Friday, February 27, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer is Dead, Alas

OK. Plugs first. Tomorrow is all-day zazen at Hill Street Center. The schedule is two posts below this one and the info about how to get there is linked to your left. Also, I'll be speaking and leading meditation (zazen) at the Dharma Punx place in Santa Monica on Monday March 2nd at 7:30 PM. That's at 1001 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90401. I'll also be at their place in Hollywood on Sunday March 15, 2009 at 11 AM. That's at 4300 Melrose (between Heliotrope and Vermont) Los Angeles, CA 90029. I hear they get like 70 people at these things. That's way too many. So please don't show up!

Also, take a look at the coolest review ever for Zen Wrapped in Karma. I love this one! Thank you, Enlightenment Ward!

And those of you not in NE Ohio can now read the Scene magazine article by clicking the two images I've posted today (you'll see them full sized). I love the cover and the way they refer to me as Zero Defex bassist Brad Warner. That's how it should be!

On to the reason for this post. In spite of my clear instructions that people I like should stop dying, I just got word yesterday that Philip Jose Farmer passed away on Wed. February 25th.

I was (and am) a big fan of Farmer's books. His novels often combined sex, religion and science fiction and were a big influence on my own writing style. He's best known for his Riverworld series, which I liked, but which went downhill steadily from the first book. My favorites were his one-off novels, particularly Jesus On Mars, about an entity that calls itself the reincarnation of Christ appearing to future colonists on Mars, The Unreasoning Mask, about an Islamic starship captain in search of an object that is said to have survived the "Big Crunch" that ended the universe that existed before the one we live in was formed, and Dark Is The Sun, about a far future Earth much different from the world we know. And, of course, his incredible Kurt Vonnegut parody Venus on the Half Shell, originally credited to Vonnegut's fictional sci-fi author Kilgore Trout.

I read a lot of science fiction in my teens and twenties. I don't read much of it now. Sometimes people into Buddhism get the idea that they shouldn't read fiction because fiction isn't true. But I disagree there. I think a lot of so-called non-fiction is less true than lots of fiction. I found Philip Jose Farmer to be an interesting and truthful writer. He was certainly no Dogen! But then who is? If you want Buddhism, read Dogen or Nishijima or Suzuki or Katagiri. If you want good science fiction, Farmer was one of the best. I'll miss his voice.

Finally, I wanted to say something about attachment. I think I may have overstated the case when I said that Buddhism doesn't much value the idea of non-attachment. It does. But there is a problem when you get too attached to words like "non-attachment." What I'm seeing in America is that a lot of folks seem to view the idea of non-attachment as being the same as what we call detachment. They take the view that a good Buddhist should be almost like what they used to call a sociopath. They believe Buddhism asks us to cultivate an attitude of callous indifference and a kind of narcissistic aloofness. Very few people actually do this, of course. But the idea that Buddhism advocates this kind of attitude turns a lot of sensitive people away, and that's a shame.

The e-mail that inspired the initial piece I wrote on the subject was from a guy who wondered if his love for his wife and kid constituted an attachment that he should try to overcome. But Buddhism isn't about not loving your wife and children! The non-attachment we're talking about is a different matter entirely. It's a realistic and balanced understanding that on one hand we are, in fact, very attached to everything. We, ourselves, are not independent at all. We are an expression of the universe. We can't possibly detach ourselves from that which we encounter. At the same time it's the understanding that all we are attached to will one day disappear (like Philip Jose Farmer did the other day). And it's an understanding that our specific attachments and preferences hinder our appreciation of the true nature of our existence.

Oy! I could write a book on this one... (There's an idea!)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gudo's Blog

I'm gonna try not to post here every day. And if you're in So Cal and want something to do on Saturday see the next post below this one for info on our one-day zazen. ALSO, I will be at the Dharma Punx place in Santa Monica on Monday March 2, 2009 at 7:30 PM. The address is 1001 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90401. I'll also be at their place in Hollywood on Sunday March 15, 2009 at 11 AM. That's at 4300 Melrose (between Heliotrope and Vermont) Los Angeles, CA 90029.

But I couldn't let this go without mentioning it. The February 25, 2009 post on my teacher Gudo Nishijima's blog has some nice comments about my new book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. The post is called "Master Dogen's Thoughts on Desire." The blog itself has been very good lately (much better than my drivel here) and I urge you to take a look.

