Dogen For Punks

OmGabbaI’m on retreat and can’t post. The following is a modified version of a speech I gave at the Dogen Tanslators Forum in San Francisco on November 5, 2010.

*   *   *

This summer at Tassajara Zen monastery I met Kazuaki Tanahashi, the translator of a number of books by Dogen Zenji, the 13th century Japanese monk who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. At that time he was organizing a big event to be held at the San Francisco Zen Center to celebrate the publication of his translation of Dogen’s masterwork, Shobogenzo, the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Since I wrote a book about Shobogenzo called Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye he thought I might be good for the forum. He suggested that I do a speech there titled “Dogen for Punks.” He might have been joking. I’m not sure. But I liked that title. It’s not a title I would have chosen myself. But it suggested something I’d like to talk about. So I did.

I first came across Dogen when I was a 19-year old punk rocker. I’d been vaguely interested in Eastern religions for a while, but I wasn’t very serious about it. I decided to take a class at my university called Zen Buddhism mostly as a diversion.

Dogen’s philosophy changed my life. I had never encountered anything like it. I’ve been studying him ever since.

The popular appreciation of Dogen is a 20th and now a 21st century phenomenon. Even though he wrote Shobogenzo almost 800 years ago, for most of those 800 years Dogen’s work was almost entirely unknown. Certain extremely nerdy Buddhist scholars and monks looked at his writings now and then. But they were not published for general audiences until the 1800s, and even then it took over another years before they became popular.

I once asked my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, who, like Tanahashi, translated Dogen’s Shobogenzo into English, why this was. He said he thought that the people of Dogen’s time couldn’t understand what he was writing about. But, he said, human civilization has advanced considerably since that time. We understand much more about human psychology. We’ve had philosophies like existentialism and pragmatism that come very close to expressing the Buddhist outlook. Our understanding of the physical world we inhabit has also become more sophisticated. Because of these advances, contemporary people can comprehend what people in Dogen’s time couldn’t understand. Even teenage punk rockers.

Here’s one simple example of this. If you want to understand Dogen’s philosophy you have to accept that there are many real things and phenomena in this universe that we human beings are simply not equipped to perceive, but that these things and phenomena are not parts of some mystical other realm. They’re part of our concrete reality. These days we grow up learning about infrared and ultraviolet light. So we know that there are forms of light that we can’t see. We know about the subconscious. So we know that there are realms of the mind we cannot consciously access. These are commonplace ideas. Just because we can’t normally perceive these things, we don’t think of them as supernatural the way people in Dogen’s times tended to conceive of things they could not perceive directly. So when we read Dogen we’re already prepared for much of what he wrote about in ways that his contemporaries were not.

I believe a lot of people in our society today are ready to hear what Dogen had to say all those centuries ago. They need to hear it. It’s our job to try to make Dogen’s philosophy accessible to as many people as we can.

I have no argument with scholars and scholarship. In fact I have tremendous respect for the scholars who did the initial work required to make Dogen available to us.

But it’s vital to take Dogen’s philosophies outside of the narrow confines of intellectual study and outside of the even narrower confines of Buddhist nerd-dom. You know what I mean, I hope. Buddhism has a really strong tendency to turn into a bit of a nerd subculture just like Star Trek fanatics or comic book fandom or punk rockers. I used to work for a company in Japan that made monster movies and superhero TV shows. So I’ve been to plenty of sci-fi fan gatherings and comic book conventions. And, I hate to tell you, but in a lot of important ways they’re not all that different from the forum I attended at San Francisco Zen Center. And I said so to the audience there at the time.

What happens with nerd subcultures may have some bearing on what we see happening with Dogen and with Buddhism in general these days. One of the major attractions of something like punk rock or Godzilla or Japanese animation or Dogen is that it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Certain types of people like these things because they’re something we can call our own, they’re things we can use to define ourselves.

Buddhists in the West are often precisely the same personality types you encounter at sci fi and anime conventions or in punk rock clubs. They just have a different kind of thing that turns them on. But they use it in exactly the same way, to help delineate their personality as something different from the mainstream.

