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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

In the spiritual department, Brad Warner's books have had more influence on us than any other books in the past couple of years. So we've decided to give his latest book a page of its own.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate (Zen Buddhism) by Brad Warner, 2009

Our friends at Monty Python could well introduce this one with their famous phrase: "And now for something completely different."

I’ve never encountered a book like this on spiritual matters. Usually, spiritual masters want to impress upon you that they’ve got it together, that they’ve found the answer or, if not, that they feel they’re on the right path – enough so, in any case, to encourage you to follow them (and to buy their next book). Mr. Warner, however, has decided to show us how un-together he is. Having previously published two books on his approach to Zen Buddhism, he now wants to destroy the image of himself as some sort of spiritual guru, as somebody who should be looked upon as a role model, let alone an especially wise being.

His way of disillusioning us is to take us through all the shit that came down on him in one particular year – 2007, as it happens. That was the year his mom and his grandmother died, his marriage broke up and he had major employment problems. That brief list may not sound so very bad but, in Mr. Warner’s telling, each of the incidents was surrounded with extremely painful circumstances leading to tremendous inner turmoil.

Possibly the most unusual aspect of the book, though, is the fact that Mr. Warner tells us about being under attack from cohorts in the Buddhist organization of which he’s supposed to be the leader. The inner machinations of their societies is one place where spiritual writers never go. Granted we all know they endure a lot of sturm und drang, thanks to their colleagues. No less a Saint than Francis of Assisi, surely one of the sweetest of them all, was virtually kicked out of his order by his enemies before he died. In our own time, there was Thomas Merton and his on-going war with his abbot.

But those guys left it to their disciples to describe the internecine friction. Mr. Warner’s the first "guru", as far as I know, who takes it on himself to dish the dirt. Startling as that may be to his readers, you’ve got to admit that he has a good point when he says that people need to know from an insider that spiritual organizations are anything but pure.

Along the way in his catalogue of troubles, he tries to show us that Zen helped a bit, at least to the extent that it made things less difficult than they would have been without Zen. He says Zen helps you to not keep adding more "garbage to the pile." But that message almost gets lost in the deluge of crap. Given the extent of it, you begin to wonder whether the book’s title is meant to sound a distinctly ironic note.

Thanks to that torrent of mishaps, though, this book makes for a terrific read. My review of Mr. Warner’s second book Sit Down and Shut Up (see review Dilettante’s Diary, April 14/09), griped about the difficulty of the subject matter: an explication of some of the key points in the thinking of the 13th century Zen master, Dogen Zenji, as recorded in his book Shobogenzo. Many of the Japanese master’s thoughts were impenetrable to this 21st century reader.

No such problem here. Although Dogen is as enigmatic as ever in his one appearance, the encounter is brief. The rest of the book goes down smoothly and easily (dipped in chocolate, indeed). The text clips along with such narrative verve, it could almost be considered an autobiographical non-fiction novel. In fact, the only thing that would exclude it from that category, in my opinion, would be the scarcity of dialogue. Other than that, it has all the necessary markings: character, setting, conflict, drama, interiorization, insight, change. The short chapters are just the right length, each one propelling you forward to the next.

As usual, Mr. Warner’s humour is in abundant evidence. Some – if not all – of his jokey asides and footnotes are quite funny. I also like the many self-deprecating references to Zen practitioners like himself. In ways you might almost miss, he speaks of "normal" people, the implication apparently being that he’s not one of them. His fellow practitioners on Zen retreats are "assholes." Spiritual teachers like himself, he says, tend to be "deeply nerdy" people with little sex appeal. And if that doesn’t consolidate the picture of a pretty down-to-earth guy, then maybe what'll do it for you are the couple of paragraphs at the opening of a chapter describing the author's "morning poop."

All very endearing. And yet, by the end of the book, I had some problems with the picture we were getting. Mr. Warner admits to participating in a couple sexual situations that could be considered somewhat iffy on moral grounds. (Sorry, but we have to stick to our policy of not revealing plot details here at Dilettante's Diary.) He describes himself and his partner in one of these arrangements as behaving "like a couple of horny teenagers" and later says that they "misused sex in about a thousand new and exciting ways". The devout reader may need to check the impulse to drop the book like a live coal. Still, calmer reflection may raise the question as to whether Mr. Warner has, at the very least, abandoned the attempt to follow the Buddha’s recommended middle way when it comes to sex and the principle of not desiring too much.

Regarding one of these situations, one which was technically adulterous, Mr. Warner does a lot of explaining about how his marriage was on the rocks, he was lonely, vulnerable, etc. And yet, at an earlier point in the book, he says that one thing that bugged him on returning to the US after living in Japan for several years was the American tendency to make excuses for personal failings. In Japan, he says, excuses for personal screw-ups are neither offered or tolerated. He much prefers that system. But isn’t making excuses exactly what he’s doing in the case of the adulterous episode? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps he’s just providing the necessary details to help us understand the context of the incident.

In any case, the book left me feeling somewhat troubled – not exactly what you expect from your spiritual reading. I wouldn’t want to admit that it was simply a case of my being shocked at the sexual stuff. Like any decent, self-respecting citizen today, I’d rather be labelled a hopeless degenerate than a prude. Still, it was hard to know what to make of the book. The thought even crossed my mind that maybe Mr. Warner was suffering the effects of fame and stardom, maybe he was flaming out. I could understand his wish to shed the aura of somebody special, somebody more than human. Hence his letting it all hang out, his gifting us with this "big snarly ball of confessional vomit", as he calls it. You could call him brave for taking the risk. Or foolhardy, maybe.

