Wednesday, September 29, 2010

ZEN CELEBRITY AND ECONOMICS

I've been reading the comments section here more often lately than before and it's been interesting to note that some readers are complaining that I talk too much here about my self and the issues of spiritual celebrity and don't deliver enough of what they call "the Dharma."

I already know enough not to take what I see in the comments section as the majority opinion of what I write here. I get something like a thousand hits a day. So even when there are 500 comments that still represents far fewer people than are actually reading. Yet it is interesting that people say this. Because I tend to feel completely the opposite.

I tend to write about things that I want to read about but which I don't see anyone else writing about. So I write about spiritual celebrity not because I think I'm so god damned interesting and everybody wants to read about my exploits, but because I think the subject itself is very interesting and no one else seems willing to say anything about it.

Spiritual celebrity is a huge business these days. Look at guys like the Dalai Lama, Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hahn, Gempo "slimebag" Roshi, etc., etc., etc. These guys make weenies like me look like... I dunno... maybe like Zero Defex as compared to Green Day. Guys like this have "people." Like in the sense of "have your people call my people and we'll do lunch." They've got entourages to keep the fans at bay. They've got limos to drive them to the airport. They're flying first class. Yet I've never seen any of them talking about the issues involved in all of that. Maybe they do and I'm just not paying attention. But I doubt it.

Spiritual celebrity-hood isn't something new either. Yogananda was a big star in the mid 20th century. Krishnamurti too. Dogen was well known in his day and Buddha was said to have attracted thousands to his talks. What was up with that?

Maybe it's just me. But I'm always interested in the nuts and bolts stuff much more than in the airy fairy philosophical side of things. Even my fascination with Japanese monster movies is much more a fascination with how they were created than with the movies themselves. When I get a DVD I always watch the "making of" bonus materials before I watch the film. Sometimes I don't even watch the film at all.

As for "the Dharma," to me all of this stuff is the Dharma. It's every bit as much the Dharma as the more philosophical matters. And, don't worry your pretty little heads, I plan to get more into the philosophical stuff in the new Safe For Work Suicide Girls column I'll be starting soon.

But this stuff is what drives the Dharma. This is how it gets out there to the people who need it. It is all bound up in the same thing. It is the Dharma.

I had a funny conversation with Nishijima Roshi on the eve of the publication of Hardcore Zen. I said, "Once this book comes out, if it sells well I'll become famous. Doesn't that go against what Dogen says about not seeking fame and profit?"

He said something like, "Dogen was talking about seeking fame and profit. You didn't write the book with the objective of becoming rich and famous. Sometimes you do something sincere and people like it, then fame and money come. In that case you deal with the real situation as it comes up."

Well I haven't become rich, nor even that famous. But a certain degree of fame (and no degree of profit, at least not yet) has followed. Well, what does one do about that? How do you keep your head as a Buddhist practitioner? Do you run away? Many people in my position have. Do you fall head first into fame and money and forget your practice? Again, many have done this too.

I have been trying to see if there's a middle way. Spending a month in Tassajara recently was a way of trying to radically reconnect with Zen. I'm still trying to see if the effort was successful or not. Based on my experience of Tassajara and of coming back into the world after, I'm starting to understand the vast difference between enforced discipline and discipline that comes from oneself. But that may be a whole 'nother topic.

The economics of being a Zen teacher are both frustrating and fascinating. Take, for example, the matter of getting a "real job." When I started writing about Zen I had a 5-day a week, 10-6 job. But because of that I could not do things like lead multi-day sesshins or run off to Europe for two months to talk Buddhism to the people of Poland and Finland and Ireland and all those other lands over there. I also couldn't devote several hours a day to pure writing practice.

Now people want me to do those things. But about half of those who extend such invitations have no clue about the nuts and bolts economics involved. They imagine, for example, that I'm making loads of money from book sales. Not true. My advances are about 1/3 of what my salary was when I had a "real job" and the market will only realistically bear about one book every two years from me. So I'm now making about 1/6 what I used to. It really is not enough to sustain one person. Thank gosh I don't have a family to support!

