It doesn’t seem like all that long ago—I used to think of Brad Warner as the Carry Nation of Soto Zen. Carry Nation, of course, was probably the most notorious Temperance crusader of the late-1800s/early-1900s and she is the grim Fairy Godmother of all solemn Straight Edgers everywhere. Dressed dourly in all black and looming taller than most men, she was a frumpy Lurch of a woman with a piousness like pine tar. And her God had propelled her—on zealot’s wings, buoyed on the heaving winds of her own righteous indignation—to burst into saloons with a Bible in one hand and a hatchet in the other and proceed to smash the place to bits. That little Holy Temper Tantrum was supposed to steer drunkards away from a life of dancing with John Barleycorn and towards a sober life amongst the Lord’s flock. I doubt that it ever worked on anyone except possibly her own poor, cringing husband. Anyway, I used to think of Brad Warner much the same way. Dressed in a black biker jacket and a black Misfits T-shirt, Warner clutched Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo as his bible. And armed with that chippy, hatchet-like punk attitude of his, he would ruthlessly hack to bits whatever he saw as lying outside the purview of his branch of the Soto sect of Zen. That, more often than not, meant that he targeted Buddhists who did not fetishize zazen (sitting meditation) like his sect did. Fortunately for his readers though, he’d usually do it in a way that was way funnier and more clever than some frigid She-Brute gone apeshit and smashing a barroom to Kingdom Come—though that’s pretty damn funny, too.
Part smartass hardcore punk rocker, part devout Zen priest, Warner was (and is) something of a chimera in the marketplace of spirituality. If you were able to get past the barbs of his punkish impudence—which many among the more stuffy contingents of mainstream Buddhism were not able to do—you found not some half-crazed adept of Crazy Wisdom, but a straight-laced, somewhat conservative, almost prudish disciple of Dogen. Instead of the Lee Ving you were expecting from all the “crass immaturity and obnoxious heaps of puerility”—as one of Warner’s critics labeled his work—you found an Ian MacKaye. In other words, lo and behold, there turned out to be a monk underneath that prickly punk outer shell. And that monkish side of Warner showed up on my radar as being relatively ascetic, somewhat asexual, and plugged up with a pine tar-like piousness.
But since we last strolled through the Zen thoughts of Brad Warner via his second book Sit Down and Shut Up, something seems to have shifted. Warner, it seems, has undergone something of an Extreme Zen Makeover. He is now a regular contributor of hip and irreverent Zen columns to the flesh store known as SuicideGirls.com, a soft smut website where you can pay to see delicious tattooed punk/goth girls provocatively posed in various stages of undress. Judging by photos and stories posted on his blog, many of those same delectably salacious Suicide Gals Warner now counts among his students—and regular party pals. And the one-time “Carry Nation of Soto Zen” now proudly calls himself the “Porno Buddhist.”
Dogen must be spinning in his stupa right about now.
As it turns out, I might be partially to blame for this inexplicable loosening of Brad Warner’s Zen girdle. Several years back, not long after his first book Hardcore Zen came out, I interviewed Warner for Razorcake (#34) and was astounded to find out that he had no idea who Ikkyu was. Ikkyu Sojun, for those who don’t collect Zen Master trading cards, was a brash and iconoclastic Rinzai Zen Master from medieval Japan who had enormous appetites for sake and sex. These appetites he made no attempt to hide, even though he was a respected spiritual teacher, and, in fact, he celebrated them openly. His general attitude towards life—and Zen in particular—was summed up in his comment, “Those who keep the rules are asses, those who break the rules are men.” And when he wasn’t drunkenly stumbling around brothels, he was composing scandalously bawdy poetry about the joys and triumphs of his “jade stalk,” a.k.a.: his boner. In other words, Ikkyu was the original Porno Buddhist. (Or would that title rightfully go to the Tibetan “madman” Drukpa Kunley? I guess I’ll have to look that one up….)
Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if I somehow unwittingly tripped up the prim and proper Mr. Warner and caused him to do a pratfall right into the monstrous theological cow pie of antinomianism. Maybe my question about Ikkyu stuck in Warner’s head and rattled around in there over time, eventually bringing him to read up on the legendary Zen heretic, which, in turn, somehow brought about his degeneration into the Seymore Butts of Buddhism we have today. Or maybe his Extreme Zen Makeover was inspired by his publisher’s desire to goose sales of his next book. One can only guess.
Regardless of who or what triggered Warner’s apparent transformation from fussbudget to libertine, the new image is in place and the new book is out. And, as it turns out, there’s a whole shit-storm of things that could’ve caused a shift in Warner’s personality. Maybe my Ikkyu question wasn’t so transformative after all. Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, details the jarring events—Mom and Grandma dying, losing his dream job, etc.—that rocked the foundation of Warner’s life starting in 2007. And if sudden unemployment and deaths in the family wasn’t enough, there was the stress, frustration, and emotional drain of a marriage drying up and falling apart, complete with the murky maneuverings of extramarital sleeping-around that typically takes place as a marriage stiffens into rigor mortis.
Any way you cut it, it was a rough stretch of road, even for a Zen Master. And it left Warner proclaiming in the book that he would be an asshole for the rest of his life. He writes, “What I mean by that is that I just don’t give a shit anymore. I’m gonna pretty much say and do whatever I want from now on. This book is a manifestation of that attitude.”
Of Brad Warner’s three books, this is the one that carries the heaviest autobiographical weight, the most human dram—and the least amount of philosophical ruminating. And while Zen-ophiles anxious to gobble up pearly strings of subtle Buddhistic wisdom might find the book intellectually light, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate might just be the Warner book that stands the best chance of sucking in non-Buddhist minds and giving them something more substantial to chew on than the typical tapioca new age spirituality they might find on Oprah. And that’s of some value in itself.
Yeah, Warner still comes across as a bit of a stubborn sectarian and a hired goon for Dogen. There’s still plenty of that pine tar piousness in his veins. But I liked the “punk monk” Warner and I like the “Porno Buddhist” Warner, too, even though I still don’t agree with everything he says. Maybe the stuff that comes across as dogmatic or inflexible—or even sectarian—is really just his “upaya,” or skillfully sly teaching technique. Those Zen Masters are tricky and they know more than one way to get you to skin your own cat. One thing’s for certain, the Punk-Porno Buddhist is still a breath of fresh air in a domain choked with facades and affectations and mindless mimicry. Just like punk itself is still a breath of fresh air compared to all the soulless corporatized “commodifying of dissent” that goes on out there. And you gotta give Warner credit, he didn’t give himself some exotic Sanskrit “holy” name, he doesn’t own a fleet of Rolls Royces given to him by disciples, and he doesn’t decorate his book covers with soft focus photos of lotuses or moonlit skies or leaves floating on water. Like the famous Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj, Warner seems to truly understand that what we typically think of as “spirituality” is “as discardable as dishwater.”
Brad Warner may well be destined to join the rogues gallery of Buddhist Outlaws like Chogyam Trungpa and Alan Watts; unconventional teachers of the Dharma—underappreciated and marginalized by the mainstream Buddhist establishment as “wayward spirits”—and that’s probably just as well, as far as I’m concerned. As Bukowski might say, I’d rather run with the hunted. –Aphid Peewit (New World Library, 14 Pamaron Way, Novato, CA94949, www.newworldlibrary.com)