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Barbara O'Brien

The Brad Warner Paradox

By September 21, 2010

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I finished Zen teacher Brad Warner's new book, Sex, Sin, and Zen. Now I feel obligated to write a review, since the publisher sent me a review copy, but to tell you the truth I have little confidence in my opinion of the book. As I said in an earlier blog post, it's not a book I relate to personally, except in a few spots. On the other hand, I mostly agree with Warner's observations, and it's possible some people will relate to the book very well and benefit from reading it.

So, while I can't recommend it, neither can I not recommend it. Wow, that almost sounds zennish.

Anyway, I have been cruising around reading other people's opinions, and came upon a review by Zen teacher Dosho Port. I mostly agree (with quibbles) with Dosho's review, and he has the added advantage of being able to repeat the naughty words that I can't use here. So in part I am going to defer to Dosho. But on to the quibbles --

Dosho is a couple of shades more negative about the book than I am.  For example, Dosho was more put off by what he calls the "onset-of-puberty humor" one finds throughout the book. I am older than Dosho, and just about everything that's developed in popular culture since 1985 or so seems "onset -of-puberty" to me. I am long accustomed to tuning it out.

Dosho makes a good point about cognitive dissonance. The sometimes puerile tone of the book, and the garish cover art (which I didn't like at all, but see above about me and popular culture since 1985) really do clash with the advice in the book, which for the most part is not bad. At times the content of the book is -- dare I say it? -- adult. Take responsibility. Respect your partner. That kind of thing.

On the other hand, a long chapter is taken up with an interview with Nina Hartley, who has some association with Zen (although it's not clear if she practices, exactly) and who is also a porn star. I definitely hit a cognitive dissonance wall with this chapter. Ms. Hartley says some things that seem insightful, but I wanted to take her aside and say, dear, you seem to be a good person, but I don't think you're being entirely self-honest about some things.

I could see this book being a big hit with 20-something (and younger) men. The sexual smarminess could act as a sugar coating to advice about taking responsibility for one's actions and not objectifying other people, including women (even though the cover objectifies women). However, I am possibly the last person on the planet you'd want to consult about what young people think is cool (do they still say "cool"?).

Dosho says the book's message is "mostly loveless and nonintimate," and I agree, but this seems to be a feature of Gen Y* pop culture generally. I'm not saying all you Gen Y-ers are loveless and nonintimate, but sex in popular culture is so depersonalized and mechanical compared to what it was when I was younger, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Dosho also says Warner often uses Buddhism to justify his opinions. I can't say I saw much of that. Warner strikes me as a sincere person who has more depth to him than you might guess from the glitzy packaging. He is pitching to a particular demographic, and I appreciate that I am not in that demographic.

Although this is not a book about dharma, it is sprinkled with dharma bits that are sometimes quite nice. I discussed a couple of these in earlier posts -- see "Self and Self-Identity" and "Living the Precepts."

Which takes me to one more point, which is that Warner is a youthful-looking 40-something now, but everything changes. At some point it would be good to see him just present dharma without the bad-boy, pop-culture shtick. I do believe he's got it in him. Of course, maybe he thinks that niche is filled, and his mission is to bring dharma to people who are unlikely to catch Pema Chodron on Oprah Winfrey.

I also appreciate that Warner is trying to be an antidote to the many shades of spiritual affectation I'm sure he sees every day. He writes on page 74,

"If I'm in a room full of pompous wannabe Buddhists all trying to be pure of heart and mind, I just want to rip my clothes off, plug my Stratocaster into a stack of Marshalls, and blow the fake-ass beatific smiles off their faces. All that soft-soap lovey-dovey good vibes shit makes me gag."

I know how he feels, and I also remember the way Daido Roshi used to quietly throw stink bombs into people's fluffier preconceptions of Zen and Zen masters. But the stink bombs weren't his whole lifestyle.

*Gen Y = people born between 1980 and 1995 or so.

