Spiritual Tourism and Spiritual Journalism

I’m almost done with an e-book that will be titled Hardcore Zen Strikes Again! and will consist mainly of articles I wrote back in the early 2000’s for my first website. Most of these articles haven’t been available since around 2003 when I took them off the web in anticipation of the release of my book Hardcore Zen. I’ve added new introductions and afterwords to each of the articles as well as a new introduction and afterword to the book as a whole. Plus I’ve also included a chapter that was cut out of Hardcore Zen and an article I wrote for a magazine I’ll bet none of you out there has ever even heard of.

And there’ll be another new item soon too. People started talking about an audio book version of Hardcore Zen almost as soon as the book was released. But nobody ever did anything. Around a year and a half a go a small record label approached me with a concrete offer to do the audio book. When I mentioned this to the publishers of the printed book, they were like, “Don’t do it with them! We’ll do an audio book!” OK, said I, let’s do it.

Then I waited, and waited, and waited some more. After about six months of this I asked the publishers what was going on. “We don’t wanna do it anymore,” they said.

Oh. OK. Thanks for letting me know, I replied.

So I decided to do it myself. My friend Pirooz Kaleyah, director of Shoplifting from American Apparel, gave me a microphone. I plugged it into my MacBook, opened up Garage Band and started reading the book out loud. It’s a pretty D.I.Y. thing, but it sounds good. Almost professional!

I added some of the actual music I talk about in the text and a few other surprises to try to give a bit of extra value to people who’ve already read the book. I’ll be plugging both of these like mad here once they’re done.


OK. So what about the subject of “spiritual tourism” and “spiritual journalism” mentioned in the title of this piece?

The response my last blog posting got me started thinking about the difference between what I think of as spiritual tourism and spiritual journalism and actual Buddhist practice. I need to be clear from the outset: Spiritual tourism and journalism are not bad things. In fact I appreciate them. Especially some of the journalism that’s being produced these days. But I think a lot of people are getting confused and think that they’re the same thing as Buddhist practice. Or they appear to think that Buddhist practice in the 21st century ought to resemble spiritual tourism and journalism more.

Spiritual tourism and journalism both involve going out into the big wide world and sampling a little bit of a lot of different types of spiritual practices. In the case of spiritual journalism it’s essential to do this. A person who wishes to write about a wide variety of spiritual practices needs to know about a wide variety of spiritual practices. She needs to read about them and to experience them. She needs to know the differences between them and the historical reasons for those differences.

In the case of spiritual tourism, it’s perfectly acceptable to go around to various spiritual centers and suchlike and see what’s out there.

But in doing either of these activities, it is impossible to get any real depth of experience in any of the the spiritual practices you sample. You cannot get deeply and fully into a practice that takes decades to develop by taking a weekend retreat or a week-long retreat or a month-long retreat. You sure can’t get that by stopping by for the Saturday morning service a few times.

In my case, I chose a different path. But this is kind of the way I like to do things. For example, ever since I was a little kid I wanted to go to Japan. When I became an adult I figured it was at last possible for me to really go there. But I didn’t want to experience Japan as a tourist. I didn’t want to run over there and spend a week gawking at the sights in various cities. I wanted to deeply experience Japan. And to do that I had to live there, full time, for at least a year, I figured.

I found a way to do that by joining the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. And after that I really immersed myself by getting a job at Tsuburaya Productions, a company one could argue is an important producer of Japanese culture. I lived in a Japanese house, married a Japanese woman, and I spoke and read Japanese every single day for eleven years. It was about the Japanese-est Japan experience one could have.

I took this even further by limiting my Japan focus even more narrowly. In my decade-plus of living in Japan I rarely left Tokyo and its suburbs. I loved Tokyo and wanted to thoroughly experience just that one city. In order to do so, I had to limit my experience of the rest of Japan. I visited Osaka and Kyoto and Sapporo and a few other cities. But those were tourist excursions. I lived in Tokyo.

I’m not trying to say I’m a better person than someone who just visits Japan, or that I’m harder or tougher or whatever. But I am saying that my experience of Japan was almost entirely different from the kind of experience you get as a tourist.

In terms of Buddhist practice, you really need this kind of immersion. You have to pick one teacher and stick with that teacher for a long time. In doing so, you learn your teacher’s ways very thoroughly. But you necessarily miss out on having what one might call a “well-rounded understanding” of Buddhism as a whole.