This way of looking at desire is a really key point. The common translation of Buddha's Four Noble Truths has it that the cause of suffering is desire and the elimination of desire ends suffering. This dovetails nicely with Judeo-Christian-Islamic revulsion towards desires of the flesh. The idea sounds remarkably like the church's teaching that we must deny the desires of the body to experience the Heavenly bliss of the soul. I think much of what's taught by Westerners who follow Eastern religious paths, including Buddhism, proceeds from this idea.

But Dogen's point of view was totally different. He states that the suppression of desire and desire itself are one and the same. You might also say that one element of desire itself is our revulsion towards that desire. By fixating on that one aspect of desire, the desire to suppress desire, we only increase desire.

This doesn't mean we should simply give in to whatever lurid cravings cross our minds. That won't help us either. The only thing I've found that works is to be very, very quiet and see desire for what it really is. And the only way to do that is to do zazen every damn day. Seeing desire for what it is, is the first step. Doing what needs doing is another matter.

It kind of reminds me of this riff I heard by one of my favorite local comedians Eddie Pepitone. He talks about how there are world leaders out there torturing babies and he feels like a bad person when he has a pudding at three in the morning (he gets to it towards the end of this video). It's a funny bit that shows how we humans work. Some of us don't have it together to see that the most heinous things we do are wrong while others are sensitive to the most innocuous of offenses. That sensitivity is a generally good thing. But it can be taken too far.

Religious leader types are very much aware that "spiritual" people tend to be very sensitive to the notion of being a "bad person" for even the most minor transgressions. And many of these religious leaders prey upon that, knowing that feelings of guilt among their followers ultimately increase their own power over those followers. Since each member of the congregation has his or her own secret transgressions, it's not even necessary to spell them out. But sometimes it helps to goose the crowd by defining even the most universal of human cravings or transgressions as "evil" in the eyes of the deity, or, in the case of wanna-be Buddhists, as desires that need to be stamped out.

Desire and the desire to be free of desire arise simultaneously. Try as you might you can't fight desire with itself. The only way out is to see what's going on from a completely different angle.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Back by popular demand, we will have an all-day zazen on Saturday Feb. 28, 2009 at the Hill St. Center in Santa Monica (details on your left). The schedule will go like this:

10:00-10:40 Zazen
10:40-11:00 Chanting
11:00-11:30 Zazen
11:30-11:40 Kinhin
11:40-12:10 Zazen
12:10-1:10 Lunch (BRING YOUR OWN!)
1:10-1:40 Zazen
1:40-1:50 Kinhin (walking zazen)
1:50-2:20 Zazen
2:20-2:50 Samu (clean up)
2:50-3:30 Discussion

OK? I'm keeping the first 2 things like we usually do so that anyone who wants to come just for that can do so and then leave if they like. Folks are welcome to come to any segment of this. But if you come in the middle, nobody's gonna show you what to do, so you better know before hand. Instructions by the lovely Liza Rose of SuicideGirls are linked over there to your left.

Remember THERE IS NO ORYOKI LUNCH. You must BRING YOUR OWN LUNCH! We can all eat together, maybe even say the meal chant. But NO ORYOKI!


I put up a few more Nishijima videos the other day. I'll just put up links this time so that everything runs a little smoother here on the blog. These items are slightly more controversial than the last ones. I was actually baiting him during the talks and trying to get him to say controversial stuff. This is about as much controversy as I got.

Someone asked me why I didn't just put all 3 hours of raw video up. Oy! It took like an hour a piece just to encode each of these short videos in the format you need for YouTube. Maybe someday...

Gudo Nishijima Roshi: The Balance Between Love and Hate

Here Gudo Nishijima Roshi talks about the balance of love and hate in Buddhist practice.

Of course, the word "hate" here does not mean the kind of hate that causes murder, genocide and so on. It refers to the workings of the autonomic nervous system. When hate is unbalanced and overwhelms love we all know there are terrible consequences. Yet when love is unbalanced and overwhelms hate the consequences are equally negative.

I've always found his use of the word "love" and "hate" to describe these subtle states very interesting and useful.

Click here to view

Gudo Nishijima Roshi: Japanese Buddhism in World War II
Gudo Nishijima Roshi gives his opinion about Japanese Buddhism and its support of the war effort during World War II. He agrees with Brian Victoria, author of "Zen at War," that many Japanese Buddhists supported Japan's nationalism during the war and he calls this unfortunate. But he strongly denies Victoria's assertion that his teacher Kodo Sawaki was among them. The exaggerations that Nishijima Roshi refers to in the video are given in great detail on this web page (click to view).

