Brad Warner, the Zen teacher and punk rock bass guitarist who is speaking in Belfast this week, has built himself a bit of a reputation as the enfant terrible of Buddhism.
A shock wave ran through the staid, reverential viharas, gompas and zendos of western Buddhism when he penned a series of articles on the Dalai Lama, in which he admits: “I’ve never read his books or paid much attention to him on TV.”
Warner went on: “He's supposed to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. If he actually believes that, he might want to see this email I got from these guys in Nigeria who say they want to deposit $28m in my bank account. But I get the impression he's smart enough to take that kind of thing with a grain of salt. As famous guru-type guys go, he seems okay.”
His latest book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, doesn’t disappoint. It’s subtitled, A trip through death, sex, divorce, and spiritual celebrity in search of the true Dharma.
It spares us no details in laying bare his personal life to illustrate the insights which he believes Zen practice has given him in one of the worst years of his life.
He suffered bereavement, lost his job, got high, had affairs with students and emerged strengthened from the experience.
We don’t just hear of affairs, he takes us into the bedroom with him and gives us a blow-by-blow account. We share nights of passion in the stunning surroundings of Zenshinji, a Buddhist training monastery at Tassajara in California.
Celibacy hasn’t been mandatory for Zen monks for more than 150 years and he believes it causes problems on Churches who enforce it on their clergy.
“Celibacy, if you can really do it, is probably a good thing as far as keeping your state of mind peaceful and even and so on and so forth. But there are very few who can do it easily; a lot more attempt and fail,” he says.
“The pressure of being a lifelong celibate may push a person into terrible things, like child abuse. But there are also more subtle examples of just being kind of a little frazzled all the time because you are constantly bothered by thoughts of sex. In those circumstances, if you just have a little bit of sex, you will probably be of more use to everybody.”
When you strip away the bad- boy rhetoric which Warner uses to catch our attention, his teachings turn out to be remarkably common sense and compassionate.
In Soto Zen, the Japanese Buddhist tradition of which he is a teacher, “killing the Buddha”, to get a message across, is part of the armoury of many a Zen master. Blasphemy is a hallowed tradition used to encourage students to face reality without being blinded by preconceived ideas.
Every moment, the Zen teaching goes, should be encountered afresh, as if we were stepping off a 50ft pole.
When he calls people “asswipes” and suggests we should “whack the Dalai Lama”, Warner stands in a long tradition. He first encountered Zen in the US, but really got the bug when he moved to Tokyo to work in his dream job, making Japanese Monster movies.
There he met Gudo Nishijima, a former banker and recognised Zen master, whose enlightenment was certified by Rempo Niwa, then head of the Soto Zen order.
Nishijima, now in his nineties, named Warner his successor, |but Warner bats off questions about whether he is enlightened too. Enlightenment, it seems, |is another preconception we can do without.
“The word ‘enlightenment’ and the term ‘enlightened master’ have come to represent a kind of fiction. There really is no such thing as people who have reached a state where they are above anything that might affect a human being. There is a view of an enlightened master as a kind of god; people have a sort of cartoony image of a master who floats on the clouds.”
Zen is ideology lite, it’s a way of looking at things that does not demand faith or deny it either. This, he believes, allows people from faiths like Christianity, Islam or Judaism to practice zazen, as Zen meditation is known, without compromising their beliefs.
“If you believe Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour that would make you a Christian, but you could still be a practising Zen person. I have talked to people who wanted to be involved in Zen and not give up their Christian faith and I always say, I think that is fine and I think that is very possible to do,” he says, adding that one of his students is also studying for the Christian ministry in Sweden.
But always, with Warner, there is a twist in the tale. “You might find that after continuing the practice for a while your understanding of Christianity or Islam might change,” he says.
“It doesn’t mean you give up your belief, but you might find that your experience of your faith shifts in a way that may be difficult for other parishioners to understand.”
Brad Warner will be speaking at Bookfinders, University Road, Belfast, tomorrow (6.30pm) and at St John’s Hall, Ballymena on Thursday (7pm). Other engagements can be found at Black Mountain Zen Centre website www.blackmountainzencentre.org/8.html