Episode 127: Pop Buddhism & Satori Porn
This week we speak with Gen-X Zen teacher Brad Warner, author of the newly released Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. We talk a little bit about his book, which leads to a critique of what we might call "Popular Buddhism." We then ask Brad about an article he wrote called, "Satori Porn", where he argues that descriptions of enlightenment that make it sound like an experience just aren't that helpful for students. Even so, at the end of the episode he tries his best to talk about enlightenment, while not describing it in terms of experience.
Vince: Hello, Buddhist Geeks, this is Vince Horn, and I’m joined today over Skype with Brad Warner. Brad, thanks for joining us. Really appreciate taking the time to talk with us.
Brad: Yeah, thank you for having me. Wish I could be in Denver.
Vince: I know, right? And, just a little bit about Brad, we’ve had you on the show before. We talked to you about your last book, Sit Down and Shut Up. And, so your first book, Hardcore Zen, and then you recently released a new book called Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate. Dude, where did that title come from? (laughter)
Brad: A yogurt commercial. There’s this yogurt commercial where these two women are sitting around talking about how great this new flavor of yogurt is, and one of them says, “It’s like Zen, wrapped in karma, dipped in chocolate.” I just thought that was funny. But I put it on the, uh, I put it on the bundle of files I sent to my editor as a kind of a, a joke. And I sent him an email saying I don’t really want to call the book this, it’s just I haven’t thought of anything yet. And apparently their marketing people got a hold of that and were like, “You have to call it this.” And, you know, I’m like, you have to promise me you’ll keep the yogurt people away from me if they, uh, decide to get mad.
Vince: Yeah, yeah, totally.
Brad: But so far they haven’t complained, so we’re still going out there. I don’t know, maybe they don’t even know about the book.
Vince: And I’m noticing the subtitle: "A trip through death, sex, divorce, and spiritual celebrity in search of the true dharma."
Vince: This book is, in some ways, just like Hardcore Zen. It’s kind of semi-biographical, in a way, and then it’s also got some teaching in it.
Vince: And part of the biography which, when did the content of the book cover? Was it 2006, 2007-ish?
Brad: 2007. Basically, I tried to make my framework January 1, 2007, to December 31, 2007, and keep everything sort’ve within that framework, although I strayed out of it a little bit.
Vince: Gotcha. And during the time that this book covered, in 2007, your Mom died, you lost your job, you and your wife split up, and at the same time you were teaching Zen, promoting your books, and writing a column on the Suicide Girls. So it sounds like one hell of a year, really.
Brad: Yeah, and you forgot my grandmother died, too, so, you know, I had nice little book ends. You know, my Mom died in January, my Grandmother died at the end of November.
Brad: So nice little symmetry there.
Vince: I thought, besides the interesting biographical stuff in here. I mean, you’re actually a really fascinating writer. Like, I get kind of pulled into your work. Even if sometimes I don’t like everything you have to say, I really enjoy reading your writing. And, uh,
Brad: Well, that’s good.
Vince: Yeah. And, in the introduction of the book, you write that “authentic Buddhism doesn’t always come packaged the way we imagine it should.” And when I read that, I thought, “Wow, this statement really seems to sum up your entire approach, the way I understand it.” And I was wondering if you could kind of unpack that for us, and tell us a little about what you mean by that.
Brad: Well yeah, it’s very easy to put on the trappings of what people think Buddhism should be. Anybody can go out and buy a set of robes, and anybody can shave their head, and look the part. And it’s not too difficult to be a good enough actor to just kind of ape what pop culture says a Buddhist master should sound like: you know, have that little lilting voice and be, you know, whatever Kane from Kung Fu talked like, or something like that. And there may be authentic Buddhism, which looks like that, but it’s not always going to come like that. I guess maybe the reference I was making when I wrote that, or what I was thinking of, is my first Zen teacher was this guy, Tim McCarthy, who was not anybody’s image of what a Zen teacher should be. And I wasn’t really looking for a Zen teacher at the time, anyway. But he came across as just very real, and very genuine. And I think there’s probably a lot of that, there’s teachers who don’t look the way you think they should look and don’t talk the way you think they should talk. It’s kind of hard for people to recognize, because they’re kind of being guided by these images that they have. The images mostly come from pop culture and they’re mostly invented by people who don’t know anything about Buddhism, anyway. So they’re not the real deal.
I was just thinking about a guy who showed up at one of my classes. Since I teach in Santa Monica there's a lot of people in the film industry who show up. And there was a guy who came to a couple of them and he was working on a show. And maybe some of the people who listen to this podcast have seen it; I haven't seen it. But it's about a supposedly Zen Buddhist cop. Or detective. And this guy was saying -- he wasn't one of the writers on the show but he knew the writers -- and he told the main writer, "You know if you want to see some real Zen in action you can come and see...” He was talking about me and then there's Zen Shuji downtown in Los Angeles, there's several places you could go and experience it. And the writer said, no doesn't want to experience real Zen because he feels that would prejudice his work. Which I just thought was bizarre.