Comments
September 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm
(1) Mumon says:

I would agree with Port that “Onset-of-puberty “humor” does not contribute to an adult conversation about sexuality and instead creates cognitive dissonance – the subject is sometimes serious (i.e., the ethics of pornography and prostitution) as is Brad’s message, but the “Heh, heh,” notes will be offensive to some and will trivialize the message for others – like me. ”

But you evidently missed out on a lot of popular culture. And your memories I think are a bit euphoric…

I’m not saying all you Gen Y-ers are loveless and nonintimate, but sex in popular culture is so depersonalized and mechanical compared to what it was when I was younger, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Does the word “disco” ring a bell with you, perhaps? I dunno, maybe that was after your time…but if it was, I can cite earlier examples of depersonalized mechanical sexual culture.

But I truly appreciate your perspective here; as for me, I don’t need Brad Warner to tell me about his Buddhist ideas regarding sex.

September 21, 2010 at 10:36 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mumon, if you ever get the chance, just quietly listen — without butting in and adding your own opinion — to some Gen Yers talk about sex sometime. It will make the disco era seem pure and innocent.

September 22, 2010 at 7:47 am
(3) Mumon says:

Barbara,
Thanks for your reply. I don’t often talk about my work-a-day life, but my observations of Gen Y folk as arising from that experience are rather relevant here. Too, I’ve quite a few nephews and nieces (as you would expect given my large number of siblinggs) in this age group. And our friends’ kids are in this demo too. Plus, due to my wife’s work I often meet quite a few college students. Here’s what I’ve seen:

1. First of all, if you’ve ever quietly watched the demo to which you refer, you’ll notice something: They don’t talk, THEY TEXT. And they AREN’T texting to you. To put it in another context, it’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Ms. Jones. Put a bunch of these folk in a room, and more often than not, you’ll see A LOT less talk and A LOT of keyboard/touchpad use. This is so widely observed in society – it’s not just a marketing generalization. Ask college lecturers and professors. And those kids aren’t texting to them, either.

2. (I notice this with even my 9 year old and his younger cousins!) THEY. DO. IRONY. They don’t take things at face value.

3. Their reference points aren’t ours, necessarily. Though they get more of our reference points than you’d think. (Take “Family Guy,” which I’m sure is on your list of such bad, bad media, but every young person I’ve talked to about it gets its point: its humor arises from the fact that in our social situations it is mandatory that we be seen as not acting like the characters. So does my older brother, born in ’53.)

It is true, that pretty much of the kids I know are not in the economically distressed, nor are they African Americans or Latinos, but I am told the trends above are true pretty much without regard to these issues.

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of folks who actually do observe without opinions or generalizations, and they may have observations that do not fit in with your opinions and generalizations.

September 22, 2010 at 8:22 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

First of all, if you’ve ever quietly watched the demo to which you refer, you’ll notice something: They don’t talk, THEY TEXT.

Oh, they talk around me. I’m really good at being a fly on the wall. But I’m not talking about teenagers here; more like 20-somethings. Also the younger sets of Gen Xs, in their 30s.

they may have observations that do not fit in with your opinions and generalizations.

Back atcha. Discussion is over.

September 22, 2010 at 10:23 am
(5) Pete says:

Just having read Osho’s review I can only wonder, what in the world do Brad Warner’s statements have to do with the Buddha’s teaching? I’m honestly perplexed.

September 22, 2010 at 10:41 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

what in the world do Brad Warner’s statements have to do with the Buddha’s teaching?

Oh, it’s in there. As I said, this isn’t really a book about dharma, and it’s certainly not a book I would recommend to someone who just wanted to learn about Buddhism. But whenever Warner stops being cute and/or vulgar and just explains things, I can see that his explanations are very much rooted in Buddhist teaching. Believe it, or not.

September 22, 2010 at 3:53 pm
(7) Mumon says:

Barbara:

Me: they may have observations that do not fit in with your opinions and generalizations.

You: Back atcha. Discussion is over.

Exactly my point. Thanks for it, truly.

September 22, 2010 at 8:56 pm
(8) tom b says:

“I also remember the way Daido Roshi used to quietly throw stink bombs into people’s fluffier preconceptions of Zen and Zen masters.”

OK he smoked– and it killed him– but i recall a totally captivating interview with Vince Horn at Buddhist Geeks where he talks about his art photography. He talks about looking at a rock and its never the same rock from one moment to the next. Well worth downloading!

