Saturday, January 29, 2011


Here's one of the videos up on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles page. It's all about reincarnation.

I want to create a brand of Buddhist evaporated milk called Reincarnation Evaporated Milk!

Here is one of the videos that are linked as a related video. This guy's response is based on the notion that if you believe that there is a realm other than the material one, then there is life after death.

Here is a supposed contrast/comparison between the Islamic and Buddhist perspectives that's really long. These guy's understanding of Buddhism is vastly different from mine. So much so that it would take far longer than I care to spend to explain how.

Here is an NBC report on the subject with Deepak Choprah making more money for himself by promising his readers life after death. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't just do this myself.

I got this in the email the other day:

"I have studied the Nishijima version of Shobogenzo quite a lot years ago. Master Nishijima's attitude towards rebirth/reincarnation is essentially the same i myself hold, however i took and take objection to his persistent opinion that the teaching of literal rebirth is not Buddhist. I have studied Dogen quite allot and must come to the conclusion that for Dogen literal rebirth is clearly part of his Buddhist view (it has nothing to do with the Senika view of eternalism). Like i said my own opinion about this matter is essentially the same as master Nishijima's but that view should not be forced upon Dogen, it is not appropiate and i feel that master Nishijima does exactly that. When reading Dogen we should try to think like an ancient Japanese monk who viewed the world in a Mahayana Buddhist way and take what we can from it in our modern world without trying to alter aspects of it that seem alien or even superstitious to us.

"Anyway master Nishijima persistence on this view somehow put me off his Shobogenzo, that is just how my flawed mind works. It has been years since i have studied his version of the Shobogenzo and i feel i would like to own the Shobogenzo again so i was really excited about the Kazuaki Tanahshi's version until i read your blog. The same things that bother you about this translation would bother me to! So i'm considering to buy the Nishijima version again instead. It has been so long since i have studied it so:

"My real question is: Does the Nishijima version sneak in some of his what i feel are modern views about rebirth/reincarnation or is the text as literal as possible and reflect Dogen's teachings purely?

"I severely respect master Nishijima and mean no disrespect at all, he is a great teacher."

My reply:

Nishijima Roshi leaves all of Dogen's references to rebirth within Shobogenzo just as they are in the original. People are getting reborn all over the place in that thing! When people questioned Nishijima about this during talks, he always explained that these references were meant metaphorically, not literally. However, within the text of his translation he never alters any of these references, nor does he even add any footnotes saying they are metaphorical.

To me, the more direct questions are 1) What do we today mean by "literal rebirth" and 2) why does it matter if Dogen believed in it or not?

In the case of the questioner, the answer to #2 is he wants to know if Nishijima's translation is reliable. The answer to that is, yes, it is. So is Kaz Tanahashi's fine translation.

But I think for most people #2 is important because we regard Dogen as a religious authority. If Dogen agrees with other religious authorities like Deepak Choprah on the question of literal rebirth, we can feel that much more relieved. As Mr. Choprah has learned, people will pay good money to be told by a religious authority figure that they will live forever. People have paid damn good money to hear that from religious authority figures for a very long time and in cultures across the globe. It is quite a reliable strategy for making a living.

But Deepak Chorpah doesn't know anything more about life after death than you do, dear reader. Dogen didn't know anything more about life after death when he was alive and writing than you do either. I also do not know anything more than you. Unlike the "she" in John Lennon's song She Said, She Said, I do not know what it's like to be dead.

("She" was actually Peter Fonda, out of his mind on LSD who said this to Lennon while they were tripping together in the Hollywood hills. I was once in line at Ralph's grocery store in West Hollywood with Peter Fonda. He was alive. But after Ghost Rider his career was dead. Perhaps that's what he meant?)

I don't necessarily think that Mr. Choprah is cynically exploiting his readers by telling them lies. He says what he says in order to create a reassuring feedback loop from himself to his readership and back again that helps relieve his own fears of death. This is also a time-tested strategy and appears to work for some people.

Onto question #1, what do we mean by "literal rebirth?"

The late e-sangha said this about me in reference to the above: "Brad Warner is a materialist i.e. he denies rebirth; and therefore, the only conclusion he can assert is that the mind is merely an ephiphenomena (sic) of brain activity. That is principally why knowledgable (sic) Buddhists take issue with him. That being so, he isn’t teaching Buddhism, but instead teaching a Worldly dharma that he and his teacher call 'Zen'.”

