I was sixteen. In our philosophy class, our teacher had just told us the Hindu story of a woman who found the heads of her husband and his best friend had been switched. He left us to ponder the question what was most important: heart or mind. Then he asked us to choose a philosophical tradition to identify with. When the bell rang, the teacher stopped me going through the door and said: “You might see yourself as a sceptic, but you really are a romantic.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“I know you are,” he said. “Your what, sixteen now? Come back and see me in five years and we’ll discuss it. Meanwhile, remember what I said.”
With hindsight, I think he must have seen the look on my face when he read the story. I did not need five years to see that he was right. I am a romantic; I yearn for unattainable goals. Enlightenment, to name but one.I remember being sixteen because I’ve just read: “Hardcore zen” by Brad Warner. His book is about as no nonsense as it gets when it comes to zen. It’s also about punk bands and Japanese monster movies, but:
“…the clock just ticked away, my legs started aching, my thoughts kept drifting into my head. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right, I figured. Maybe I was missing something crucial. Maybe what I was doing on my cushion with my stupid mind as I was staring dumbly at the wall wasn’t quite it. – Now I can look back after twenty years of practice and say: ‘Nope – that was it.’ Boring, boring, boring. Just sitting there. But even then, from that first day, there was something about zazen that felt somehow right.”
Brad Warner faced reality long enough to become a zen master. He says it’s not very hard to get dharma transmission in Japan these days, not if your father is a temple priest and you have sufficient funds. Still, he struggled:
“To accept such a thing is to become an authority figure and I’ve always had a problem with authority. I never liked authority figures, never wanted to be one and never gave a shit about the people who did.”
Brad’s own belief in the authority of his zen master prevented him from speaking honestly with him for years. I must add, from personal experience, that the solemnity of zen rituals like sanzen, the personal interview with a zen master, can be quite intimidating.
Judging Brad by his book, I get the impression that he’s the real deal.
“We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.”
Yes, I’ve felt that! And his comment is vintage zen. Just like:
“You can’t go to paradise. Not now and not after you made your first million. Not after you die. And not if you eat all your peas and are really, really good. Not ever. (…) You have no future. Future is an idea.”
There’s a good chapter on makyo: the world of demons, a place in your mind that you’re probably familiar with if you’ve done meditation for a while. Brad says that you’ll see your worst thoughts and desires. Then you might think this means you’re a bad person, but you’re not. We all have these thoughts and desires. What matters is whether we act upon them, or watch them arise and go away again. Having immoral thoughts does not make you immoral. And being a good person (if there is such a being in the first place) does not mean you have no immoral desires. If we make the mistake to separate ourselves from the evil people in our society that really makes things worse for all of us.
“There are people who think of the spiritual life as a journey. Buddhism isn’t like that. We may use the word path, but we’re not trying to get anywhere. We’re trying to fully experience the wonder and perfectness of being right here.”
Cheers, Brad, that got you the last word. Almost.