But then all too often disaster strikes! The thing they liked suddenly goes mainstream and everybody is dressing like a punk rocker or doing the Vulcan hand salute or even quoting Dogen or talking about mindfulness. We’re already seeing this happen. I’m sure a lot of you know that Dogen was used as the name of a character on the TV series LOST, in which many of the characters were named after famous philosophers.

Nerds hate it when this happens! It was one of the reasons I gave up on punk rock for a very long time. I suggested at the forum that t a lot of the people there were going to be grumbling when Dogen slipped out of their grasp and became part of mass culture. Some of you reading Elephant Journal are already grumbling about how Buddhism has gone mainstream. I know I am!

Here’s what I said to the people at the Dogen forum regarding their own nerd fetish, Dogen. I think this goes for all forms of Buddhism and not just the Dogen-based ones. I said, “Maybe right now you don’t think you’ll complain when Dogen finally hits the popular culture. You’re sitting there thinking it’ll be a glorious day when Dogen is accepted by the masses. You imagine it the way we punks imagined the day we were certain could never come when punk rock went mainstream. We thought that if that happened it would mean that everyone finally understood what we were saying in the same way as we understood it. Well it happened and that isn’t what it was like. It was Ramones songs in beer commercials and $150 designer combat boots and a generation who looked like punks but didn’t have a clue what punk rock was about.

“Or maybe they did. Old punk rockers like me love to complain that today’s punks don’t get it. Well, OK, maybe they don’t understand how it was literally dangerous to walk around with a Mohawk haircut. But that doesn’t mean they don’t understand punk. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that some of the young punk rockers today understand the real philosophy of punk rock better than some of the people I hung around with in the early days of the movement.

“And so it will go with Dogen, I think. The next generation is already better equipped to understand Dogen than we ever were. It’s vital that we allow them to discover their own way of understanding and expressing what he said, even if we don’t understand it ourselves.

“It’s crucial that we don’t smother their understanding with our interpretations. It’s important that we let them go out and teach their understanding to others. It’s important that we be prepared to admit that maybe they understand Dogen better than we do. I hear a lot of people complaining about the ‘graying of Buddhism’ and yet these same people seem intent on not allowing anyone below a certain age to become a teacher. We need to stop that nonsense.

“Because Dogen really is for punks. And we’ve got to let the punks have their Dogen. Even if we really want to keep him all to ourselves.”

I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!




September 8t, 2015 Helsinki, Finland BuddhaBuddhaBar Mannerheimintie 5, 5th floor Mannerheim hall 5:30pm

September 9, 2015 Malmi, Finland Brad Gets Naked and Talks About Sex!

September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT

September 16-19, 20015 Hebden Bridge, England 4-DAY RETREAT

September 20, 2015 London, England THE ART OF SITTING DOWN & SHUTTING UP (sold out, but there is a waiting list in case people cancel.)

September 21, 2015 7:30pm Newcastle, Northern Ireland SHIMNA INTEGRATED COLLEGE (Zazen & Dharma Talk)

September 22, 2o15 6:30pm Belfast, Northern Ireland THE DARK HORSE (Talk: Punk Rock Commentaries on Zen)

September 23, 2015 7:00pm BELFAST ZEN MAITRI YOGA STUDIO (Zazen & Dharma Talk)

September 26-27, 2015 Glastonbury, England 2-DAY RETREAT

October 26-27 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova

November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT

April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”



All of these events will still happen each week while I’m away.

Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

* * *

It’s punk rock to donate! Your donations are important. I appreciate your on-going support!

26 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. Fred
    Fred September 6, 2015 at 12:51 pm |

    When the wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up to dance, and a dragon howls in a withered tree.

    What’s a punk?

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon September 6, 2015 at 3:42 pm |

      1 archaic: prostitute
      2: nonsense, foolishness
      3a: a young inexperienced person
      3b: a usually petty gangster, hoodlum, or ruffian
      3c slang: a young man used as a homosexual partner especially in a prison

        1. Mumbles
          Mumbles September 7, 2015 at 2:25 pm |

          “Part of the big hero list.”


