Wednesday, September 15, 2010

John L. Murphy on Brad Warner's "Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between"

I like Brad Warner - his Zen Buddhism is embodied and engaged - there is no sense of spiritual bypass in his approach to the dharma. He may offend some people, but that's cool - he's honest and human, which includes the good with the bad.

One also gets the sense that he has not figured out this samsara thing any better than the rest of us have - and that's somehow comforting.

John L. Murphy reviews Warner's newest book, "Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between," for Pop Matters.

Punk bassist and Zen priest, columnist at the Suicide Girls website, and marketer of Japanese monster movies, Brad Warner’s resumé is nothing like the Dalai Lama’s. His “Hardcore Zen” replaces the material-spiritual, body-mind split, reincarnation and mantras, and “cheesy” or “drippy” Buddhism marketed as pop culture. However “dubious” this may seem, in each of his four books he earnestly articulates an existential, realistic approach to dharma. These books also feature his raunchy, erudite, self-deprecation. He blends philosophical ruminations with raw memoir, confessional admissions, and textual explication.

In his mid-40s now, Warner has been practicing Zen since starting college. He embraces a common love in Buddhist and hardcore communities. He loses himself in the moment, free of the material world or the spiritual deception, and here he enters the space free of time, the place where he’s fulfilled. This simple but profound quest energizes his books.

Hardcore Zen (2003) narrates his coming of age, his move to Japan working for the company who gave us Godzilla, and his understanding of zazen, “just sitting”. It confronts the mess we’re in. Its combination of mental discipline and bodily balance seeks to overcome daydreams and stiff knees and bring the practitioner closer not to enlightenment—but to reality. This approach, shorn of exotic trappings or false hopes, resembles Stephen Batchelor’s recent Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (reviewed here on PopMatters). Both authors free Buddhism from its own delusions, as peddled in pop culture.

Warner’s 2009 follow-up to Hardcore Zen reveals in its subtitle what’s happened since: Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma (2009). Despite his typically phrased summary of this as a “ball of big snarly confessional vomit,” his insights into his mother’s death from Huntington’s Disease, his exasperation at Zen pieties while on a stifling Great Plains retreat, his brushes with trendsetters and metal rockers in Los Angeles, and his calm explanation of how he and his soon-to-be ex-wife drifted into being no more than “a pair of marginally friendly roommates,” assured that he knew how hard it proved for him to take responsibility for his own life. His struggles resonated with his intuitive code that demanded truth-telling. He takes us on his global and interior journeys while he tries to sort his real destiny from his false desires.

Warner’s collaboration with the Suicide Girls site in explaining Buddhism beyond a New Age fringe or earnest do-gooders deepened his determination to articulate how his philosophy addressed sexuality.In his slightly more traditional 2007 Sit Down and Shut Up, he explains the intricacies of Dogen’s 1234 A.D. treatise Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye. Warner blends the founder of his Soto Zen school’s iconoclastic attitudes into his own “punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death.” He cites Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips: “I was resigned to believe in ‘the real,’ but I longed to be immersed in the ‘Guiding Light.’” Warner shares his fellow musician’s yearning for uplift, while he gazes unflinchingly at the intangible turned cruel or lovely, moment by moment around us.

Read the whole review.

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