10 Questions Series: Brad Warner

August 29, 2013 by Chris Grosso

Brad Warner

 

NAME: Brad Wanrer

BIO: Brad Warner was born in Ohio in 1964. In 1983 he met Zen teacher Tim McCarthy and began his study of Zen while he was still the bass player of the hardcore punk band Zero Defex, whose big hit was the eighteen-second masterpiece “Drop the A-Bomb on Me!” In the 1980s he released five albums of psychedelic rock under the band name Dimentia 13 (that’s the way he spelled it), though Dimentia 13 was often a one-man band with Brad playing all the instruments. In 1993 he moved to Japan, where he landed a job with Tsuburaya Productions, the company founded by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man who created Godzilla. The following year Brad met Gudo Nishijima Roshi, who ordained him as a Zen monk and made him his dharma heir in 2000. Brad lived in Japan for eleven years. He published his first book, Hardcore Zen, in 2003, followed by Sit Down and Shut Up! in 2007 and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate in 2009 and Sex, Sin, and Zen in 2011. These days he travels around the world leading retreats, giving lectures, and looking for cool record stores. At last report he was living in Los Angeles. 

 

Q: Who and or what, do you attribute the person you are today to?

 

A: It’s impossible to attribute that to any one thing or person. I’ve lived a lot of places. I think that’s important. I grew up mainly in Ohio. But I spent three years of my childhood living in Africa. And my family also travelled a lot in Europe during those years. But we weren’t wealthy, which is probably the case for most Americans who travelled extensively in their childhoods. After I became an adult, I moved to Japan and lived there for eleven years.

When I interact with people who I knew when I was a lot younger, who stayed in Ohio all that time, I can see there are some differences. They’ve never had to communicate in a language other than English, for example. Many have never lived as members of a racial or ethnic minority or a foreigner. And so on. Those experiences in other cultures were very profound for me. I don’t think I’m even consciously aware most of the time how deeply that affected me. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the outlook I have about a lot of things in life.

I guess I’m supposed to talk about my practice here. That’s obviously something that has deeply transformed me. I’m not sure I’d even be alive at all if I hadn’t started doing that. I was pretty suicidal for many of my growing-up years. The practice of zazen opened up a hole area of life that I didn’t even imagine existed before.

But it’s funny that it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I hear that question. This is because it’s also just something I do every day. Every morning I wake up and the first thing I do is zazen. I’ve been doing that since I was about 20, I guess. So I think of it much the same way normal people think of brushing their teeth or taking a shower. You don’t give eloquent speeches about how brushing your teeth made you the person you are today. But in a lot of ways, maybe it did. Really serious tooth decay can be extremely traumatic, you know! What sort of person would you be right now if you’d never brushed your teeth? Probably someone very different. You’d have fewer friends, no romantic life at all, you’d be in a lot of pain constantly. I’m serious about this!

Zazen is a habit I picked up at an early age and it’s been useful to me in more ways than I could possibly ever say. I feel like people who don’t do it are kind of like people who never brush their teeth. They have no idea how absolutely necessary the practice is to just living a reasonable life. They have all sorts of problems and have no idea why.

 

Q: What are some of the musical albums or musicians/bands that have impacted your life and in what way?

 

A: Revolver by The Beatles is a psychedelic masterpiece that probably got me interested in Eastern philosophy. The Kids Are Alright by The Who was an amazing introduction to what became my all time favorite rock band. Are We Not Men? by Devo let me know rock music was still viable at a time when I thought I’d missed it all. In My Eyes by Minor Threat let me know that Americans like myself could do punk rock music. Disturb The Air by my band Dimentia 13 never sold in any great quantities, but it’s one of my all time favorite records.

It’s probably weird to name one of my own albums here. But almost every musician who ever made a record thinks that record is the best thing they ever heard. Unless they are the kind who just does music for the money or something. But there are a lot fewer of those people out there than you imagine. Me, I made records that I wanted to hear because nobody else was making those records. So if I wanted to hear that music, I had to make it myself. And when you do that, the music you make ends up being your personal favorite music. This could be applied to any art form. It could be applied to the way you do business or just about anything. I think that’s the deeper meaning of the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood. It’s about doing something that you think is great.

