The following is a radio interview I did in Montreal in 2005 with Thibault DuChene. Thibault was then a grad student in psychology who was very interested in Zen. He was a student of Albert Low, a Zen teacher and author based in Montreal. Thibault also ran a radio show called The Beer O’Clock for a local college station.
I don’t usually like my own interviews. But this one came out sorta good. Thibault asked some better questions than radio interviewers usually do. That gave me a chance to try and explain what this Buddhist stuff is about as best I could. I originally transcribed this interview to use it in my book Sit Down and Shut Up. But I cut it from the book before publication. So, even though it’s now 15 years old, I’d like to present the interview to you here. Enjoy.
The program starts off with an introduction by a guy who sounds like either a grizzled old cowboy on the range or a wise, but drunk-off-his-ass old man in a corner bar. So imagine that as you read the introduction he gave me:
Brad Warner is just one man but he wears a whole lot of strange-ass hats. He’s a Zen priest, a punk rock front-man and he’s also the author of the hipster handbook ‘Hardcore Zen’ And how does he find the time to slip into Godzilla costumes and make Japanese monster movies? Tune in to find out. Keep your ears on it’s gonna get strange
Thibault: So tonight our guest is Brad Warner. Brad Warner is a punk rocker, Monster Movie maker and author and Zen priest. He’s here in Montreal for the Fantasia Film Festival. So, Brad, what is Zen?
Brad: What is Zen? Ooooh that’s a tough question. An American I met last week was saying it’s like Buddhism without all the hoo ha, without all the big trappings and religious looking things.
It’s a very austere practice, very quiet, centered on a kind of meditation. I don’t even like to use the word “meditation” because I think it’s pretty different from what people usually think of as meditation. But it’s called zazen. In zazen practice you sit in the lotus posture with your feet up crossed and look at a wall for a long time.
Zen is a branch of Buddhism which attempted to get back to the original teaching that Buddha taught 2500 years ago, before a lot of other things got layered on top of it, making it into something more like a religion than a philosophy.
It’s hard to use the words correctly, because when you say the word “religion,” people have a lot of different images what that word means. But to me, it strips away all the religious aspects and gets down to the core of the philosophy.
Thibault: Now, you just said you have a reluctance to use the word meditation. What is the difference between meditation and zazen?
Brad: Well, generally meditation means you’re sitting in your lotus posture with your legs all twisted together and you’re trying to achieve some kind of special mental state which is usually described to you by your teacher or by books, or whatever. You might chant, or you might repeat in your mind some kind of phrase over and over or you might kind of visualize something. There are various different practices.
In zazen you’re basically sitting in the same posture with your legs crossed and your back straight and you’re staring at a wall, but you’re not trying to “get” anything out of that practice. You’re just sitting there, not particularly trying to stop your thoughts but not particularly trying to have thoughts or think about something in specific. It’s not really a mental practice, whereas, I think, meditation usually involves a lot of mental gymnastics, a lot of tricks with your brain. I think the process of zazen is a lot more valuable in the end because what you see is what’s really there, what’s really your life and what you really are without all of the trappings that you’ve laid on top of it in your mind and your thoughts.
Thibault: What is the end point of zazen?
Brad: Ah, the end point is the beginning point. That sounds like a good “Zen” saying, but it really is that way. There’s nothing you’re trying to strive for, nothing you’re trying to achieve. It is true that if you do this practice for several years there is some kind of clarity of mind that you achieve. It took about fifteen years of daily zazen for me before I started to really see this. So it’s pretty gradual. But, I would also say that if you’re doing the practice correctly you can achieve a kind of clarity of mind right from the very beginning. Only you may not notice it, which is a funny kind of thing about zen.
You need to learn to be satisfied with changes that you can’t notice. Like when you’re growing up, you don’t notice that you’re growing up. Suddenly you’re fifteen years old and five years later you’re twenty and you didn’t “try” to become twenty from being five. But a lot of changes took place during that time and after the changes have taken place you can look back on it and say, “Ah, things have changed.” It’s a bit similar to that sort of process.
Thibault: Some people have criticized a lot of Buddhism in the west — that they’ve diluted it. I’ve heard of a Zen centre in the U.S. that taught their students to meditate while watching TV. Is there such a thing as couch potato Zen? Is there easy Zen?
Brad: No (chuckles) I’m afraid not. I’ve never heard about doing Zen while watching TV but it sounds pretty ridiculous to me. I’ve seen a lot of things. When I see some of what’s going on in America in Buddhism and Zen, a lot of it’s pretty bad. There isn’t really an easy way and that’s probably one of the reasons that real Zen is not ever going to be really big. Eventually it may become popular, but it won’t become popular until people stop seeking for easy ways out.
