Zen teacher and author Brad Warner uses the ancient teachings of Dogen to reinforce a simple idea — don’t be a jerk.
photo by: Michelle Grimord Eggers
There is a Zen monastery not too far from where I live in San Diego. It was established by the wonderful and venerable, Thich Nhat Hanh quite a few years ago and it’s still going strong today. I have visited a couple of times. It’s a great experience. You can enjoy the beautiful grounds while doing the walking meditation Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for. This is usually followed by a question and answer period with some of the senior monks. But the last time I was there the Q & A was preceded by an announcement that questions should not be philosophical, but only practical matters of applying the meditation practice. This peeved me for a couple of reasons. First, most of the questions I have in life are philosophical questions. And secondly, it just seemed like bad form. Why do a question and answer period by limiting questions? I sat there and listened for a while and there were some really bad, non-philosophical questions, so I think they could have lightened up and allowed me to ask some of my dumb questions too.
The takeaway for me — Zen isn’t my path. Of course, it’s not like I was going to go join the Deer Park Monastery and sit on a cushion for the next 20 years of my life, but on another level it’s exactly this kind of spiritual/quasi-scientific decision that defines our lives. We’re all opening and closing down paths of inquiry as we try and untangle the who am I, why am I here, questions. This process of exploring, sampling and questioning is what keeps Skeptiko alive for me and keeps bringing me back to these interviews like the one I have today with Zen teacher and ex-punk rocker, Brad Warner. What makes this particular conversation so interesting is that in talking to Brad I encountered someone who’s trying to make similar distinctions in his pursuit of the biggest of big picture questions. Give a listen and you might discover why he chose Zen and I didn’t.
Brad Warner: The irony of it is, if you want to believe in reincarnation and I’m kind of an agnostic about it myself, but if you want to believe in reincarnation, this is your future life right here. So if it is about your next life, well, here you are in your next life as viewed from your past life. Are you any less confused now than in your past life? You don’t remember it but I would say you’re just sitting around being confused about everything and getting reincarnated didn’t really relieve that. So obviously, even if there is reincarnation that is not the answer.
Alex Tsakiris: I like the way you just put that. At the same time, let me jump over to the other side. I do take the scientific method that drives us towards reincarnation. The best evidence we have suggests there’s this very strong case for reincarnation. Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia who’s followed up with the work of Ian Stevenson. Are you familiar with that body of work?
Brad Warner: No. Not at all.
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Alex Tsakiris: I have these questions about truth because my life up to this point has been great but there’s this gnawing sense that there’s something to be known–something to be revealed that I haven’t found. Hey, these guys over here, these science guys, they say they’re doing the same thing. And I followed that and found that it’s kind of bullshit. They weren’t really following the data wherever it leads. They weren’t really looking for truth. They were in a lot of ways doing what we all do–bolster our belief system and not change so that we can hold onto the [ideas] that we feel comfortable with. In the same way in that punk rock sensibility, I think you can still feel it in your writing and what you do, I think that scientific sensibility that says, hey, if we are here, and we are here, then we can construct certain rules and play with those rules in a way that gets results that at least feels like we’re nudging towards the truth.
Brad Warner: I have a lot of respect for science. One of the things that got me interested in Buddhism in the first place, it was the first religion and I don’t think it’s the only religion, but it was the first one I ever encountered that wasn’t terrified of science. My initial forays into religion, I was growing up in rural northeast Ohio and basically religion was the kind of evolution-fearing, the earth is flat [etc]. They didn’t quite go that far but that sort of head-in-the-sand kind of [perspective]. We’re not going to look at what’s going on. So I have respect for science and the scientific method. I understand that it often goes awry but at its core I think it’s the right way to look at things. Buddhism emerged at a time before there was this strong division between what’s called science, what’s called religion, and what’s called philosophy. These kinds of inquiries into the truth were all considered the same thing, and I think [Buddhism] one of the few [religions] that still exists that owns up to the idea–they never had this division between spirituality on one side and materialism on the other. I have to qualify that and say there are certain Buddhists that do make that division but I think Buddha himself was very adamant that both sides have to be included in the equation if you’re going to understand reality.
Alex Tsakiris: You’ve always been about stripping away the bullshit with this kind of punk rock sensibility by saying, okay, it’s not really like that. Let’s get to the core of it. And you have to do it a couple of different ways: one, you have to strip away the Western, materialistic bullshit that’s emerged from this scientific materialism we’re talking about; but what you’ve also done is you’ve said, as a westerner I don’t mean to be impolite here but I need to strip away a little bit of that stuff you guys have added on in Japan and in the East. Let’s try to get to the core. Do you want to speak to that and how that particularly relates to this latest book of yours, Don’t Be a Jerk?
