Brad Warner’s book Hardcore Zen (2003) was an inspiration to me. Brad has since gone on to author several more books and travel the world discussing his hardcore punk background and his experiences with Zen Buddhism. His sense of humor really comes through in this interview, and even more so on his hilarious, insightful blog. Apparently, he was also in a movie called Zombie Bounty Hunter, M.D. How could that not be rad?
Name: Brad Warner
Location: Los Angeles
Your book, Hardcore Zen, was the first I read on the subject of zazen (seated meditation). I was attracted to it because of your background in punk and hardcore. The passage in the book that stands out to me the most is your transcendental experience with a Led Zeppelin song. Can you explain what happened? Do you ever doubt that this actually played out the way you remember?
I doubt everything I remember actually played out as I remember it.
But what I remember is that I was on a train in Tokyo on my way to my then-girlfriend’s place when the song Kashmir started playing. I looked around the train car to see where the sound was coming from. That’s when I realized the sound wasn’t coming from anywhere. It was in my head! It wasn’t like remembering the song. I heard it. Every note. Every drum fill. It played all the way to the end. Then it stopped. I wondered if I was going crazy.
Is that what you mean by “explain what happened”? Because if you are asking me to explain how and why such a thing happened, I can’t. I believe it had some relationship to the intensity of meditation I was doing in those days. But what exactly that relationship is, I do not know. I think my brain just vomited that song up from somewhere. I don’t know why it did that or why it was that song. It has no special meaning to me. I like it, but not especially more than a lot of other songs. I’m not even much of a Zeppelin fan apart from that one song.
In Hardcore Zen, you touch on some of your artistic and spiritual influences. From where do you draw inspiration these days?
Life, I guess. Inspiration is nice, but it’s not consistent or reliable. Sometimes I just do what it seems like people want. For example, I put out a book this year called Don’t Be a Jerk, which is my paraphrasing of some essays by Dogen, a 13th century Zen master. That was inspired by a friend asking me to do it. The sequel is inspired by the fact that Don’t Be a Jerk has sold far better than any of my other recent books. So people must want to read that sort of thing. I mean, I enjoy paraphrasing Dogen. But if nobody had wanted to read it, I wouldn’t have written such a thing. It’s far too much work!
Where are you at with considering yourself religious? Do you believe in a personal deity?
I’m not religious. I don’t have a personal deity.
I guess I’m a “Buddhist.” But I don’t think Buddhism is a religion. I believe in God but not in a God that could be called a deity. The universe is God. It’s alive. We are alive because the universe is alive. We are living parts of a living universe, which, taken as a whole, could be called “God.”
I think one of these days science will be ready to admit that. The old view of an essentially dead universe inhabited by a few living things is starting to change. Nothing in the universe is dead. There is no such thing as inanimate matter. It’s just that some things are alive in very different ways than we are.
In your email to me, you mentioned that you’re not straight edge, but that you have strong feelings about people using drugs to gain spiritual awareness. I gave up on straight edge in my 20’s, basically blaming it for my social isolation, depression, and disappointment with certain relationships. But I came back to it because I didn’t want to rely on drugs or alcohol to bring me into stronger communion with fellow humans, or with whatever experiences I was having. In your estimation, how do drugs interfere with spiritual growth?
It’s hard to explain. The last time I tried explaining it, someone took away from my explanation that I endorsed drugs. But I’ll try anyhow.
There is a deeper truth to life that is difficult for human beings to notice in the state of mind we are generally accustomed to. Sometimes if you get a little out of your usual state of mind, that truth can become a little clearer.
Drugs can take you out of your usual habitual state of mind. The problem is that if you’re not otherwise ready to come to terms with this truth, seeing it a little more clearly actually adds to your confusion. It makes things worse. But because the truth can be seductive and pretty, you think you’ve had some kind of profound realization on drugs. Really all you’ve done is figure out that there’s more to life than what you thought there was. That’s true. But you’ll start spinning off your own version of what you experienced and then you’ll get lost in that. This makes it a whole lot more difficult to actually start to get a wider view of what life is about. Because you fixate on the beautiful and profound experience you had while on drugs.
Sometimes I fall asleep during Quaker service, where I try to sit for an hour of silent meditation. Any tips for me?
Get more sleep. Actually, when I was studying with my teacher I figured out the trick. As I got closer to him as a student, he started wanting me to sit nearer to him on retreats. After a while I was in the seat right next to him during early morning zazen practice. That’s when I started being able to hear him snoring softly as he sat. So the trick is, just sleep! Only do it in a way that nobody notices. I’ve become fairly good at this over the years.
Have you found that any type of diet or exercise regimen have been beneficial for you as a spiritual, mindful person?
Interesting question. I’ve been a vegetarian since before I ever meditated. I’m not sure if that helped or not because I have no baseline for comparison. Dogen says to eat and drink in moderation. So I try to do that. I’m not straightedge but I really don’t put many intoxicants on my body. I just don’t make a rule of not doing so. I think the more intoxicants you do, the tougher it is to stay with the reality of this moment.