As I said before (I think), I do believe that the mind is the product of brain activity. That's what epiphenomena (not ephiphenomena) means. But I also believe that brain is an epiphenomena of mind activity. The mutual inter-relationship causes both to appear.

But that's beside the point. The e-sangha guys believed in literal rebirth. For them it was very important that others also believed that. If they thought someone who claimed to be Buddhist denied literal rebirth, they labeled them non-Buddhist and tried to cast doubt upon them by using phrases like, "That is principally why knowledgable (sic) Buddhists take issue with him." There is no evidence I am aware of that any knowledgeable Buddhists (whoever they might be) take issue with me about my stance on rebirth. It's good to be careful of vague unattributed claims like this in general, by the way.

But what in Heck's name is "literal rebirth?" When you really come right down to it I suppose it means, to most people, that someone is telling them they'll live forever. Literal rebirth means that someday I will actually die as a person in some place and I will get reborn in another place as another person, celestial being or animal.

This is not what Buddhism teaches. Well, it's not what the kind of Buddhism I teach teaches anyway. There is no "literal you" to get "literally reborn." This is the heart of the argument.

And Dogen is pretty clear that there is no "literal you." So the idea that he taught anything like what most people in the Western world mean when they use the phrase "literal rebirth" is absurd.

Does that make sense?

You'll forgive me in a year or so, I hope, when you see the above article reworked into part of a book.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I keep neglecting to post a link to the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles YouTube page. There are a bunch of nice videos up there in which I give erudite answers to crispy questions.

The snow is deep here in Brooklyn. And it's too damned cold to go outdoors. This has an up side to me. When I lived in California I often felt terrible about staying in for long hours writing. It was so sunny outside! How can you waste a warm sunny day?

This mentality was left over from my childhood in Ohio when warm sunny days were a rare and precious thing. In Los Angeles almost every day is warm and sunny. I never really got used to that.

I'll be heading out of New York soon, though. The place I moved into isn't really working out the way I had hoped. The notion of moving somewhere else in New York isn't so attractive. It would cost a whole lot more and I'm just not in love with New York enough to make that seem worthwhile. I'll let you know where I end up.

I'm heading off on my Midwestern tour in a few days anyhow. Everyone reading this in the vicinity of Akron, Ohio; Lawrence, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis Missouri and Cedar Rapids, Iowa is hereby ordered to come to all of these events. No excuses!

I can't tell you how many times I hear from someone saying "When are you coming to my town?" and it turns out to be a place I was just at something like three weeks before. Doesn't anyone read these posts?

The image on this post is from Erin at the Missouri Zen Center. It is a scary snow dragon about to squash a helpless snow person! Let this be a warning to anyone in the area who chooses not to attend my talks!

All this cold plus the need to finish up the first draft of my next book before I go out on tour has been keeping me glued to the computer far too much lately. It really is a sinkhole of infinite stupiditude. I once heard Nishijima Roshi say, "You cannot find reality inside a computer!" So true.

Reality is not virtual, kids. Reality is the real world. The universe is not an illusion. The world we are living in is real.

Computers are very good at producing simulations of reality. But simulations are not the real thing. A zendo in Second Life is not a real zendo. Your time spent reading blogs about Zen, including this one, is not real time spent with a Zen teacher.

I've been reading a pretty good book lately called Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin. A guy I know is making it into a movie. I don't know yet what I'm allowed to say about my involvement in the film. But I have some personal interest in it. How's that for vague?

Anyway, this is the first novel I've read wherein characters chat with each other via gmail and other such Internet platforms. I'm pretty sure this isn't the first time this has been done in a novel. But it's still kind of uncommon. Yet this is the way a lot of people are talking to each other. For some of the younger people I interact with these days, even writing emails seems slow and cumbersome. And here I am, a guy who still recalls being amazed that you could send a letter without spending money on a stamp or waiting to see when (or if) it arrived.

Internet-based conversations are a fact of life nowadays. I've had to shut off the chat function of my Facebook because every time it's on, people I don't know want to have long discussions with me. Usually late at night. These conversations themselves are not usually so bad. Sometimes they're quite entertaining. But when I'm at a computer I generally want to stay on task with whatever I switched the thing on for. So I end up being rude to fans and that's no good.

And just now, I got this ad on Facebook, "Open your mind & experience true peace in the largest user-created virtual world. Chat weekly with Buddhist clergy. Join now!"

Anyway, my point...? Uh... Did I have one? I suppose my point is that these new forms of communication seem more real than they are. For example, sometimes people will tell me about conversations they've had with others. I've had to start remembering to ask if these are actual conversations or Internet-based "chats." These days people seem to think there's no real difference. But there is.

