1. In October 2010 I interviewed Grace Schireson, author of “Zen Women”. I asked her to explain the difference between Zen Buddhism and other branches of Buddhism. Her response was:
“What isn’t Zen? It is the branch of Buddhism that emerged after Buddhism wed Taoism in China. It is said that Zen is not dependent on words or scriptures (as many other Buddhist practices are), and that it is a direct pointing to Buddha as one’s own life. The word Zen actually means meditation. The basis of all Zen practices is meditation rather than studying Buddhist scripture or belief in a system. In Zen you are expected to meditate and just get it with little explanation of what the ‘it’ is.”
In order to provide my readers with as complete a picture of Zen as possible, I’d like to ask you if you agree with her description or have anything to add to it.
Like she says, Zen means meditation. I usually explain it as a reform movement that began as a response to the way Buddhism was becoming more like a religion with a focus on ritual and dogma. The originators of Zen stripped it down to just the meditation practice.
Later on a huge body of Zen literature developed. But even the Zen literature isn’t about dogma or belief. It consists mainly of attempts by Zen teachers to express their experience of meditation in writing. A certain amount of ritual exists in Zen. But even Zen ritual is in the service of the meditation practice.
2. What made you decide to write about your experiences in studying and practicing Zen Buddhism?
I had been a wanna-be writer since junior high school. I used to write science fiction stories and make comic books. I was also a songwriter. I worked for a film and TV production company in Japan and I wrote a number of scripts and things. They were all rejected. But some of the ideas in them found their way into our movies and TV shows, un-credited.
I also wrote several novels, which I was never able to get published. So I wrote about my Zen experience mostly out of frustration. I didn’t want to quit writing. So I just wrote about Zen to keep myself in practice. I never really intended the book that became Hardcore Zen for publication. I thought I would give it to my nephew who was 14 at the time and very interested in philosophy. I only sent it out to publishers because I knew how to do that by then. I never thought anyone would want to publish a book about punk rock, monster movies and Zen.
3. In your books, you share a lot about your own life, but your 2009 book “Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” is incredibly intimate. You discuss your mother’s passing, your job ending, the unraveling of your marriage, and more. Was it hard to share so much of yourself? Did you ever look at the screen and think, “Should I really be talking about this with the anonymous public?”
It was very hard. The ending of the book was especially brutal. I was between apartments at the time and the people at the San Francisco Zen Center were kind enough to provide me a room for a few weeks while I had nowhere to live. I remember sitting in that room typing and re-typing and re-re-typing the last chapter. I had headaches and all sorts of stuff over that one.
I felt that it was necessary to really turn myself inside out for that book. I had to get at everything, expose everything. I still feel that was really an important book. I hate being grandiose. But I think it’s not just important to me, but important to the history of Buddhism. No Buddhist teacher has ever written a book that intimate.
People think all those books with wildly imaginative descriptions of some guy’s supposed enlightened state are really important. But those books are just science fiction novels for people who don’t like reading about space ships. Zen Wrapped in Karma is about what it’s really, actually like to be a Zen teacher.
4. I haven’t gotten to read it yet, but your latest book is ” Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between”. Speaking of incredibly intimate, how did you feel tackling the subject of sexuality in a culture that is pretty obsessed with it in one way or another?
It felt good, mostly. I think that book was really necessary. People are really hung-up about sex. The Buddhist view says that sex is important and should be taken seriously. But it also says that washing the dishes is important and should be taken seriously. We have a really unbalanced view of sex. We focus on it to the point that we lose focus on everything else. And we still make a mess of our sex lives.
I think the Zen approach can help. You take a vow not to misuse sexuality. But that’s a very open thing. Nobody tells you what constitutes misuse of sexuality. You have to figure that out for yourself, because everybody’s actual experience is different. So you are the only one who can determine what is or is not a misuse of sexuality in your specific case.
5. On my Facebook page one day I said that I found reading books about Zen very relaxing, but found meditation very stressful. A bunch of people “liked” that status. Are my friends and I freaks (totally not out of the question), or is this something you hear from other people?
Meditation can seem stressful and books about meditation can seem relaxing. That’s because lots of books about meditation are kind of like fantasy novels. They provide you with a kind of escapist dream.
The problem is that that dream is actually taxing your brain. It feels relaxing at the moment. But it’s exciting you, stimulating you. The act of reading itself is relaxing. But the material is creating a kind of tension.
Meditation, on the other hand, exposes you to yourself. You become acutely aware of the stress you have. I don’t think meditation produces stress, except perhaps if you’re really ambitious about having some kind of mystical experience. That can be stressful! But when you simply sit and allow yourself to be as you are, you start seeing stuff you’ve ignored. Some of that is stress.
In becoming aware of this stress, you simultaneously begin to see what you can do about it. Sometimes you resist. I know I do. For example, you might come to realize that some activity you had thought was harmless was actually doing damage. You’ll realize that you have to stop doing that thing. But if you’re like me, you often don’t want to stop. So a certain degree of stree appears right there. But it’s a very useful type of stress.