So there are people out there who want me to come and lead three-day retreats and yet do not understand when I start talking about how the event is going to be financed, particularly when it comes to how I will get paid. Maybe they think the Dharma should be free. And it should! But rent and utilities are not free. So the choice seems to be find a way to make money from the Dharma or just stop.

The most common solution to this dilemma is to create a communal base of support for the teacher. You start something like San Francisco Zen Center or Plum Village or whatever and a lot of people with "real jobs" contribute some of their money to allow the teacher to do her or his thing without having to get a "real job."

This may not be a viable option in my case because I'm just too damned anti-social. I mean, I like people and all. But I really chafe at all of the things it takes to hold together a community.

So I'm testing out other options. Sometimes I entertain vague dreams that Sex Sin And Zen will sell in the same tonnage as The Power of Now or the latest book of ghost-written musings by Great Master What's His Face (I just talked to a guy who ghost writes books for some spiritual master dude who gets $15,000 as his standard speaking fee, I write all my books myself, thank you, and my speaking fee is a whole lot less than that). Then I could be independent and do what I need to do that way. Hence all the annoying self-promotion (and if you think you're annoyed by it, imagine what it's like to have to actually do it!).

One of the people I met at Tassajara and talked to about this stuff had been involved in promoting spiritual masters before. He told me the secret was to include what he called a "promise." You have to tell folks they're gonna get something of value from coming to your talk or seminar. That's a tough one for me because I'm so steeped in the "Zen is good for nothing" tradition established by Sawaki Roshi. So maybe I'm screwed.

Anyway, I leave you with the photo above which proves positive that zazen has given me the power of levitation (click on the photo to get a larger version and see for yourself). If you want the secret of levitation use the "donate" button on the upper left of this blog.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reviewing My Reviewers

I forgot to mention that Tricycle magazine's blog noticed the buzz that Sex, Sin And Zen was getting and put up this article about it. Neat.

Also, I got a notice in Scene magazine, the very same mag where I found the ad that Zero Defex placed for a bass player back a million years ago. And speaking of Zero Defex, we're playing again on Tuesday night at Annabelle's in Akron for anyone who missed the show at the Kent Stage on Saturday.

It was an amazing show, by the way. If you missed it, too bad for you because you missed something really cool. I feel like I can brag all I want about Zero Defex because it's not really my band, in the sense that I didn't start it or write most of the songs. Zero Defex is a force of nature. It's a creature that only exists when the four of us manage to get together and bring it forth out of wherever pit of darkness it hides the rest of the time. I'm telling you folks, last Saturday night we subjugated!

On Sunday, the day after Zero Defex destroyed Kent, Ohio, I got to go up to Cleveland and hang out with Tim McCarthy, my first Zen teacher (thanks to Zak for driving me up there and Jayce for hosting the get-together). He's still as foul-mouthed as ever. Someone told him that I talk about him more in my new book than I have in any of the previous ones. That might be true. I don't know. But every time I see him I realize how much of my schtick I've stolen outright from him.

Speaking of reviews, the reviews for Sex Sin And Zen have been real interesting. My favorite line so far is, "Coming soon, the inevitable Brad Warner sex tape. It’s just a matter of time because I’m willing to bet the farm that this guy is getting laid like crazy." The same reviewer says I can't be a monk because monks are celibate and monastic. Not so. The guy ought to read up a bit on the Japanese Buddhist tradition. As for getting laid like crazy, that depends on what you mean by "crazy." Sorry. That's another one of my juvenile jokes.

It's just funny to read about what people imagine my life to be. It's intensely bizarre to have so many people you don't know commenting on your life and usually getting it so incredibly wrong. I used to find it far more worrisome than I do now. Now it's just silly.

I don't mind bad reviews when they're thoughtful. And the one excerpted above was actually OK. So far most of the reviews have been good, even the one I'm quoting wasn't really negative. The last time I got a bad review that was actually bad as a review was when Enlighten Next magazine (then called What Is Enlightenment) got pissy because I dissed their buddy Ken Wilber in Hardcore Zen. The reviewer gave no indication he'd read the book at all. But the editors wanted it trashed so he did his job.