I’ve taken some flak from people who think it’s a terrible thing that I don’t know much about Buddhism beyond what I learned from my two teachers. And if I were trying to be a spiritual journalist, maybe they’d have a point. But I’m not. I realize that by writing a blog I tend to invite people to think of me that way. I believe I’ve made it clear on a number of occasions that I’m not a journalist. But I don’t expect every one to read every last bit of writing I put up on the Interwebs.

That doesn’t mean I have no right to talk about the other things I see going on out there. It’s just that my perspective is that of a practitioner, not that of a journalist.

The fact that I have such a narrow focus in terms of Buddhism does not make me unique at all. It makes me an oddity to those who mistake me for a spiritual journalist. But among Buddhists, it’s perfectly normal. In fact, when I go to places like Tassajara I see it even more clearly. A student of San Francisco Zen Center teacher Norman Fischer, for example, will often be almost completely ignorant of the teachings of San Francisco Zen Center teachers Steve Stuckey or Reb Anderson. The focus is that narrow, even though they often live right next to each other in the same gosh darned temple. This is very typical of the way things are done in Zen practice, as well as in all other forms of Buddhism.

I’ve actually got a more well-rounded understanding of Buddhism than most Buddhists I know since I travel so much. I often end up telling people at the Zen centers I visit about how their practices differ from what folks do a couple towns away — often even when the temples in question are in the very same lineage.

There is nothing wrong with being a journalist or tourist who has had a tongue tip taste of all the things on offer from the vast smorgasbord of spiritual practices available these days. It’s fine. But their bellies are so full after all that sampling that they usually don’t have room to enjoy a full meal of just one dish. And that is a very different experience.

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140 Responses

Page 1 of 3
  1. Senshin_dk
    Senshin_dk April 2, 2012 at 9:48 am |

    I find that many are affraid to commit them self to only one teacher, because they say it limits their "freedom" I often think it has to do with the fear of truly letting go of your self and trust that someone knows better.

    Having one teacher is freedom. It gives me focus. I don't have to run around wasting time on sorting through which teachings I like or don't like. That would be cheating myself!

    I appreciate this post.
    And having ADHD I look forward to your book as audio.

    Thank you.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 2, 2012 at 9:56 am |

    I agree that having just one teacher and one practice is important. But I also happen to be interested in a lot of things. I read other teachers and in other traditions because they interest me. That seems natural. I'm not varying from the essential teaching of Soto Zen (which I also practice, as you do). I just read other things.

    In that way it was unfortunate that you picked on Reggie Ray in your last post. Although he teaches a kind of Tibetan Buddhism, his teaching is very body focused, and in that way very much like Soto Zen. I thought his latest book, Touching Enlightenment with the Body, was fascinating, and most helpful. Anyone who practices zazen would profit from it.

  3. BillZ
    BillZ April 2, 2012 at 10:18 am |

    Spiritual journalism allows for eclecticism but for those on the Path sampling and tasting from all and sundry can lead to a journey on the surface rather than a journey deep inside.

  4. Bodhidharma's Beard
    Bodhidharma's Beard April 2, 2012 at 11:22 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Bodhidharma's Beard
    Bodhidharma's Beard April 2, 2012 at 11:31 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. MarkS
    MarkS April 2, 2012 at 11:55 am |

    Saw this on the Shambala site and had to share. http://www.tbds.org/thich-nhat-hanh-collection-1.html After looking at Thich Nhat Hanh's jewelry collection, I'm thinking about a line of sandals.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm |

    It's all about the extra value!

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 2, 2012 at 12:29 pm |

    Could you clarify the new book thing a little, is this some "remake" of Hardcore Zen or a new book altogether? A hollywood style reboot of the series? 🙂

  9. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 2, 2012 at 12:40 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. pattern recognition
    pattern recognition April 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm |

    Go home mentally ill white trash gaywad.


  11. PhilBob-SquareHead
    PhilBob-SquareHead April 2, 2012 at 1:19 pm |

    "I" would like to present this to all of you:

    Your diploma

  12. Khru
    Khru April 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm |

    The further one goes,
    the less one knows.

  13. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 2, 2012 at 2:23 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Daniel
    Daniel April 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm |

    It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that reading about and talking about meditation was not the same thing as actually doing the practice. So I switched to podcasts. By the way I have gone through all of them. Do you have anymore to put up?