 

Q: What is one of the most shocking experiences you’ve ever had?

 

A: I once stuck my finger in an electrical socket. I was about 11 at the time. It’s actually hard to think of any shocking experiences.

In a sense the experience I wrote about in my first book Hardcore Zen, which reviewers later identified as “kensho” – although I did not and do not call it that – was pretty shocking. There was a moment when a lot of factors about my zazen practice came together all at once. I had one of those so-called “transformative moments” or whatever the learned people are calling them this week. I haven’t been able to look at life the same way since.

There’s no way to communicate what that experience was. I have met a handful of people in my life who’ve had similar things happen to them. And sometimes I can speak with those people about it. I find it’s utterly impossible to say anything meaningful about it to anyone who hasn’t gone through it themselves.

Even the language I’m forced to use to discuss it is really misleading. It can’t even be called an “experience.” I can’t say I’ve “been through it.” All of that makes no sense. But there are no other linguistic formations available.

 

Q: What is one of the most beautiful experiences you’ve ever had?

 

A: Other than the ones I can’t talk about in these pages? It’s hard to say. The experience I just recounted had a certain beauty to it. And then there was one day that I was eating a tangerine and noticed how amazing a thing that was.

I feel that all experiences possess their own beauty. But that sounds clichéd and ridiculous. Still, it’s true. Anything you do is beautiful if you are able to see the beauty in it.

 

Q: What is one of the most defining moments in your life and why?

 

A: Defining moment? Jeez. How do you define such a thing?

Certain moments have ended up defining me for other people. For example, I undertook a ceremony called shiho, which supposedly makes me a Zen Master. From that moment on, I’ve been defined in that way. It makes me wish I’d never taken that ceremony sometimes!

I never liked the idea of titles and ranks, especially religious ones. I don’t think someone deserves my respect just because someone else gave that person a religious rank and a title. Some religious people are worthy of respect. Many others are not. I’m not sure which category I’m in. Some people seem to respect me far more than I deserve. Others hate me just because of the title. Both of those responses seem ridiculous to me.

I guess the idea of a “defining moment” means a moment that solidifies your personality, hardens it, makes it inflexible. So I’m not really very fond of the concept of a defining moments. To the extent that I’ve had them, I tend to downplay them as much as I can. Of course it’s impossible not to have defining moments. But I think they’re something to be wary of more than something to be celebrated.

 

Q: What do you believe are the benefit, if any, vs. the dangers of mind-altering drugs?

 

A: No benefits at all. The dangers outweigh any possible benefits.

Since you’re asking the same questions of everyone in the book I take it to mean you think the question of mind altering drugs is an important one to ask spiritual teacher type people. Unfortunately, too many people these days give this question much more importance than it deserves.

In the Sixties, a lot of people believed there was a strong similarity between the experiences people have on drugs and the experiences that have during meditation. A lot of guys promoted the idea that drugs were a way to speed up the process of meditation and get to the goal quickly and easily. This is nonsense.

The mistake begins with the idea that there is a goal to meditation practice. There is no goal. The whole idea of a goal is a fallacy to begin with. There’s nowhere to go but here.

But lots of people seem to think that the goal of meditation practices is some kind of altered state of consciousness. And if LSD will alter your consciousness in an hour as opposed to years of working with meditation, then the goal is achieved much more quickly.

That’s a completely wrong way of looking at it. The altered states of consciousness you get through meditation are little sidetracks your ego is taking you on, trying to draw you further away from reality with pretty hallucinations it has created.

 

Q: What are some films you’ll never forget seeing for the first time and why?

 

A: The Monkees movie Head was just incredible because it was so surreal and so funny at the same time.

Monster Zero (aka Godzilla Vs Monster Zero, aka Invasion of Astro Monster) is my all time favorite Godzilla film. It’s got flying saucers and Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster and Rodan and aliens who wore New Wave sunglasses in 1965. What more can you ask for in a film?

Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is just a weird, weird movie that I saw late at night when I was about seven and haven’t been able to forget.  It has dinosaurs and space ships and women I bikinis made out of seashells. How can that fail to make an impression?

Repo Man was the first movie I ever saw that took the hardcore punk scene seriously. Alex Cox, the writer and director, obviously understood what hardcore was about. I met him many years later. He’s a very interesting guy.

