As the title implies, this smallish book is something of a resurrection of Brad Warner: the boorish years. And right when self-respecting Zennies were starting to think he was beginning to act like a grown up.
Yes, the frowsy Dr. Ruth Westheimer costume he wore during his last couple investigations of the tangled red thread connecting Dogen Zen and human carnality has been doffed and his dukes are up, just like in his truculent younger days. So if you’ve been hankering for a stiff belt of what many of Warner’s first readers perceived to be his unbridled arrogance and sophomoric penchant for shock tactics, then you are about to be slaked by the contents of his latest book.
Hardcore Zen Strikes Again (HZSA) is a collection of short pieces—not so much essays as nettling rants—composed for his website during the years preceding the publication of his first book, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality, the book that worked like itching powder on meditation cushions far and wide, resulting in many chapped asses amongst stodgy Zen country clubbers. HZSA is more than just a mere collection of old rants that anyone could cull off the internet for free; it offers up the older rants (circa ‘01 to ‘03) each sandwiched between newly penned intros and afterwards wherein Warner opines on what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of each piece. So the chapters are each served up kind of like “reality sandwiches”—which would’ve been a better title for this book if not for the fact that I think Allen Ginsberg already used that title for a book of poetry way back when. (Critics of Mr. Warner and his particular school of Soto Zen might suggest that Brad and his teacher Nishijima don’t seem to have any qualms about appropriating for their own use already used titles from other authors’ books. But that’s a squabble best left for the churlish cockfighting that takes place on internet Zen forums.)
Despite all the tsk-tsking and general feeling of censure from the mainstream Buddhist community—or maybe because of it—the original Hardcore Zen book remains Warner’s best-selling book to date, which is interesting since it is surely the only Buddhist publication anywhere to feature both Johnny Rotten and the Misfits’ Crimson Skull on its covers. It was also the book wherein the then outlandish notion was put forth that beneath the outward accoutrements—the spiked leather jackets and the monkish robes—there was a surprisingly deep resonance between Zen and punk.
As a return to the themes of that early ‘90s Hardcore Zen era, this book immediately jumps right back into the “Are Zen and punk related?” slobberknocker with the first two chapters, entitled respectively “Punk Is Zen, Zen Is Punk” and “Zen Is Not Punk.” As a feather-ruffling topic of comparative philosophy, so to speak, it’s something I’ve been interested in long before I ever heard of Brad Warner or Noah Levine. So it was good to revisit the subject again after Warner had more or less moved on from it in his last couple books before HZSA. Reading these chapters, one is left with little doubt that the formulation of punk and Zen into spiritually-conjoined twins is the P.T. Barnum-esque masterstroke on which Warner’s whole writing career has been built and is almost certainly the main source of his notoriety as a gadfly and cad.
But is it accurate to say that it’s Zen that has a resonance with punk? It’s accurate enough; if we are to trust the validity of the so-called “actual words” of the historical Buddha as recorded in the Pali Cannon, there are definite DIY and “Question Authority” themes being expounded there. Warner has done an admirable job of highlighting many of these “quotes” in his books and various interviews. And Zen has a long, storied history of its adherents displaying crazy wisdom antics that look much more “punkish” than “monkish.” But I will stick my neck out and say that if you’re specifically talking about Zen Buddhism, it’s even more accurate to say that a hefty chunk of those features of Zen that overlap with punk can be traced directly back to the proto-Daoist rogue philosopher Zhuangzi, even more than to the Buddha himself. Zen, as almost all sinologists and Buddhist scholars agree, was the result of a cross pollination between Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Daoism and it’s also generally agreed that Zen’s famous irreverence (e.g., referring to the Buddha as dried dung and instructing students to “kill the Buddha” if you see him on the road) is something it inherited from the Daoist side of the family. Crazy Great-grandpa Zhuangzi in particular.
In a way, you could say that Zhuangzi was the GG Allin of ancient China, just one with brains. Not that Zhuangzi had a habit of eating his own stools, but he was a true character and a sublime nonconformist, humorously lampooning decorum and constantly thumbing his nose at authority. He was very much engaged with the world, being occasionally argumentative and always playfully mischievous. In his earthy philosophy he lauded the virtues of the natural, the rough, the unforced, the spontaneous, and the unpretentious—elements that later became incorporated into the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi where imperfection is not only accepted but actually valorized. If I’m not mistaken, those are the very elements that go into the potent brew we know as punk.
But as oftentimes happens, I’m not sure Brad would agree with me on this point. When I interviewed him for Razorcake many years ago and asked about the relationship between Zen and Daoism, I seem to recall his mood ring darkening as he frostily dismissed the question with a single terse sentence. I therefore have great doubt that there will ever be a Brad Warner book entitled Hardcore Dao.
And so I come, after reading Hardcore Zen Strikes Again, to the same conclusion I arrived at after having read any of Warner’s books: though I don’t always see eye to eye with him and I occasionally cringe when I step into one of the piles of dogma he leaves to mark his philosophical territory, I still enjoy his astringent, irreverent flavor of Zen. He remains down-to-earth with a punk grittiness and has refrained from designating himself a super guru fronting a vast organization and ornamenting himself with a cosmically flatulent title like “The Ruchira Buddha Avatar Adi Da Samraj.” After all these years, I still find him to be a breath of fresh air—despite the occasional dogma droppings—in a domain clogged with an ovine Zen form of “Babbittry”—Sinclair Lewis’s term for “the stuffiness of safe, sane, and incredibly dull provincialism.”
As Warner himself writes in the book: “It’s really sad that people have come to believe that Buddhist writing should function like elevator music.” And in that regard, venerate him or revile him, it can be said that Brad Warner is sure as hell no Kenny G in Zen garb. –Aphid Peewit (Cooperative Press, cooperativepress.com)