Guided By Voices?

First up. Here is a very nice review of the new audiobook edition of Hardcore Zen. Thanks, Punk Globe!

But it’s not all positives! Oh no! Gempo Roshi has lashed out against the audiobook in this new video:

Also, Zero Defex has been hard at work on a video shoot. Here’s a still from what we did on Monday at Wadsworth High School (of all places).

 We’ll be playing in Kent, Ohio this Saturday May 5th, 2012 at the Stone Tavern 110 E. Main St. in Kent. The show starts at 9. We go on later than that, though. Come and see Mick Hurray’s head float through the air!

I got an interesting email the other day that went like this:

I read Hardcore Zen when I was in college about 8 years ago, thought it was pretty excellent and then promptly forgot about it.  In between my mind exploded, I was diagnosed with probably every major mental illness that existed and I’ve been drugged to the gills by people who think they are ‘helping’.  I heard voices and still do occasionally.

The only thing besides a really incredible wife that has really helped me not put a bullet in my head is meditation and Buddhism, even though I hate almost everyone and everything that surrounds it.  After losing my mind a few times, I remembered reading somewhere something to the effect of “I don’t understand why people that hear voices listen to them. I’d tell them to fuck off and get a body”.  And for a long time, I thought, whoever this guy is a total fucking asshole who has no idea what he’s talking about.  It’s about as funny as a dead baby joke to someone who actually has a dead baby., It’s bad advice, too.

So a few days ago I’m in a hippy-dippy used bookstore and I found your book and read it again.  And it resonated with me much more than it had 8 years ago, it’s a fantastic book and it’s wonderful to hear someone else’s frustrations with the bullshit that surrounds Buddhism.  And then I found the quote that had stuck with me so long – in your book – and it sort of reflected everything else about Buddhism – that most people in these communities don’t know shit about mental illness, they’re just terrified of it and want to get away from it.

Why am I telling you this? Not to pin the blame on you over one fucking sentence in a book you wrote years ago and not because I believe you are intentionally perpetuating this prejudice.  Because if you consider yourself a teacher, I want to tell you that statements like these, while funny and true, cut deep.  They drive away people like me that need to know reality and need to know they aren’t alone at the same time that many mental-health practitioners are pushing shitty drugs and Orwellian doublespeak under the banner of mindfulness.

This is how I replied:

I just recorded the audiobook version of Hardcore Zen and when I came to that line I wanted to change it. This was before I even read your email. But I left it in because I feel really strongly that people who change works of art suck. Like George Lucas did with Star Wars. Ugh!

The reason I wanted to change it is that I’m now a lot more aware of the realities of mental illness than I was in 2003. So I realize now that joke is not really very good. On the other hand, it’s an honest statement of what I thought at the time. I feel like that’s often useful even when it’s wrong. Does that make sense? If people are put off by that statement, maybe they should be. It shows that I don’t have all the answers and people ought to know that.

Anyway, I know now it’s not as easy as what I wrote. I think I knew it at the time too. I think possibly what I was getting at was the Buddhist notion that you have to learn not to believe your own bullshit. Not everyone hears actual disembodied voices. But everyone tells themselves things & then believes those things. We all need to learn to tell ourselves to fuck off.

I’m really sorry the statement caused you trouble. I’m glad you’re getting better now. 

The issue of meditation and mental illness is really complex, especially these days. Traditionally, Buddhists have almost always touted meditation as a better treatment for mental illness than the standard medical methods. For example, somewhere in Shobogenzo Dogen gives a list of advice for practitioners. One of these is, “Don’t take medicine for mental illness.”

Of course the medicines prescribed for mental illness in Dogen’s time (13th century CE Japan) were not like the ones we have today. It’s hard to even imagine what he might have been referring to. Nor was mental illness understood in the way we understand it today. Which isn’t to say we have a complete understanding of it even now. But I think it’s safe to say our understanding of metal illness today is objectively better than it was in Dogen’s time.