To me, the most telling of these exaggerations is when Victoria quotes Sawaki as saying, "We gorged ourselves on killing" when Sawaki served in the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese war. The Japanese phrase in the source material translated as "gorged" was "hara ippai." In my eleven years in Japan I never once heard anyone use the phrase "hara ippai" (literally: full stomach) in a positive context unless perhaps when speaking of actual eating. When used metaphorically it means "fed up." The quote should have been rendered "We got fed up with killing." Furthermore, the quote isn't even actually from Sawaki at all but by a later biographer who put his own words into Sawaki's mouth. Victoria evidently knew this when he used it but did not qualify the quote.

Other quotations that Victoria used to demonstrate Sawaki's supposed war-mongering are equally dubiously translated or from similarly discredited sources. Conversely, one can find many other quotations by Sawaki from outside Victoria's book in which he clearly denounces war. Victoria's is definitely an important book and says stuff that clearly needed to be said. He just went a bit too far to make his point.

Click here to view

Gudo Nishijima Roshi: Chanting in Buddhism

Gudo Nishijima Roshi talks about the place of sutra chanting in Buddhism and has a few choice words to say about the Soto sect. One should note that in spite of what he says here, Nishijima Roshi also led weekly chanting of the Heart Sutra and other Buddhist texts at his Zen dojo in Chiba, Japan for many years. So his words shouldn't be taken as denouncing chanting entirely. Still, the main focus of his teaching is always the practice of Zazen.

Click here to view

Gudo Nishijima Roshi: How to Wear the O-kesa
Gudo Nishijima Roshi demonstrates the way to put on the o-kesa (or kashaya), the traditional Buddhist robe. Notice he is wearing a kimono under the o-kesa and a Western style dress shirt below that. These are the clothes he just happened to have on when I taped this. Though Nishijima Roshi often wears full Buddhist robes, he believes that the o-kesa is the only truly Buddhist garment. So he often wears it over Western clothes.

His method for tying it is basically Soto style. But there are variations. Some do not hide the cords used to tie it up. Some fold it in a slightly different way.

Sorry for the video drop-outs at the beginning. It clears up pretty quickly.

Click here to view

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I've Hit the BIG TIME!!!

Oh my God! I made the cover of SCENE magazine in Cleveland. Click here for the on-line version of the story. SCENE is the local NE Ohio free weekly rock'n'roll paper like LA Weekly out here or The Reader in Chicago or The Observer in Dallas or whatever you got in your town. I read every issue when I was a teenager, hating it sometimes but often being surprised how good it could be. The legendary Crocus Behemoth, leader of Pere Ubu, was once a columnist. So that's cool. And they did a story about Dimentia 13 in 1991. Not the cover, though...

Also, Deborah Harper interviewed me for the Psych Journey podcast. Click here
and scroll down a bit to listen for yourself. She was very nice and asked some real good questions.

I did a talk in Ventura yesterday that went very well. Much better than I could have hoped for. My books all sold out! That's the first time that's ever happened. I'm starting to wonder if this new book will actually turn out to be popular...

I hit on something during the talk that I'd never thought of before it popped out of my mouth. This occasionally happens and it's very interesting when it does. My new book is, in part, about a lot of times when I stopped following the Buddhist precepts. And yet I always came back. And the reason was because when I stopped following the precepts things only ever became worse.

A lot of people present the precepts as a way to become holy or "pure." They're seen as ways to be more austere and clean, a straight arrow, like a Fifties guy with a crew-cut and a bow tie, less fun. But lately I've come to believe that what Buddha really wanted was to show us a way to live a life that is as fun as it possibly can be. All the ways society tells us fun is to be had are, in fact, wrong.

I'd never thought of it that way before. I'll probably expand on that theme for my next Suicide Girls piece, which is due up on March 16th.

Also, in other good news, I just received the only review of Zen Wrapped in Karma that really matters. This came in an e-mail from Nishijima Roshi, "By the way, thank you very much for your kindness to send me your valuable book Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate. Reading it I feel very happy that your Buddhist thoughts are almost completely the same as mine fortunately. Therefore utilizing Dogen Sangha International, we can spread the True Buddhism, that is, the Buddhism as Realism, throughout the world. Therefore reading your book I have become very encouraged."


