Have you ever described a close friend this way: “He never has an unexpressed thought!” That probably makes the friend good company—and a little terrifying. The Zen writer Brad Warner, who once supported himself by working on Japanese monster movies, is like that.
Brad is an ordained priest in the Soto school of Zen, which stretches back at least to the 13th-century master Dogen Zenji. The Soto school pretty much cuts to the chase in Buddhist practice. For example, Dogen and Soto teach that you see what you get. Mind and body aren’t separated. Life is unified. The Zen path is not a mysterious, endless quest for some distant enlightenment. Buddhism is living out, day by day, precisely what you preach. Watch out! Honesty is entertaining, exciting—and terrifying.
Brad Warner feels no need to shield the inner thoughts of a Zen priest. And that’s what makes his books so compelling. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I first discovered Brad through a longtime friend, the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin. A couple of years ago, Geri urged us to recommend Brad’s earlier book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma. We got that book, read it—and recommended it. (Geri herself last visited ReadTheSpirit in December for a story about “Thrift Shop Saints.”)
If anything, Brad Warner has forged deeper into personal territory in his latest book, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. If you thought Jay Bakker’s new book, “Fall in Grace,” was edgy—then you ain’t seen nothin’ like Brad Warner’s books. (By the way, if you select your reading based on Amazon reviews, Brad’s “Dipped in Chocolate” book racked up a remarkable 33 reviews with either 4 or 5 stars. The newest book already is headed in that direction with 10 reviews ranking 4 or 5 stars.)
Recently, I told Geri Larkin that I was planning to interview Brad about his new book. She laughed! “I have to say that, now that I’m older, I am nervous for him,” she said. “He’s such a wild man. I love him, but: Does he have to be so honest about everything in his life!?!”
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH BRAD WARNER
ON ‘SEX, SIN, ZEN,” A BUDDHIST EXPLORATION OF SEX
DAVID: You’re fairly young to have accomplished so much: a religious teacher, author and documentary filmmaker. You’ve also been a punk rock musician. And you’ve written a provocative book on religion and sex. You sound a lot like the Buddhist Rob Bell.
BRAD: Is he a late-night radio guy?
DAVID: No, he’s an evangelical Christian writer and religious teacher who also is fairly young, makes films, performed with a punk rock band and wrote a provocative book on religion and sex.
BRAD: I think I’ve heard of him.
DAVID: Well, you two do move in different circles. I mean, Rob has never appeared in Japanese monster movies. Do I have that right? You actually appeared on screen in bit parts during the decade you lived in Japan?
BRAD: Yeah, you could describe them as monster movies so people over here would understand it. I actually worked for Tsuburaya Productions, a company that was founded by the guy who did all the special effects for the original Godzilla movies. But his company didn’t own the rights to Godzilla. The main show we made was called Ultraman, which was mainly a television series. There also were spinoff theatrical features with Ultraman.
DAVID: Ultraman is a big pop-culture icon in Japan—sort of like Dr. Who in British television or maybe the Star Trek series in the U.S. Describe Ultraman for our readers.
BRAD: Imagine a super hero as big as Godzilla who fights imitation Godzilla monsters—and that’s what Ultraman is all about. I did appear on screen sometimes. You might see me for just a couple of seconds here and there. I would be a foreign journalist reporting on a monster attack. In one show, I was an American pilot attacking the monster of the week. In another one, I ran down the street away from the monster.
DAVID: More recently back here in the U.S., you’ve made a documentary film about the punk rock scene in Ohio.
BRAD: The film is called “Cleveland Screaming” and hopefully we’ll get that out in a DVD release soon. We were supposed to have it out there two years ago, but we experienced some delays. It’s a bit like Bullwinkle the moose, you know: This time for sure!
DAVID: Right now, though, you’re homeless. You don’t live on the streets, but you don’t own a home. You’re basically a traveling Zen priest.