Vince: That is very bizarre. It kind of makes me wonder why then some of the best actors the roles tend to go and live in the roles they're about to take on. Seems like that might be a good approach also. So this also comes through in the way that you write and the way that your book is marketed. When I walk down the Buddhist bookstore aisle, your books actually pop out at me because of the way they...the images and Zen Wrapped in Karma, Dipped in Chocolate. I'm just like, "What the heck is this?" You see all of these other books that almost have these real similar titles and "Ten Steps to Living a Mindful Life." And your books really pop out in a way, I think, that challenges the notion that authentic Buddhism should look like “Ten Steps To A Mindful Life.” Is that something that you've consciously done with regards to the way that your books are marketed and the way that the design's done and the titles and all that?
Brad: Well, I guess so. The marketing is done by the publishers, although they do involve me in it. And I found the cover artist. The guy named Johnny Kraft who did the last two books. Sit Down and Shut Up and Zen Wrapped in Karma. So I do have something to do with it. I don't know. When I first started, when I wrote Hardcore Zen, or what became Hardcore Zen, which was actually called Sit Down and Shut Up originally, I just wrote it for myself. I'd written books before, novels that I tried to get published and I couldn't get them published. I wanted to keep on writing so I wrote this book about my life and my Zen practice and how that had developed. And when I got through with it, I thought there's no way anybody's going to publish this book. Because I'd been to the same bookstore shelves and looked at the Zen books. And they all have the little ripply water cover and those titles. And they didn't have anything about punk rock and they didn't have anything about Godzilla. There was nothing like that in there. I just thought this was unpublishable.
So I was really surprised when it got out there. Yeah, when I looked at those other books, I just thought...because my teachers had said I ought to write a book about Zen. And I thought, there's no way I can write a book about Zen because I've seen what books about Zen look like and I can't write one of those books. I just can't. I actually tried at one point because I wasn't really sure what to do with what eventually became Zen Wrapped in Karma and Dipped in Chocolate. So I started to try to write a more standard Zen book and I couldn't get through it. So it is conscious. It's all right.
Those books, I suppose, have their place. And some of them are good. You know, I read Zen Mind Beginner's Mind. I mean, I still read it occasionally. Still pick it up and read it and it's more like what you expect a Zen book to be. So there are some good things in there. But then there's a lot of stuff that's just pretentious...whatever. Somebody trying to prove how Buddhist they are in a book.
Vince: And have you found that the people attracted to your work tend not to be the people that you'd find in run-of-the-mill Buddhist centers and monasteries and things like that?
Brad: Sometimes, yeah and sometimes not. It's funny. But I seem to go over okay when I do speaking engagements in pretty much standard places, like San Francisco Zen Center or some of these Zen centers I go to. Houston and some other places. The regular people are there. Of course they always tell me that there are a lot of people who show up who never showed up at their Zen center before. So I guess that's a different audience. It's funny though. My audience isn't exactly what you'd expect it to be. It isn't just crowds of guys with purple Mohawks and girls with piercings through their eyebrows or whatever. It's not. There are a few people like that. I've been really surprised sometimes. I'll tell you one incident. I was in New Mexico a couple years ago. And I got to this one place and I went in to the front of the stage where I was talking, it was like a podium, and there's these two women probably in their sixties sitting together in front, and I initially thought “Oh, they just walked into the wrong place. Maybe they heard 'Zen Lecture' and they didn't know what they were going to get.” So, I did the lecture. They sat through the whole thing, they didn't leave, and they were the first ones to come up to me after the thing was over, telling me how much they loved Hardcore Zen, and...
Brad: ...Yeah, I just pegged them as, like, they probably wandered into the wrong lecture. So, it kind of goes across the board. There is a certain demographic, I suppose, but there's a lot of people who are way outside that demographic too.
Vince: And one of the big aims of your book seems to demystify or kind of bring back down to earth what we'd consider, in quotes 'spiritual'.
Vince: And it's interesting that you, the way you do that is you use yourself almost as an illustration. And I was wondering why you chose to do that given how much heat kind of could come down on you from choosing to do that?
Brad: Well, it was the only way to do it. For this new book I was looking at what exists in the sort of pop culture Eastern spirituality thing, world, whatever-it-is, in America these days, and it's kind of disgusting. It's funny, there's a lot of very good, very authentic Zen teaching and Buddhist teaching of various types going in America. In fact I think most of it really is very good. But then there's a sort of pop culture Buddhism, most of which is pretty crappy, or at least mediocre, that's going on and that, like I said, is largely invented by people who don't know anything about Buddhism anyway, who don't even practice at all. And because I've published books and because I'm on the Internet and get on TV sometimes and all that, I've become part of that world. And there's things that you're expected to do and expected to say and expected to be as part of that world, and I'm finding that I don't really like it. And I kind of wanted to give that thing, whatever it is, a little kick in the pants because it needed it. It needed to be kind of torn down, what people's expectations are of a Zen teacher or any kind of a teacher in Eastern spirituality. Which, I don't even like the word 'spirituality' but we can go into that on another topic- but just for the sake of just talking about it, because that's what people think of it as, people expect a sort of God-like super-being who doesn't have any neuroses or hang-ups or anything, who's just perfectly calm and beautiful all the time and doesn't have anything to work on. And those people don't exist. You know, Ram Dass, who's, you know I have mixed feelings about Ram Dass, but he had this great quote which he says: “Before I started my meditation, I have as many neuroses now as I did before I started my meditation practice, but now I just don't care.” (laughter) So, you've got stuff, everybody's got stuff and I think it's important to talk about it and talk about what we do about that, because that's what's really key. It's not this fantasy of erasing your personality and becoming this cartoon of a master.
