To some people’s sense of propriety, punk and Buddhism might seem to go together like pedophilia and the priesthood. Even if you’re fairly liberal in your attitude towards things like inter-ideology commingling, the two admittedly make odd bedfellows, at least on the surface. Something akin to sideshow sensation “Sealo the Seal Boy” canoodling with Angelina Jolie, the saintly saver of babies. Who could’ve seen it coming? But if you were paying attention, back in the early ‘80s you might have caught a flickering of a foreshadowing of what might be coming down the pike when, in the movie Another State of Mind, Mike Ness mentioned his daily habit of watching the old TV show Kung Fu. However tenuous you might think the connection, however strained you might consider the analogy, it can’t be questioned that Ness’ ritualistic Kung Fu viewing represented one of the earliest known examples of where punk and Zen—as odd bedfellows—first started to awkwardly grope one another. No doubt about it: Mike Ness was a certified, card-carrying punk rocker, and while Kwai Chang Caine and Master Po were only fictional characters, they were fictional Shaolin Zen Masters. Using the age-old baseball/makeout metaphor, I think it’s fair to say that the whole Mike Ness/Kung Fu thing might’ve constituted the young bedfellows as having gotten “to first base.”
But after that initial flicker, it got quiet for a long time. Somewhere in the mid ‘80s Ray Cappo’s Youth of Today, the Cro Mags and other straightedgers got into the Krishnacore thing, but that was an overtly devotional offshoot of Hinduism and, thus, a far cry from anything Zen. It wasn’t until 2003 when, with the release of a couple books called Hardcore Zen and Dharma Punx, it could officially be said that the two bedfellows had rounded the bases and were now jumping each other’s bones.
Both books presented an alchemical blend of stripped-down Buddhism and hardcore punk that had no time for anything smelling the slightest bit like bullshit. Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen drew its inspiration from the Soto Zen branch of Mahayana Buddhism, while Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx was fueled up on a more Theravadin Buddhist approach. As a result of these two books radically reconfiguring the current punk paradigm, the young Punk-Buddhist bastard child has memed itself into a virtual cottage industry/sub-sub culture, complete with feisty internet communities and discussion groups. All it needs now is a snappy name and we’re got a full-blown cultural phenomenon on our hands.
The short history of the burgeoning Punk Buddhism is already repeating itself as both Warner and Levine have just released new books on the subject, once again at just about the exact same time. Since I haven’t read the new Levine book yet, I will hereby offer my own “punk rock commentaries” on Brad Warner’s Sit Down and Shut Up.
This book is basically a paean to Warner’s favorite Medieval Zen Master, Dogen Zenji, who was something like the Babe Ruth of early Japanese Soto Zen, except that he never was a womanizer or a heavy drinker or an insatiable hot dog eater. But if there was a Mount Rushmore of Japanese Zen Masters, both Soto school and Rinzai school, Dogen’s head would surely be one of those chiseled into immortality.
Along with almost single-handedly transplanting the Caodong School of Zen from China to Japan—where it became known as “Soto”—Dogen also left behind a magnum opus called the Shobogenzo, in which he brilliantly explains every nuance of Zen, right down to the proper way to wipe your ass like a Buddha. It is a tome that, while universally admired, is not widely understood. The most dogged Soto student can quickly get lost in its intricacies and translators have struggled to render Dogen’s unique way with words in a manner that isn’t flat and utterly inscrutable. Even Warner’s own teacher, the highly respected Gudo Nishijima, took a swipe at translating it and wound up with an English version of the Shobogenzo that scored high on accuracy points but went down the gullet like a loofah sponge. So a book like Sit Down and Shut Up, which takes Dogen’s lofty pearls of wisdom from the Big Book and spells it all out in a way any dumb punk can get his meaty head around, is most welcome indeed.
The reason the roughly eight-hundred-year-old insights of a Japanese monk who likes to instruct you on how to pinch a loaf (as well as other things, of course) doesn’t come across like a mouthful of dust—and the reason this book works so well—is that it’s filtered for our consumption through a real live, down-to-earth, smart-mouthed punk rock guy who actually understands what he’s talking about. Warner includes tales of the recent reunion show of his hardcore band Zero Defex, along with plenty of pop culture broadsides and smart ass quips. All of which gives the sober old monk from another place and time, a thoroughly modern make-over. And maybe even a new clarity.
Now that doesn’t mean the book is without its blemishes. While Warner is no doubt something of a rogue and iconoclast within the Zen world, he is also, paradoxically, in many ways, a traditionalist and Company Joe. He shares with Soto luminaries like his teacher Nishijima, Shunryu Suzuki, and Dogen himself, a zealous proclivity towards hefty amounts of zazen (sitting meditation), Felix Unger-like tidiness and an apparent disregard for Zen Masters from the Rinzai lineage. (Which is stylistically similar to the way D.T. Suzuki used to snub Dogen and the Soto sect in general.) But what most works like itching powder on me is that Warner oftentimes fortifies his assertions with a brass knuckle-tough certitude that brings to mind the barking dogmatism of the various breeds of muscular religionists, to borrow a term from Alan Watts.
