Wednesday, October 28, 2009


So... what do you wanna know?

I see people are speculating on why I closed the comments section.

There were a lot of reasons. There were definitely good things about it. Some of the regular commenters were friendly, sometimes insightful. I liked reading Jinzang's postings, for example and even some of the trolls were at least entertaining.

It was also the free-est Buddhist themed discussion group on the 'net. A guy I know tried to sign up for one of the other on-line Buddhist groups and got the third degree from the owner before he was even allowed to join, let alone post anything (which would have been censored according to the owner's ideas of what was and wasn't "right speech"). And I was letting anybody post anything they wanted.

But I got sick of handing over a free platform to weenies with axes to grind, usually against me. People can say whatever the hell they want. But I didn't see any reason I had to give them space to do it. So now they have to denounce me on their own damned blogs. Or at least over on Aaron's blog where I don't have to look at it (see below). Plus I started seeing lots of things attributed to me that I hadn't said. They were from the comments section! People get confused sometimes...

I've been motorin' away lately on Nishijima Roshi's translation of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamikakarika. Lots of folks have asked me about the release date that's been announced on Amazon. I think they have it coming out on November 3rd? Something like that. Well, I'll be amazed if I'm even done with the first round of editing by November 3rd. The publishers have told me it'll be out in Spring.

Lots of things happening in Spring! At least that's the promises I've been hearing. Hardcore Zen is set to come out in German, Polish and Greek editions in Spring. And it's likely I'll be touring in Europe behind those releases. Yay! I'm still waiting to hear word back on where I'll be and when.

My next mainstream book is due out in Autumn of 2010. So far the provisional title is SIN, SEX AND ZEN. New World Library likes the title. So unless I or they come up with something better over the next few months, that title will probably stick. As the title suggests, the book will be about sin and about sex and about Zen. Three topics near and dear to my heart!

I've also started re-working a novel I wrote in the mid-late 90's. At the time it was called DESTROY ALL SPACEMEN. But if I finish it I'm gonna re-title it DEATH TO ALL MONSTERS! (with the exclamation point). It's a novel about an American guy who works in Tokyo for a company that produces Japanese monster films. It turns out one of the movies his company made may or may not contain footage of an actual UFO shot down by the Japanese military near the end of World War II as well as scenes of its living occupant. The film was pulled off of distribution in the 60s and no one's seen a copy since. Our hero, rabid fanboy that he is, just wants to have a peak at the film, which he finds deep in the company vaults. But when he does all hell breaks loose.

The story is a fictionalization of my real life at Tsuburaya Productions. There really is an episode of the giant monster vs. giant superhero TV series Ultra Seven that hasn't been seen since the early 70s. Or at least it wasn't seen between then and circa 1998 when I allowed a copy to be broadcast on the Turner Broadcasting Network in the USA. They showed it at like 4 am one morning as a filler. Management wasn't happy with me about that. The fanboys went nutzo when it came out. So did a lot of very weird "business people" in SE Asia.

The book is also about what life was like in Japan at the time, the people I knew there, the things we did. Nishijima Roshi is even a character. I like the book a lot. But it needs some fixing up before I send it anywhere. I could use someone who's an expert on Japan in WWII if anyone's interested in advising me on a few areas. Particularly the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (so-called "Manchukuo"). Write me at

And speaking of (which we were a while back), could a few of you who actually liked ZEN WRAPPED IN KARMA go over there and put some decent reviews of the thing up? Last I looked the top review was by some weasel who wanted to comment about his uninformed opinions on my marriage. It's interesting that so many people like to natter about the sex stuff in that book. But nobody likes to say anything about the disease and death stuff, which is far more important if you ask me. But who asks me? Nobody! That's who!

OK. Whatever. Come see me in Canada (dates below):

• November 13, 2009 - I will be in Vancouver BC speaking at the local Dharma Punx chapter on November 13th. Details are coming soon. Probably another gig will happen the following day. The gig on the 13th will be a talk and the one on the 14th will likely be several rounds of zazen followed by discussion.

•November 17, 2009 7pm, Victoria, BC Canada, University of Victoria Interfaith Chapel, Lot #6 UVic Ring Road, Tuesday Zen Open House, Zen meditation and Q&A;, contact for more info
They run a beginner’s group each week. 3x15 minute sits with a talk in the second one (just 15 minutes). Afterward there is tea, introductions, and a period of question and response.