6. Obviously I’m not expert on Zen, but it seems to place a lot of focus on the here and now, this moment, and now this moment, and this one. How contentment can be found in exactly this moment. So how do Zen Buddhists approach issues that make this moment obviously less than content? For instance I have my personal hang up with the situation in Zimbabwe, where a president has run amok and gone from liberator to oppressor (complete with the beatings and torture and all that the job of oppressor entails). How would a Zen Buddhist in Zimbabwe behave? Should they be content in the moment? Does Zen mean passive acceptance of the status quo?
I don’t know how a Zen Buddhist in Zimbabwe should behave because I’m not a Zen Buddhist in Zimbabwe. The only thing I could do would be to speculate. But that kind of speculation would be useless. I don’t even know enough about the superficial details of the situation, let alone what it really feels like to live in it.
The question for me would be more along the lines of, what can I do about the situation in Zimbabwe? What concrete things can I do that might have some effect? If there are things I can do, I would do them. Once I had done those things, I would try to set the matter aside. It doesn’t do any real good to worry about things I can’t change. I can sit and think about concrete ways that I might be able to change those things. And that does some good. Maybe a lot of good. But just fretting about it doesn’t help anything.
When it comes to your own stressful situations, that’s what I try to focus on. Getting worried about other people’s troubles in far away places is a kind of abstraction. If you can do something for those people, do it. We place a lot of value in our culture on “being concerned.” But most of what constitutes “being concerned” is a lot like the way some people are “concerned” over their favorite soap operas. We watch it and fret about it. But we don’t really do much of anything.
7. Your books are filled with amusing footnotes. I’m prone to inserting odd thoughts parenthetically into my articles (You know, like this.) What was New World Library’s reaction when they first saw your wise cracking footnotes?
I think New World Library liked the footnotes. Some people think they’re funny. Some people hate them. I have fun with them. But I’m trying to get away from it because everyone is doing footnotes now.
8. For my readers who aren’t familiar with you or your work, they may not realize that you’re also a big fan of Japanese giant monster movies, even having worked for Tsuburaya Productions (home of the original Godzilla). I have to ask, in your opinion, what is the best giant monster movie of all time? (Thank you in advance for potentially making my holiday shopping much easier!)
I have to correct you there. Tsuburaya Productions didn’t make Godzilla. But even people in Japan think they did. Eiji Tsuburaya, who founded the company, directed the special effects on all the classic Godzilla movies. But he did that while working for another company called Toho. The stuff Tsuburaya Productions makes is a lot like Godzilla. Their big character is Ultraman, a superhero who is as big as Godzilla and fights Godzilla type monsters.
My favorite Japanese monster movie used to be called “Monster Zero”. That’s how I knew it as a kid. Then they released it to video as “Godzilla Vs Monster Zero”. And now they have put it out on DVD as “Invasion of Astro Monster”. It’s so confusing! It’s about aliens from Planet X who use mind control to make Godzilla and Rodan attack Tokyo and send their own monster Ghidorah the three-headed monster to help them out. The star of the film is Nick Adams, who was a hot up and coming actor in the fifties who had fallen on hard times by 1965 when the film was made. So he traveled to Japan and did a few monster films there. That story is really interesting in itself.
9. Given your punk rock background, comfort with using curse words in your writing, your honesty about your personal life, and general disdain for many of the Zen groups to be found in the United States, would you say you get a lot of angry letters and emails, or an epic amount of angry letters and emails?
I get a few. Not as many as you might imagine. I tend to focus on the angry ones and make a big deal out of some of them because they’re often from people who would like to consider themselves unflappable serene Buddhists. They’re sort of funny.
Ever since I started the blog, though, most of the angry people just leave comments. I get an epic amount of angry comments on my blog. There was even an article in Tricycle magazine about the comments on my blog. People just vent on there like crazy. Some of it is really petty and insulting. At the moment I’m not even reading my comments section because it got really nasty.
Certain things tend to set people off. It’s a blog on the Internet, so if I say anything about people being on the Internet too much, the commenters get angry about that. If I say things that seem to go against the prevailing notion that all Buddhists should accept anything that anyone claims is Buddhism, people get upset about that too. Like when I’ve been critical of some of the stuff that strikes me as abuses of Buddhism, using words like “Buddhism” and “Zen” to sell things that have nothing to do with Buddhism or Zen, people get angry about that.
10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
Why “Magic Buffet?” Is that like “Magic Bullet?”
I guess the question is, “Magic Bullet” like the infomercial blender or “Magic Bullet”, like the bullet which struck President Kennedy in the back and exited through his throat? Actually, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like either of those things. At least I hope….
About Brad Warner:
Brad Warner is a Zen priest, filmmaker, blogger, and Japanese monster-movie marketer. He’s the author of “Hardcore Zen”, “Sit Down & Shut Up”, “Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” and most recently “Sex, Sin & Zen”. His writing appears in media ranging from Tricycle and Shambhala Sun to Suicidegirls.com. Visit him online at www.hardcorezen.blogspot.com.