Thursday, July 9, 2009
Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
This book is very different from most other Zen books out there.
A lot of books on Zen and Buddhism in general tend to be... how shall I put it... flaky. They tell you that if you eat a certain way or chant certain mantras or take certain drugs, you will attain the state of Nirvana, in which all your suffering will end and life will be an eternity of bliss thereafter. It's the classic self-help contradiction: happiness is just so easy to find, but you won't find it unless you read My Book. And also buy the candles, incense, mandala cloths, chanting CDs, windchimes, power crystals.... Despite claiming that they're not in it for the money, a lot of those purporting to offer enlightenment to the masses have a whole lot of stuff to sell.
Warner, to put it simply, calls this "bullshit." He doesn't try to affect the "wise and learned sage" voice in his writing. I imagine him more as a jittery skinny guy, telling you about the time he saw the entire history of the universe unfold around him in a dream. His writing is energetic and colloquial, and he talks to the reader as an equal, if a slightly less informed equal than himself. He tells you right from the beginning that you have no reason to do what he's done, or even to believe anything he has to say. But he's going to say it anyway because, as far as he knows, it's the truth.
He has an unusual background for a Zen Master. If you're anything like me, when you hear those words you think of a little bald guy in the mountains, calling people "grasshopper" and staring at nothing. Warner is not that. He talks a lot about his experiences as a punk rocker back in the days when being a punk rocker actually meant something, and this is pretty important.
You see, one of the driving forces of Punk, at least when it first emerged, was the idea that doing what society approved of was not being "real." In an era of power ballads, disco and soft hippie pablum, Punk music went the other way - loud, fast and hard songs full of anger and blasphemy. While everyone else was growing out their hair and trying to make it look like John Travolta's, punk rockers were wearing mohawks or shaving it all off. The basic message of punk: whatever is acceptable to society is unacceptable to me.
While that spirit of individualism and rebellion only lasted a little while, it did, in that time, share something with Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular: Question everything. Never take anything at face value or accept it just because someone tells you to. Ask questions, criticize, poke, prod and be a general pain in the ass until you're happy with the answers you've got. And even then, keep questioning your own conclusions.
Another thing that Warner brings up again and again is that, with Zen, there is no requirement that you actually do what people tell you. There's no such thing as a Zen evangelist or Zen missionaries going out to convert the heathens. Buddhism, at least the way Warner sees it, is a path for the individual, not the group. The only person who can find the way is you. There will always be teachers out there who can make suggestions, but what it really comes down to is the individual doing the hard work - meditating, thinking, and questioning every day.
I like this approach. One of the things that turns me off from your standard religions is that they generally frown on independent thought. You're not supposed to think about what Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross meant, you're just supposed to thank Him for it. You're not supposed to think about why God doesn't want you to eat pork, or why He wants you to abstain from alcohol, or why He thinks women should cover their heads, you're just supposed to do it. Religion, in my mind, stifles creativity and tries to absolve people of the responsibility of running their own lives.
And Buddhism is not really that much different, despite Warner's presentation of it here. It has its scriptures and its prohibitions, its rules and regulations which many people around the world follow without question. Just look at the "Free Tibet" people and you'll see how even Buddhism isn't free from the virus of the Argument From Authority. I'd bet that if the Dalai Lama announced tomorrow that eating cats was a sacred and venerable tradition for Tibetan Buddhists, Richard Gere would start eating kitty steaks within a week.
But the idea is sound. The idea is that there is no such thing as Authority. There is no human being, past, present or future, who is more qualified to tell you how to run your life than you are (even if you aren't all that good at it yourself). All it takes is dedicated thought and concentration to figure out how to live your life well, and the weird thing is that most people who do this tend to come to the same conclusion: the best way to live your life is to do the right thing, right now.
What is the right thing? Only you can figure that out.
Zen interests me, for many reasons, and a lot of them were addressed in this book. The idea that the past is the past and the future doesn't exist is one that I picked up years ago and has made life a lot less stressful. The focus on personal responsibility is another aspect that is quite attractive. I find that people in this modern age like to dodge their responsibilities to themselves and others, and I find that disturbing. We need to take responsibility for our own actions, and blaming the government or our parents or video games for our suffering really isn't going to make the world a better place.
The first step to having a better life is taking control of it. But don't just take my word for it, and don't take Warner's. Work it out for yourself.
"Question Authority. Question Society. Question Reality. Question Yourself. Question your conclusions, your judgments, your answers. Question this. If you question everything thoroughly enough, the truth will eventually hit you upside the head and you will know. But here’s a warning: It won’t be what you imagined. It won’t be even close. "
- Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen
Hardcore Zen on Wikipedia
Brad Warner on Wikipedia
Hardcore Zen at Amazon.com
Zen Buddhism at Wikipedia
Introduction to Zen from Kodaiji Temple