• November 19, 2009 7pm, Victoria, BC Canada, University of Victoria Interfaith Chapel, Lot #6 UVic Ring Road, Public talk, contact for more info
This will be my main talk, your standard issue ask the zen guy questions. Books will be for sale. Fun will be had by all.

Want to comment? Go to:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Next Saturday, Oct. 31st, 2009, Halloween, we'll not be having our usual zazen at Hill Street Center. Instead a bunch of people from the group are participating in a Buddhist Beach Volleyball Tournament on nearby Santa Monica Beach.

Here is the schedule and other details from the website linked above:

9:30 - 9:50am Sitting meditation
9:50 - 10:30am Mindful Beach Clean Up (bring your own bags if you remember and gloves if you want them)
10:30 - 10:50am Twenty minutes of walking meditation in the sand
10:50 - 11:00am Closing and transitioning to traditional fun at the beach!
11:00 - 12:00 Warming up on the Volleyball court and sharing food!
2:00 - 4:00 practicing nothing to do... no where to go... unless of course you have somewhere to go.

During the tournament, you can play on the team that is keeping score for victory or defeat, cheer on your team or all the teams, or play some relaxed just for fun volleyball in the other courts.

Where: If you can do Google maps the address is: 14782 Pacific Coast Hwy, Los Angeles, CA, United States. If you are using a map, it is at the intersection of Entrada and the PCH, on the north side of Santa Monica. We will meet out near the life guard station #18.

Parking: There is a small lot right at Entrada & PCH. It is $10 for the day. There is some street parking on Entrada and there is a pedestrian pass under the PCH.

The location is not too far from Hill Street Center. If you think you might want to park at HSC and walk, please contact me at and I'll see if I can arrange it (no promises!).

Also those of you in British Columbia don't forget the dates I'll be there in November. They're on the post below this one.

Post your comments to:

Sunday, October 25, 2009


• November 13, 2009 - I will be in Vancouver BC speaking at the local Dharma Punx chapter on November 13th. Details are coming soon. Probably another gig will happen the following day. The gig on the 13th will be a talk and the one on the 14th will likely be several rounds of zazen followed by discussion.

•November 17, 2009 7pm, Victoria, BC Canada, University of Victoria Interfaith Chapel, Lot #6 UVic Ring Road, Tuesday Zen Open House, Zen meditation and Q&A, contact for more info
They run a beginner’s group each week. 3x15 minute sits with a talk in the second one (just 15 minutes). Afterwards there is tea, introductions, and a period of question and response. I’ll do a short talk and field questions.

• November 19, 2009 7pm, Victoria, BC Canada, University of Victoria Interfaith Chapel, Lot #6 UVic Ring Road, Public talk, contact for more info
This will be my main talk, your standard issue ask the zen guy questions. Books will be for sale. Fun will be had by all.

And for those of you who wish to comment about this page, Aaron, the infamous troll from the old comments section here known as Gniz, has opened a page. It's here:

I can't think of anyone better to host such a page than one of my comments section's most notorious naysayers! Have fun!!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I'm So Narcissistic I'm In An Article About Narcissism And I'm Narcissistically Posting About It!

Yep! Elizabeth Bromstein up in the wilds of Toronto has quoted me in an article about narcissism for NOW! magazine. The link is here:

When Self Love Sucks

She did this interview with me by telephone the day I was writing the posts about conscientious selfishness. So the quote she used has a bit of that notion in there.

I'll try another way to express this: The reason you don't hurt others as a Buddhist is not because you're trying to be a kind, loving, beautiful, spiritual person who would never hurt anyone. It's because you realize that hurting someone else is exactly the same as hurting yourself. This is a much more powerful and much purer motivation.

A person who throws an empty Starbucks cup out of his SUV thinks that there is a difference between littering his SUV and littering the road. He thinks someone else will clean up his mess. A Buddhist doesn't perceive that difference. And he knows that there is no one else "out there" to clean up his mess. No matter where he throws his mess, he knows he will still be the one who cleans it up.

