Monday, September 12, 2011

Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen

Brad Warner is an American-born Soto Zen priest who has authored numerous books explicating his views of Zen Buddhism, including Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up, and Sex, Sin, and Zen. Warner combines an intense interest in Zen practice with the sensibility of punk rock and American and Japanese popular culture (in particular, a passion for Japanese monster cinema). He blogs at Hardcore Zen, where recently he wrote a post titled "I Am So Over This Buddhism Shit!". Warner has been increasingly vocal with his criticisms of mainstream Buddhism, that is, of Buddhism as it is commonly understood and practiced in the West, in particular the United States. In this blog post, Warner combines a few criticisms of mainstream Buddhism which a critique of the monastic life:
But human beings like to do things together. We're social creatures. And so a monastic tradition also developed within Buddhism. A lotta folks think that if you're not hip to the monastery thang you ain't no Buddhist. They're wrong. Shakyamuni himself did not come to his understanding as a member of any religious order, and there is a laundry list as long as your arm of other great teachers who either shunned monastic life, or came to monastic life after establishing the Way on their own, or who did a bit of the monastic stuff when it was necessary but largely stayed away from it. The non-monastic tradition in Buddhism is just as vital as the monastic one.

But the pull towards making Buddhism a social thing, and only a social thing, is strong. In America, we seem dead set on turning Buddhism into a string of socially agreed upon cliches and buzzwords.

A couple weeks ago or so I put a post up on my blog in which I moaned about some of the buzzwords and neo-traditions that have become au currant among American Buddhists these days. One was that dependable puppy dog of a word, "mindfulness." Christ I hate that word. The word seems to indicate some vague state of thinking hard about what you're doing. And I know we're all taught that we should think about what we're doing. But that's not the Buddhist approach. Do what you're doing. When thinking becomes a distraction, stop thinking and get back to doing. I'm also sick to death of hearing hipster Buddha dudes use the word "skillful" to describe things they like and "unskillful" to describe things they don't. It's a total misuse of the old Buddhist idea of upaya, or "skillful means," by which ancient Buddhist teachers are said to have taught in unorthodox ways. These days it just means whatever's under discussion didn't rub the guy who called it "skillful" the wrong way. I'm also fed up with the concept of the "dharma talk," which has come to mean something like, "guys in funny robes using buzzwords like 'mindfulness' and 'skillful' to lull people who think of themselves as 'spiritually minded' to sleep." I'm tired of watching entire audiences nod out like opium addicts while smiling knowingly whenever a favorite word or phrase floats through the haze.
Warner is correct that Shakyamuni Buddha did not become enlightened while he was a member of a religious order, and that there are instances of Buddhist teachers who were not monks or who did not practice Buddhism or attain wisdom exclusively during their tenure as monks. But it is disingenuous to try to downplay the importance of monasticism in Buddhism in this way. Shakyamuni founded the order of monks, the Pali Canon makes it clear that only monks are expected to be able to become enlightened, and stories of Buddhist teachers who aren't monks are relatively few and far between, nowhere near as common as stories of ordained teachers or teachers who spend most of their working life ordained.

It is even more misleading for Warner to imply that the emphasis on monasticism is somehow uniquely American. The opposite is closer to the truth. It is only in the West that we have seen such a proliferation of non-ordained Buddhist teachers, and teachers of mindfulness and other Buddhist meditation techniques. This represents a massive transformation of the understanding of Buddhism and of the social role of Buddhist teachers, in comparison with all of the lands in which Buddhism was traditionally practiced. Warner's opposition to the monastic life (and in particular his musing while on retreat that "But god-dammit I’d rather be at Amoeba Records right now"!) marks him as distinctively American in his approach to Buddhism, and--dare I say it--much closer to "mainstream Buddhism" than he would care to admit.

Warner has always been a contrarian, and that's both part of his charm and part of his usefulness to the broader Buddhist community. He is assuredly not afraid of rocking the boat or of ruffling feathers (or, heck, plucking them off one by one!). The story is that, back in his punk days, he used to dress like a hippie (bell bottoms and long hair) when he went to shows--just to razz the other punks, or to teach them the deeper lesson that no rules means no rules? One gets the sense that Warner relishes his role as a thorn in the side of mainstream Buddhism, so perhaps it is not surprising that he should attack mainstream Buddhism even when he most seems to embody it.

Warner is also harshly critical of the mindfulness movement in mainstream Buddhism (as represented by Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, the three founders of the Insight Meditation Society). Once again, I think he overstates his case. In fact, I think he is being downright uncharitable in his interpretation of mindfulness, and in effect attacking a straw man: "The word seems to indicate some vague state of thinking hard about what you're doing." This is not at all how Goldstein, Kornfield, and Salzberg use the term "mindfulness," as Warner would surely know if he had read any of their books--or indeed, any of the many popular treatments of mindfulness which have come out in recent years. The traditional understanding of mindfulness as a state of nondiscursive, nondual awareness, in which the subject attends directly to the objects of his experience, without the meditation of the conceptual categories of discursive thought, must be well-known to Warner. I can only interpret his assault on mindfulness as part of an attempt to brand himself as outside of and therefore superior to the many teachers and practitioners of mainstream Buddhism. The recent popularity of mindfulness must be driving much of Warner's opposition to it. But I think Soto Zen's emphasis on bringing the awareness of meditation into daily life actually has much in common with both the traditional Buddhist understanding of mindfulness and the contemporary mindfulness movement. In fact, this very similarity may be partially fueling Warner's need to distance himself from mindfulness, in order to retain a distinctive brand for his version of Buddhism.

On the other hand, Warner is right about the over-use of buzzwords in Buddhism, including "mindfulness" and "skillful". The terms "skillful" and "unskillful" typically do not add much more than "good" and "bad", or "useful" and "not useful". But the over-use of buzzwords is a human phenomenon, it is not unique to mainstream Buddhism, and it doesn't seem to be as damaging as, say, a Buddhist priest mis-appropriating funds or having sex with his or her students. Warner is also correct about the lazy, hazy attitude that can take over among Buddhists. Once again, I think this is a general human problem, though it may be especially problematic in mainstream Buddhism, perhaps because mainstream Buddhists (to the extent that this term meaningfully refers to anyone, which could be problematic) do seem to conceive of their religion or their practice as a "feel-good" type of thing, as opposed to a serious and challenging practice with respect to which they should always be on guard and always on their feet.

I've been speculating about Warner's reasons for attacking mainstream Buddhism, and these speculations could well be way off the mark. But it does seem clear that he's being uncharitable and inaccurate in some of his attacks against mainstream Buddhism. It also seems clear that Warner is much more of a mainstream or American Buddhist than he would care to admit. The contrariness, the punk and pop culture sensibilities, and his avowedly secular lifestyle (despite being ordained as a Buddhist monk) mark him as distinctively Western and American, and as being very much against the grain of the entire tradition of Buddhism, going back to Shakyamuni himself. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. But Warner--unlike, say, Stephen Batchelor, one of the initiators of the movement known as secular Buddhism--seems unwilling to acknowledge just how radical his interpretation of Buddhism actually is.
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