Y’know, I wish I could come up with just one “spiritual” film or at least one film that normal people would consider “good” for this list. But I can’t. Pretty much every “spiritual” movie I’ve ever seen has been dopey as hell. They’re so incredibly pretentious. This is especially true of the Buddhist movies. Oh good lord, what a bunch of drek! The only “spiritual” film I can even think of that I ever liked is Jesus Christ Superstar. And even that is pretty schlocky. Which is precisely why I like it so much.

 

Q: Does God exist and if so, in what capacity? If not, why not?

 

A: God is the most obvious thing in the world. It’s the rest of us whose existence I doubt.

I’m writing a whole book on this subject. So at the moment I feel like I’ve sort of shot my wad as far as what I can say. In A.D. 840 John Scotus Eriugena said, “We do not know what God is. God himself doesn’t know what he is because he is not anything. Literally God is not, because he transcends being.” I think that sums up a lot of what I feel about God.

These days Western Buddhism seems to want to do away with the concept of God. But I think that’s a big mistake. If you do away with the idea of God, then what we’re doing in Zen practice starts to seem very small. It seems like we’re just trying to settle ourselves down and work on our psychological issues. I feel it’s a lot bigger and more epic than that.

There’s a guy out there selling the idea that if you pay him a couple thousand dollars he’ll show you this new technique he’s invented that will get you enlightened in a couple hours, just like Buddha. And stupid people all over the US and Europe are buying that load of horseshit. If the same guy tried to tell those same people they could pay him a few thou and they’d see God in a couple hours, they’d never be fooled by that.

This is just one of the reasons I think we need to reevaluate the idea of God. I think there are certainly a lot of dangers to the idea and a lot of misconceptions are created when we introduce it. On the other hand, God is the only concept I think is big enough to express what we’re dealing with in Zen practice. It’s God. It’s big. It’s dangerous. It’s scary. It’s loving. It’s the ultimate source of everything.

 

Q: What do you think your greatest contribution to humanity is?

 

A: If I make any I’ll let you know. Seriously. I have no idea. I write these books, y’know. Some people like them. Other people hate them. If I didn’t think they were valuable, I wouldn’t write them. I’m certainly not writing them for the money! I’m not making any!

 

Q: What does the human experience mean to you?

 

A: There’s another question I don’t know how to answer. When people ask about the meaning of life, it’s like they’re trying to separate meaning from life. As if they could come up with a few choice words and those words would encompass all that life is. But you can’t do that. It’s impossible.

Life is its own meaning. The human experience is the meaning of the human experience. None of the formulas and frameworks I’ve ever come across to define the meaning of life have ever done anything at all for me.

Being a human means having certain limitations. You can’t fly under your own power like a bird. You can’t fun up a tree as fast as a cat. But then again, we seem to experience a lot of things in ways other animals can’t. We can share our experiences in ways that they seem unable to. We can learn from human beings who have been dead for thousands of years. A chimpanzee can’t do that. At least not that we’re aware of.

Buddhism is full of legends about devas and celestial beings who have powers beyond ours but who also can’t experience the things that we can precisely because they have too few limitations. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But that’s what’s written in the books by people who seem to know what they’re talking about in other areas. So maybe it’s true. I have no idea.

But I do feel like it’s a terrible shame to miss out on any aspect of the real life I’m living right now. I think it’s terribly important to experience that life just as it is, without trying to enhance it in some artificial way or run away from it when it isn’t like I think it should be.

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Chris Grosso is a public speaker, writer, recovering addict, spiritual director, and author of Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) and Everything Mind: What I've Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening and the Mind-Blowing Truth of it All (Sounds True). He writes for ORIGIN Magazine, Huffington Post, and Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine, and has spoken and performed at Wanderlust Festival, Yoga Journal Conference, Sedona World Wisdom Days, Kripalu, Celebrate Your Life and more. Chris is passionate about his work with people who are in the process of healing or struggling with addictions of all kinds. He speaks and leads groups in detoxes, yoga studios, rehabs, youth centers, 12-step meetings, hospitals, conferences, and festivals worldwide. He is a member of the advisory board for Drugs over Dinner.