OK. So lately I've been hacking away at the manuscript for the English translation of Nagarjuna's Fundamental Song of the Middle Way and I've come up with some bits from the commentaries that I kind of like. Here they are:

We tend to make the mistake of dividing the function of seeing into two, and imagining that there is a seer who sees things. But this thing we call the seer is actually just the functioning of the sense center as a sense organ. Någårjuna expresses this by saying that the function of seeing produces one’s own mind. In Buddhist philosophy, consciousness is not an entity in and of itself. Consciousness is produced when the external and internal worlds interact. Therefore the function of seeing is just a simple fact at the present moment and not evidence for the existence of something we can call a “self” which sees. It is impossible, Någårjuna says, for the function of seeing to look at one’s own mind. We can never see our own eyes, the closest we can come is seeing their reflection in a mirror. In the same way, our mind can’t perceive itself. This is one of the reasons we say a Buddhist student must have a teacher. In the final analysis, the functioning of our senses is just as it is. There is no separate entity behind our sense functions that performs them.

Were it not for our ability to consider things, we could not speak of any ability to see, or for that matter any other sensory ability. The sensory abilities we attribute to ourselves are matters of consideration only. We imagine that we are a thing that somehow owns these abilities. But this concept may be an illusion. Furthermore, our own perceptions cannot be perceived by others. We are fooled by our excellent ability to communicate with one another into believing we are actually conveying such experiences. But this is never really the case.

Even though the function of seeing has limitations, we should never hold it in low esteem. This is because the attitude that esteems things as higher or lower can be called a kind of interpretation. So the fact that someone esteems something as lower might suggest that that person is insisting on some kind of personal view. Master Någårjuna points this out because many idealistic philosophers of his day really did hold the sense functions in low esteem, as many Indian idealistic philosophers still do today. The fact that we are seeing something and the fact that something is being seen is the fusion of 1) seeing something and 2) something being seen. In Buddhist philosophy, we do not accept the division of the observer and what is observed. The combination of these two is the back and the face of one single undivided fact at the present moment. Still, the action of seeing is real. We see here that Master Någårjuna’s philosophy does not negate the reality we experience. It is not nihilism.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I totally forgot to post that I will be speaking at the Dharma Punx/Against The Stream center in Hollywood tomorrow at 11 AM (Sunday October 18, 2009). Tha address is 4300 Melrose (btw Heliotrope and Vermont), Los Angeles, CA 90029. All are welcome, no experience necessary.

I just found out only moments ago that Dickie Peterson, bassist and leader of the legendary heavy metal pioneers BLUE CHEER died on Monday. The official obituary is here. My friend John Battles said there's an obit out there somewhere by the NY Times or someone like that, that references John's own interview with Dickie. That would be worth checking out. John's the consummate Blue Cheer fan and I'm sure it's a great interview.

I first read about Blue Cheer in the dog-eared copy of the 1969 edition of Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia -- it was the most up-to-date book about rock and roll in the Wadsworth High School library circa 1979 or so (that book was like The Bible to me for a couple years). According to the book Blue Cheer's sound on their first album, Vinecbus Eruptum, was so loud it "turned the air into cottage cheese." I knew I had to find that album! But, alas, at the time it was long out of print.

I finally located a copy at a flea market held at the school's football stadium. The record was so badly warped it looked like a giant pepperoni. You could have eaten cereal out of that thing! Yet amazingly it still played. And, indeed, it was the loudest thing I'd ever heard. Even at low volume that record screamed.

That album was a huge influence on my own musical life. I must have listened to it hundreds of times. Or at least it seemed so.

I never knew Dickie or even got to see the band during their recent reformation, which I've heard was even better than their classic year. Such a shame. Now I never will get to see the mighty Blue Cheer in person and I'm sad.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I was taking a rare peak into the comments section of this blog the other day. Some commenter said:

"But is [Brad] a Zen teacher? Then he has an obligation to correct ignorant behavior on HIS blog."

Another commenter thought that was so astute, he repeated it. Then someone else summed up my philosophy on this blog very well. He said:

“To my knowledge, this blog has always been just like any other blog, Brad talks about whatever he fancies at the time. Sometimes he talks about Kiss' latest album, sometimes he posts an obituary for someone who affected his life, sometimes he blogs about upcoming book tour dates, and sometimes he even talks about Zen. But he has also made it clear that he believes the net is a totally inappropriate medium for the serious practice of Zen. He has never said that he is trying to establish a community, via the net. He always mentions that he sits zazen on most Saturdays at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, and that if you also want to practice, then you are welcome to come along. That is where he teaches, that is where he practices. This blog is NOT his forum for teaching, it is his medium for self-promotion, which as a writer, is absolutely necessary, if he wants to get his name out there. If you want to rant about your own perceptions of who Brad is, go ahead, but wouldn't that time be better spent on the zafu, looking at your own messed up selves, isn't that the whole idea?”