But, on the other hand, you could also say, in another way that Zen is very easy, because all you really have to do for the practice is just sit there looking at a wall, and it’s nothing particularly complex to that.
Thibault: Then why do people find it so difficult?
Brad: They find it difficult because they want to achieve something. They want a result. I think that’s a lot of what happens.
If you can learn to be satisfied with what you are right now at this moment, then Zen is extremely easy. But I think most of us try to run away from whatever we are at this moment. We’re trying to find something better — no matter what it is
Thibault: So are you saying that we should be complacent?
Brad: No, no, not complacent. Complacency is when you kind of give up whatever you’re trying to do — there’s no hope and nothing is ever going to change. And that’s not what Zen is about. It’s a very active thing, but it’s active in that you are trying to honestly see what you are at this particular moment right now and not run away from it — which is difficult to do. So it’s not something you can take very lightly.
Thibault: What is awakening? Because a lot of people think that to practice is to become awakened, to be enlightened, to see what other Zen masters have seen in the past
Brad: You can do that. You can see what other Zen masters have seen in the past. What other Zen masters have seen in the past is seeing what they truly were at that moment. And that’s the important thing. People kind of romanticize it. They think that the great Zen masters of the past had some great, wonderful experience of enlightenment, or awakening, or whatever they are gonna call it and they want to achieve that experience. Meaning they want to actually experience this thing they’ve read and heard about, which is completely different from experiencing your real life just as it is.
You can’t achieve somebody else’s experience. You can only achieve your own experience, and if you learn to do that, what you’ll find out is that your own experience and your own life is really something universal, something that includes the entire universe as well as your self, which sounds mystical, but that’s the way it is.
Thibault: What differentiates a good actor from a Zen master?
Brad: That’s a good question. Actually I’ve seen a few good actors masquerading as Buddhist masters and what differentiates them is kind of in the quality of what they say. Because if you’re acting at it you’re always pointing somewhere else. You want to achieve this experience of “over there.” It’s not where you are right now. “If you do this, then you will have the great experience in the future,” or “I, the Zen master, have had this great experience in the past and now you can imitate that great experience if you follow my steps.” I don’t agree with that approach at all. Zen is much more straight-forward than that, much more realistic or in tune with what’s really going on at this particular time in this particular place.
Thibault: So what are some of the qualities of a good Buddhist teacher?
Brad: I don’t know…. honesty…it’s difficult to say because when I … when I first encountered my current teacher — who’s a guy named Gudo Nishijima — I went to his lectures, and I thought he was terrible. I thought he was just awful, and didn’t like him at all. But, for some reason I kept going back.
At the time he did lectures every week. And, so I would go to his lectures and I would hate them and then I would come back the next week and go to another one and I kept doing this over and over until I finally realized that what he was saying was something very meaningful and very important. But I was resisting that.
So it’s difficult to give any kind of easy answer to what makes a good Zen teacher. It’s not like something you can see visually. It’s not like you can…you know…if he’s got a shaved head and he’s got the correct robes he must be a good teacher. It’s sort of an intuitive matter. If you come across a good teacher and you feel… (pause)
In my case — as far as my brain was concerned, as far as my thinking mind and thinking apparatus — my current teacher was terrible. But I had kind of an intuitive understanding that what he was saying was extremely sincere and extremely important, so even if I couldn’t agree with any of it, I could still see that there was this sense of sincerity coming from him. I didn’t find that kind of sincerity very often from other people.
Thibault: What exactly do you want to communicate with your book, Hardcore Zen?
Brad: I had two different teachers — I had a teacher when I was in America and then when I went to Japan I found a different teacher — and both of them told me “you should write a book.” And I thought, “I can’t write a book — especially I can’t write a book about Buddhism because I don’t know anything about Buddhism.” But I kept being encouraged to write a book.
So I just started writing a book about Buddhism and I thought that what I was writing was so strange, was so different from what I’d ever read that had the word Buddhism on the cover that there would be no audience for this and there would be no way anyone would ever publish this or would ever want to read it. So, I did what a lot of people do these days cuz it’s cheap and easy — I put up a website. And I got a lot of good response from that website which surprised me. I didn’t expect anyone to read it and here I was getting emails from readers almost every day who — some of them didn’t like it at all — but most of them did. So I continued on with that and I made it into a book.
So – I guess what I’m trying to say in the book is: be honest and be sincere and look at what you really are honestly and sincerely, which is something quite difficult. I think most of us miss that and I think a lot of the trouble in the world is because people can’t look at themselves honestly. They have a lot of illusions about themselves and they have a lot of illusions about other people and those illusions are in conflict. And when those illusions are in conflict people fight with each other over nothing, over what in the end is just two different interpretations of the of the exact same reality. They’re fighting over the interpretations — which is a silly thing to fight over. It’s a lot better to just look at the real situation and deal with the real situation than to fight over various interpretations of it.