None of which should come as any surprise, I suppose, when you consider that Warner starts out the book with a very respectful nod to the Nancy Reagan of punk, Ian MacKaye, saying that it was the famous milk-drinking straightedger whose “teachings” he studied before discovering Dogen. Even though I was already well aware of the fact that Warner takes a dim view of the Devil Brew, it still made the Lee Ving in me bristle a bit when he continued on, commenting on how the philosophies of MacKaye and Dogen are remarkably similar, both stressing “no drink, no drugs, no smoking, just honest hard work and a commitment to what was true.” Now there’s a loaded statement for you (and I’m not sure if my pun is intended or not.) The thing is, I just can’t see where teetotalling is congruent with Zen’s ballyhooed “Middle Way.” It seems to me like just another form of attachment, especially when it becomes a full-blown regimen. And no matter how hard I try, I just can’t believe that Realization of Truth is the exclusive privilege of those who pass a daily breathalyzer test and/or urine test.
In fact, I’ll really stick my neck out and say that I think there’s as much “truth” in a case of cheap beer as there is in the Shobogenzo. Beer or book—it all depends on the nervous system interacting with it. In both cases, truth is sitting there, just waiting to be seen, so to speak. Admittedly, the Shobogenzo has probably never caused anyone to plough their car into a telephone pole or wet themselves in public. But, on the other hand, beer has probably never given anyone an over-inflated idea of their own ability to perceive “the real reality.” Well, I take that back. It has, and it does. But at least beer insists on doing so with two conditions: 1) the eruption of self righteous dogma will only ever manifest itself in a manner that other people can only find cartoonish and/or buffoonish, and 2) any such buffoonish proselytizing will be “knocked off its perch” by a subsequent and extended period of pain, nausea, fatigue and embarrassment called “a hangover.” I probably wouldn’t have old Dogen on board with this, but I think I might have the support of old Ikkyu, himself a figure in Medieval Japanese Zen lore almost as monumental as Dogen—but one who didn’t seem to lose sight of the truth even when his nose was buried in cup after cup of sake. (Not to mention the support I imagine I might get on this point from disreputable Buddhist tipplers like Alan Watts and Chogyam Trungpa—both of whom, oddly enough, were highly regarded by the prim and proper Soto master, Shunryu Suzuki. ((Go figure.)))
But before I let this whole thing get too childish for someone of my lofty station in life, I had better steer things back to matters less sophomoric. I don’t want to come off as some sort of halfwit beer-chugging frat boy. So let’s take a weighty subject like causality. Warner talks a lot about his—and Dogen’s—“deep belief in the rule of cause and effect,” and it continuously tripped me up every time I came across it in Sit Down and Shut Up. Am I missing something here? Was I sleeping off a hangover when it was decided that we would all turn back a few hundred years and re-embrace an Isaac-Newton-playing-pocket-billiards model of the way things work? I probably don’t know what the hell I’m talking about here and I might be wise to heed the warning of the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn who oftentimes said, “open mouth, already a mistake.” But here goes nothing: I thought causality is just phantasm, a pattern that our neurological systems “choose” to see, something along the lines of the Kanizsa figure or Tse’s Volumetric Worm from the reification principle of Gestalt theory. At best, I thought causality, as a model, is so myopic as to be considered functionally invalid. And I thought the arrival of quantum mechanics was the fat lady singing, as far as causality was concerned.
But maybe I need to rethink all that. And rethink it I will.
And therein, I would say, lies the ultimate beauty of Sit Down and Shut Up. It is engaging and entertaining and edifying enough to keep you turning the pages, but it never fails to pop up from time to time and—like Moe Howard from the Three Stooges—give you a double finger poke to the eyes and then pants you. In my dumb punk opinion, so-called Zen Masters best “serve their purpose” when they are irritants. That is to say, when they get you to question your most cherished notions and assumptions to the point where you begin to bump into reality in an altogether new way. And in that manner, Brad Warner is a lot like the re-arranged furniture in Helen Keller’s living room, as the old joke goes. It might cost you a few bruises, but disorientation, however brief, might be just the thing to snap you out of your Habitrails of endless thought and let reality pour in. And if that doesn’t get you to sit down and shut the hell up, I don’t know what will.
Irreverent, cocksure, glib, and wise, this is one damn good book. And maybe best of all, it’s bound to flabbergast “proper” Buddhists everywhere. In fact, I think I can already smell the beautiful smell of newly soiled meditation mats all across this great land of ours. –Aphid Peewit (New World Library, www.newworldlibrary.com)