Wow. Someone out there actually gets what I'm doing here. That's so nice.

I've said this before and I'll say it again, I don't keep this blog as a way of teaching Zen. Zen cannot be taught via the Internet or on a blog. Same as you couldn't teach someone how to play basketball via the Internet or on a blog.

Sure you could teach a lot about basketball via the Internet, its history, its major players, statistics, descriptions of playing techniques. You could even put up some helpful videos or give advice to people who emailed questions. But you couldn't really teach basketball that way. You would need to be face-to-face in the same gymnasium. No two ways about it.

People imagine you could teach Zen via the Internet because they imagine that Zen is an intellectual philosophy, they imagine that the words are the philosophy. But they aren't, not anymore than the words in a blog about basketball are the real act of playing basketball.

I don't feel any obligation to correct ignorant behavior on the comments section of this blog. Frankly I just don't care all that much. I'm sorry if that seems callous. But it's true. It's not at all the same as being in a room with someone. Unless you're in a room full of people wearing paper bags over their heads so nobody will recognize them and big plexiglass shields around their bodies so nobody can kick their asses when they say something really hurtful.

I could go in and monitor the comments. But do you know how much time, effort and energy that would take? Shit. I have a life to live. I try to spend as little time each day in front of computers as possible. As a writer and as a guy who books his own speaking gigs I already have to spend a lot of time here. When I'm done at what I absolutely have to do at the computer for the day, believe me, I am done! Plus I deliberately got what has to be the worst Internet connection outside of the Central Congo. It's like the speed of the dial-up you had in 1995 -- with your sister on the other phone refusing to get off. So, no, I'm not gonna spend upwards of 20 minutes per comment to deal with some jack-ass pretending to be my ex-wife or some "Enlightened Being" who feels the need to denounce me.

I'm saying all this because I have now shut down the comments section. If someone wants to establish a forum elsewhere that people can use to comment on what they see here, please do so. I will even post a link to that forum at the end of each article I post. The only rule (for now, at least) would be that you cannot re-post my articles on that forum. And I won't be visiting that forum on anything like a regular basis, if at all.

Interested parties are urged to write me at

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Yesterday I went out to Walmart at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall in Los Angeles and bought the new KISS album, Sonic Boom — their first new CD in 11 years. I brought along Steve from Dharma Zen Center who said that malls are soul-destroying places. It’s true. In the hour or so I spent in the mall it was like I could feel my soul being slowly eroded. And I don’t even believe in souls! What is it about places like that? It’s sad that so many people spend so much of their time in those vacuum packed hell holes. They make me feel physically ill.

But you do what you have to do. KISS has some kind of a special deal with Walmart and the album is available there in an exclusive edition that includes a bonus CD of re-recordings of some of the band’s classic hits plus a six-song DVD of a recent live show in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I couldn’t pass that up.

First off, as every reviewer who has written about the CD has already said, this is a far better record than the previous KISS album, 1998’s Psycho Circus — their so-called reunion record, although it was later revealed that lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss had contributed very little to it. Even die-hard KISS fans like me had trouble getting behind that one. Yet in retrospect Psycho Circus isn’t really that bad. It was more a victim of unreasonably high expectations. But Revenge was better…

This new one, though, is amazing. It’s vintage 1978 KISS in 2009. The opening track, Modern Day Delilah rocks as hard as anything the band recorded in their prime. You could have told me Danger Us was an outtake from 1976’s Rock And Roll Over and I would’ve believed it. I’m An Animal is what heavy metal is all about, based on a pulverizing Black Sabbath type riff the likes of which Gene Simmons hasn’t pulled off since Unholy on 1992’s Revenge. Never Enough is one of those fist pumping Paul Stanley anthems, even though the verse melody seems to be subtly lifted from Ozzy’s Flying High Again. Hot And Cold reminds me of The Who and somehow there’s no irony in 60 year-old Gene Simmons telling us “if it’s too loud you’re too old.”