  2. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 6, 2015 at 1:09 pm |

    When I think of punk rock, I think of the mosh pit.

    I attended a Reggae concert in Santa Rosa, California, at which Bunny Wailer remarked that attending a Reggae concert just to sit was like going to a gym just to watch: not really what’s happening.

    When I think of Zen, I think of zazen.

    This morning thirty minutes seemed like forty when I sat, owing I’m sure to my having tripped the light fantastic last night at the local karioke parlor. Some things came forward for me as I sat; I have no doubt that my teacher is the experience in the posture, yet I am grateful to those who actually captured something of what’s involved in words. Dogen is one of the people whose teachings have been useful to me.

    For me, I’m looking to experience my own well-being when I sit, and the happiness that’s inherent in that. If there’s something I share with others who are drawn to sitting, it would be that, and the teachings of Dogen or Yuanwu or Gautama only have relevance with regard to that.

    If you find some kind of happiness in the experience of dance, slam-dance included, then the bands and the musicians and the history of rock ‘n roll in the U.S. of A. is relevant to that. Like Bunny Wailer said, just watching is not really where it’s at, when it comes to his music; I’m sure if he were here, Dogen would say just reading Shobogenzo is not really where it’s at, when it comes to what he had to say.

    (Andy McKee playing along to Michael Hedges, in a motel bathroom somewhere)

  3. Qiujaviit
    Qiujaviit September 7, 2015 at 4:56 am |

    It is 7th and still no info about the retreat in Lammi. 🙁
    Maybe next time!

    1. Fred
      Fred September 7, 2015 at 5:39 am |

      It’s a 4 day naked retreat, just you and Brad.

    2. Zafu
      Zafu September 7, 2015 at 7:43 am |

      Remember, meditation make zan masta so horny. He get blue balls by day 2!

      1. Used-rugs
        Used-rugs September 7, 2015 at 8:16 am |

        Actually, if you’d ever done a regular 7-day zen retreat then you’d know that meditation does make you very horny. Ask around. It’s very common amongst men and women.

        1. Zafu
          Zafu September 7, 2015 at 5:13 pm |

          Indeed, if fact I was reading a zen story the other day that confirms the fact. It goes a little something like this…

          Once upon a time a beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied “Me so horny!”

          When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Me so horny!” Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

          For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. “Me so horny!” Hakuin said as he handed them the child.

          1. Used-rugs
            Used-rugs September 7, 2015 at 6:40 pm |


          2. sri_barence
            sri_barence September 8, 2015 at 7:21 am |

            Zafu, I loved your wonderful and hilarious take on the old, “Is That So?” story. Brilliant!

            I’ve also experienced an increased libido during long retreats. Other senses seem to be enhanced as well, so maybe this is just a side-effect of zazen. After sitting for a long time, mental chatter decreases somewhat, so stimuli that would normally go unremarked seem more intense.

            Dogen at one point cautioned his students not to get caught up in “looking at flowers,” as this would distract from practice. Could this be more of the same thing?

      2. drocloc
        drocloc September 7, 2015 at 1:24 pm |

        Zafu – A typing piece of furniture!!
        Nice job, holder of rear ends.

    3. mtto
      mtto September 7, 2015 at 12:29 pm |

      I checked with Brad. There is no webpage for the retreat, and he thinks it is sold out anyway.

  4. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara September 7, 2015 at 12:00 pm |

    I need no excuse to link this, but thanks for the excuse Brad.

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 7, 2015 at 3:53 pm |

    “Discussion circuit goes to sauna with Brad Warner”-

    some kind of koans, here:

    “September debate within are in for a treat as our guest arrives Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner to discuss zeniläisyydestä.”

    “Electrical squirrel skins can be moved”

    “Guys, there’s no food at the sauna, so remember to bring something for snacks and at least, if you want to drink something else than water, bring your own bottle!”

    I think I get that last one.