  15. mtto
    mtto April 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. mtto
    mtto April 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm |

    Hi Daniel,

    I'm the editor of the podcast. Glad you like it. Brad gave me tons of talks and there are a lot of good ones. There are two limiting factors: 1) my time and 2) the monthly upload size limit given our small budget. Every time someone mentions that they like the podcast on here it lights a fire under my ass to put out another episode, so I'll try to get one out in the next week or two. A review on iTunes would be much appreciated!

  17. mtto
    mtto April 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm |

    Hardcore Zen Podcast for those who don't know what we're talking about.

  18. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles April 2, 2012 at 5:05 pm |

    I think the new e-book and audio HCZ projects sound great, Brad! Exciting news and I look forward to hearing more as it develops.

    As to spiritual tourism/journalism, I am reminded of the old Sufi saying,

    Dig lots of shallow holes and find nothing, dig deeply in one place and find water.

    Somehow, I have had the best of both worlds in that for twenty years I dug deeply indeed with the same teacher in Sufism, a complex, complicated path, who understood that I was a dedicated practitioner with an inquiring mind who naturally explored all kinds -as many as possible, in fact- of spiritual paths not only for their own sake, but also in an attempt to better understand Sufism.

    I cannot imagine taking one approach to spirituality out of the greater context of all world religions/paths/practices. I just don't think it is possible. If you don't have black to compare it with, how can you know "white?"

    Anyone interested in something I wrote for Buddhist Geeks a couple years ago on this subject are referred to: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2010/04/the-shotgun-approach-2/

    My teacher died a few years ago and his son became the head dog. It became a strange proposition to feature him in this new role, pretty much a peer of mine when his father was alive. So while I hold the principals of Sufism in the highest regard, I floundered awhile and eventually came back to what I had found fulfilling prior to finding Sufism in the first place: Zen.* And I found this blog and Brad. And it made me very happy indeed.

    So as far as having one teacher and one practice goes, I know enough about that. It has its merits. But there are those of us with the need to also explore and involve ourselves if we choose to in any/all of the rich traditions the world has to offer, with as many teachers as we want.

    And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    May all beings find peace.

    *(However, presently I feel no need to adhere to any particular spiritual label at all)

  19. Daniel
    Daniel April 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |

    Great job with those podcasts man. They are fantastic! My iTunes review was titled something like : so good I can't believe it's free. Anyways no rush, I understand the time constraints all too well. Again thanks for your efforts in getting some awesome material out there for the rest of us to devour.

  20. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 2, 2012 at 5:57 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 2, 2012 at 9:25 pm |

    How do you Zen Buddhist's feel about MLM marketing? It's the only way I know how to make money. If I didn't do this I would be homeless.

  23. Anony002
    Anony002 April 2, 2012 at 9:29 pm |

    Anony001 sed:

    "How do you Zen Buddhist's feel…"

    they don't.

  24. element
    element April 2, 2012 at 11:26 pm |

    Why buddhism…

    why not drop that, and study the truth

    Isn't your own personality enough, if its clear

    Teacher – a person above me.
    Only when he teaches without beeing a teacher

    Zazen – a practice isolated from life, in front of a wall.
    How can zazen help one in the midst of life, with ones neurotic, sick, conditioned setup that is making people and society sicker everyday. How can I be free from the past, bear pain…??? Zazen?

    "Nothing" should get between me and reality, you said about the bite of TNH, for example mindfullness gets in the way of the sunrise. What about zazen gets in the way of whatever.

    Nothing should get in the way

    I think you could profit a bit by refreshing your lecture of J. Krishnamurti…

  25. Uku
    Uku April 2, 2012 at 11:58 pm |

    John E Mumbles wrote

    Dig lots of shallow holes and find nothing, dig deeply in one place and find water.

    Yes! That's the spirit! It's totally different to stay in one lineage, rely on one teacher and one tradition than hassle around as a tourist. But I have ranted about this enough in the previous comment section, but I'd like to say it again as my personal statement: Buddhism is not about tourism. One teacher, one lineage, one tradition.

  26. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 12:49 am |

    What do you mean by "authentically" Japanese?
    I live in Tokyo, and remember walking with my Israeli friend through Ebisu when he talked about seeing the "real Japan" in the homeless area of Ueno.
    I don't get people who talk about Kamakura, Nara etc as being "real" or "authentic" Japan rather than more modernized parts of Tokyo for example. The "reality" is that the contemporary Tokyo salaryman who drives a VW, listens to the Beatles, and eats pizza is more "Japanese" than the fetishist gaijin dressing in robes and eating natto.
    I think it's really insulting to Tokyoites to imply that somehow they are not "authentic" Japanese because they don't conform to your (nostalgic? fantasy?) ideas of what "real" Japan is (like my Israeli friend).
    Tokyo is Japan.

