The Japanese word “Zen” (like the Chinese word “Tao”), has been co-opted by so many slime merchants and marketers lately that when you see the word now, you’re likely to think of a garbage-scow’s-worth of products meant to sooth and pamper both body and soul. Everything from lotions, incense sticks and hand soaps, to air fresheners, and for all I know, feminine hygiene products and baby wipes. Basically, the product peddlers have manhandled this calm-sounding foreign word to the point that, when you see it adorning their various products, you’ll slip into a slight trance and become awash in a transcendent vision of all things Gentle, Peaceful, Sublime. And that tends to loosen the materialistic clutch you have on your wallet.
And I’m not even going get into how, back in the ‘60s, those damn hippies looted Zen and various other noble traditions of Asian thought and dressed them up in their little psychedelic clown outfits and made them dance around. That’s another topic for another time.
For those of you who, until now, have skipped over reviews of Brad Warner’s books because, seeing the word “Zen,” you envisioned candles and bubble bath, at best, or some patchouli-stinking hippy love-turd, at worst, let me quickly bring you up to speed. That way, the rest of this review might make a little more sense.
Back in the ‘80s, Warner played bass in a Cleveland hardcore band called Zero Defex. After the band broke up, he went to Japan to study Buddhism with a teacher named Nishijima who taught a version of Soto Zen that is heavily imbued with the philosophical insights of a thirteenth century monk named Dogen. Nishijima installed in Warner a deep and unwavering faith in the practice of sitting meditation known as “zazen.” Warner was eventually ordained and in 2003 put out a book called Hardcore Zen wherein he showed that, contrary to popular belief, Zen is not the intellectual property of the hippies and new agers, and that there actually is a surprisingly strong connection between punk and Zen. He then proceeded to write more books and somewhere between his second and third book he began contributing his brand of Hardcore Zen in column form to the softcore porn peek-a-boo website known as Suicide Girls. In the process he has made his Porno-Punk Zen a cottage industry and has built himself up into a sort of trash-talking “Hulk Dogen,” taking on pencil-necked challengers from the rival Rinzai sect and using his dreaded shikantaza leg-lock to get spiritual heels like Dennis Gempo Merzel and Andrew Cohen to tap out in utter humiliation. In that regard, he has much in common with Guruphiliac’s Jody Radzik, who flamboyantly thumps deserving villains in the world of Hindu-based non-duality.
Hulk Dogen has also managed, along the way, to make many prissy Zen nerds blanch at what they perceive to be his Beavis & Butthead-level toilet humor and his tendency to call other Buddhists who don’t agree with his Dogen-core Zen, things like “Ass Clowns” and “Butt Buddies.”
Sex, Sin & Zen is Warner’s fourth book and it picks up on some of the sex and morality topics from his previous book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, expanding on them and scrutinizing them even more closely with his keen Right Dharma Eyeballs. Given Warner’s notoriety in the Buddhist community at large as an enfant terrible, I have to say I’m a little disappointed in his titular choice for the book. A book about sex is, in itself, enough to make a great many Zennies flinch uneasily on their zafus, but why not take the opportunity to make a boldly “immature” move and give it a title that not only thumbs its snotty nose at requisite Buddhist decorum, but also irreverently skewers a beloved classic in the canon of American Zen? For example, a title like Zen Flesh, Zen Boners would’ve been much better than the dryly bland Sex, Sin & Zen, in my opinion.
But the staid title is about the only thing about the book that I found disappointing. As the title so plainly indicates, Warner takes his zazen-pumped pythons to the task of grappling with the subjects of sex and sin, and does so displaying a matronly sensibleness ala Dr. Ruth Westheimer along with the pop-culture-soaked snarkiness of someone like Dan Savage. But as deftly as Warner manages to work the levers of sex and zen, he is likely to find himself, once again, embroiled in controversy. There are, no doubt, many precept-minded Buddhists who will see Warner’s technique of using the subject of masturbation, for example, to discuss the essential Buddhist concept of anatman or non-self as untoward, if not downright heterodox. But if sex can be used as sort of means of conveyance to bring Zen’s lofty concepts to frontal lobes of the masses, then why not? Appealing to people’s prurient urges, in this case, is just shrewd business.
And speaking of prurient interests, one of the highlights of SS&Z for me was an interview Warner conducts with porn veteran Nina Hartley, discussing everything from pornography and polyamory to her Buddhist upbringing. Not only does Ms. Hartley have what I would call a “nicely decorated skeleton” (as the Zen pervert Ikkyu might say,) but she’s also smart as a whip. Any woman who’s not only an expert and enthusiastic fellatist, but is also conversant in psychology and Buddhistic philosophy, gets a “fully erect” rating from me, to borrow Hustler magazine’s old rating system.
In the past I’ve occasionally twitted Warner for being overtly doctrinaire, a sort of ventriloquist dummy for old Dogen’s ghost. And I’ve criticized him for implying that zazen is the one and only path to true enlightenment. I still think Warner’s message, if not Warner himself, would benefit from a course or two in general semantics. But I’m encouraged by his admission in the second chapter of the book where he admits that he has “somewhat idiosyncratic views” and what he says does not go for “all, or even most, Zen people.”
I have also been tripped up at times by Warner’s propping up of, or reifying, certain concepts, like cause and effect, to name just one. But that usually coincides with my having temporarily lost touch with the fact that his books are largely aimed at the general public and, therefore, deal in provisional teachings, in keeping with what the Tibetan Buddhists call the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.
So Brad Warner’s steamy new “sex book” has arrived, as promised. The reactions are bound to be strong and varied. Is he in earnest and to be taken at face value—in other words, is he truly and sincerely shining badly-needed light on the endarkened subject of Buddhist views of sex? Maybe. Or would it be more accurate to say that this book is something of a Trojan horse for Buddhistic ideas, utilizing a slyly effective technique whereby we have Zen wrapped in Sex and dipped in Titillation? Could be. Or is Warner merely grabbing yet another teat on the Zen Cash Cow, putting a pasty on it, and milking it for as many book sales as he can get out of it? Anything’s possible.
Even if, at its core, it’s little more than a pro-zazen tract slathered in pink sex frosting, Sex, Sin & Zen is a smart, entertaining, and smart-ass read, like all of Warner’s books. And if nothing else, the guy should get kudos for extricating poor old Gotama Buddha from the gaping maw of the voracious new age beast.
And if nothing else, maybe this book will seal Warner’s position as reigning Sex Guru. Ever since the rascal sage known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka: Osho) went up in a puff of nitrous oxide years ago, the title of “Sex Guru” has been floating around out there, unclaimed. I ask you: is there anyone in the spiritual biz more qualified than the Porno Buddhist to fill Rajneesh’s diamond-encrusted shoes?
If Warner’s last two books are any indication, the “hardcore” in his Hardcore Zen, seems less related to Hardcore Punk now and more related to Hardcore Porn. And that’s fine by me. If nothing else it probably sells way more books and, whether you think it’s tawdry or not, it is disseminating the iconoclastic ideas of the Buddha. Now I’d just like to see Warner grow a big cheesy porn mustache just to complete the effect. And while he’s busy growing that out, I’m going to be trying to find out if Nina Hartley really is a practicing polyamorist or not. (New World Library, 14 Pamaron Way, Novato, CA, 94949, newworldlibrary.com)