Thursday, February 19, 2009


I forgot to re-post this. Tonight (Fri. Feb 20, 2009)I'll be at:

An Lac Mission (Ventura Buddhist Temple)
901 S. Saticoy Ave. Ventura, CA 93004
Phone numbers: 805-659-9751 or 805-758-2028

Talk, Zazen, Book Signing:
Date & Time of event: Friday, February 20, 7:00pm-9:00pm

Zazen tomorrow morning in Santa Monica as usual. Details are to your left.

On a couple of my recent trips to Japan when I stayed in Nishijima Roshi's (I'm calling him Roshi lately since the word seems to be important to some) apartment I video taped some conversations we had. I have about 3 or more hours of discussions we engaged in covering a whole lot of topics, from philosophical stuff to world affairs to Dogen Sangha and its history and membership to Nagarjuna's "Fundamental Song of the Middle Way" (MMK) etc., etc.

I spent some time (actually a whole lot more time than I intended) this morning editing some of the best stuff into some short YouTube videos. There's more where this came from! Maybe I'll post some soon. Until then, enjoy!

NOTE: I originally posted all of these as embedded videos. But that caused the page to load really slowly. So now I've changed all but the first one to links. The videos are still there just as they were when I posted them yesterday. (I also forgot to mention that the cutest part of these videos to me is the piece of cardboard taped to the door behind him that says which days to take out the trash. The apt. he lives in is so tiny you can almost see the whole thing in these videos.)

On God

On Matter vs. Reality

Nishijima talks about the nature of matter vs. the nature of reality. This concept was one of the hardest ones for me to grasp. It was also the cause of one of the most mind blowing moments I ever experienced at a talk with him. I thought mentioned this moment in Hardcore Zen. But I just went thru the book and I couldn't find it. Anyway, the idea that matter might not be reality was a pretty big shock to me.

On Koans and Enlightenment

Nishijima's ideas about koans and their study is based on Master Dogen's view. It's very much at odds with the view taken by most Western scholars on the matter. The standard line Western scholars tend to take is that the koans are illogical stories designed to shake the mind out of its tendency towards linear thinking. Nishijima also here addresses the relative importance of so-called "Enlightenment experiences."

On Recognizing True Buddhism

This is a question I get asked all the time -- "How does a beginner recognize real Buddhism?". So I posed it to Nishijima. Here is his answer.

Monday, February 16, 2009


For those of you up North on the West coast, this Friday I will be at:

An Lac Mission (Ventura Buddhist Temple)
901 S. Saticoy Ave. Ventura, CA 93004
Phone numbers: 805-659-9751 or 805-758-2028

Talk, Zazen, Book Signing:
Date & Time of event: Friday, February 20, 7:00pm-9:00pm

Plus I put 2 new pages up on my Old Dinosaur Books webpage. The link is to your left. The new ones are "Animal Ghosts" and "More Japanese Dinosaur Oddities."

Now some more of the Q & A:

The problem I'm having is this- I can't seem to find the 3 points of balance: I can get into half lotus position, but my spine feels like it's bowing way out to one side when I have both knees down. I can sit in the "Burmese" style, but it still takes me a good 10 minutes to find a position where I feel balanced and my spine is straight. If I'm correct, you also tend to discourage this posture. (?) I can't reach a full lotus position for more than a few seconds without ripping some tendons in my feet.... though I keep stretching! The closest I've come seems is quarter lotus, with one foot sort of tucked in the fold of the opposite leg below the thigh.

My question is this- What is most important until I can get to full lotus.... both knees down with spine curved? spine straight with one knee down and the other hovering slightly off the ground? Burmese? Quarter lotus? Any ideas?

Every so often I find someone on the internet telling the world that Brad Warner says, “Anyone who can’t get into the full lotus posture the very first time they do zazen ought to just give up the practice entirely and furthermore we should send all such people to forced labor camps in Siberia!”

I know my writing style is often difficult to comprehend and I have been working on this for a while. But honest to God I know I was never anywhere close to as much of a posture Nazi as some people seem to believe.

However, I have said, and I still say today that proper posture is crucial to zazen practice. This is because so many folks in the meditation game like to depict posture as a purely arbitrary matter. I’ve been to meditation centers where people are lying on the ground or slouching back on weird “meditation chairs” or just plain sitting around in a sloppy manner. That’s not zazen.