Thibault: But I think it’s even more than difficult — it’s just not knowing how to do it, not knowing how to be honest and sincere
Brad: Hmm…it’s difficult ..I mean the practice of zazen is good because you’re sitting there quietly and just observing whatever comes up. And a lot of things will come up if you’re sitting there. You’re not directing your thoughts or you’re not trying to do anything in particular except just see what comes up. You’ll see that your mind is full of a lot of really…. a lot of nonsense that you don’t need and it can be a very difficult process to learn to recognize the nonsense that your own mind comes up with.
I even wrote about that in the book in a chapter, which I called I Think of Demons’ but, you know, I was just trying to dramatize it a bit. When you actually start seeing the things in your mind that are just complete nonsense, that you’ve held onto very, very tightly and you don’t want to let go of, it can be really, really difficult. I actually think it’s more difficult to let go of those illusions.
I think this is why people have wars and fight and do all those terrible things — take drugs or whatever they’re doing with their lives, these terrible things that they do. Because it’s easier to do that than to face what you really are, and say, “I’m just full of nonsense and most of the things I care most about are just nonsense and I need to let them go.” That’s difficult to do.
Thibault: So how does one practice more sincerely, with more desire? How does one really question?
Brad: Well really questioning is…. you just have to keep questioning and you have to keep looking and you can’t be satisfied with any answer that your mind comes up with. And that’s kind of the difficult thing because sometimes your mind will come up with great answers that seem to be really fantastic and hit the mark exactly. But it’s just what your ego is coughing up at you — all the things you’ve heard before. So you need to question everything even when you know that something is perfectly right and perfectly true you have to question that as well, you can’t be afraid of questioning.
Thibault: What I found most interesting about your book is when you were talking about dreams. You made it quite clear that a dream remains just a dream and you can have the perfect job, the perfect girl, the perfect whatever in your dream, but if you actually do get it then you realize all the hassles that come with having a job, even having the so and so perfect girl.
Brad: Yeah, I think that’s really important because you always have an illusion that there is going to be some perfect world somewhere else and if you can only get to that perfect world everything will be perfect.
In my own case — my own dreams were kind of silly. I wanted to work in Japan in a company that made these stupid monster movies and I dreamed of doing that since I was a kid and I finally got that job. And when I got that job I found it didn’t fix everything. It didn’t solve everything.
I think that this happens to a lot of people. When you hear about these famous people who have a lot of money and a lot of power killing themselves or doing some crazy thing it’s because they have realized that their dream is just a dream. When it’s a dream it seems wonderful. When it’s your reality it’s something else entirely.
I used to have this idea that if people had a lot of money they could become more secure and this is the reason to have money because you want security and a stable situation. And I would encounter people, because I was in the entertainment business, who were extremely rich and who should be very secure and very happy and they weren’t. In fact they were struggling even more than the other people — the ordinary people I knew — because they were always trying to project, they were always trying to enlarge whatever it is they’d got and it just seems to never stop.
Thibault: Is life a problem to be solved?
Brad: Life is to be lived and it’s not really — there are problems and you encounter those problems and you solve them one by one and that’s the only way to live your life. So life itself is not a problem to be solved. Life is just for living.
Thibault: How is it that I’m responsible for everything?
Brad: How is it that you’re responsible for everything? That’s a difficult question. It’s really hard. I remember when I was 12 years old I was thinking about that song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Rolling Stones and there’s a line that says, “Who killed the Kennedys? Well after all it was you and me.” And I remember having this discussion with my friend “How did I kill the Kennedys? Other people killed the Kennedys – I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
What he said — and he was smarter than me — was that by making the Kennedys celebrities we contributed, everybody contributed, to their death, by kind of putting the spotlight on them. So you’re kind of responsible for everything that happens.
In some things you’re responsible for it in a very direct and personal way and some things that happen to you are more vague, or less personal. But you always have to accept that you have some responsibility and if you can accept that you have some responsibility for everything that happens to you, your life becomes better. Because you don’t blame other people or you don’t enter the fantasy, “If only this didn’t happen or if only these people weren’t so bad I would be happy now”. If you just say to yourself, “OK, I don’t understand how I’m responsible for this situation. But I am responsible for it.” Then you have a lot more freedom to act and make a difference and to improve your situation.
Thibault: But you still stand as not knowing what to do.
Brad: Nobody ever knows what to do. There’s a kind of an illusion that some people know what to do at every moment and there are people who are extremely confident and act like they know what to do but they don’t know what to do any better then you do.