Throughout the record, lead guitarist Tommy Thayer does Ace Frehley better than Ace ever did. Though this fits the album, I was hoping to hear a little of the guitarist’s own personal style rather than his mastery of Ace’s licks. I kept thinking of the stories of the session guitarists who filled in for Ace when he was too wasted to rock in the late Seventies and were told not to play anything Ace couldn’t have done. Sounds like founding members bassist Gene Simmons and rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley told Tommy the same thing. Still, it works and Tommy’s own composition When Lightning Strikes is as fine an example of vintage KISS as any of Paul or Gene's contributions, even if the title seems deliberately reminiscent of Ace's Shock Me.

My only complaint about the album is that it lacks one of the ingredients that always made the old KISS records so special to me, namely that one weird, experimental track they always managed to include. There’s nothing on here to compare to the mad ballad Goin’ Blind from 1974’s Hotter Than Hell, the heavy metal jungle chant Almost Human from 1977’s Love Gun, the weird Ventures-on-Quaaludes instrumental Love Theme From KISS from their debut album or even their mega-hit ballad Beth from 1976’s Destroyer, which is a pretty odd song when you actually listen to it. There are no bizarre covers like their Ramones-style reading of The Dave Clark Five’s Any Way You Want It from Alive II or their heavy metal masacre of Phil Spector’s (via The Ronettes) Then He Kissed Me (re-titled Then She Kissed Me so as not to scare off homophobic metal heads) also from Love Gun.

Oh Gene Simmons’ perverted poetry still sounds like Spinal Tap (“Flip a coin is it heads or tails tonight?” from Yes I Know, “Feel my tower of power” from Hot And Cold). But then again Simmons was doing that long before Christopher Guest and Michael McKean ever came up with the idea of Spinal Tap. And I wonder if the album will stand the test of time or if I’m just over-excited at getting to hear a brand new KISS record after so many years. The latter question is impossible to answer yet. But it sure sounds good right now.

As for the bonuses, the CD of re-recorded KISS Klassics (that’s how it’s spelled on the label) was available in Japan as a stand-alone CD a year ago. I didn’t buy it then because I thought the whole idea was pretty pointless, except to Gene and Paul who would stand to make more money from the new recordings than from reissues of the older versions. It reminded me too much of Joey Molland, the sole-surviving member of Badfinger, who issued a CD of newly recorded versions of his old band’s greatest hits for similar reasons. At least in Molland’s case he probably legitimately needed the money whereas Simmons and Stanley scarcely have that problem.

Still, it’s not half bad. The remakes of Deuce and Black Diamond rock harder than the tinny sounding versions on their first record (though that tinny sound was massively fixed up on the late 90’s remastered CD). Detroit Rock City and the two other selections from Destroyer lack Bob Ezrin’s masterful production work, but manage to sound OK anyhow. Yet while Tommy Thayer is terrific at mimicking Ace Frehley’s guitar style, he’s less convincing when he takes on Bruce Kulick’s solo from Forever or even Vinnie Vincent’s break in Lick It Up. The biggest disappointment, though, is the new version of Christine Sixteen. Yeah, I know, it was kinda creepy even in 1977 to hear a 28-year old Gene Simmons salivate over a high school girl. He must have been mortified to go through that leering spoken-word section in the middle of the song (“I don’t usually say things like this to girls your age, but when I saw you coming out of school that day I knew I got to have you”) again at age 59 with a 16-year old daughter of his own back home and it shows. But who cares? It’s just a song, dammit. Stay in character! Overall, though, I like having these new versions. Still, I’m glad I didn’t waste my money on the stand-alone Japanese CD.

The DVD on the other hand is a superb document to the power and glory that still is a KISS concert even without two of the band’s original members. Truth be told, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer play those songs more convincingly than Ace Frehley and Peter Criss probably could these days anyway. A version of KISS that’s half KISS tribute band actually kind of makes sense. I hope I can still rock out like Gene and Paul when I’m 60! Especially since the audience seems just on the verge of rioting the entire time. It’s fun to hear the band launch into impromptu versions of Guantanamera and Una Paloma Blanca. Weird little jokey bits like this are one of my favorite parts of any KISS concert (I saw them do a few Baatles numbers in Japan once as well as bits of Stairway to Heaven) and they’re usually edited out when the shows turn up on official video releases. I just wish they’d included the whole concert instead of only six songs. But the rumor mill has it that the band plans to release a set of DVDs from their recent Alive 35 tours. I guess I’ll have to wait or else buy a bunch of high priced bootlegs of those shows next time I get to Tokyo.

