There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Brad Warner

warnerb-thereisnogodEastern philosophy is sometimes erroneously criticised as denying the law of non-contradiction. You can understand why, given the seemingly irrational title of this book. But no contradiction is intended. Language is an imprecise thing. A word is a pointer to something; it is not the thing itself. And when the thing you are pointing to is something that transcends all space-time categories, then you’re in especially deep trouble when you attempt to define it. Such is the problem with the word “God.”

Buddhism has sometimes been called a religion without God. That’s only true if by God you mean deity. When Warner talks about his relatively mild childhood exposure to Christianity, his idea of God was of “a blinding light with a personality.” This struck me as a very memorable image, because there are many Christians who claim to have gotten past the comicbook image of God as a bearded grandfather in the clouds, but it strikes me that any attempt to personify the Transcendent inevitably leads to just the false image that Warner describes. When you make God a person, as all monotheistic religions do, you miss the point entirely.

Brad attempts to make the case that “God” is a useful and necessary word for Buddhists in the West to employ. It’s a way of using our existing religious heritage to our advantage. I can see the value of this, because the denial of the existence of God in the West tends to lead to a form of atheism that is entirely materialistic in nature. In fact, I wasted almost two decades of my life lumbered with this faulty assumption. Such “metaphysical naturalism” is emphatically not the Buddhist position. Buddhism recognises a transcendent reality behind nature, but it is one that defies all categorisation, as mind, matter, or anything else. So, one way to become aware of this third side is to use the word God as a useful pointer to the Ground of Being.

So the first part of Warner’s title, “There Is No God,” really means “There is no divine humanlike persona looking down upon the Universe.” The second part, “And He Is Always With You,” can be thought of as an abstract pointer to the reality of the Mystery of Mysteries that is holding the manifest Universe together. I’m in two minds about whether I like the title. In a sense, I think the words “with you” obscure the more fundamental truth of the absolute non-separation of all things, including your own identity from the whole.

But the content of the book is exemplary. Many of the chapters involve autobiographical material from Warner’s book tours, where he comments on local religious traditions in various parts of the world. I was delighted to see a chapter devoted to the Protestant and Catholic disputes of my own homeland, Northern Ireland. One of my favourite chapters was called “Enlightenment Porn.” You know how pornography teases you with all the magnificant superheated sex that you’re never going to have? Well, enlightenment porn is what the typical spiritual guru projects at you; he wants you to believe that his eternally unperturbed consciousness is something that you can have, too (for a fee). But it’s a lie, of course.

I have now read all of Brad Warner’s books (well, I’m still looking out for Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet – I kid you not!). He continues to be a writer that is accessible to the average IQ, intellectually profound, and deeply honest. Personally, I think of him as the spiritual successor to Alan Watts.

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Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner

warnerb-sitdownandshutupBrad Warner is a Zen Buddhist priest who runs a group called Dogen Sangha in Los Angeles. Dogen was a monk who lived in the 12th century and authored a Buddhist book called Shobogenzo. This work is Warner’s primary reference point for his own philosophy. And Sit Down and Shut Up is his attempt to write a commentary on excerpts from Shobogenzo.

Shobozgenzo should not be understood as a Buddhist equivalent of what the Bible is to Christians. There is nothing divinely inspired about a 12th century text (nor about the teachings of Gautama Buddha himself). It just so happens that Warner agrees with the bulk of Dogen’s philosophy, and so it becomes the main reference point for his life. He is also not averse to poking fun at some of the more culturally irrelevant aspects of the ancient book. Warner’s commentary is not dry and technical. He often defends Dogen’s insights by drawing from his own life experience – both as a priest and a punk rock musician.

Sit Down and Shut Up is the second book in Warner’s canon – a follow-up to his highly successful Hardcore Zen. Having read several later books by Warner, I can see that the volume under review here contains essays that are the genesis of themes that the author later expanded into whole books. The essay “Sex and Sin” provides the basis for his book Sex, Sin, and Zen. In the essay “Zazen by Alone,” Warner discusses the holier-than-thou personality that spiritual teachers have a tendency to project; this was destined to flower into his book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. And although I have yet to read Warner’s book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, I have a feeling that his essay “God” is where that book germinated.