I’m also not a big fan of zazen in chairs. OK. If you absolutely have no other choice but to do your zazen in a chair, then fine. It’s better than not doing it at all. But I see a lot of people doing zazen in chairs who I know could be doing it on a cushion on the floor if they tried. Chairs force their own kind of balance upon the body and rob you of the chance to find that balance for yourself. The difference might be like the difference between riding a tricycle and riding a bicycle.

When I went to Japan I discovered that we Americans love to invent handicaps for ourselves. I had no idea that we did this -- that I did this. It’s part of establishing an identity to be handicapped in some way. We’re allergic to Spam or we’re cellulose intolerant or we can’t do zazen without a chair. Of course there are people who can legitimately make those kinds of claims. But it wasn’t till I got to Japan that I was told this thing of even the healthiest among us having some hidden handicap that makes us special is a cultural characteristic of my country. “Oh you Americans are all allergic or sensitive to something!” my friends would say when I’d tell them my various intolerances.

Sorry for the tangent. To answer your question, the key thing is to keep the spine straight. What you do with your legs is secondary, but it does help establish the straight spine. Full, half, quarter lotus or Burmese posture are all perfectly fine. Some people put extra cushions under their knees to help establish balance. There’s a link over to your left about some Yoga exercises to help get into the various lotus postures.

Don’t hurt yourself! Take it slow! Do the best approximation of the posture you can until you’re able to get it right. Zazen is not supposed to be painless and comfortable. But it shouldn’t be excruciating.

Good luck.

Next question:

I feel the sincere desire to train under the guidance of teacher, like yourself, with whom I feel a strong resonance, though, given my limited finances, I am not sure if/when I will ever be able to make it out to Santa Monica. They do have a small Zen group that meets sits together here, but their Sensei only visits occasionally, and it is located across town from me, and lack of transportation currently makes it near impossible for me to access them.

Should I continue to practice on my own here, in isolation and without the guidance of a teacher, and just wait for things to unfold naturally, or do you think - given what I've told you - that its time for me to make some kind of bold move to shake myself out of the circles I seem to find myself going in? In either case, could you offer me some general thoughts on approaching the koan of my current situation?

You’d only be disappointed in me if you made it out here. Many people have been. For the record, I refuse to train anyone. That's not what I do. Couldn't do it if I wanted to!

The image people create of teachers they read about never matches up to the teachers themselves. When someone goes a long, long way to find some very special teacher they’ve heard about they usually end up being bitterly disillusioned and often drop out of the practice entirely. No one can possibly live up to the idealized image we create of them.

So I don’t encourage bold moves like the one you’re talking about. I mean, what would you do in California? Would you expect me to provide you a place to live, to feed you and get you a job? I’m not trying to be mean here. In fact I'm not even asking this of you in particular, but of all the many people who send me e-mails like this. What if you got here and I moved away? God knows I’d love to get out of Southern California! The stuff I’m saying here doesn’t just apply to me, but to any teacher you might be considering uprooting yourself to follow.

Still, I know it’s sometimes useful to make a big break and go somewhere else. I did that when I moved to Japan in 1994. And I don’ regret it. But I didn’t go there looking for some teacher.

There are places you could go, like San Francisco Zen Center or Antaiji in Japan where they’ll take in people who want to practice. But even these places make you earn your own keep. Plus they’re big institutions with all that goes along with being big institutions.

Whether you stay put or go somewhere else isn’t really the key thing. It’s the effort you put into practice that matters. If you are truly driven to find a teacher, you will find one no matter whether you stay or go.


My question is this. Why do all of the articles I read say something to the effect of all of "us," us being humanity, being miserable all the time? I am not a Buddhist of any sort, not that I have a problem with it or anything. I am interested in it in an academic context, which is why I am asking the question. It seems to be a central tenet of Buddhism, or maybe just Zen Buddhism, that because life is pretty much miserable, the adoption of a Zen Buddhist lifestyle is necessary for inner peace. So what about people who consider themselves content with their daily lives without being Zen Buddhists?

If you’re perfectly content then you don’t need zazen!

I can’t really answer this in an academic context. To me, zazen is purely practical. Might as well write an essay on masturbation as write one on zazen. And yet I seem to be in the profession of writing essays on masturbation -- I mean essays on zazen!

Still, essays on zazen are about as applicable to zazen practice as essays on masturbation would be to real masturbation.