BRAD: I travel a lot in the work that I do. I realized it was stupid for me to keep an apartment, so I put some things in storage and now I stay in different places. As we’re talking today, I’m staying in a spare room with friends in Montreal.
DAVID: OK, let’s go back to the beginning of this adventure. You were born in Ohio and attended Kent State University, where you made your first connection with Zen. How did that happen?
BRAD: In my first or second year at Kent State, I signed up for a class called Zen Buddhism. At the time, a class like that was too freaky to be a for-credit class so it was listed as a non-credit class. That’s the kind of school Kent State was even when I went there. So when I got my transcript later, this class wasn’t even listed on my record. That’s funny, because it’s the only class I remember with any clarity from that time; and I not only didn’t get any credit for it—it’s vanished from my record. But that course affected my whole life. At that time, I had been part of the punk rock scene, which I had gotten into because I wanted to find something more direct, real and honest than what mainstream society was offering people. To me, Zen was more punk rock than punk rock could ever be!
DAVID: Then, you moved to Japan but it wasn’t to pursue religious studies.
BRAD: I moved to Japan because I was trying to put out records with a band and none of them were making any money. I decided that I needed a real job and I found out that I could teach English in Japan. I had always been a huge Godzilla fan, and I’d always wanted to go to Japan. Then, I got a job at Tsuburaya. I also got married during my years of living over there—and the marriage lasted for a while. All those details are in my third book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate.
‘JUST SITTING’ IN THE SOTO SCHOOL OF ZEN
DAVID: I’ll probably do a terrible job of summarizing Dogen and the Soto school for our readers. The easiest way to learn more about your particular tradition is to start reading your books. But, please, give our readers a little feeling for this tradition.
BRAD: It’s hard to say who was the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, because it’s lost in mythology, but the key person to know about is Dogen who was a 13th-century Japanese monk. He traveled to China to try to find the real Buddhism, because in Japan at the time the Zen school was new and he didn’t think the teachers in Japan understood it all that well. So, he traveled to China and met a teacher who was a lineage holder in the Soto tradition and Dogen received the dharma tradition. He was ordained. He brought the Soto tradition back to Japan. You’ll find places where people say that Dogen founded the Soto school, but that’s not right. He really was a crucial figure in bringing it back to Japan where the school became very popular.
The word Zen is a Japanese mutation of what originally was a Sanskrit word meaning meditation. It implies that this brand of Buddhism is specifically oriented toward meditation as opposed to some of the other branches of Buddhism that are more interested in other kinds of ritual or study. The specific thing that makes Soto tradition distinctive is that the practice is “just sitting.” I don’t even like to use the word meditation. Meditation to me means that you’re doing your practice to have some kind of experience. Pretty much all forms of meditation that I know tend to orient your experience that way—the practice is a means to an end and the goal is something else: usually enlightenment or something like that. In the Soto school, the meditation practice is a goal in itself. We call it Shikantaza, or “just sitting.” It’s a funny thing: If you’ve actually done this, it usually feels mostly like achy legs and a sore butt from sitting too long. But the philosophical conceit in the Soto school is that the practice itself is enlightenment.
DAVID: We’re going to recommend your new book, which is part memoir and part journalism. The overall narrative takes readers into some really different approaches to sexuality. I won’t try to summarize it all here, but among the sections in the book is an interview you did with a porn star who is trying to follow Buddhist precepts. And, you write about some of your friends who are sort of punk feminist activists, I guess we could say. You take us to a lot of different places in 300 pages. Is it possible to summarize what you hope readers will take away from this unusual book?
‘WE DON’T SEPARATE MIND AND BODY’
BRAD: I do get asked that question a lot: What do I want people to learn? And, the first thing I want to say is: I’m not really trying to teach anything specific, but I do feel that Buddhism has a lot to offer in its ethical standpoint when it comes to sex. Compared with other traditions, Buddhism doesn’t rely on a lot of very specific commandments.