Overall this is as tremendous a package as any KISS fan could hope for and I’m glad to have it! Rock and roll all night, baby!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


I thought I ought to write a little more about this idea of conscientious selfishness because I think yesterday’s post just muddled the issue. Sorry about that. This is the danger of blogging. I tend to feel that blog postings should be more immediate, unfiltered and un-fussed-over than regular articles. Maybe this idea is one I should have saved for a more well thought-out piece (of which this one you’re reading is also not).

As I said yesterday I think the term I’ve come up with, “conscientious selfishness,” sucks dead donkey’s bollocks. It’s awful. It really doesn’t get at what I’m trying to describe. But it’s a provisional attempt to move the discussion of what Buddhist compassion is into a new area.

I’m not talking about the common garden variety of selfishness where a person tries to get everything for themselves while screwing the other guy. I’m using the word “selfishness” to indicate that what we’re talking about when we use the word compassion in a Buddhist sense isn’t a kind of sacrifice.

Nishijima Roshi used to say that the balanced state in Zazen allows a person to do exactly what they want. Most of us don’t really understand what we actually want. We imagine that we want to get all we can without any regard for anyone else. But that’s not true. We are intimately connected at the very deepest level with everyone and everything we come in contact with. At this level, what we want for ourselves and what we want for others is absolutely identical.

This is what I was trying to get at with my incredibly clumsy metaphor about sex yesterday (sorry again). I’m gonna try once more and hope for the best.

I wasn’t picturing some slob of a guy carelessly banging his wife until he was satisfied and then shuffling off to watch the game on TV. I was picturing times when both (or all) partners involved in the act of sex completely lose any sense of self and other. In those moments each one can do exactly what gives her or him the most pleasure while simultaneously and instinctively doing what pleases her or his partner(s) the most. At these times there isn’t any conscious attempt to please anyone other than her or himself because the very idea of self and other(s) has vanished.

Last night I went and saw Robyn Hitchcock at Spaceland, a club in Los Angeles and I clearly saw real compassion in action. I’m certain that Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t sit around writing songs because he wants to perform some kind of self-sacrificing altruistic act. He doesn’t perform in public for the sake of saving all beings. And yet that’s exactly what he accomplishes for me and for a lot of us who are his fans. But for him, these actions are purely natural, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do in precisely the way he wants to do it. In that sense his actions are utterly selfish, almost narcissistic. Yet somehow this seemingly self-absorbed activity, which he does only because it feels good to him, has helped me and a lot of other people more than he can ever know.

That’s the type of compassion I think Dogen was referring to when he likened it to a hand reaching for a pillow in the night. Real compassion is entirely unlike the idea of compassion.

On the other hand, Joshu Sasaki Roshi said, “Zen is not the way of saints. But sometimes it’s useful to imitate their behavior.” There are times when it’s hard to see what we really want. In those situations it may have some value to imagine what an idealized compassionate person would do and to take that action. Which I know contradicts what I said yesterday. But I think you have to be just as careful with this as you have to be when taking what seems to be the purely selfish course. In fact it may often be even more dangerous to act out of an idea of compassion than to simply do what you want.

If you come across a butterfly struggling to get out of its cocoon, you might imagine what an idealized compassionate person would do and then kindly help the butterfly out by reaching over and opening the cocoon for her. In doing so you’d be condemning that butterfly to a quick death. That struggle to emerge from the cocoon is how butterflies strengthen their wings. Without that struggle they never develop the ability to fly.

So you’ve got to be really, really careful when imitating the acts of your idealized compassionate person. In this case the seemingly “selfish” act of ignoring the butterfly’s struggle would be the most truly compassionate course. This is often the way when dealing with other people. Too much help offered in an inappropriate manner can be incredibly damaging.

