What mental image does the word ‘Zen’ invoke in your mind? Japanese monks meditating peacefully by a waterfall? Daily blogs with vanilla platitudes about serenity? Surreal news clips at the end of The Daily Show? How about this instead: A rich school of teachings that are just as relevant today as they were millennia ago. Sure, a 1,500-year-old offshoot of a 3,000-year-old world religion sounds daunting. It never spawned on my PokéRadar, that’s for sure. Were it not for the subject of today’s shoutout, it probably never would have. Zen wouldn’t have caught my eye with temples and waterfalls, but when Brad Warner served it in Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality, I took notice.
Brad Warner is possibly the most ideal ambassador for Zen to nerds and geeks. His childhood and teenage years were spent beating boredom in Ohio before he joined the local punk rock scene as a teenager. A career as a professional musician didn’t pan out, so he snagged a job teaching English in Japan through the JET Programme. That eventually led to a job with Tsuburaya Productions (production company of Ultraman), and along the way he met, trained with, and was ordained as a priest by Sōtō Zen Master Gudo Wafu Nishijima.
Of course I was going to listen to what a punk rocker who worked on kaiju films had to say.
Instead of a summary as I have done in previous book shoutouts, I’ve decided to share lessons from the book. By no means take these as all Hardcore Zen has to offer, because no summarizing I can do here will do it justice. I can’t stress enough the importance of going out there and reading it yourself.
“We live in an idealized world inside our heads.”
Very early in the book, Warner dispels misconceptions around Buddhist principle that even laymen are aware of: “Attachment is suffering.” This is commonly misinterpreted as attachment to any relationships or possessions whatsoever. The actual principle is that suffering stems from attachment to how we wish things were, instead of acknowledging and accepting the truth of your life’s situation. As the Mighty Kamina would phrase it, the “what-ifs, should’ves, and if-onlys.” This isn’t to say you can’t aspire to better things in life, but ‘grass is always greener’ thinking will only bring us pain.
Warner later cites a Buddhist saying that, “The three worlds are the past, present, and future.” This isn’t a reference to fantasy realms or time travel, but a statement of fact: The only ‘time’ that that exists is the present. The past is gone, the future is unknowable. They may as well be other universes, and “the universe is created right now and right now it disappears.”
It’s like YOLO, except not completely superficial and overused.
“You will always exist in the universe in one form or another.”
Warner relates this quotation by Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki to his experience attending his grandfather’s funeral. When his grandmotherasked if his grandfather knew they were gathered to honor his life, Brad enthusiastically replied yes. Zen holds no belief in an afterlife or reincarnation, but maintains that people live on through the impact they leave on others and memories they create. So long as the departed are remembered, they continue to exist. The only difference between a living body and a dead body is an electrical current (have to thank my chiropractor for that one). It is perception and action that makes us ‘real,’ and if we make an impact in thoise around us, we never truly ‘die.’
To once again harken back to Gurren Lagann, “A real man never dies, even when he’s killed.”
“Compassion is the ability to see what needs doing right now and the willingness to do it right now.”
Zen, as Warner presents it, makes an important distinction between ‘love’ and ‘compassion.’ Every religion and faith deals in love, and it’s assumed that compassion is the love for your fellow people. Love is an emotion that can twist perception and drive you towards irrational or even destructive behavior. Morality is not a set of held beliefs or a religious dogma. Morality is action. Every day we are presented with possibilities and opportunities. Doing what is right at this moment is an act of morality, and to do nothing or commit the wrong thing is an act of evil.
“Question authority. Question society. Question reality. Question yourself.”
If the book had to be boiled down to one sentence,one thesis, it would be to seek the truth, and that truth can only be found by questioning everything you know. Warner stresses Zen gives no divine importance to the Buddha or centuries of sacred texts. It doesn’t matter if he existed or not, or what date his teachings were actually written. Valuable wisdom is valuable wisdom. There is only reality, only the truth. The truth can be obscured by beliefs, desires, the words of an authority, or a million other things. It can only be found by questioning each and every thing around us.
Beyond Hardcore Zen
Since writing Hardcore Zen thirteen years ago, Brad Warner has written six more non-fiction books (which will probably be reviewed here at some point) and two fiction books, wrote a regular column for Suicide Girls, founded the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles Zen center, starred in a documentary about his life and his Zen teachings, and currently cohosts the Once Again Zen podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh. Even if you can’t check out his books (which you should stop making excuses not to), check out the podcast for hilarious commentary on current event through a Zen lens. You can follow him here.
I am very surprised it took me as long as it did to write about this book. It was one of the first I read after beginning Drill Soul in February, and it was like a metaphorical punch to the face. It affected my thinking and perspective in a way that no media had since I first watched Gurren Lagann. I had read about Buddhism and Zen specifically before, but it had never been presented in such a relevant and relatable way. The way he presents it, everything just made sense. It greatly influenced development of the Way of the Spiral, and I can confidently say it made me a better person.
With chapter titles like “In My Next Life I Want to Come Back as a Pair of Lucy Liu’s Panties” and “No Sex with Cantaloupes,” why would you not want to read it? Don’t be turned off by this book’s categorization as ‘Religion.’ There are great ideas and lessons to take away even if you have no interest in finding the local Zen center and learning about the Sutras or the five skandhas. It changed my outlook on life and will challenge yours, at the very least. And remember, question everything.