Vince: That kind of reminds me of a quote I heard from Jack Engler that for enlightenment and 75 cents you can buy a can of Coke.
Brad: (laughs) Yeah. Yeah, that's it. That's exactly it.
Vince: And kind of connected to that, I saw a recent article that you wrote on Suicide Girls which you titled 'Satori Porn'
Vince: (laughs) And I thought that was kind of an interesting point because on the one hand you're really trying to demystify things and bring it back down to earth to say hey, you know, Zen isn't really about becoming this kind of super-being, like you said, that's radiating love all the time and so on and so forth. And then on the other hand, you're also interested in not making enlightenment or awakening experiences central, also. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
Brad: I really don’t like that whole idea of the enlightenment experience or awakening experience where they, they keep changing the name you know, every time somebody says something about well we shouldn’t have enlightenment experiences and they say, “Oh, it’s an awakening experience.” But, we’re talking about the same thing. You’re talking about this experience that’s supposed to happen and it’s supposed to fix everything forever and those experiences just don’t happen and people can get confused by that and get sold on having big experiences which, which I think is problematic. For one thing, it encourages a sort of rushing, get it done quick attitude where people will go headlong in to their stuff and that’s a little dangerous. You don’t really wanna open up the doors of perception, or whatever you call it, too quickly because you’re not ready for what’s behind those doors. You gotta build up to that. Everybody does; there’s no exceptions. So, anyone who rushes in to it or tries to get there too quickly is going to have big problems and I don’t want to encourage people to go in to those kind of things too quickly.
And, then there’s the whole idea that nobody knows really, at least culturally, what enlightenment is supposed to be. So, confused people will invent confused versions of what enlightenment is supposed to be and then train you on getting to that and then you’ll have an experience. They might be able to produce some kind of experience for you, but that experience isn’t gonna do you a bit of good. It’s just gonna throw you in to deeper confusion and that doesn’t help anything. That actually makes the problem worse. So I wanna avoid any of that. You know, at the same time, if you do the practice long enough and if you’re sincere about it you’ll have insights. You may even have big insights. But, just because you’ve had those big insights doesn’t necessarily fix everything. You still have to act upon those insights. This is what I think people miss. You know, they think they’re gonna have the insight and the insight itself is going to fix everything but it’s not gonna happen. You still need to work just as hard. In fact, you may even have to work harder once you’ve had that kind of insight because then you know, oh my god, this is what it’s really all about. And, sometimes that means you’re gonna have to make big changes in your life and most of us are very resistant to that. I know I am.
Vince: So, it sounds like you’re trying to, in some ways, untangle this idea that with certain big insights or big experiences that somehow that’s going to fix other aspects of one’s life and that…
Vince: …to tie those things together in some way is to miss the point of spiritual practice in some way or to miss the point of Zen we could say.
Brad: Right. Yeah.
Vince: So in that way it sounds like you’re leaning towards describing enlightenment not really as an experience. That it’s not tied up in experience. Is that true?
Brad: Well, yeah. Yeah, yeah, it’s beyond experience. I don’t know exactly what it is. If you think of it in terms of you know, this is getting a little weird or deep, I suppose. But if you think of it in terms of linear time it seems like an experience. It seems like something that occurred at 3:30 in the afternoon on December 15, 1995 or whatever and stopped you know an hour later or whatever. But that isn’t really the, I, I’m finding that it’s difficult to describe this without using the word experience. So like, experientially, it isn’t an experience. It’s like, it’s something else. It’s like, describing enlightenment as an experience would be like describing your physical body as an experience. I mean, there might be some realm in which you could describe even your physical body as an experience. It sort of happens one, you know, one day; March 5, 1964 and ends whenever it ends. Hopefully, a long time from now; but it’s not when you’re actually living it. It, it’s something alive. It’s something that actually seems to be… My teacher described it as “more you than you could ever be,” and it’s also something you do. You have to do enlightenment. This is why Dogen said that, “Zazen practice was enlightenment itself,” because Zazen practice itself is the actualized activity of enlightenment; and of boredom, you know?
Vince: And sitting on your ass for a long time.
Brad: Yeah, yeah, and of sitting on your ass for a long time; but that’s enlightenment, right there.