There isn’t really one overall theme to Sit Down and Shut Up. The book’s title is a reference to the importance that the author places upon the practice of zazen meditation – something that I don’t often practice and I’m not convinced is a necessity for my life. Although I will say that psychological health is certainly maintained by any practice where one sits down and shuts up. In other words, you stop busying yourself as a means of running away from yourself. Give your mind the breathing space it needs to sort itself out. Warner’s elaboration about zazen allowed me to see parallels in my own life, even in my past as a Christian where I would go off somewhere quiet to be alone with God. It didn’t matter that this “personal God” was a figment of my imagination. The practice itself had a healing effect of its own. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by zazen in particular, and I have a mind to try it out more seriously, to see what all the fuss is about.

In summary, this is an excellent book. In comparison to Warner’s other works, it’s hard to say where it ranks, because they’re all worthy of your attention. If you’re looking for diverse content, this is a particularly good one to read. But I would read everthing written by Warner (and I plan to), which is the highest praise I can give to an author.

Hardcore Zen Strikes Again by Brad Warner

warnerb-hardcorezenstrikesaBrad Warner has written several books since the publication of his excellent volume Hardcore Zen in 2003. If that book were a DVD, Hardcore Zen Strikes Again, would be the equivalent of the “Extras” menu. It’s about 150 pages consisting of seventeen chapters: some are essays from Warner’s early blogging days, others are chapters that the editor of Hardcore Zen deemed unworthy to include in the original book. Does that make the present volume a collection of inferior material? Not really. Most of the cuts were on the grounds of relavance, not quality. And I think the editor made the right choices. The chapter on vegetarianism was interesting, but comes across as a rather verbose side-issue. And the chapter on Warner’s career in the Japanese monster movie industry is really only of relevance to readers who are particularly interested in learning about the author.

Warner’s early writing was more brash than it is today, in keeping with his punk roots. But it’s no less effective. For example, this is how he desribes phoney spirituality:

All that peace and calm is a bit of a cheat, though. It’s a come-on, like a hooker flashing you a bit of leg. She’s not lying. Not exactly. That leg really is a lovely thing. And when it’s wrapped around your back it will feel very nice indeed. But it’s going to cost you. You might get caught by the cops or by your spouse, or catch some terrible disease. You’re risking a hell of a lot for that little bit of leg. Buddhist temples are like that. They show you a little taste of inner peace. But most of them won’t tell you how high a price you’re going to have to pay to make that peace your own. They sure won’t tell you it’s going to kill you.

The book doesn’t really have a distinct theme. The chapters are random, can be read in any order, and don’t build towards any sort of conclusion. They cover a variety of subjects, from a Zen Buddhist perspective: individuality, fake enlightenment, religion, the nature of reality, afterlife ideas, reincarnation, duality and non-duality, the nature of time, vegetarianism, and even writing tips. Most of it is really interesting, and Warner has a pithy way of stating matters that is very quotable. Here are a few gems that I took note particular note of:

Authority is the coward’s way of deferring responsibility for his actions.

Reality exists before our attempts to explain it as matter or as spirit. The truth exists before we give it a name.

It is only when people believe that something is above questioning, beyond all doubt, that they can be as truly horrible as we all know they can be.

Mystical types like to say that we have to realize we are God. I prefer the converse. God has to realize that He is just you and me.

You need both doubt and faith. Faith keeps you going forward. Doubt keeps you from going forward with a blindfold on.

You cannot be alone because you are always surrounded by you. You extend all the way out beyond the farthest stars. And you are as intimate as the air that embraces you and slips its way inside your body. There’s nothing here but you. Yet you’re never alone.