Even so, these days a lot of meditation teachers still insist that meditation is a better treatment for mental illness than drugs. I tend to agree somewhat but only with some very significant reservations. I think ultimately, in the very long term, if one is extremely committed to meditation practice, with an exceedingly patient and loyal teacher, that meditation is probably a better way to go. But I think it’s extremely rare for all these conditions to come together. For example, I don’t think I could be patient enough to deal with a student who was seriously mentally ill no matter how dedicated he was. It also depends on the severity of the illness in question. These days medication for mental illness is prescribed for a lot of people who really don’t need it. That’s a whole debate in itself, which I’m not going to get into. 

There are a lot of people who really need these medications just to have any semblance of a normal life. There are a lot of people who might benefit from meditation, but who will not dedicate themselves to it enough for it to be really effective. In the real world it isn’t always possible to establish ideal conditions.

It’s kind of like dieting and exercise. I think it’s pretty clear that the best, most natural, least complicated way to slim down is through diet and exercise. But it’s a very different thing for someone who is twenty pounds overweight than it is for someone who is three-hundred pounds overweight. Somebody who weighs 450 pounds might die before diet and exercise could have a significant effect — even though he can take off twenty pounds through diet and exercise just like a slimmer person. He may therefore need something more drastic. Meditation and mental illness work something like that. But this is still a very incomplete metaphor.


In case people don’t get the joke with the video above, I was referencing a series called Ask Roshi. You can find several examples on YouTube. There’s one about The Law of Attraction in which Genpo tries to draw in fans of The Secret. There’s one on Why We Suffer in which Genpo identifies himself on screen as a “Zen Master.” Like I’ve said before, anyone who would use such a term except as a joke doesn’t have a single clue what Zen is about. These videos each have well over 10,000 views. 

It’s really warped what the general public thinks is significant and serious in terms of Zen or meditation in general.  I aim to spend the next couple years doing some significant damage to this bullshit.

99 Responses

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  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 8:25 am |


  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 8:29 am |

    Hey Brad,

    Big fan of your stuff here with a question for ya,,,

    I recall you writing that when HCZ was in the publishing process, that Wisdom Pubs passed it by a senior teacher for comment and that teacher suggested you practice a bit longer before publishing – or something to that effect. Was Genpo Roshi the person who Wisdom had look at your book?

    Thanks I'll take my answer offline.

  3. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 2, 2012 at 8:36 am |

    Welcome to the double-whammy.

    First: Funding is cut for social services programs.

    Second: The George W. Bush memorial de-recession continues for another decade.

    To sum up: "Nowhere to go, nothing to do."

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 2, 2012 at 8:45 am |

    I guess archery practice is easier with a target.

    As a Zen Master, Genpo has nothing left to attain, I suppose. Apart from all beings entering nirvana. Doubtless it's his compassion that leads him to speak, and in order to continue to work toward all beings entering nirvana, he himself needs food and shelter (that all beings should enter nirvana before him, how does that work, anyway!). That he puts a price tag on personal access to his teaching, maybe that just gives him a way to say no to some people, because he's so in demand.

    Is Genpo concerned with successors in the lineage he represents, I wonder (& how about Brad, for that matter)? My guess is that there's a private side to the teacher that is concerned with this, as the debt that he owes for having received certification in a lineage tradition.

    My heart goes out to the man.

  5. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner May 2, 2012 at 8:51 am |

    It wasn't Genpo who read Hardcore Zen and said I needed to practice more. The exact quote from the Famous Zen Master was, "There's nothing wrong with Brad that a year in sesshin wouldn't cure."

  6. Ray Mustard
    Ray Mustard May 2, 2012 at 9:00 am |

    That video made laugh.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 9:29 am |



  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 2, 2012 at 9:35 am |

    Hey thanks, Brad, I went and watched a couple of Dennis Genpo Merzel's videos, he has a lot of them out there and I give him credit for believing in what he's doing and putting it out there.

    His instruction on the posture of zazen is here:

    The Meditation Posture

    The technique of speaking to a larger part of oneself, or to a part of oneself that is connected to the whole universe, that's interesting. The triangle that includes small mind, big mind, and the compassionate heart (to use Merzel's phraseology) is interesting to me. The difficulty I think in his approach is that the connection with hypnogogic phenomena is not clearly stated, and the notion of action witnessed in a state of waking up or falling asleep is not developed.