This is where Zazen practice can help. By learning to be very, very quiet it sometimes becomes easier to see what you — and by extension everyone and everything in the universe — truly want to do.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


I've been thinking about compassion lately. People keep asking me about it because Buddhist teachers are supposed to talk about compassion all the time. But I hate talking about things I'm supposed to talk about. Whenever some idea starts wending its way through a culture it very quickly turns into a cliche and dies. Compassion died a long while ago.

Which isn't to say that compassion itself is dead or cliche. It's just that once a word gets sent through the ringer of approved pop culture opinion a couple of times all the life is wrung out of it and we're stuck trying to find new ways of expressing the same notion.

In my search for a better way to talk about Buddhist compassion, especially as Dogen describes it, I've come up with the cumbersome and pretentious phrase, "conscientious selfishness." It sucks. I hate it.

But I think it might be a better way to look at that something we've been calling compassion. It seems to me that the way most people approach this idea of compassion is to create an image in their minds of the ideal compassionate person, who usually looks an awful lot like themselves. Then they ask, "What would a compassionate person do?" and make their efforts to mold themselves into the image they've created.

A lot of the time this activity manifests in an attitude of, "I hate doing this, but I'm doing it for your sake!" Anyone who has ever been the recipient of action taken with that kind of an attitude knows how miserable it feels.

But I don't think that's what Dogen was on about when he wrote about compassion. He said that compassionate action was "like a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow during the night." It's a very interesting image that I've written about probably 243,572 times.

A hand reaching back to adjust a pillow sounds kind of like selfish action. It's not what we usually imagine our idealized compassionate spiritual superbeing doing. He's supposed to save the whales, and feed the children, and shelter the homeless. What would he be doing adjusting his pillow just to make sure he slept OK?

But taking care of yourself is where compassion begins. The seemingly "selfish" action of doing zazen every morning and night doesn't seem very heroic. But the effects of regular zazen practice help everyone that practitioner comes in contact with.

In a way it's like sex. I don't know if you've noticed this, but pay attention the next time you're getting hot and heavy with your special someone. The very hottest things your lover can do while you're getting it on are usually the things he or she does to get him/herself off without any specific regard for you.

When you're getting intimate with someone you love, you care deeply about that person. So your selfish actions in that context are always taken with a caring attitude toward the one you're with. And yet it's far more erotic when your lover forgets about you and focuses on him or herself. This is a kind of compassion.

I'm gonna save the rest of this particular tangent for my forthcoming book about Zen and sex (available from New World Library in 2010). But I think this is very valid.

All truly compassionate action comes from this kind of attitude, when you care deeply for others and yet do what feels best for you.

Anyhow, what felt best for me last weekend was a trip out to Vasquez Rocks where the famous battle between Captain Kirk and the Gorn took place. Here are the photos to prove it!

Thursday, October 01, 2009


I know I promised an article about jukai, the precepts ceremony. But someone wrote in with this question and I’d like to try and answer it:

How does one reinvigorate one's practice after losing the illusions that brought one to practice in the first place? That's where I'm at now. I originally practiced hoping to get to "some place better than this one," or at least to be able to "have it all figured out"; I now despair of either one and so I ask myself, "Why sit?" I'm slowly finding my way back to practice, and sitting with sanghas is helping, but when it comes to sitting at home, I continue not to do it for one of many months in a row. I figure that this--getting the ass on the cushion day after day--is your area of expertise, so I ask: what's the motivation when the old motivations are gone?

This is a tough one. Illusions are inexhaustible, they say, yet we’re supposed to vow to end them all. Illusions about practice are the worst. What this questioner doesn’t say here, but what I’ve heard from her before is that a lot of her disillusionment stems from seeing her teachers as less than perfect. What she wants, like all of us, is perfection. What she’s seeing from her teachers isn’t perfection. So I’d like to address that question first.

In the old days we didn’t know a whole lot about famous people like kings or poets or great spiritual masters. All we would know about a Zen teacher would be that she lives in a temple up in the mountains. We might hear glorious stories from her students or scandalous rumors from those who had left her monastery. But even this information was scarce and what we did hear didn’t amount to a whole lot.

So we invented their lives in our minds. We imagined what they might be like. But the only way to know what was true was to go to the monastery, sit out on the porch for seven days in the snow and sleet until they let you in, work your way up to the point where you could actually have personal contact with the master and then you’d find out what she was like.