  27. Harry
    Harry April 3, 2012 at 2:33 am |

    Brad: "In terms of Buddhist practice, you really need this kind of immersion. You have to pick one teacher and stick with that teacher for a long time. In doing so, you learn your teacher's ways very thoroughly. But you necessarily miss out on having what one might call a "well-rounded understanding" of Buddhism as a whole."

    I don't think that this is neccesarily true if we keep an open mind and are prepaired to read and otherwise learn a bit about Buddhism. We can do that while remaining true to our own practices and observances.

    Where the above starts to change is where a person makies the ancient 'religious' blunder of not being able to distinguish what is right for him/her with what should be right for everyone else.

    If Buddhism is a recipe for reinforcing or celebrating that very heightened (and costly) form of human ignorance then, put simply, it ain't working.



  28. Fred
    Fred April 3, 2012 at 4:18 am |

    "Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things."

  29. Fred
    Fred April 3, 2012 at 4:25 am |

    A man dreaming about different
    spiritual practices could still be
    a butterfly dreaming it was tasting
    all the flowers.

  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 4:41 am |

    …or commenting on the blog.

  31. Harry
    Harry April 3, 2012 at 5:12 am |

    Anyone else detect more than a touch of 'black and white thinking' in what his Royal Bradsterness says?

    Looks like a conservative quagmire to me… someone reverting to magical/wooly religious thinking to justify a propped up nonsense. Poorly reasoned, poorly practiced, and without any sound basis in the realities of people's lives besides offering the very cold comfort of some sense of being a 'Buddhist'.

    Hardcore my ass.



  32. gniz
    gniz April 3, 2012 at 5:23 am |

    I don't think there's anything wrong with sticking with a good teacher/lineage if you find one that suits you.

    I've basically been with the same teacher for over a decade, and haven't found much reason to go elsewhere either…

    That said, I don't see why people constantly attack those who are searching. The search is part of it too. Is there spiritual tourism? Sure there is.

    But some people are also just not willing to learn from just any ol' teacher and I can see why. There is some luck in finding the right one.

    It would be like me making fun of Brad for not having settled down with one woman yet. He tried but it didn't work out. Do I give him a hard time for that? Do I accuse him of being a relationship tourist if he dates a few women over the course of a few years?

    Do I say that he can't have any insights into love or relationships because he's only dating?

    The point is that, yes, it's nice to settle down with one person/teacher/lineage. But attacking those who have not and insinuating that they can't have real insight is a little bit unfair, imo.

  33. Jinzang
    Jinzang April 3, 2012 at 7:01 am |

    Why buddhism…why not drop that, and study the truth

    Buddhism is not the truth. Buddhism is a path to the truth. The truth cannot be studied, for the same reason that it cannot be taught. The best one can do is show the path to the truth.

    Isn't your own personality enough, if its clear

    If you have clarity, simply remaining in that clarity is enough. The clarity will clarify itself. But since most only have a conceptual understanding of clarity, we need a path.

    Teacher – a person above me. Only when he teaches without being a teacher

    Anyone who teaches is by definition a teacher. The teacher is "above" you only in the sense of having more knowledge or experience. Else why listen to them?

    Zazen – a practice isolated from life, in front of a wall. How can zazen help one in the midst of life, with ones neurotic, sick, conditioned setup that is making people and society sicker everyday. How can I be free from the past, bear pain…??? Zazen?

    To remain free of attachment to the past, present, and future is the whole practice of zazen.

    "Nothing" should get between me and reality, you said about the bite of TNH, for example mindfullness gets in the way of the sunrise. What about zazen gets in the way of whatever. Nothing should get in the way.

    It's your concept of reality that stands between you and it, not some practice.

    I think you could profit a bit by refreshing your lecture of J. Krishnamurti…

    Oh, forget get everything I said. Someone who has glommed onto Krishnamurti is pretty much hopless.

  34. Jessica
    Jessica April 3, 2012 at 7:44 am |

    The whole concept of "spiritual tourism" seems a little absurd to me, at least from a zen buddhist perspective. I was under the impression that the notion that one location, be it a shrine, grave, monument, natural formation, whatever, might be more 'spiritual' than another was considered bunk by zen buddhists. This is what spiritual tourism – actually all forms of tourism – thrives on, no? The idea that you really need to see this particular thing because it's way cooler than what you've got at home. Or like –
    that seeing this or that statue of this or that saint or sage is far more edifying than organizing your record collection or feeding the cat.