Each essay is accompanied by an introduction and afterword, where Warner talks about how he feels nowadays in comparison to how he felt at the time of writing. This struck me as a little odd. Wouldn’t it be better just to revise the content of the essays themselves? But I think the intention behind this book was more to provide a snapshot of the author’s life at a particular time. It feels like a “filler” book – an extra for the existing fans between the publication schedule of the “real” books. And that’s okay, because I’m a Warner fan. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this guy. I only wish a little more care had been taken with Hardcore Zen Strikes Again. I notice it wasn’t put out by Warner’s usual publisher, and it shows. Clumsy typos abound, and for some reason the publishing company chose to use unjustified text throughout and a blank line between every paragraph. Nevertheless, there is nothing amateur about Warner’s mind. Well worth reading.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate by Brad Warner

warnerb-zenkarmachocolateThis book begins: “In 2007 my mom died and then my grandmother died, my wife decided she didn’t want to be my wife anymore, I lost my dream job, and people I thought were friends and colleague in Buddhist practice began attacking me in public over scandals that existed solely in their own minds.” This statement crystallises the underlying theme of the book: does Zen practice really help when your life turns into a shit sandwich? Unlike books that deal with suffering in purely theoretical terms, Warner’s take is autobiographical, which gives it an air of realism lacking in many spiritual self-help books.

Warner is refreshingly human for a “Zen master.” He eschews robes in favour of T-shirts with punk rock band decals; he cusses when he talks; he says “I don’t know” when he just doesn’t know; and he never projects a fake “enlightened” persona. A lot of spiritual teachers could take a large leaf from his book, instead of pretending they’re the guys with all the answers. Many spiritual tomes get bogged down in technical details that have the reader scratcing his head, but Warner has a real flair for being both easy to read and deep. As well as providing advice, from a Zen perspective, on matters like dealing with death, sex, divorce, and fame, he deals with such hot potatoes as the taboo of the spiritual teacher who sleeps with one of his students – and his example is … himself. The overarching agenda of the book is to dispell the hoax of the holier-than-thou spiritual celebrity, by giving an eye-poppingly honest account of his own recent life, warts and all. That alone possibly makes this a landmark book. So if you happen to be involved in any way with any sort of guru figure, either as a fan or a student, you need to read this.

My own spiritual path began about five years ago, after I made a decision to leave Christianity. But not all the jigsaw pieces clicked into place at once, and a big one that took years for me to come to terms with was the realisation that Christianity’s ideals of purity are not based on human nature, but on thin air. It was a long time before I stopped trying to live up to the ridiculous standards imposed by my culture’s religious heritage. I used to think, “I will achieve what Christianity was supposed to achieve in me without Christianity.” But I couldn’t. And the problem was exascerbated by the example of spiritual teachers who would dress in special robes and make religious gestures and pretend that they are above anything so crude as sexual desire. What a bunch of phoneys! Thankfully I never fell prey to any of these people, but their presence unconsciously maintained the fallacy of purity in my mind. Warner does the human race a service in giving these spiritual “supermen” a much deserved boot up the arse and off their thrones.

This is the third book by Warner that I’ve read, and I have to say that I simply can’t get enough of his honesty and insight (not forgetting his sense of humour). I’m not a Zen Buddhist; I’m, shall we say, a non-denominational non-dualist, if that makes any sense. But the basic sense of reality in Zen is identical to my own beliefs (at least the way Warner describes it), and so I find the author’s words extremely helpful. Up to now, I’ve never made meditation a part of my life, but Warner has got me giving zazen a try.

Warner is streets ahead of the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. Actually, all of my favourite teachers (particularly Alan Watts and Anton LaVey) are dead. So, long live Brad Warner! I will be following his career with great interest.

Sex, Sin, and Zen by Brad Warner

warnerb-sexsinzenHuman sexuality is a fascinating subject for study, mainly because there is so much bad information available about it. For that we can thank our Christian heritage, which made us view this instinct as something sinful and dirty, leading us to repress aspects of ourselves. Here in the West, we all grew up with that mindset, whether we were overtly Christian or not; the Christian value system permeates our culture.

Two things attracted me to this book in particular. (1) Although I’m not a Zen Buddhist, large parts of that philosophy are compatible with my worldview. (2) Having previously read Warner’s book Hardcore Zen (and especially the chapter “Personal Demons”), I was captivated by his raw honesty; I thought, “If anyone can write a useful book about sex, it’s him.”

