Monday, October 08, 2007
Sit Down and Shut Up!
I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading Brad Warner's second book, Sit Down and Shut up. Maybe it was because I was so involved with the Buddhist Festival to even think about reading a Buddhist book in my free time, or maybe it was because I've been following Brad's blog and his columns for Suicide Girls for so long now that I thought I'd heard everything he had to say. Which I have, really, but still, reading this book over the last week has been a breath of fresh air, reaffirming my commitment to Zazen, as opposed to Buddhism, and blowing out all the smoke from all the other schools of Buddhism (and beyond - more to come!) I've been saturated with the last few months.
I will always consider Brad to be one of my Zen teachers, despite the fact that I've only met with him, and sat zazen with him, for the three-day sesshin known as the Empty Well here, near Nashville, which opened my eyes as to the unreliability of the Nashville Zen Center as any kind of vehicle to furthering my own practice. It was Brad's first book, Hardcore Zen, that brought me back to Zen just when I needed it. At the end of 2004, following a year and a half of tumult that completely uprooted what little previous life I had developed since my return to Tennessee in 1993, I was seriously looking for some sort of "spiritual" practice, which I knew from experience I needed to anchor the new identity I was establishing. I had known that I was a Buddhist since about 198o, but I had burned through Nichiren Shoshu back in the 80's and hadn't stayed with a practice since. In 2004 I was looking at Tibetan Buddhism, but it wasn't working for me; the people were great, but I was getting nothing out of the practice (although I'm told the true nature of their practice was something esoteric that hadn't yet been "revealed" to me). Then I found Hardcore Zen, and I knew I had come home.
If you haven't read Hardcore Zen, you owe it to yourself to do so, whether or not you are inclined to Buddhism. You certainly can't learn Buddhism from a book, so the best Zen book is the one that makes you want to sit zazen, period. And this was it for me. Much has been made of Brad's punk rock background, but I think what really brought me back to Zen was his writing voice. He speaks clearly and directly, without the sanctimony of most Buddhist writers. If his writings don't appeal to you, you are nothing like me.
Of course, sitting with Brad as a teacher is not quite like reading his books. He is actually very respectful of Soto Zen forms, and he is not a sarcastic jackass like you might expect. He is in fact a very nice guy. If you've read my Empty Well blog, you know that only a handful of us experienced the weekend sesshin with him. Nat and I had a great sit, got to know Brad and his wife Yuka, and learned a lot. I don't know about anyone else. Of course, I was embarassed by the NZC's failing to show, en masse, but I bet Brad doesn't even remember, or at least most times I hope not.
Anyway, the Brad Warner of Sit Down and Shut Up is a lot more like the Brad with whom we sat, than the younger Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen. This book is a lot more about Zen, and is in fact a very readable first approach to the Shobogenzo, the main book if there is one, of Soto Zen (the most-utilized, and most readable, translation of which, is, by the way, by Brad's teacher Gudo Nishijima and his student Chodo Cross). This time, Brad uses his recent activities, including a reunion of his band Zero Defects (0DFx) and his work on his movie Cleveland's Screaming, as a backdrop. But this book as opposed to the first, is less punk, more Zen, as probably befits Brad's emergence as a teacher. This is a more mature Brad Warner. I read somewhere online that Brad has been chosen as Nishijima's successor to lead the Dogen Shangha, which event prompted attacks from jealous fellow students, especially targeting Brad's column on Suicide Girls (which I happen to love -- the column and the site in general).
I don' t know about you, but I get saturated with bullshit. I am extremely grateful to Nat for "volunteering" me for the Nashville Buddhist Festival this year; I got a lot out of it, including learning how to build a real website (albeit still with templates), and mostly I met a lot of great people, who practice all sorts of Buddhism, and beyond. I'm not saying that the practices of the other schools of Buddhism are bullshit; they're just not my practice. But then I got a little further afield, and that field is wide open! And then, with the same impeccable timing that Hardcore Zen came to me to bring me back to my original practice of zazen, Sit Down and Shut Up came back to remind me that I am in fact a Soto Zen Buddhist, of a fairly non-eclectic mindset. No enlightenment machines or hypnotic treats for me! No blunt-puffing Shamans for Zen teachers! (What, you say? More to come in a future blog entry!)