  35. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 8:06 am |

    good point. searching for a resource is different than searching for amusement.

  36. element
    element April 3, 2012 at 8:17 am |


    nothing against Zazen, but it is not enough, thats what I wanted to say.

    There is something missing in Brads teaching. For me Krishnamurti fills that missing piece.

  37. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 9:00 am |

    mysterion said, "
    I also found Kamakura, Kyoto, Fujisawa, and a half dozen other places to be much more authentically Japanese."

    How is that even possible? Because they are more like Japan of old? That is very conservative thinking. You are stuck on an idea you have of Japan. Things always change. Japan embraces change even if you do not.

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 10:07 am |

    concerning embracing, what exactly is 'japan'?

  39. Weasel Tracks
    Weasel Tracks April 3, 2012 at 11:47 am |


    Pilgrimage is a useful practice. Seen in one way, nothing and no one is better or worse than another. Seen a different way, shit is great for a fly, not so much so for a human.

    I would rather go to a Zen service led by Ven. Brad than one held by Zen Master Rama.

    I went to see the Buddha Relics Tour because I read in some Suttas that it's good to make offerings to Buddhas, and in lieu of a living Buddha, to the Bo tree, to relics, to images, to sangha, etc. Wasn't really expecting much, but my heart/mind got so blown, I went to see them twice more over the decade.

    And, of course, you don't have to leave your own back yard to have Nirvana find you.

  40. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  41. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  42. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  43. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles April 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm |

    Yes, I am sure you could say more about that, Chas, as I did years ago in an article writ for the Philosophers of Nature's journal The Stone titled "Santiago de Compostella – An Inner Journey" examining the alchemical symbolism buried in the concept, as well as the model par excellence for Xtian "spiritual tourism" to follow. I'll send it to you when I find it again.

    Meanwhile, it is also interesting perhaps to note Sufi mystic/martyr Mansur al-Hallaj's suggestion to circumambulate the "kaaba of the heart" essentially negating the need for the traditional Haaj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

    Among other reasons this got him drawn and quartered by the Ulema, the 12th century mainstream Islamic clerics.

    No doubt this idea would get virtually the same response today.

  44. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles April 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm |

    As to Leadbetter, that old pedophile, finding a guru in a 14 year old boy… Really? Ya think?!

  45. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  46. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |

    "I am interested in working through the jhanas. Is this typically done by practitioners without the guidance of a teacher? Would it be possible for you to make suggestions on helpful web-based guidance on entering and working through the jhanas?"

    Reply by Discussion Leader Brad Warner on February 20, 2012, 11:34 am:

    'Someone on Twitter warned folks that my advice was good, but to remember that "it is ZEN advice."

    If you brought this question to a Zen teacher, she or he would most likely respond by being very dismissive, perhaps telling you to ignore these states and they'll go away. When you receive an answer like this — and I have on numerous occasions — it can feel cold and unhelpful. I often felt angry and resentful when hearing answers like this to what seemed to me to be profound and serious questions.

    The thing is, though, that when you talk about special states of consciousness and what to do with them, what you're bringing to the teacher is not your state at the present moment. What you're describing is your memory of a past state and your plans for what to do if that state should occur again in the future. And this itself is the root of our real problems, our tendency to regard the past and future as more important than this moment.

    You are certainly free to try using the absorptive states to deepen insight. But I feel like you'd be cheating yourself out of the opportunity to use the whole of your life to deepen insight. You'd start to regard these rare and unusual states as more important than the ones that occur most of the time. Then 5% of your day might begin to take over 95% of your life. I'd say that if such states occur, it's OK to enjoy them while they last. But do so very carefully.

    Sometimes such states are just another clever trick of the mind to move you away from what's really important. I'm not sure, for example, I'd want to ride in a car being driven by someone in a "deep absorptive state" unless, of course, they were deeply absorbed in the act of driving a car. When viewing a basketball game with your family, perhaps a more important task is to be with your family than to attend to your state of mind.'

  47. "...what's..."
    "...what's..." April 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm |

    "…what's really important." ???

  48. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm |

    off topic question…

    Does Brad really think that unless one is sitting in full lotus or half lotus it is not zazen?

    Because if he does, then that's a load of bullshit.

  49. mtto
    mtto April 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |

    off topic question:

    The answer to your question is in the last chapter of "Sex Sin and Zen".

Comments are closed.