Sex, Sin, and Zen does not disappoint. It covers such topics as masturbation, celibacy, polyamory, pornography, BDSM (yes, you heard that right!), marriage and dating. It’s all angled towards the Zen practitioner, so there are many side-issues covered such as meditation, the nececssity (or otherwise) of a priest being celibate, and a frank chapter called “When Good Spiritual Masters Go Bad.” None of that detracts from the book one bit, but simply makes it more fascinating.

Five years ago I painfully detached myself from an 18-year stretch as a born-again Christian. As I pursured my own individual spiritual path, so began a slow process of sexual healing – both from the repression, and the obsession that it inevitably generates. I would hazard a guess that the reason the modern world is sex-crazed is due to all the repression we’ve lived under. We’ve never been allowed to integrate our sexual natures into our lives in a balanced and healthy way. One of the main things I took from this book was the perspective that the sex-saturated society we live in is just as unbalanced as the extreme sexual repression of the past. Overall, I didn’t learn a great deal that I didn’t already know, but that’s no criticism. It just means I’ve already come a long way myself. I found myself agreeing with the vast majority of the author’s assertions, and I could have done with a book like this five years ago. One of the most gripping sections of the book is a lengthy interview that Warner held with ex-porn star Nina Hartley – an actress who, curiously, is also a Zen Buddhist. This is a seriously open and self-realised woman.

Sex, Sin, and Zen is written in Warner’s characteristically rambling, friendly, down-to-earth style, laced with much humour. This is not a spiritual teacher who has any interest in appearing superior to his audience, which is a real breath of fresh air for this type of book. Highly recommended for those struggling to come to terms with the sexual side of their lives, whatever their predicament.

Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner

I was attracted to this book by its subtitle: “Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality.” The odd combination of spirituality and mundanity appealed to me because I have a profound distrust of the kind of spiritual teacher who puts on a pretense of living on some higher wavelength of reality. I used to read a lot of David Icke, and much as I now disagree with many of his views, I still love the down-to-earth “spirituality with balls” attitude that he maintains. He was never ashamed to get pissed off, to swear in public, to trample on tradition, and to question authority.

In the same regard, Brad Warner didn’t disappoint. I smiled when the author poured scorn on all the pomp and ceremony that is attached to Buddhism, without losing sight of the value of the philosophy itself. And I found Zen Buddhism to be surprisingly agreeable.

The universe desires to perceive itself and to think about itself and you are born out of this desire. The universe wants to experience itself from the point of view of a tree, and so there are trees. The universe wants to feel what it’s like to be a rock, and so there are rocks. The universe wants to know what it’s like to be a famous Austrian body-builder cum film star and so there is Arnie. We don’t know that rocks and trees have an idea of “self,” and it doesn’t matter one way or the other. But we do know that human beings like you and me and Arnie believe in the existence of “self.” And this belief is the root of all of our problems.

Some might view the above assertsions as absurd, but I completely get the idea of duality as an expression of a more fundamental non-duality. In Eastern terms, I could say that I believe in the Advaita branch of Hinduism. But I’m damned if I can see any fundamental difference between Advaita and Zen – except that Zen has an emphasis on meditation as the principle means to enlightenment.

The type of meditation advocated in Zen Buddhism is pleasantly basic. It’s called “zazen” and it’s basically all about sitting still. There is no requirement for mantas, or specialised technique. The purpose of zazen is to open yourself to your true self. Given enough practice, it is claimed that we will be confronted with everything we’ve repressed.

There’s a really interesting chapter where the author makes a strong case against the idea of seeking enlightenment through psychoactive drugs. Another where he shows the error of belief in reincarnation. For the most part, I found my own views echoed and reinforced throughout the book. But the one chapter where I learned something new and important was “The World of Demons.” This was an alarmingly honest discourse on human nature – especially its nasty side, and how we should relate to that socially unacceptable part of ourselves. This chapter was so good that I went back and read it a second time, after finishing the book.

This is one of the more important books I’ve read in recent years. I don’t know that I would call myself a Zen Buddhist, but I am definitely keen to try zazen, even merely as a means of daily centering myself. It’s something I’ve always neglected, perhaps to my detriment.