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.

Advertisements

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

suzukis-zenmindbeginnersmindThis short book is a transcription of several talks given by author on the rights and wrongs of Zen meditation practice. It’s very simple and non-intellectual. No attempt is made to qualify assertions with arguments. Suzuki often just says, “This is the right understanding,” or “This is not the right understanding,” and he doesn’t explain why. This is a little irritating for a reader like me, but I also undersand that Zen is about doing, not thinking. I imagine the author is speaking with a “try it and see” attitude.

I definitely got some clarity about Zen practice as a result of reading, particular on the notion that Zen is not goal-oriented. You don’t do it to get something specific out of it. Enlightenment (a word I hate), according to Suzuki, is not something you achieve through the practice; the practice itself is enlightenment. I think I sort of get what he means. In meditation, you just let whatever happens happen. The mind takes care of itself without conscious intrusion. So, there are results from meditation, but you can’t set out with an idea of what those results should be beforehand.

I’m fascinated by Zen meditation, but I’m still not convinced that it’s any kind of necessity. I think the same results can be obtained by simply going for peaceful walks regularly. Ultimately, one should make room in one’s life for periods of non-thinking and non-stimulation. It seems to restore psychological wellbeing and channel creativity.

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.

The Philosophies of Asia by Alan Watts

Here in the West, we’ve all grown up under the influence of Christianity, where God is viewed as a divine monarch. Little do we realise that we only picture God in this way because we’re unconsciously projecting an entirely human political structure onto him/it. Watts’s book challenges this, by describing the very different concept of God that has arisen in the East, specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. To the Hindus, the Universe is viewed as God play-acting, or dreaming each of us. God is inside everything rather than above everything. It’s like a game of hide and seek; each one of us is God-in-disguise without realising it. In Taoism the Universe is viewed as a single organism (indistinguishable from God). Watts helps us to look upon the Universe in a very different way, not as a collection of separate things which exist independently of one another, but as a series of interconnected relationships. These Eastern approaches differ greatly from the likes of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, because they are not concerned with divine revelation, or obedience to a monarch. In this sense, they are not really religions at all, in terms of what we understand religion to be. The focus of the East is a transformation of consciousness. Learning to look upon the Universe in a different way that dramatically affects one’s life.

This volume consists of various verbal lectures given by Alan Watts, transcribed by his son Mark in the 1990s, from earlier recordings. The lecture “The Mythology of Hinduism” examines the religious side of Hinduism, where the godhead is said to be dreaming each of us. “Eco-Zen” delves into how the individual is one with the world, showing how the line between organism and environment is blurry and insubstantial when we get past the idea of “things.” “Swallowing a Ball of Hot Iron” examines the relationship of student and master in Zen Buddhism. “Intellectual Yoga” looks at the mind as a path to enlightenment. The volume finishes with “Introduction to Buddhism” and “The Taoist Way of Karma.” This is not a lecture series, as such. Mark Watts draws together material that spans his father’s career into single book of related topics.

Since this is the fourth book by Watts that I have read, I’m starting to notice a lot of overlap, but that’s unavoidable, and actually serves as a reminder of important insights. I continue to be impressed with this philosopher, and I have a better undersatnding of the Universe as a result of his work. This book provides a short and often humourous brief on Eastern philosophy. It’s certainly not detailed enough for the serious student, but as an introduction, it makes perfect reading.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

I’m frequently disappointed by what passes for spirituality, from a non-dualist perspective. Quite often, there is a crafty repackaging of salvation woven into an author’s sales pitch, or there is a totally unrealistic descent into a spiritual pipedream of “universal love.”

Alan Watts, happily, manages to be both a non-dualist and a down-to-earth realist. In recent years, one of the most interesting dilemmas I went through was the clash between non-dualism (which says that everything is one) and LaVeyan Satanism (which grasps that the universe is adversarial). I rate both of these observations as true, but the latter one is often missed. Watts gets it. He describes existence within the universe as “a harmony of contained conflicts,” understanding that it cannot be any other way, by virtue of the dualistic predicament of all life.

This was a fabulous read. It began with a suggestion of how non-dualism can be explained to young children, as a better alternative to the “God made the universe” stereotype. Watts goes on to tackle non-dualism from a vector that had never even occurred to me: our inability to separate the human organism from the environment around it. We naturally think of the self as a human body – a distinct unit isolated from what is around it. But the air that is breathed into the body from the environment and the carbon dioxide that is breathed out are just as essential to the body as the blood that circulates within. The body cannot be isolated from its environment, nor can the immediate environment be isolated from the planet, the planet from the solar system, and so on. The division of self into body and environment is arbitrary – merely an act of labelling. There is no “you” independent of everything else – only an organism within a super-organism, i.e. the universe itself.

Many times in the book, Watts made observations that were profound, simple, and obviously true, yet so easily missed until pointed out. Chief among them was our conditioned way of thinking, “I came into this world,” when it is far more accurate to say “I came out of the universe.” A person is like the eyes of the universe, which is gazing at itself. Watts has a way of describing life on earth that makes the materialism of atheists seem absurd. Atheists commonly think of the universe as something unconscious. But since man came out of (not into) the universe, and man is conscious, does this not mean that the universe must be conscious?

The balance of nature, the “harmony of contained conflicts,” in which man thrives is a network of mutually interdependent organisms of the most astounding subtlety and complexity. Teilhard de Chardin has called it the “biosphere,” the film of living organisms which covers the original “geosphere,” the mineral planet. Lack of knowledge about the evolution of the organic from the “inorganic,” coupled with misleading myths about life coming “into” this world from somewhere “outside,” has made it difficult for us to see that the biosphere arises, or goes with, a certain degree of geological and astronomical evolution. But, as Douglas E. Harding has pointed out, we tend to think of this planet as a life-infested rock, which is as absurd as thinking of the human body as a cell-infested skeleton. Surely all forms of life, including man, must be understood as “symptoms” of the earth, the solar system, and the galaxy – in which case we cannot escape the conclusion that the galaxy is intelligent.

Watts is well versed in Eastern philosophy (Hinduism and Buddhism), and his writing serves as a useful bridge between very different cultures, helping us in the West to appreciate a wider metaphysical perspective outside of the cramped confines of Western materialism.

After reading this book, I want to get hold of everything that Watts has written.

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.