By the time you got through all of that you’d have developed a personal relationship. So when you saw the teacher pick her nose, or smelled the fart she silently let out as she sat on the cushion next to you, you’d already be well familiar with a whole lot of other things about her. You’d already know if she was a good teacher or not, and so whatever faults you discovered would be part of a much larger and richer picture of her.

It’s the same as with any friendship. Bob helped you move out of your house, he was there when your dog died, he sat through your daughter’s awful performance as Tevya in a second grade version of Fiddler on the Roof. So what if he doesn’t trim his nose hairs? And that rake he borrowed seven years ago but never gave back? Big deal.

But nowadays it’s harder for famous people to hide the things they want to hide. In the early sixties it was possible for John Lennon’s marriage to be kept secret from the public. By the end of the sixties no one could keep that kind of thing under wraps anymore. We know Richard Baker, Chogyam Trungpa and Dainin Katagiri were evil! We've read it in books!!! And that Brad Warner! Oh. My. God.

What you know about any given celebrity — spiritual masters and rock stars alike — is mostly bullshit. It’s all how their image has been manipulated — by themselves, by others, by you. It would be possible to construct a biography of Hitler that was 100% factual and made him look like a saint. And you could construct an equally true biography of Gandhi that made him look like the worst louse that ever walked the earth. You’d just have to carefully choose which facts you included and which you left out.

I spent a lot of one-on-one time with my teachers and that’s how I got to know their character — not through books or blog postings or videos on YouTube. Those tell you next to nothing about a person’s true character. No matter how many of them you read or watch. Whatever picture you have in your mind of people you see on your computer screen is false. Absolutely fictitious. You don’t have a clue.

My first Zen teacher used to eat a couple cloves of raw garlic every day. It was something he did for his health. Who knows where he got the idea? But whenever I spoke to him I could smell it oozing from his pores. It wasn’t an unpleasant odor. But to this day I still associate the scent of raw garlic with Zen. You can’t smell a teacher through a computer screen or the pages of a book. A celebrity teacher can’t eat popcorn with you and watch reruns of The Prisoner on a little black and white TV with a 6 inch screen. A teacher in a book doesn’t lean on your shoulder after falling asleep on the Bullet Train home from Shizuoka. The reasons why you can’t learn Zen from books and the Internet are too many to count. You can get introduced to it from books and the Internet. But it's no place to study.

What our questioner today has seen has convinced her that there is nothing to this Zen shit, that even after 20+ years of practice its teachers are still not perfect people. So why bother?

And it seems to go even beyond that for her. She despairs that she will never find the answers she seeks – even if she understands those answers won’t make her a perfect person.

I’ll tell you a story about that. One day, at a retreat in Tokei-in, I was talking to Nishijima Roshi. I can’t remember the whole conversation. But I remember I was coming from a place like our questioner. I’d been sitting every day for at least ten years and yet I had no answers. I was about to give it up completely. And I told Nishijima, “I want to know the source of the Universe!”

I don’t recall what words he used. But he told me something like, “You will.”

So I got back on my cushion and sat some more. And several years later his promise came true.

But what really happened at that moment when he said those words to me? An elderly Japanese man told a 30-something American idiot that he could — even with his own idiotic American mind full of punk rock, science fiction movies, Penthouse centerfolds and all the rest – understand the source of everything. And that American idiot believed the old man.

Why did he believe the old man? I’m not sure. I guess it had to do with trust. I knew the old man wouldn’t steer me wrong. By then I knew full well he was no saint. I saw the old man’s students bickering with each other. I saw the old man himself do things I didn’t entirely approve of. I heard him express opinions I could not agree with. I was there when he burped and when he farted. I knew he sometimes – gasp! — fell asleep on his cushion during early morning zazen.

But I trusted him. I knew that whatever else he did, he always told me the truth. And that’s what counted. I knew him more than as a teacher. I knew him as a friend.

Whatever I can be to people on these pages and in my books and suchlike, I can’t be that kind of friend to everyone who reads what I write. I won’t pretend to even try. I hope people enjoy my work, that it motivates them and makes them laugh. But that's about it.

As far as sitting after having lost your illusions about what sitting will do, there is only one solution. Just sit. That’s all. Use your illusions. Sit with them.

For what it’s worth, I can assure you that if you do this long enough and with sincerity the answers you seek will become abundantly clear.