Brad Warner: There’s a lot of cultural baggage and I’ve had discussions with people. I lived in Japan for 11 years so my approach to things that are Japanese that exists within Buddhist philosophy and Zen philosophy is maybe a little different because I feel like I have more of an intuitive sense of where it comes from. It doesn’t seem so exotic and foreign to me. You do have a certain amount of [baggage] like that and if you take it too literally you’re going to go wrong. There’s a chapter I did in Don’t Be a Jerk in which I try to look into the question of reincarnation because reincarnation has almost become kind of an industry for Buddhists in the west. It’s a huge selling point. People are fascinated by reincarnation. I think a lot of people get into Buddhism in the west specifically because they want to hear about reincarnation. And Dogen who is the person I’m writing about in this book–this 13th century Buddhist philosopher from Japan. He comes across–you could argue both ways about his views on reincarnation. There are points in Shobogenzo, his book, where he seems to be utterly, unequivocally, anti-reincarnation. He says, “human beings, once they die do not return to life again…” He has statements like that. Then there are other areas in the text in which he sort of goes into the various beliefs and folk ideas that are usually included in that lump heading of reincarnation as if he believes them. I had a little argument with a guy who’s a much better Dogen scholar than I am who told me, no way, Dogen definitely taught about reincarnation. And I don’t think he did. I think he used the mythology of reincarnation in order to express ideas about other things in the practice. Whether he believed it himself or not is a question I ask myself within the text and I end up saying, well, maybe he believed it.
[easy-tweet tweet=” if you want to believe in reincarnation, this is your future life right here – Brad Warner”]
Alex Tsakiris: I guess that’s the intersection with science and also with speculation because when you say speculate, there’s all kinds of ways to speculate. The whole [concept] of introspection is speculation. We can have this deep introspection and have these profound experiences. I think that’s one of the real strengths of Zen from a spiritual perspective: don’t get too distracted by all the fireworks that might go off if you do this. But at the same time we’re all looking for grounding and I’m drawn to the shared experience which is what science is. Science is this shared experience. This consensus reality. We can measure things in this way if we try, and when that pulls us in another direction I’m inclined to put more weight on that because there is a methodical way to try to figure these [things] out. My question would be, what is Zen’s method or what part of the Zen method of discovery of truth draws you towards it?
Brad Warner: Dogen taught a type of meditation called shikantaz, which means “just sitting.” There’s no goal to the practice which is something [where] I see a bit of a parallel with the scientific method in that you aren’t attempting–of course there’s plenty of bad science where you decide what outcome you want and try to make the experiment produce that outcome. Or you try to massage the data until it looks like what you want it to look like. But good science doesn’t do that. Good science is honest and accepts whatever the data provides you. That’s what we’re trying to do with this style of meditation. Rather than fixing your mind on a specific thing you want to happen such as an enlightenment experience, or mindfulness or self-discovery, or any of that, you just sit. And there’s a specific physical posture that you take and you sit with your eyes open which is kind of unusual among most forms of meditation. But you sit with your eyes open because you’re acknowledging the outside world as part of your practice. You’re just trying to remain with whatever happens. So if it’s Krishna descending from the sky with 18 arms offering you gold, incense and myrrh, then you accept that. It’s usually not like that. It’s usually, God, I hate sitting here like this. Dammit I wish the guy with the bell would ring the bell…or you’re thinking about whatever you’re thinking about. You just allow all of that to happen, to take place, and try to pull back a little bit and observe it from a slightly detached point of view so you’re not involved with the messes your own mind makes. But you allow the mind to kind of process things as it will without attaching too much of yourself to it.
Brad Warner: There’s a tendency within spirituality in America today to want to sample a little bit of everything, which I can see the appeal of that, but a lot of times that ends up being a very superficial sort of path. And if you really want to get into it, it’s good to pick one method and go all the way and see where it leads you.
Alex Tsakiris: I hear what you’re saying, at the same time, and I’m sure you can appreciate this, that is a very Zen thing to say. It fits a Zen personality.
Brad Warner: Sure.
Alex Tsakiris: In Don’t Be a Jerk, I love the origin of the book because it’s somewhat synchronistic in terms of why you chose to dive into Dogen. It’s something you’ve written about quite extensively. What drew you to do this extensive deconstruction and reassembly of this really important text which as you point out has managed in small ways to work itself into popular culture.
Brad Warner: The original thing that sparked the [idea] is a friend got this book called God Is Disappointed in You. It’s a great title and the author who wrote it, I’d like to meet him. He wrote this book and tried to take the entire Christian bible and rewrite it in his own words. It’s a funny book and certain types of Christians would probably hate the book but I feel it’s respectful to its source material. This friend suggested I try to do the same thing with Shobogenzo which she knew that I’d written about a lot. At first I thought that wasn’t going to work but the idea was intriguing enough that I decided to pursue it. So I just took one chapter of Shobogenzo and tried to see if I could do that. And I enjoyed it so I went on to another [chapter] and another, and I finally got through 20 or 21 chapters of Shobogenzo and put it into this book. So it was just kind of trying to see whether there was a way to phrase Dogen in a way that would be both respectful to what he initially said, and a lot easier for 21st Century English-speaking readers to understand.
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