Anyway, it’s not that we’re all miserable all the time. Nobody’s miserable all the time. Except maybe Morrisey from The Smiths*. But when we’re in our idealistic mode we envision a life for ourselves that’s utterly impossible to achieve. Our thoughts are always idealistic and, therefore, always different from real life. So what I think Buddha meant when he said “All life is suffering” or "unsatisfactory experience" (dukha in Sanskrit) is that, when looked at from the idealistic viewpoint even our most enjoyable moments have a quality of suffering and dissatisfaction. We know someday our happiness will end, and that knowledge always underlies even our most blissful experiences. In fact, suffering is more of a component of bliss than it is of a non-blissful experience. The more bliss you feel the more suffering is pasted to its underside.

From the materialistic point of view we can’t speak of suffering or bliss. Things are what they are. From that point of view the most fantastic blow job you ever got is the product of neurons being stimulated and chemicals being released into the brain. A simple, mechanical process and nothing more.

In real action both the idealistic, mental side and the materialistic physical side are always present. We may attend to one or the other more fully. But they’re always together. In zazen we practice action in the present moment in order to find a balance between the two.

I’ve never met anyone who was perfectly content with their life. I wonder if they exist. In zazen practice we don’t strive to rid ourselves of discontent. We strive to see and experience discontent for what it really is. And ultimately, like all emotions, it’s just a passing state of mind.

As for achieving inner peace, that’s mostly just P.R. I wouldn’t put much stock in anyone who advertises inner peace.

*He's miserable because he has a tree branch stuck up his butt (watch the video carefully).

Friday, February 13, 2009


Those of you who never read MAD magazine won't get that title. Go look it up! Anyway, I've decided to try & answer some questions I've received by e-mail on this blog.

If you have questions, you can send them to me via e-mail. I can't promise I'll answer because my in box is always full. But I'll do what I can. I don't read the comments section on this blog (sorry, but it's troll city in there and I break out in hives every time I enter), so don't just put them there.

Here goes:

In the midst of a heated debate while attempting to communicate Zen concepts to a friend, there were a few times, more than a few, where I ran into difficulty articulating myself, naturally. Particularly the idea that the point of practice is to have no point to practice. My friend asked 'How does sitting benefit you?' and I tried to explain that it is essential to get away from this idea of benefit. When one is sitting, just to sit, with no goal, no reaching, no looking, no mind, no Buddha, no attainment. My friend had a hard time with this, essentially arguing that this is impossible, to just sit without some idea of benefit motivation or goal, arguing that no-goal is itself a goal. Eventually I simply said that words and explanation breaks down, and that's the point. One can only sit zazen, because eventually any logical reasoning breaks down. I am wondering if I am articulating this properly?

This is a tough question. The longer I do zazen, the harder it gets to explain why I do it. I mainly do it these days because I enjoy it. Although I don't know if "enjoy" is really the right word. Plus I feel like crap when I skip it.

Your friend is perfectly correct that "no goal is still a goal." And you're right in saying that at some point words and explanations break down. The fact is everyone who does zazen has some kind of motivation to do so. That's just the way we humans work. I used to sit so that I could get Enlightenment and be the biggest blow hard in the zendo. Look how beautifully I succeeded!

This is, of course, a joke. What I wanted and what I got were two completely different things. It's always that way, though. Which is why it's better to drop any goal you might have for practice. If you can't drop your goals, just recognize them as ideas floating around in your brain.

If you're trying to convince your friend to practice... I can't really help there. I never bother with that. People who want to do zazen will find a way to do it no matter what obstacles are placed in their way, including busy schedules, physical disabilities and all the rest. People who don't want to do zazen will find any excuse at all not to. It's best not to waste time trying to sell anyone the practice.

Next question.

I've been wrestling with two attachments I can't seem to let go: reading and running. My problem is, while trying to free myself from attachment, I vacillate between donating my books and ceasing exercise and buying more books to learn about Zen Buddhism and on a different track running (which I love for its meditative and liberating nature) but also having to do yoga, lift, blah blah blah to make sure I'm balanced. I'm having trouble finding a middle ground, and was interested in what you thought. I have a stack of Buddhist magazines next to my couch and I don't know whether to smack myself with them or read them. They are healthy endeavors, it just seems that I'm allowing myself to become too attached to them, especially in our news-obsessed/ultra-healthy culture (do I really need to know about the elections in France and how to lift more than the guy next to me in two hours a day?).

There's nothing wrong with buying books -- as long as they're my books!