    Of course, for me the emphasis on being awakened, or waking up, seems misleading. My Pali Text Society translations of the Gautamid's teachings seem straightforward, and his followers referred to him as the Exalted One, the Happy One, but at least in these translations never as the Awakened One (as far as I recollect). Could the emphasis on awakening be a vestige of Hindu teachings? These ideas tend to end up all in one pot after awhile, and the assumption gets made that all the descriptions are universally interchangeable.

    In the language of mathematics, the starting assumptions are critical, as far as the ability to describe relationships without contradiction. In the language of the immaterial, the experience that is being described may be universal, but the vocabulary used in the description must be limited to preclude the development of contradictions, if the descriptions are to be reliable.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 9:43 am |

    "I give him credit for believing in what he's doing"

    Is that sincere on your part?

  10. Misha
    Misha May 2, 2012 at 9:47 am |

    "But I left it in because I feel really strongly that people who change works of art suck."

    What? Writers correct their earlier editions all of the time. Especially to correct what is an egregious or known error. Writing may be art, but not all writing is art, and to suggest that one doesn't correct an error in nonfiction writing is really to place one's writing on a pedestal where good nonfiction writing does not belong.

    I think you didn't change it in the audio edition because you like controversy. Controversy is fine to build a brand, but thoughtless or reckless controversy, esp. in the field of nonfiction dharma writing (and touching on the field of mental health), is really not very 'dharmic.'

    Genpo is a bullshit artist. To keep clear of his tainted sphere, we all need to be thoughtful and careful about what we put out there….

  11. Khru
    Khru May 2, 2012 at 9:49 am |

    I've found Zen to be contrived and incredibly pretentious.

    I've found myself to be contrived and
    incredibly pretentious.

  12. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 9:52 am |

    Another thing regarding medication vs. meditation: sometimes, in the case of what I think you might call "less serious" versions of mental illness such as clinical depression, OCD and anxiety disorders, a drug regimen can help a person get to the point where they can seriously devote themselves to a meditation practice (not to mention other helpful habits like eating healthy and exercising regularly). It can act as a crutch in a positive way in that it lets a person "walk" with the assistance of the "crutch" until he's healed enough to "walk" on his own.

  13. Harumpff.
    Harumpff. May 2, 2012 at 9:54 am |

    Dude, you are. But it's okay.

  14. Dr. Blunt
    Dr. Blunt May 2, 2012 at 9:56 am |

    Isn't the point of the HC audio-book version to hear voices in your head? Where else do you hear voices, anyway?

  15. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 9:58 am |

    Dr. Blunt, take your koans elsewhere. Please.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 10:05 am |

    I hear voices too.. It's driving me to distraction. The voice never stays on topic. It always says the same things over and over again.. Bush, Republicans, Christians, Something about a poodle.. I CAN'T TAKE IT MUCH LONGER!!

  17. Harry
    Harry May 2, 2012 at 10:40 am |

    Nice use of rainstick in the new promo video.

  18. Collective Unconscious
    Collective Unconscious May 2, 2012 at 10:45 am |

    music at beginning of new gempo vid sounds like intro to boy's don't cry. coincidence?

  19. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 10:47 am |

    That is one strange promo pic for the band. If you had DEVO hats on it would make some sort of sense except when you spot Jimi down at the bottom lurking like he's about to give you both hand jobs or somethin'.

  20. Mumon
    Mumon May 2, 2012 at 11:14 am |

    Speaking of "Genpo" you can be a "friend" of his "Big" "Mind" for a tax deductible one-time yearly donation of $120, or monthly donation of $10.
    Of course that'd help keep him in business, so you could continue to fund Sock-Roshi.

    I bet it's not really Genpo's "Big" "Mind" and it's really not Big at all.

  21. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner May 2, 2012 at 12:09 pm |

    Misha said:

    I think you didn't change it in the audio edition because you like controversy. Controversy is fine to build a brand, but thoughtless or reckless controversy, esp. in the field of nonfiction dharma writing (and touching on the field of mental health), is really not very 'dharmic.'