More to the point, what effect had he thought this book would have on his readers? Did he think this would be the kind of thing we want from our spiritual leaders? Don’t we want their books to lift us up more than drag us down? Certainly, this book would catch the attention of lots of readers. Entertain them, even. But would it help them?

All of which is to say that, after my first speedy read-through, I had to give the book a second reading – a much slower, more careful one, to see whether or not I was getting the impression the book was meant to give.

Second time through, I discovered that there was more Zen teaching than I’d realized. First time, it seemed as though there weren’t more than a few philosophical asides squeezed in among the disasters. But now I noticed lots of very potent ideas. Some of my favourites (not exact quotes):

- City life isn’t all that different from life on retreat because you are the link between them; you are not something apart from the places you inhabit.

- You should act out of your real self, not your idea of yourself.

- Our true self and the things we do are exactly the same.

- Disappointment is just the action of your brain re-adjusting itself to reality after discovering things are not the way you thought they were; on encountering disappointment you now understand reality better than when all you had to go on was your thoughts.

- In the Zen view, there is only the eternal now; but human affairs are conducted on the basis of an artificial construct about future time, so you have to play along with that, on the understanding that you’re participating in a useful fiction.

- The only absolute reality is what’s right here, right now; relative reality is the one we make up in our brains.

- Living the life you want to live is not the same as living the life you think you want to live.

On mulling over these ideas, my feelings about the author mellowed somewhat. I could see that he was still singing the good old Zen gospel hymns, even if there was some danger that they could get drowned out in the din of a tumultuous life. And I began to see (recovering from the shock?) that Mr. Warner was reasonable and balanced in his assessment of the questions around the sexual stuff. A person might not agree with his conclusions but you couldn’t say that his justifications for his behaviour were unreasonable or necessarily self-serving.

Still, I was left with some uncertainty about his attitude to some things. Witnessing his grandmother’s death – the first death he had ever seen – had a profound effect on Mr. Warner. It made him realize that life is short and that we need to cut to the chase, so to speak. He comes to the conclusion that he has been pussy-footing around too much. He has been too timid. He is going to be more abrupt, more frank, from now on. One of the things he's lost patience with is the sanctimonious religiosity surrounding Zen in America. His response: Fuck that shit! Fair enough – even if the language, coming from a spiritual leader, is atypical.

I get the No-More-Mr-Nice-Guy bit. But what then? Mr. Warner says: "I’m gonna pretty much say and do whatever I want from now on." How does that work? Many’s the time that I’ve made a similar vow but I’ve always found myself caught up – within the next day, if not the next hour – by other considerations, other duties that have to be respected. Mr. Warner seems to admit that possibility: "Of course, there are limits to how much of an asshole I’ll be." He says that he’s going to become an asshole with twenty-five years of Zen under his belt, the result being "a slightly different type of asshole from an asshole who hasn’t done that stuff." I still have trouble picturing what kind of asshole that would be.

Maybe I’m quibbling about a few throw-away lines (although in my defence, they were written for thousands, possibly millions?, to read). Maybe we shouldn’t bother our heads about Mr. Warner’s sense of himself. Maybe we should let events transpire for him as they’re meant to transpire. After all, he often says things to the effect that our ideas about ourselves and what we’re going to do don’t matter so much as what we actually do in any given moment.

There remain, however, a few questions about some of the teachings in the book.

One that stumps me is the state of the mind during zazen. In his previous books, where he gives more instruction on the matter, Mr. Warner convinces me that the thing to do in zazen is to empty the mind, as much as possible, of all thought. "To think non-thinking," as one of his sources says. You want to keep the mind blank, as I understand it. In this book, though, he makes a couple of comments that throw some doubt on that. At one point, he’s talking about a certain psychological phenomenon and he follows up with, "Observe this for yourself during your zazen practice and you will see it." Huh? I thought we were trying not to observe anything during zazen.

At another point, he’s talking about the difference between zazen and guided meditation. In zazen, he says, "You just sit there and whatever comes up comes up." You mean a thought that merits thinking about? Mr. Warner’s more consistent teaching, as I’ve grasped it, is that you don’t entertain any thoughts, you don’t invite them to stick around, you stop them from spinning on and on by draining energy from them.

It would be nice to get some clarity about this. Does it mean that now and then a big, fat, important thought comes along in zazen and, as Mrs. Willy Loman would say, Attention must be paid?

Another point that shook me up a bit, in terms of my previous understanding, was the reference to the image of bubbles on a river. In his earlier writing about our one-ness with the universe, Mr. Warner said (if I remember correctly) that each of us is like a bubble on a river. The individual bubble pops eventually but the river goes on. In other words, dead or alive, we’re not really separate from the universe. In this book, though, he says about this image, and others: "....these explanations are still more like words of comfort than anything else." And here I was, just getting cool with this idea of myself as this shiny little bubble bobbing pleasantly along. So what now???

There are still many points in Mr. Warner’s teaching that bewilder me. Some of the thorniest ones:

- The place where we are could be said to be exactly where we most want to be.

- There’s no one in the universe but you.

- The world you live in is a world you made for yourself. The social rules and norms you chafe against were rules you put in place by yourself for yourself to follow.

- You are God’s eyes in the universe.

As someone who has welcomed – even embraced – many aspects of the kind of Zen that Mr. Warner promulgates, it seems odd that these other concepts are so inimical to me. They’re about as congenial to my thinking as saying the earth is flat or the moon is made of cheese. Maybe I need to do more zazen. Like a million hours?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com