I exercise moderately too. I found that yoga was really good. I don’t own a car, so I walk or ride my bike a lot of places I used to drive to. That seems to help.
NPR interviewed you and Noah Levine as two prominent punk Buddhists. I read Dharma Punx right around the same time I read Hardcore Zen. Do you follow each other’s work? Are there others from the punk/HC community you’ve seen establishing themselves as practitioners?
I don’t really follow any other contemporary Buddhist writers. It’s not that they’re bad or anything. I just don’t read that kind of stuff much. I do like what Noah Levine is doing. I think it helps a lot of people. He’s doing great work with his centers. He seems like much more of a social person than I am. He likes organizing communities. I don’t.
When I wrote Hardcore Zen, I had never met even a single other person who was both into punk rock and into Buddhism. Not one. I hadn’t even heard about any. As far as I knew I was completely alone in that.
At the time Hardcore Zen came out I was living in Japan. I traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee for my nephew’s bar mitzvah. So I stopped by the local Border’s bookstore to see if they had Hardcore Zen on the shelves. That was the first time I saw Dharma Punx. I didn’t know what to make of it. At first I wondered if someone had rush-released a knock-off of Hardcore Zen. But why would anyone do that? Nobody thought Hardcore Zen was going to be a big seller. Why do a knock-off of it? I was really confused by the existence of that book! I realized later on that Noah and I were writing our books at pretty much the same time.
I’ve since met a lot of people who saw the parallels between punk and Buddhism. I know of some punks, Ian MacKaye, for example, who pretty much follow a Buddhist path without knowing it’s Buddhism. Which is fine. Buddhism doesn’t need to be called “Buddhism.” Like I said, it’s not a religion. It doesn’t depend on worshipping or even knowing about Buddha. Buddha was just the first person to formulate something that already existed before he came along.
Let’s say a 60+ year-old conservative Christian grandfather asked you to explain what “this zen stuff is.” What would you tell him?
Uh… I think I left something in the stove. I gotta go check on it.
Actually, I would try to figure out if he was serious about the question. Some people ask questions like that to try to start an argument, or just as a conversation gambit, or various other reasons that have nothing to do with really wanting an answer. If he really wanted to know, I’d try to explain as best as I could. I usually start off by giving the history of Zen. That’s a good way to weed out people who are actually interested. The ones who aren’t will just tune you out.
If your grandpa stays with you after that, you just try to see what parts of it interest him and say what you can about those parts. Or just say something stupid like, “Zen is the tip of your nose driving an Audi to Albania.” That usually gets people to stop asking.
As a teacher, I have started incorporating mindfulness into my classroom practice. What would you like to see incorporated (or avoided) in public schools when it comes to meditation and mindfulness practice?
I really dislike the word “mindfulness” these days. It seems to be a brand name now. I know that in order to get it into public schools you’ve got to eliminate anything that seems the least bit religious. But I think a lot of the stuff that seems religious is there to support the practice, and none of it is religious in the sense that you have to actually believe any of the mythology.
I feel like we will someday start to understand that daily meditation is as necessary to good health as daily tooth brushing. There was a long time when people didn’t know that you needed to brush your teeth every day. Maybe the secular mindfulness movement will help get more people to understand that. Eventually, through trial and error, the mindfulness people will find that they have to start getting into some variations of the other practices Buddhists do. They’ll understand, for example, that you have to teach ethics alongside of meditation otherwise when people start getting into certain meditative states they start believing they’re beyond all ethical restrictions. They’ll notice why Buddhists do some of their rituals too, and they’ll have to find ways to create secularized versions of those rituals. Really, though, all this research and development stuff has already been done, so I find it easier to just follow the old traditions rather than make up my own.
Election Year 2016. Definitely abnormal. What advice would you give voters (or candidates) this year?
It’s definitely nuts. I’ve been a minor “public figure” since 2004. Up until now I have stayed out of saying anything about any of the presidential candidates. It probably sounds like heresy to some to say this, but they all seemed kind of the same. I mean, I had my favorites. I think Obama has done a great job in spite of also doing some questionable things. But that’s what presidents do, they make tough decisions and nobody knows how they’re going to play out. They just do their best. I wasn’t a fan of George W. Bush. But I didn’t think he was the kind of horrible demon he was made out to be. He was a Republican politician and he did what Republican politicians do. I think the war in Iraq would have happened with or without him. It might have played out differently, but I think it would have happened under a Democratic president too.
Hillary Clinton is yet another politician, better than some, not as good as others. She’s competent and could be a decent president. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a nutcase. Straight up.
The problem is that the way the Left demonized George W. Bush was so over-the-top that when they say the same things about Trump it’s like the boy who cried wolf. People are liable to think, “You said that about Bush and, look, everything is still OK.”
People who support Trump are not rational. So appealing to rationality is probably a losing strategy. I also think they’re not the majority and that he won’t get elected. I hope I’m right, though. I fear I could be mistaken. I guess my advice is to stay calm and vote for Hillary. I’m not all gaga about her. But at least she’s not completely insane. I think she’ll do OK.
[stay tuned for Part 2]
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