But seriously, authors need to eat and buying books and magazines is a way to help them earn a living. And for those of you who don't believe in wasting paper on books and magazines, I think that's very noble. But you still need to pay writers for their work! Once we get it together to pay writers for the work they do on-line I'll go paperless. Until then I still buy books and magazines.

ANYWAY, running sounds to me like a healthy thing to do. So why worry about being attached to it? Reading is fine. I like reading too. Dogen was a voracious reader. There's no shame in it at all. I take what I read in Buddhist magazines with a big huge grain of salt. In fact, I rarely read them. I prefer MOJO (a British music rag) and FILMFAX (all about obscure old sci-fi movies) myself. Still, every so often the Buddhist mags put something interesting in, and that's all right. It's part of the way Buddhism gets spread around.

But maybe the question is really about attachment. That's a big buzz word among American and European Buddhists. But oddly enough I don't think this whole idea of non-attachment is really a key Buddhist concept. It's more of a Brahmanistic (Hindu) idea that got incorporated into Buddhism when Buddhism came to the West as part of a mixture of Eastern philosophies. A lot of Westerners seem to find it a bit distasteful to suggest that there are some very big differences between the various Eastern philosophies. But there are.

Which is not to say the idea never comes up in Buddhism. It's just not a real key thing the way it is in Hindu philosophies like Vedanta (at least I think it's big in Vedanta philosophy, I've never studied Vedanta in depth).

I'm not gonna go look thru every chapter of Shobogenzo to check. But off hand I can't recall Dogen ever talking about non-attachment except possibly when speaking about ancient Indian philosophies. Maybe the idea of non-attachment to views comes up. But non-attachment to running or reading and stuff along those lines? I can't recall anything like that.

ANYWAY, the fact of the matter is that we all have attachments. We love our families, our kitty cats, our favorite breakfast cereals and all the rest. You can't be a real human being without having some attachments. The goal of Zen practice isn't to turn us all into un-feeling robots or clones of Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

It's good, though, to see your attachments for what they are; just thoughts inside your head. The lighter your attachments are, the easier your life will be. Because nothing stays one way forever, and whatever you're attached to will change some day and eventually be gone. I sometimes think this "non-attachment" thing is a way of trying to numb oneself so that the day you lose your mom and your kitty and the store runs out of Corn Chex you'll be all cool and "non-attached" about it. The real goal of Zen is to find a way of life that's easy and undramatic. Strong attachments lead to upset and drama.

The fact that you can recognize your own attachments is very good. Most people never do.


What´s your practice when it comes to food and eating?

I'm a vegetarian and have been since I was 18. I wanted to be a vegetarian from the time I first learned that hamburgers were made from dead cows and hot dogs from dead pigs. My mom freaked out over the idea of having to cook special food for me. So I decided I'd wait until I moved out of the house. Once I moved out I quickly went veg.

BUT, vegetarianism is not necessary for Zen practice. There's a story about Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. It seems he was traveling with a student of his who was a very strict vegetarian. They were hungry and the only place to stop was a little roadside diner. The diner didn't have anything vegetarian on the menu so the student ordered a grilled cheese sandwich to be made specially for him (maybe like that scene in Five Easy Pieces). Suzuki ordered a hamburger. When the sandwiches came, Suzuki quickly grabbed the student's grilled cheese and stuffed it in his mouth. Then he said, "It's OK, you can have mine!"

I started Zen at roughly the same time I started being vegetarian. I think vegetarianism came a few months earlier. I was pretty hardcore about it at first. So when I heard stories like that I worried a lot that some Zen teacher would force me to eat meat or that my vegetarianism was somehow un-Zen.

But both of my teachers encouraged my vegetarianism, although neither one of them was a vegetarian himself. Tim McCarthy used to say he was a "liberal vegetarian." This, he said. was a ridiculous designation, even though he used it. He said, "It's like saying your a 'liberal celibate.' Like, 'I'm celibate but sometimes I still fuck!'" He ate meat, but not much and never red meat. Nishijima's pretty much the same. Though he might eat a bit of beef or pork sometimes. I don't know for sure. Nishijima has great respect for vegetarians, though. He used to say that if there were more vegetarians there would be less violence in the world.

The thing about eating is that even if you're a vegetarian you're killing other beings so that you can live. A carrot is almost certainly less self aware than a cow (though who can say for sure other than a fellow carrot? And they ain't talking!). But it's no less alive. So it's important to have respect for your food.

