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.