation would have been helpful to reduce its mysteriousness (unless somehow I missed that elaboration in this book. The illusion, as I understand it feebly, being that the self exists independently, whereas actually its a dynamic process always dependent on other phenomena). One place the elaboration can be found well-stated is in Master Sheng-Yen's There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra But overall, Brad's explanatory powers seem much improved since Hard Core Zen. Grounding his explanations in passages from the Shobogenzo may be part of the reason why.
One thing that hasn't changed from Hard Core Zen to this book seems to be Brad's apparently strong interest in Lucy Lui. I suppose that is just a reflection of his honesty [Or, guys, how do you want to be reborn? ]
So do I go sit? For 15 years, influenced by Krishnamurti, I avoided methods as best I could. I was, unfortunately, heavily influenced by Krishnamurti as an authority. When I finally threw in the towel on Krishnamurti, I decided to give the minimalist method of zazen a try. Can I now go back to zazen ... and not be heavily influenced by Brad as an authority? Will I see him on Entertainment tonite? Brad suggested seeking out a local zendo. There is one near me. There are also contemporary masters less cool but impressive, such as Zen master and former IBM executive Les Kaye Zen at Work and Chan master Sheng-yen Faith in Mind: A Commentary on Seng Ts'an's Classic. Is it written anywhere a Zen master can't be as cool as Brad? I'll have to ask Lucy Lui.