September 22, 2010 at 9:45 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

OK he smoked … and it killed him … but i recall a totally captivating interview with Vince Horn at Buddhist Geeks where he talks about his art photography.

It wasn’t just the smoking, although I think that’s one reason he continued smoking. But the stink bombs I’m thinking of include the time he listened to a visitor effuse about the righteousness of vegetarianism, and then he said, “That’s fine. I’m not a vegetarian, but it’s something some people choose to do.” (I believe he ate a vegetarian diet most of the time, although possibly not all of the time.) Or the time the visitors were yakking about reincarnation, and he quietly told them there is no such thing as reincarnation. And he really hated it when people put him on a pedestal. That’s often when he broke out the cigarettes and rolled up his sleeves to show off his Navy tattoos.

September 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm
(10) Mandy says:

Just a sticky note: for cultural attitude and behavior, Gen Y starts in 1981. 1980 is the last year for Gen X. Google it or go to Wikipedia to verify.

I was born that year and everyone I know from 1980 can attest to the gap between us and those just one year younger than us.

Being a Sociologist, I know the quicksand of trying to discuss this subject (sex) over several generations.

September 23, 2010 at 5:22 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

Just a sticky note: for cultural attitude and behavior, Gen Y starts in 1981. 1980 is the last year for Gen X. Google it or go to Wikipedia to verify.

Oh, please, it’s never that precise. I have one child born in 1980 and the other in 1984, and they’re pretty much on the same wavelength, culturally.

Certainly there are shades of differences. I am a Boomer, and I see real differences between mid-Boom, early Boom, and late Boom Boomers (think Pat Boone to Beatles to Hendrix to Queen). The Boomers generally are more like each other than they are like Gen X. But when you’re looking at very late Boom and very early Gen X, the distinctions are nearly meaningless.

September 23, 2010 at 5:36 pm
(12) Kent Allard says:

Barbara,

I enjoy your columns immensely, and having just been turned on to Brad Warner’s books, enjoy his point of view as well. Although I am older than Brad, I find his take on Buddhism to be refreshingly free of the earnestly idealist Buddhist viewpoint that often strikes me as not being grounded in reality. One of my favorite Buddhist admonitions is the importance of earning your living in a way that brings good rather than evil into the world. I understand the controversy regarding Brad’s approach, but, his books have brought good into my life and I am at a loss as to how they good be viewed negatively. They might not be your cup of tea, but they will certainly not cause you harm.

Keep up the great work.

September 23, 2010 at 6:38 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

I find his take on Buddhism to be refreshingly free of the earnestly idealist Buddhist viewpoint that often strikes me as not being grounded in reality.

OO, take care. What most people think of as “reality” isn’t real. :-)

September 23, 2010 at 11:15 pm
(14) Karen S says:

I have not read Mr. Warners books but just yesterday listened to a dharma class he gave titled OMG: Dogen’s Concept of God (taped at Tassajara) found on iTunes, free, via San Francisco Zen Centers Dharma talks and was duly impressed. It was an excellent first impression of a sincere practitioner and his knowledge of the founder of Soto Zen school.

September 24, 2010 at 10:43 am
(15) Pete says:

Hi Barbara, I’ll take your word for some Buddha in Brad’s Book. Maybe it’s like the Chilean mine; there may be some gold buried in there, just don’t let the tunnel collapse on you.

September 25, 2010 at 6:29 am
(16) Sam says:

I haven’t read the book but I am a Gen Y-er. I thought it was interesting how you said that sex for my generation has become much more depersonalized. I agree with that, but honestly I find it unfortunate. I feel like my values about sex are very different from my peers’ which I think is sad because I feel there is a lost element when sex is depersonalized as much as it is now. Anyway that’s just the thought I just had when reading this.

December 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm
(17) Rio Guzman says:

I would rather read Brad’s books than the books of many of those so-called “Zen Masters” who are so plentiful in California. But if his style of writing is too much for you I would also recommend Steve Hagen for a no-nonsense approach to Buddhism. By Hagen I recommend “Buddhism is not what you think”.

December 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rio Guzman — Buddhism can’t be learned from books. Zen especially can’t be learned from books.