Some reviewers think that I write in some kind of contrived persona. That I must not be really like whatever image that pops into their heads when they read me. And, of course this is true. That guy doesn't exist at all except in their heads. Same as the guy you are imagining right now does not exist at all except in your head. That's just how the game works.

People are always going, I've seen his videos on YouTube or I met him in person and he's nothing like his books. Which I just scratch my head about. I can only guess that these folks read what I write while imagining a voice something like Randy Blythe when he sings for Lamb of God. I ought to do an audio book so people can hear those lines delivered in my real voice. But then maybe I shouldn't destroy people's dreams. (This was a big deal when I worked at Tsuburaya Productions. We never allowed photos of people putting on or taking off the Ultraman costume because it would "destroy children's dreams.")

Anyway, I just write the way I write. My persona is as contrived as every other human on Earth's persona. Your persona is also a contrivance. So what?

Reviewers seem divided on whether the long interview with Nina Hartley was the best part of the book or the worst. Some say I should have devoted the entire book to interviews, others say the Nina Hartley stuff went on far too long. Me, I'm happy with it as it is. I think she makes some really important points that I couldn't possibly make myself. I don't agree with everything she says, but I didn't want to editorialize.

Some people didn't like the fact that the book is less of a memoir than my previous books. But I really did not want to write a book about my personal sex life. I don't think that would be very useful, and, unfortunately, it would be far less interesting than the reviewer quoted above would expect.

I thought it was high time someone addressed how contemporary Western Buddhists were dealing with issues of sexuality. It's an important subject and so far all we've really been presented with are what monastic Buddhists in ancient Asia did. Their solutions may be instructive but they really can't be applied to the world we live in, not without significant modification. And I talk about how those rules have been modified by people today trying to continue the tradition.

I was hoping the book would spark some discussion of the subject, and it has. This is one of the reasons I included some of my own views that I knew would not be accepted by a lot of practitioners. My views on pornography, S&M and prostitution, to give a few examples, are not shared by a lot of other Buddhists. So maybe this book will give those folks something to react to and talk about.

In the Zen school our only guideline for the past thousand years or so has been not to misuse sexuality. What the fuck does that mean? When Buddhism got transplanted in North America, a lot of people read that to mean what American conservative Christians mean when they say the stuff that they say about sex. But I don't think it comes from the same place at all. Am I right? Am I wrong? Only you know for certain.

NOTE: I've added a "donate" button on the upper left hand corner of the blog. If you'd like to make a donation to this blog to help it continue, now you can.

Monday, September 20, 2010

REVIEWS OF SSZ and TOUR DATES

First thing is, I just added a bunch of new dates to my 2010 World Domination Tour.

Second thing is if you're in or near Oakland you are hereby ordered to come see my book signing and talk tonight at Diesel Books at 7 pm.

Third thing is, as some of you have already discovered, my talks at Tassajara are now available on line. Here's where you can find them:

OMG: Dogen's Concept of God

Understanding the Shobogenzo

Fourth thing is, there are now some very nice reviews and excepts from my new book SIN SEX AND ZEN on line. Here's where some of them are:

Review by Violet Blue on SF Appeal's website

Review from Full Contact Enlightenment

Review on Pop Matters

Review on Wandering Dhamma

Review on Wild Fox Zen

Review on Cheerio Road

Review on Metal Buddha

Excerpt on Reality Sandwich

There are probably more I don't know about. My publishers say they've never seen the blogosphere so abuzz about a book. Cool!

Fifth, back to the new tour dates, please note the inclusion of definite dates for my jaunt to NYC. They are as follows:

Oct. 15th Talk and Book Signing at the Interdependence Project.

Oct. 16 and 17 -- Two-day Non-residential Zen Retreat at the Interdependence Project

It's probably a good idea to sign up early for those.

Those were the plugs, so what can I tell you that's interesting?