  6. Fred
    Fred September 7, 2015 at 5:22 pm |

    “Electrical squirrel skins can be moved”

    I’m working that one as I go to sleep tonight, and right through my dreams.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 7, 2015 at 6:02 pm |

    Conveying oneself toward all things to carryout practice/verification is delusion and all things coming and carrying out practice/verification through the self is realization.

    (Dogen’s Genjo-koan)

    Commentary by Shohaku Okumura: “In our practice, the reality awakens to the reality and the reality actualizes the reality. We are not the subjects of a practice that is trying to attain some desirable thing called “enlightenment.” (from here)

    1. Fred
      Fred September 8, 2015 at 4:16 am |

      “Commentary by Shohaku Okumura: “In our practice, the reality awakens to the reality and the reality actualizes the reality. We are not the subjects of a practice that is trying to attain some desirable thing called “enlightenment.”

      Yes, Rinzai is bogus and practicing mindfulness is bogus, commercializing mindfulness is bogus, and Sam Harris is bogus.

  8. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 7, 2015 at 7:14 pm |

    Speaking of life changing!

    New article of mine up at The Hermetic Library on the amazing books of Jay Bremyer here:

  9. Zafu
    Zafu September 8, 2015 at 7:44 am |

    Could this be more of the same thing?

    When in doubt, take a can of mace, just in case. Meditation + Zen Powers + Blue Balls = horny old letch.

  10. Fred
    Fred September 8, 2015 at 10:17 am |

    Zen powers:

    60 steps to building character

  11. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 8, 2015 at 8:25 pm |

    “What gives the roller-coaster gnostic narrative an extra twist…”

    J. E. Mumbles, you are the Hunter Thompson of alchemic reviews.

    Crowley was a prolific occult writer as well as practitioner; at the beginning of his essay “On Sexual Freedom,” he states, “Bodily secretions suppressed, infiltrate the tissues, poisoning them. Semen unnaturally accumulated clogs the brain as bile does; morbid mental and moral symptoms result.” This echoes exactly the philosophy of sexual magic as expounded by Randolph, and denounced by the “Buddhist” Blavatsky.

    (from “The Flame of Love”, John Eberly, linked above)

    Similar to:

    There’s another way that orgasm might boost fertility. This one involves men. Sperm that sit around in the body for a week or more start to develop abnormalities that make them less effective at head-banging their way into the egg. British sexologist Roy Levin has speculated that this is perhaps why men evolved to be such enthusiastic and frequent masturbators. He said, “If I keep tossing myself off I get fresh sperm being made.” Which I thought was an interesting idea, theory. So now you have an evolutionary excuse.

    (from Mary Roach’s Ted Talk, here)

  12. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 9, 2015 at 7:40 pm |

    Well, thanks, Mark. I do like that paper. I’ve seen that TED talk quote somewhere before (here?). “The Hunter (S.) Thompson of alchemical reviews?” Wow. Can I quote you? Oh, I just did.

    Meanwhile..punks like skulls, right?

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 9, 2015 at 8:45 pm |

    Yes, you read it before; I was struck by the similarities between Crowley’s impression of things and the science, so I thought I’d repeat it.

    Punks on precepts:

    “Sorry,” I said finally. “I actually don’t know what the precepts are.”

    “That’s because you took the precepts in gibberish,” he said.

    …I asked Hobai for the meaning of the precepts and he printed them out from the ZMM website. Those precepts are:

    The Ten Grave Precepts
    Affirm life; Do not kill
    Be giving; Do not steal
    Honor the body; Do not misuse sexuality
    Manifest truth; Do not lie
    Proceed clearly; Do not cloud the mind
    See the perfection; Do not speak of others errors and faults
    Realize self and other as one; Do not elevate the self and blame others
    Give generously; Do not be withholding
    Actualize harmony; Do not be angry
    Experience the intimacy of things; Do not defile the Three Treasures

    I took one look at this and said, “These aren’t the real precepts.”

    (from “That’s So Zen”, Gesshin Greenwood, Sept. 8th)


    I kind of liked the positive side of those precepts, but then, I’m positively in my own world.

Comments are closed.