December 4, 2010 at 10:38 pm
(19) Rio Guzman says:

Barbara, aren’t you discussing here Brad Warner’s “book” Sex, Sin and Zen? Please read my previous comment again. Thanks!

December 4, 2010 at 11:03 pm
(20) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rio Guzman– I did read your comment. I found it arrogant and obnoxious. Perhaps you didn’t mean it to be, and would like to re-phrase.

I don’t mind Brad Warner’s book on sex, but I am nearly 60, and let’s just say I’m in a way different place from Warner’s target audience. But, as I said in the review, while I didn’t relate to the book myself, I can see how others might, and if other people get something out of it I have no problem with that.

And the language is not “too much” for me, but this website is owned by the New York Times Company, and the Company might not appreciate my repeating some of it.

Regarding your Steve Hagen book recommendation — Dainan Katagiri Roshi gave us a lot of good teachers — I did a retreat once with Dosho Port; lovely guy — and I’ll assume it’s a fine book. But I’ll take several years of direct, personal experience with Buddhism over any book, thanks.

December 5, 2010 at 6:35 pm
(21) Rio Guzman says:

No, I didn’t mean it to be. When I said “you”, it was meant in general. Others were commenting on the language also. Please, don’t take it personal.

February 11, 2011 at 9:17 pm
(22) trainwreck says:

I avoided the book for a while thinking it would be heavy on the sexual discussion exclusively, but was pleasantly surprised that there was a lot of dharma that could be applied to everyday life. He doesnt take a puritans view of sexuality certainnly but he also rebels against the irresponsible free love attitude people might expect…In short, read the book with an open mind…

February 11, 2011 at 11:24 pm
(23) Barbara O'Brien says:

In short, read the book with an open mind…

That’s sort of what I said, although it’s also the case that it’s not for everyone. I doubt many middle aged or older people would find it that helpful. There’s little in it that us geezers haven’t figured out for ourselves, and the jokes aren’t that funny.

February 16, 2011 at 1:26 am
(24) br says:

Brad has said he has wanted to focus more on the buddhism and less on the punk stuff but it makes his publisher unhappy.

April 1, 2012 at 10:22 pm
(25) The Brad says:

After 61 years of a problematic life of sexual and intimate dysfunction, and after a divorce ending 20 years with a partner that I never could fully emotionally or sexually satisfy I found the other Brad (Brad Warner) to be a window into a world that I could never have imagined. I am no adolescent but I am taking the time to finally wake up from a life that never had an adolescence that lead to a healthy sexual life anyway. Brad’s book was like being hit over the head with a Zen 2×4 and I am so grateful. So, to the nay sayers I say, “You can never know from whence great teachings come and to whom they do the most good…regardless of one’s opinions about the content.”

May 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm
(26) L.J. says:

I purchased Hardcore Zen awhile back and just finished reading it for the second time, which got me thinking about purchasing Brad Warner’s other books. Which led me to this review.

As much as I love Hardcore Zen, I have been somewhat apprehensive about reading any more of Brad Warner’s work. So many times I have gotten really into something or someone that seemed spiritual or moving in some way, only to become disillusioned and soured by the whole thing.

But after reading the above quote from page 74, I am certain that I will definitely continue to enjoy Mr. Warner’s work for some time to come.

Though I can not comment on this book, I can comment on the author. I can see where his juvenile humour and more off colour style would seem offensive to some, and seem contradictory to what he is trying to teach. But I get where he is coming from. Like Brad, I don’t believe in organized religion. This does not mean that I have no interest in a spiritual life. I think that he speaks to a segment of the population that is largely ignored by the “pompous wannabe” members of every major religion, not just Buddhism. I believe that the “cognitive dissonance” is very deliberate, and very effective in reaching an audience who isn’t interested in “all that soft-soap, lovey-dovey, good vibes shit”.

He encourages his readers to think for themselves and be individuals. He reaches out to the people who want to have faith and spirituality in their lives but don’t necessarily want to buy a membership to the club.

October 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm
(27) Jeff says:

He is simply giving you all an excuse to be angry. To not watch body, speech and mind. It’s just another extreme view. You are not asked to be “beatific”, and neither are you asked to be “punk as fuck”. BOTH are extremes, and they are not the middle way.

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