It's been really interesting so far promoting the new book. After leaving the isolation of Tassajara I find myself full-on "returning to the marketplace" as the old Zen sutras say. I'm out there meeting people and getting interviewed and selling the book and myself to them, as one does.

This is really the first book of its kind. I keep telling people it was one of those ideas one sometimes get where you go, "Aw, someone certainly must have done that already." But when I looked it up I found out nobody had. There have been some good books about how Buddhists in ancient India, Tibet, China and Japan dealt with sex. But there hasn't been anything much about how present-day Buddhists in the West deal with it. While I may not be the best person to write that book, someone had to and I did it. At least the first one. If this sells we'll probably see a whole genre emerge of imitations, some of which will almost certainly be better or at least illuminate areas of the Buddhist sexual experience that I'm unaware of or unable to articulate.

It's an important area to discuss because we present-day Buddhist practitioners are not ancient Indians, Tibetans, Chinese or Japanese. Even those of us from those countries are living in a very different world from the one the ancient masters inhabited. Even if we say that their ways of dealing with sexuality were better than ours, we cannot ever live in their world. So what can we do?

This is the question I'm still asking myself. How can I uphold the precept of not misusing sexuality if I live in 21st century America as a non-celibate Buddhist monk? Some have said already that they feel I'm violating that precept by writing for the Suicide Girls website or by engaging in the kinds of relationships described in my previous book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. But I don't think so. And anyway, you cannot know my life even if you read every word I write about it. The precept is about you, not about me.

Anyway, I think a lot of us are asking ourselves these questions. I don't claim I have the answers. But I've been talking to lots of people who have made their own tentative inroads towards answering these questions for themselves and I have a few ideas of my own.

One thing that's already kind of intriguing about the book is the responses I've been getting to the rather liberal views I've taken about non-traditional forms of sexuality. I've tried to be as open as possible to the ways people these days are handling their sex lives. I guess people must have expected a Buddhist monk to be more closed-minded about some stuff. Although I'm not really down with all the crazy stuff kids these days are getting into, I don't want to condemn anybody's lifestyle out of hand.

So there you go. Just a snapshot view of some stuff I've been thinking about as I begin promoting the book. Now I gotta go.

I'll leave you with a scan of a page that's been added to the new edition of the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History (I believe this link takes you to the old version of the book, which does not refer to 0DFx, so please make sure before ordering). Look who finally got a mention! You can see us on September 25th at the Kent Stage in Kent, Ohio!

See you later!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I'm Back!

I'm baaaack!

Last night I did my first book signing for Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between (get yours now). I was at East/West Books in Mountain View, California.

Tomorrow night (Sept. 17th) at 7 pm I will be at Copperfield's Books in Petaluma, California.

On September 20th at 7 pm I'll be at Diesel Books in Oakland.

I'll also be on Henry Tannenbaum's show on San Francisco's KRON channel 4 on Sunday morning (Sept. 19th) at around 9 am.

Then I'm flying back to Milwaukee, where my car is parked, and driving to Akron, Ohio for rehearsals for Zero Defex's performance at a show called The Debacle on Saturday September 25th at Kent Stage in Kent, Ohio. The show starts at 8pm. We go on pretty late, around midnight.

Following that I'll be talking at the Cleveland Buddhist Temple on Wednesday September 29th at 7 pm.

Then it's on to New York for a book signing on October 15th at 7 pm.

This will be followed by a weekend non-residential zen retreat on Oct. 16th and 17th.

In November I'll be participating in a Dogen Translators Forum held at the San Francisco Zen Center November 5-7.

I'll also announce some Montreal gigs in October or November once the dust settles up there. And a couple events in and around Los Angeles in November.

All of this mad flurry of activity comes just as I get out of a month long stay at Tassajara Zen Mountain monastery in the middle of the Ventana Wilderness Area near Carmel Valley, California.

As you can see from the photo posted above, I got myself a haircut while I was out there. I've been into punkrock for 20-some years and this is my very first mohawk. I also somehow lost 10 pounds even while living on what seemed like a steady diet of the world's most delicious bread and cakes. Tassajara is famous for its baked goods, and rightly so.

