Being a Famous Zen Master

Recently, I’ve been sharing chapters I wrote for a proposed “Zen self help book” that I never finished. At the time I uploaded the previous installment of this blog, I thought I’d already found all of the chapters of my attempted “self help book,” but I was wrong! I found this in another file folder on my laptop. I’m not entirely sure what I wrote it for. But it fits the “self help book” theme. So I’m presenting it along with those other chapters.

Let me tell you a little about what being a famous Zen Master is like for me.

The day that a major cable news network sent a limo to pick me up to tape a segment for their Sunday news show, I knew I’d finally become the thing I most feared I’d become, a spiritual celebrity. 

I’m not a major celebrity, mind you. I hope I never reach that level. But I’m famous enough that it’s starting to worry me. Spiritual celebrities are the worst. A few famous spiritual masters have said or done things that are OK, I guess. But most of what rises to the so-called “top” in the spiritual teacher game is pretty dire. Then there’s the whole matter of fame itself. A Buddhist is supposed to shun it. And I’m starting to understand why. But it’s not for the reasons I would have expected.

Here’s an example of what it’s been like for me to be famous — or at least sort of famous. A few years ago I’m in the toilet at Pat’s In The Flats, a hole in the wall bar in Cleveland with a stage about the size of a postage stamp. The band I play bass for, Zero Defex (0DFx), was just about to go on. This guy at the urinal next to me starts saying, “You’re Brad Warner aren’t you? You wrote books! You’re famous, huh?” He seems angry about this. He’s drunk off his butt and I wonder, is mad enough to try and pee all over me? Or worse?

The guy finishes peeing. Then he sidles up next to me at the sink and presses on, slurring and stumbling. “I should be famous,” he growls. “What’s it like being famous?”

I’m tempted to say that being famous is like having some drunk come up to you in the toilet of a scummy bar in Cleveland and badger you about being famous. But I sense that he might be a decent guy who’s just letting his frustrations out as people do when they’re drunk — that’s yet another reason I don’t drink. So I try to stay nice. 

I don’t remember precisely what I said to him. But whatever I said seemed to calm him down, at least for the moment. Later in the night, though, he took to slamming into me during another band’s set even though I was clearly standing well outside the socially designated area for moshing. At one point the drunk guy who ought to have been famous rammed me so hard that I fell over backwards and knocked down a blonde woman in black knee high boots and a tight mini-skirt. When I went to help her up off the ground, I recognized her. She had introduced herself earlier in the night as a fan of my books and said what an honor it was to meet me. I apologized for slamming into her. She said it was OK.

I made it through the rest of the night uninjured. But ever since then I’ve been thinking about what the guy in the toilet asked. What is it like to be famous? And furthermore what does it mean to be famous for being a Buddhist teacher when one of the chief tenets of Buddhism is the rejection of fame.

To the extent that I’m famous I’d say that being famous mostly annoying. Every so often something nice happens, like a someone saying how much she admires my work, or a tiny little check in the mail for something I wrote, or my name on the cover of a magazine that more often than not didn’t pay for the article I wrote for them. But mostly being famous is a pain in the ass. All the stereotypical stuff that happens to people when they get famous for singing or acting or having big boobs happens when you get famous for being a spiritual teacher too. People get over-excited when they see you. They fawn. They expect to be entertained the moment you walk into a room. Your friends get jealous. Your fans get upset if you don’t say or do the things they think you should.

Even my so-called “dharma brothers”  —the people who had studied and practiced Buddhism with me before I became famous — behaved differently towards me once I had some books out. One told me, “I wonder what you have been up to on your tour of TV shows and magazine articles as a minor celebrity over there in the US, sitting around in your bright golden robe and waving your stick around.” Another one said he was going to, “go public, with every resource I have privately and on the Internet to make you a laughing stock, to tell folks what I think of you, to embarrass you. I will speak out, you embarrassment to yourself, our teacher, all of us associated with this.” Thanks. And namaste to you too, brother.

Ironically enough I came to fame only after I stopped seeking it. I had a few bands in the eighties that I really hoped would hit the big time, but never did. In the nineties I started writing sci-fi novels that I hoped would make me a career as a paperback writer, but no one ever published those. While this was going on I’d also been practicing Zen, just as a personal interest, with no aim of teaching it or writing about it. But after my third sci-fi novel failed to find a publisher, I wrote an autobiographical book about my Zen practice with no real intention of publishing it since I considered it unpublishable. When I finished that book, I sent it to some publishers on a whim and bizarrely it was that book that finally got me published.