DAVID: Of course, that’s the first thing Americans think about when they hear the subjects of religion and sex in the same sentence: Thou shalt not.
BRAD: Buddhism doesn’t give you a lot of commandments like that: Do this! Don’t do that! But Buddhism does recognize that sex is an important part of life. People who have studied any Buddhism will tell you about the precept that says: Do not misuse sexuality. Buddhism’s approach is that sexuality should be carefully considered and must not cause harm to anyone. Buddhism is interested in having people approach sex in a mindful way—and, even as I say it like that, I hate using that word “mindful” in this context. But for want of a better word—be mindful when you’re engaging in sex. You are involving someone else and their life—in your life, in your stuff. It’s a big deal to do that and you shouldn’t enter into relationships carelessly.
DAVID: Not everyone in your circle of friends agrees with you on this, right? You come out of the punk scene and you’ve got colleagues, friends of yours who readers will meet in your book, who think you’re drawing too strict of a line here.
BRAD: There are some people who get really hot under the collar when I write about this. For example, there are some who promote the idea of NSA, No Strings Attached. This idea is that you can have sex in which you don’t establish involvement with the other person—and may not even see the other person again. The implication is that sex can be purely physical and has no spiritual side to it. I disagree. I think that idea of NSA can be false and harmful.
In Buddhism we don’t view the human entity—or whatever we are—in that way. We don’t separate mind and body like that. We don’t separate spirit and matter. If you’re getting involved with someone on a physical level, don’t pretend that you’re not making a real connection. I’m not telling people that they should never have a one-night stand. But, when you try to deny the reality of the connection between people, it’s like walking into a wall and saying: “I don’t believe that wall exists.” Well, you just walked into it! It’s there!
FROM BRAD TO ROB AND BACK AGAIN?
DAVID: You’re really critiquing the very communities in which you’ve worked as a musician and a filmmaker, right? You approach this whole subject of religion and sex from a completely different point of view than, say, a Rob Bell. But you’re winding up actually agreeing with someone like Rob on several basic themes. I know you haven’t read Rob’s book, and I realize there are some big difference between Rob’s faith and your Zen practice—but I can see the similarities in the conclusions you reach. For example, you’re calling for a much deeper ethical and spiritual awareness of sexuality—a way of cutting past these decades of very specific Emily Post-style rules that we’ve accumulated about sex. You’re both reconsidering the ethical and spiritual issues.
BRAD: What I’m saying is that you can’t separate yourself from the rest of the world. Having lived both in Japan and America, I can see the faults in both cultural approaches to life. The Japanese historically have emphasized very strongly this group, social aspect of each life. A person’s individuality is not as important as the group. But in American society, we go to the other extreme and claim we’re absolutely individuals—and so just, you know, go screw society! I can do what I want as an individual! One of the bad parts of the punk rock ethos is that it can go deep into that extreme.
But truth lies in neither extreme. We are part of a society and part of a universe. We can’t separate ourselves out. It’s important to think about this in relation to sex, because people find themselves out there all the time contemplating sex. Maybe they’re already naked in a room together and they’re just starting to think about what’s going to happen. I’m saying, we have to step back and realize that what we’re doing is something that is going to affect another person. What we’re contemplating is going to have more implications than we can possibly know going into this. I’m not saying: Never do it. But I am saying that in sex, waves can spread out from that moment of human interaction in a powerful way. You can’t even know what you’re going to affect—but you can at least start by trying to make sure that you don’t deliberately go into something that you know to be harmful.
DAVID: That’s a pretty good summary of what we learn by the end of the 300 pages. You take us to a lot of strange places in the course of the book, but through it all—that’s the ethic you’re trying to promote. So, thanks for giving us that summary.
BRAD: You know, if you really start to riff on this, you realize that everything in life and every contact in life with other people is important. You don’t have to stress about this, but we should be aware that everything we do affects a much wider range of life than we can possibly imagine.
You can order Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Betweenfrom Amazon at a discount.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)