I was initially asked to come to Tassajara to give a couple of talks to students there during the final week of their annual summer guest season. Tassajara mainly functions as a Zen monastery. But it was originally a hot springs resort and every summer they open up the resort for about three months to paying guests. There is no paid staff as such. All the guest relations and suchlike are handled by Zen students. These students follow a regular Zen schedule in the mornings and evenings and spend most of the rest of their days working the jobs necessary to keep the resort running. This includes room cleaning, bed making, cooking, dining room duties, keeping the pool and bath house running, washing dishes and so forth.

When I got the invitation I looked at my schedule and noticed I had about a month free. So I asked my friend Greg Fain, the tanto (head of practice) at Tassajara, if I could just come for the whole month and be a student. He made some inquiries and found out there was space, so the deal was done. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But it felt like I needed this.

Y'see, folks, I'd been traveling around the world for the three or four months prior to going to Tassajara. I was the toast of all Europe, the Middle East and Asia, with rabid fans clawing their way to see me in Helsinki, Belfast, Warsaw, Toulouse, Berlin, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Shizuoka and elsewhere. People were stopping me on the street in Austin, Texas and Tokyo, Japan to tell me how much my books had meant to them. When paying by credit card for a used book in Knoxville, Tennessee the clerk said, "I thought I recognized you!" I'm starting to suspect that when I sometimes get stared at in restaurants and other public spaces maybe it's not because I have a booger hanging out of my nose, but could in fact be because not everyone who recognizes me feels comfortable coming up and saying "hi" (it's always OK with me, by the way, as long as people are respectful).

It's weird.

Plus the life I was living was drawing me further and further away from my Zen practice. It's hard to sit twice a day when you're zipping around from place to place faster than a speeding bullet all the time, meeting people, hanging out, seeing the sights, getting fed and all the rest.

How come all this is happening and I'm still poor as shit?

But I digress. I felt like I needed the rigorous schedule, the ridiculous rules and the hard work Tassajara requires of its students to get back on track. We'll see whether it worked or not.

I was assigned to the dining room where I was something like a waiter most of the time. There are no menus at Tassajara. The meals are the same for everyone. So there was no ordering involved and, unfortunately, no tips to be had. But I poured coffee, opened wine bottles (it's all BYOB there, no alcohol is sold or served), bussed dishes, brewed coffee, scraped compost into buckets and did most of the stuff waiters do. That was on days when I wasn't assigned to be a dish washer.

I have to admit, my first few days on the job I was all like, "Don't these people know who I am? I am one of the most important voices in Buddhism today! Refill your coffee? HA! You should be so lucky as to get your coffee refilled by a star of my caliber!"

I'm exaggerating, but not by much. And there were a few guests who did recognize me. But by and large the guests at Tassajara aren't my target audience. I was more often spotted by students. That was OK, though, because it doesn't take long to get over being starstruck by a guy who you see hauling stinky buckets of compost and cleaning encrusted crud off the samovar.

As Greg said just now when I read him some of this, "It's a great way to study the self." It sure was. Gives you perspective, perhaps even "too much perspective" as Spinal Tap said. But it was really good.

I had a few adventures. Like when I went out for what was supposed to be a three hour hike with three other people. We ended up losing our bearings in the woods and had to spend the night at a campsite we found, completely unprepared. I had on a t-shirt and jeans. It gets down into the 40s Fahrenheit at night out there in the mountains. No sleeping bag, no jacket. I had a towel wrapped around my shoulders to try and stave off some of the cold. Oh and we'd walked through the creek for much of the way and were soaking wet.

I met some amazing people. Formed a punk rock band. Re-learned stuff I'd forgotten. Officiated a well-being ceremony for Nina Hartley's mom. Dressed up in my robes just about every single day. Got my first mohawk. Learned some new jokes (Q: What has two knees and swims in the ocean? A: A two-knee fish!). It was totally worth it and I'd do it again anytime the staff there will put up with me.

I'll write up more of my overall impressions of the place in the coming weeks.

See ya at the book signings!