    If that were the only thing I wanted to change but did not, you'd have a good point. But mein gott in himmel! There were sooo many things I wanted to change. Almost every page had some little detail I wanted to fix.

    There were a number of factual errors relating to Zero Defex that I also didn't correct. I wasn't in the band for 2 years, as it implies, but only for just about a year. When you're 18 and 19, time just feels longer somehow.

  22. Harry
    Harry May 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm |

    …Everything feels longer when you're 18 or 19. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

  23. DB
    DB May 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm |

    Brad wrote: "It's really warped what the general public thinks is significant and serious in terms of Zen or meditation in general. I aim to spend the next couple years doing some significant damage to this bullshit."

    I, for one, can't wait.


  24. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |

    "Big Mind is great. Kicks ass."

    ~ Brad Warner

  25. Squib
    Squib May 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |

    I came across a mindful meditation class when my brain went haywire. (Also meds).

    A counsellor recommended this blog (right around the time you posted about why "mindful" is a four-letter word.

    Started zazen – which will continue long after I'm off the meds.

    moral of the story is: who the fuck is Genpo?

  26. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm |

    I hear voices…

    from far far away

    if you listen mindfully,

    you can hear them say:

    "Welcome to the Hotel California!"

    It does look like a mission.



    In Hotel California?

    No way, Jose.

    There are enough f*cked up folks to cover ALL the bases. And I do mean ALL.


  27. Danny
    Danny May 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |

    Hi Brad,

    do you breath slowly and deeply (abdominally) during zazen?

    I don't mean if you do so by intention but if you check while sitting for half an hour, do you do so?

    Thank you,


  28. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm |

    Khru brooks no nonsense.

    'Anonymous said…
    "I give him credit for believing in what he's doing"

    Is that sincere on your part?'

    You can present evidence of insincerity? You have the smoking fun? He is red-handed? inflagrante? what!…

  29. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm |

    ok, a little tired today, I meant you think Gpeno does not believe in what he is doing? He puts forward "Bug Mind" (avoided trademark issues, there), but really only considers it a beginner's prop, a crutch, a toy? He himself is practicing "nonthinking", or excruciatis curse, or something like psychology? $120 a year, that's what I pay at the local Zen center, if I wish to be a sustaining member. Watching him instruct on the sitting posture on the video, I may wonder what he has witnessed about the efficacy of "Big Mind", but he doesn't make me feel like Brad is dirty by association… sometimes I think that's what Brad is feeling, when he wants to dis Gnepo, straight up…

  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 5:17 pm |

    Genpo Roshi is a person who is doing something that Brad does not want him to do.

    Brad wants Genpo Roshi to stop doing what he does not want him to do.

    Therefore, Brad is doing something that Genpo Roshi most likely does not want him to do.

    He is making fun of Genpo Roshi so that other people might notice this and question what Genpo Roshi is doing.

    If less people want Genpo Roshi to do what he does, it is possible that Genpo Roshi may stop doing it.

  31. mysterion's mom
    mysterion's mom May 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |

    Harry said:

    "..Everything feels longer when you're 18 or 19. Nyuk nyuk nyuk."

    Wait a few years Harry. Everything WILL be less harder, better, faster, stronger.. Sad but true.

  32. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 6:05 pm |

    (Reuters) – – Nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012, according to a new poll.

    If that were true why would Brad be accepting gigs at Wadsworth High?

  33. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 6:33 pm |


  34. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 9:24 pm |

    The world will end EXACTLY at the end of my lifetime.

  35. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 2, 2012 at 10:48 pm |


    The world has already ended.

    You missed the closing credits.

    The sound track was o.k.

    Sam Jones was the Best Boy.

    The popcorn was stale.

    The Courtroom scene was o.k.

  36. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 2:51 am |

    mysterion, You are a double-whammy. It's time for a break again. A real one this time.

  37. Pjotr
    Pjotr May 3, 2012 at 6:09 am |

    Thanks to the person who wrote the personal story about voices. And let you publish it.