So not knowing what to do is sometimes a perfectly fine situation. I don’t know what to do so I’m just going to do something. And if your action is sincere and not motivated by some kind of greed or anger or some other negative quality or emotion then what you do will be right. It may not be perfect. It’ll never be perfect. It can’t be perfect. But it won’t be the wrong thing to do. You just do something that’s not motivated by greed or anger or ego, for want of a better word.
Thibault: What is there in the relationship between punk rock and a practice such as zen?
Brad: Hmmm…for me the relationship was the kind of sincerity. The thing that attracted me to punk was that it was honest. It wasn’t trying to put some kind of gloss on things and trying to make things seem better than they were.
Occasionally punk has the tendency to make things seem worse than they really are. But the best of the punk rock that came out when I was involved in it, and I think still today, is seeing things honestly and just being straightforward about it and not falling into the trappings. We didn’t want to be rock stars. We weren’t making music to try to become famous or to try to make a lot of money. We were doing it because we were musicians and this is how we expressed ourselves and this is what it was. And so, to me punk rock isn’t just the genre – you know, the loud, fast three chord rock music. It can be just a state of sincerity, a state of actually being honest with yourself. With everyone.
Thibault: What does it mean to ‘stink of Zen’ and as a writer, how do you avoid that pitfall?
Brad: What do you mean? The pitfall of just fake awful zen?
Brad: Yeah …ummm…. I don’t know…I did it by just saying what…. when people …teachers told me I should write a book about Buddhism I looked at other books about Buddhism and thought “these are all terrible.” Well not all of them, but a lot of them were really……..
Thibault: What made them terrible?
Brad: Uh…they were just, er……dreamy…idealistic… idealistic is not the word I want…just kind of this dreamy, far-off quality and seemed to be dwelling in a lot of fantasies about, you know, far-off lands and the Buddha. And they were very…they would be trying to project an image. It would seem like the writer would usually be trying to show everybody how wonderfully Zen and how calm he was and, “Don’t you think I’m wonderful and don’t you want to imitate me and be wonderful like I am?”
And I always felt that what Buddhism showed me was how stupid I was and by extension how stupid everybody was. And all I’m trying to say in my books is, “Look, we’re all stupid, so just live with it. Just deal with it.” And so avoiding the pitfalls was….I couldn’t write a book like the books I’d seen. That’s why I was reluctant to do it, because I thought, “I can’t write a book like that.” So I just wrote and whatever came out was it. And this is the book. I just wrote about my life and said “here it is” and maybe somebody’ll like it or maybe they won’t but, anyway it’ll be out there.
Thibault: But is there any way out of this stupidity?
Brad: The way out of the stupidity is to realize your own stupidity. My teacher’s Buddhist name means ‘the way of stupidity.’ Everybody when they become a Buddhist, when you become initiated into Buddhism officially, you get a Buddhist name and the one his teacher gave him was “the way of stupidity.”
So, once you realize that you are stupid you have total freedom because the other aspect of your stupidity is that you’re also God. I don’t like to use the word God, because it’s such a loaded word. But you’re also the sum total of the universe. You’re also the center of the universe and the center of the universe is stupidity itself. And to understand this is to be completely free from ever having to try to live up to some kind of fantasy you’ve created for yourself, and just be where you are.
Thibault: So, to finish it off, do you have any last words?
Brad: Last Words! Famous last words. Yeah — I don’t know….. What do you usually say at the end of an interview…?
Thibault: What’s it all about ?
Brad: What’s it all about? I don’t know. Who knows? Nobody knows?
Thibault: You’re a Zen priest
Thibault: Don’t you know what it’s all about?
Brad: There’s a joke that goes like that, but it’s not quite the way you said. A guy goes up to Zen master — it’s actually a very old Zen story. A guy goes up to Zen master and says, “What happens to a person after he dies?” And the Zen master says, “I don’t know.” And the guy says, “Whaddaya mean you don’t know? – you’re a Zen master.” And he says, “Yeah – but I’m not a dead one.”
So, knowing what everything is…knowing what it’s all about is what you’re living now. This is what it’s all about and you can’t put that into words. So sometimes “I don’t know” is the best way to put it into words. Because “I don’t know” is the admission that you can’t put it into words.
Any time you try to put what it’s all about into words, you’re limiting it. And your real experience is beyond words. Which doesn’t mean that it’s something mystical or fantastic, it’s just beyond words. Like if you go to the toilet in the morning and take a pee, you can’t describe that in words, even though it’s a common, everyday act that everybody goes through, you can’t possibly put that act into words. And that’s the truth of every experience, from an ordinary experience like that to the most wonderful, mystical experience somebody’s ever had – it still can’t be put into words.
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