This is why Zen monks recite big long chants before eating -- so long their food is always freezing cold by the time the chant is done. The chants remind them that eating is a big deal and must not be taken lightly. In part the Zen meal chant goes like this:

We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.

We reflect on our virtue and practice and consider whether we are worthy of this offering

We reflect on our illusions and mistakes, we must avoid greed, anger and ignorance

We reflect on the reason for eating meals, it is to avoid becoming weak

For the sake of attaining the truth we now receive this meal

Nishijima Sensei chants this whole thing before every single meal even if he's eating prepackaged bento from the local convenience store. I'm not as hardcore as that. But every time I eat something, even a bag of Fritos (see photo above), I fold my hands and say, "itadakimasu," which is a Japanese word meaning something like "I receive this with gratitude." Half-assed, sure. But so am I!

OK. That's all I got time for today. Tune in next time!

Sunday, February 08, 2009


My new Suicide Girls article is up now click here to see it. They also have an RSS feed which is here and may be accessible by people using networks on which the Suicide Girls site is banned. The new article is about my new book and it's called "Why Can't We Accept Good Spiritual Advice Unless It Comes From Superman?" This is one of the central themes of the book.

Of course, some smarty pants out there in comment land is bound to say that mine is not good spiritual advice. Fair enough. But why can't we seem to accept any spiritual advice unless we believe the source of that advice to be somehow divine? I think this is a very important question.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Rest In Peace, Lux Interior

Man, I'm sick of people I like dying all the time. So stop it, OK? Thanks.

Anyway, yesterday I was pretty sad to hear the news that Lux Interior, lead singer of The Cramps died at age 60. The Cramps were a huge influence on me musically and culturally. I even quoted their song "Garbage Man" in Hardcore Zen ("You ain't no punk, you punk, let's talk about the real junk").

I first heard The Cramps when I was a junior or senior in high school. My friend Dan Gaffney played me the record Psychedelic Jungle and it was a revelation. I never knew anything that scary and cool could exist. Lux's real name was Erik Purkheiser and he was from Stow, a suburb of Akron. His brother Mark played guitar in a band called Johnny Clampett and the Walkers (later re-named The Walking Clampetts) and ran a guitar repair shop across from Luigi's Pizza in downtown Akron.

Lux was one of those people I always figured I'd meet one day. I knew people who knew him and we obviously had a lot of shared interests in rock and roll and horror movies. I'm so sorry it never happened.

I liked Lux's approach of letting people believe he was evil and depraved when the truth was that he was actually pretty normal. My friend Steve used to see Lux and his wife Poison Ivy power walking in the hills of Glendale, a far cry from the image people had of him dwelling in a basement surviving on a diet of heroin and toadstools. It's always made me feel good when I've seen people presenting themselves in that warts and all way. It made me feel like maybe I was OK, that just the fact that I had a darker side didn't mean that's all there was to me. I guess that's a funny thing to take from a band like The Cramps. But there ya go.

There's stuff all over the web about Lux and his life and influence. So I don't need to add any more. I'll just leave you with my favorite video clip of the band on a Chicago-based public access show for kids called Chic A Go Go:

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


If you're a Border's Reward member you got an e-mail newsletter with an excerpt from my new book in it today. If you didn't get it or you deleted it go here or click on the title of this article to go directly to the excerpt. In the e-mail newsletter the except is on a link that's way, way down the page under "Religion and Spirituality." Funny because my last Suicide Girls post was all about how Zen is neither. Ah well. Gotta love Borders for putting this in anyway. Thanks!

I've been skimming over some of the reactions to the book in the comments section here and in other places. It's kind of interesting. There are times I'm somewhat at a loss what to make of the book myself. As I said in the book, that book just sort of appeared to me in a flash and demanded to be written. I had a lot of far easier ideas in mind for my next book. Nice stuff that wouldn't have made anyone mad. Like a Zen look at the life and work of Jesus (seriously, I researched this for several months and took loads of notes) or something based on my commentary to Nishijima's translation of Nagarjuna's Fundamental Song of the Middle Way (which is due out this Fall from Monkfish Books, by the way).

Those would've been a breeze to write and probably would've saved me from some of the name-calling and suchlike I'm getting now. They'd have also been less embarrassing to read from at book signings. But there ya go.

I'm gonna stop now cuz I have a new Suicide Girls article due in a couple days. Maybe I'll riff on this topic some more over there.