On the eve of the book’s publication I went to my Zen teacher’s room and said, “If this book sells a lot of copies, I’ll become famous.” I wasn’t excited up about this. I didn’t say it like, “Oh boy! Won’t that be wonderful?” I was worried. Wouldn’t becoming famous break the vows I’d taken to abstain from such pursuits?

“That is great!” my teacher said, to my astonishment. He encouraged me to work hard to generate as many sales as possible. Wouldn’t that be against the Buddha’s injunctions not to chase after fame, I asked. In reply, my teacher asked me if I had I written the book in order to become famous. No, I hadn’t, I said. I’d written it as an expression of my practice. Then if fame was the result, my teacher said, that was fine.

It’s not fame itself that the Buddha warns us against, my teacher said, but the pursuit of fame. And the reason the Buddha warned us about pursuing fame wasn’t because he didn’t want us to have the happiness we all imagine fame can bring. Nor did this warning spring from any mystical insight into some arcane substrata of Reality inaccessible to the unenlightened. The Buddha was a very famous person in his time, and he had been wealthy before he gave up his wealth to become a spiritual seeker. 

He knew from his own experience that fame and wealth were not worthy goals for any intelligent person and he didn’t want his followers to believe otherwise. Yet he also knew that being famous was a very good way to spread his message. Certainly that message has often become distorted beyond recognition. But it could not have survived at all for 2500 years had the Buddha not taken upon himself the burden of fame. And so the Buddha wasn’t against fame in and of itself.

Still, there are good reasons many Buddhist teachers through the ages — some of whom were also quite famous — have all urged us not to try and become famous. We’re so conditioned to believe that money and fame are the keys to happiness that if we get them it’s nearly impossible to see them for what they really are. Even when fame and money clearly do not equal happiness, it’s easy for a famous or wealthy person to believe that something is wrong with them for not being happy with their wealth and fame. We see this all the time in the gossip mags. We watch celebrities commit suicide in spite of having everything anyone could possibly want. Yet we fail to understand this for what it is.

Buddhism isn’t a philosophy that urges poverty for the sake of poverty or one that urges forgoing Earthly pleasures for the rewards of Heaven or the Afterlife. Buddhism is about the pursuit of happiness in this lifetime. The Buddha was a practical person. If money and fame led to happiness, the Buddha would have urged us to pursue them. He did not. He warned us against pursuing fame because he understood clearly the happiness could not result from such pursuits. He warned us against pursuing fame because he knew that pursuing fame makes people miserable.

But the Buddha was also a practical person. When he found himself in some particular set of circumstances he acted in accord with them and used those circumstances to try to improve the quality of life for both his students and for himself. 

Whether or not you hit the big time with whatever it is you do is irrelevant. Just keep doing what you do the best you can. If others notice your efforts, fine. If they don’t, also fine. The universe has its own agenda and things rarely go the way we think we want them to. But there’s joy in accepting what the universe offers us. Ultimately the pursuit of fame is like any pursuit — it’s an effort to escape from reality. Fame and wealth are such enticing objects that they’re specified as things to avoid pursuing in the Buddhist teachings because nearly everyone agrees they must be good things to have. The message is that even if everyone in the world agrees that these are the proper things to pursue, we still shouldn’t pursue them.

For me, the Buddha’s advice means to keep doing what I do without trying to increase my fame for its own sake. So when a major cable news network sent a limo to take me to their studios, I accepted the ride. A couple of days after that happened, I led zazen practice for six people in the living room of an old house. Truth be told, I much preferred the latter.

But being famous is part of the deal if you want to write professionally. You cannot be a professional writer without being at least a little bit famous. And I like writing. It’s the thing I do best. I like having a job that I enjoy. So fame is something I have to deal with.

There are good things about it. It’s nice when people tell you something you wrote meant a lot to them. It’s nice to be appreciated. It’s good to get paid to do what you like even though, in my case, the pay usually isn’t very good.

I’m happiest when I follow the Buddha’s advice not to pursue wealth and fame.