    I went trough a big deal of mental shit myself. Medication and therapy helped me to get back on track. And made it possible for me to dedicate myself to, eventually zazen leaving medication and therapy behind. Quitting medication forced me to face myself, it was hard. But with good friends and teachers and the will to heal myself it was possible to get over it.
    I think for me, due to a lack of knowledge about my mind and spirituality I had no clue what was happening to me, I concluded I had to be crazy, telling people my experiences (who did'nt know shit about 'the mind' like myself) Also concluded I was crazy… ending up believing I was crazy. But nevertheless starting to open myself to spirituality and stuff like that showed me something completely different. Opening to that also meeting new people and possibilities. And now I can be thankful for those hellish experiences and the good friends I've met. Amen!

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 6:29 am |

    ok-from now on genpo roshi has to do what brad warner wants him to

  39. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 7:11 am |


    genpo roshi should stop using words that connect his big mind exercise to zen.

    is that it?

    Hey Brad – what *exactly* should Genpo Roshi stop doing??

    Seriously, can you make it clear for us readers in a sentence or two?

  40. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 3, 2012 at 9:06 am |

    I really don't get THIS.

    Wa ist los mitt mein Berliner???

    Techno mix???

    It must be Zen. It's interesting.

    It's 99% mental.

  41. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 3, 2012 at 9:15 am |

    a little MORE confusing…

    but then confusion is good…

    Confusion say: "Support bacteria — it's the only culture some people have!"

  42. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 9:56 am |

    If you take your analogy to an idiotic extreme then you're saying something like 'Zen is mind fitness'. Being enlightened, you're the Serena Williams of mental tennis (…or something) and over there's some fat kid. The fat kid is fat because a) he's lazy and eats too much b) he has some sort of physical ailment c) his chakras are out of alignment.

    Even though you're Serena and are really good at tennis, you probably have a little bit of insight on a), none on b) and think c) is total hokum.

    If you got together a spiritual leader, a fitness instructor and a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, you might come up with some greater understanding of the big picture of "why is this kid fat and Serena is so athletic".

    I'm going to venture a guess that this isn't the case with mental illness, the entire science has an incomplete picture.

    The serious question then – does being enlightened give you any insight – from a theoretical perspective, not how to fix it – or what mental illness is? Or more broadly, do eastern spiritual leaders have something to say about this more than similar edicts about booze or sex?

  43. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 11:21 am |

    You're doing a heck of a job. You fucked up the hypertext links to THIS and MORE.
    What's with this music and the hyperlink errors? Have you been experimenting with The Spirit Molecule?
    Have a groovy day.

  44. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm |

    THIS =

    anyone with the slightest experience with the web will parse

    from the HTML in the URL bar.

    and MORE =

    is parsed to:

    Blogger built them with the added:

    so I left it (// as a Zen 'experience.'

  45. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 3, 2012 at 12:08 pm |




  46. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 12:12 pm |

    "I meant to do that."

    The 2nd most common excuse in the book.


    "She told me she was 18."

  47. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm |




  48. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  49. katageek
    katageek May 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |

    Wouldn't it be great if there were actual Zen retreats where the roshi was ACTUALLY a puppet?


    I want a retreat run by Statler and Waldorf.

  50. Misha
    Misha May 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm |


    If I were your editor, I'd want you to focus your writing (and you do write well, when you want to…) on a "hardcore" approach, but one that makes use of your intellect, and less of the sense of the 20 something rebel. Many people see Kerouac as a visionary, but my own sense is that he was a bit of a nutcase,alcoholic, and an a-hole to people, including his own daughter.

    My point is that one can take a rebel or hardcore approach, and yet maintain a sense of dignity and speak more from the point of view of the grizzled sage, and less from the 'crazy wisdom' point of the kind of guy that drives his car into a joke shop and paralyses himself.

    Zen and Dharma essays are challenged enough in the US without skilled writers adding more wasabi to an already nearly indigestible product.

    If you weren't intelligent, and were not a good writer, I would not bother to write these missives…I just think you're capable (at the age of cough, nearly 50) to do better.

    You don't need to be hardcore, to take a hard look at Zen, and get at the core of what Zen practice is about.

    From one 50'er to another…


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