I've said all this before. But I'm starting to get concerned over what the effects will be of a generation that can't tell the difference, who are accustomed to sitting in their bedrooms on computers for endless stretches and don't actually understand how to speak to each other anymore.

I don't think this is just about me not being hip to what the kids are into. I understand the efficiency of chats and Internet-communications. Here I am using a blog to do what I used to have to do by Xeroxing a 'zine down at Kinko's and then trying to get the local record shops to sell it. This is a much more efficient system and I wouldn't want to go back to the old way.

Still, I can see it in myself. I was already kind of a loner to begin with. This Internet stuff makes it far too easy to hide from the world. I know this for a fact because I myself do it!

This is why I keep fighting the good fight against the forces that want to move Zen practice on-line. It's the one area where my so-called "expert opinion" stands a chance of being listened to. I also want to have record stores to go to, and bookshops to hang around in. But the Internet is killing those things. And, in doing so it's taking away more and more of our opportunities to actually see and mingle with each other.

And that ain't good.

So get off the computer and go talk to somebody. OK?

Monday, January 24, 2011


I have a new article up on the safe-for-work Suicide Girls blog. It's called I Resent My High School. Click on the words I Resent My High School and you will magically be flown there to see it. It's free. There are no naked pictures there to destroy your purity either!

It's another piece of confessional writing in the style of some of what's in my book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. One hopes in writing such directly personal things that it resonates with other people's experiences and feelings. But when you write like this, you always risk coming off sounding like, "Oh woe is me! My life is so horrid! Look at how horrid it is! Look! Look!"

But I'm really influenced by records like John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, where the songwriter bares his soul in a very personal way. Even though I was never a member of The Beatles or a Greenwich Village folksinger turned superstar, I still found those songs really compelling. And not in a voyeuristic way of being all like, "Oh John Lennon thinks religion sucks" or something. It was more that I could relate to the directness of it as an expression of what all people go through.

In case any of the people involved in my high school reunion are reading this, I'll say again, this is not what I "really think" of you. It's just a part of what goes through my head when faced with the prospect of seeing people from Wadsworth High School again.

To say it's what I "really think" would be to imply that of all the thoughts that pass through my skull about the reunion, the ones in the article are the ones I've chosen to believe and to call "mine." That's what we do a lot of the time. I do it too.

But what I'm trying to express here is that the Zen practice has allowed me the space to be able to step back a bit from that process. None of what goes through my head is what I "really think" in the sense that I am obliged to hold fast to it and establish it as my position on a given subject. And that, of course, is not just true for me. It's true for all of us.

But we've been taught very thoroughly that this is the way to respond to thoughts. We are taught to select certain of our thoughts and adhere to those. We thereby establish a specifically defined and rigid personality. That's where most of our problems stem from. But we don't know this process is even a source of our difficulties let alone the major source of them.

I am not perfect in my skill at allowing thoughts to pass without getting caught in making them "mine." I still do it a lot. But mostly when I do it now I can see myself doing it and know that it is not necessary. But the deeper the level of attachment you have to a certain type of reaction to a certain type of situation, the harder that can be.


In the comments section on that last piece someone said, "In your book Sit Down and Shut Up, you seem to emphasize the importance of finding a teacher (ch. 5, Zazen by Alone). Here you say don't worry about it. Do these two ideas contradict each other, or is there something I'm not seeing (in which case my 'not seeing' list is that much longer)? Thanks."

It's hard to express this just right. Yes, to study Buddhism you need a teacher. But you do not need a teacher to practice zazen. Someone in the comments section said something like, "Don't let lack of a teacher be an excuse not to practice." I agree.

Zazen can be a solitary practice or a group practice. For Buddhist study you need some kind of a mentor, even if that person doesn't have specific certification to teach Buddhism (though I think that's generally -- but not always -- better). Without a teacher there's too much danger of going off in some bizarre tangent.

It's a bit like what I was talking about earlier in this article. Some of your habitual reactions you are not aware of until someone says something to you about them.

I was not aware that I eat my cereal obnoxiously loudly until one of my roommates complained about it. This is because for most of my life I've eaten my cereal alone. When I eat breakfast with others it's never cereal, and even when I was married I almost always woke up earlier than my wife and I still ate it by myself.

In Buddhist study there are some things you simply cannot judge by yourself because, as in my cereal-eating, you have no criteria. My cereal-eating doesn't sound any quieter to me now that I make sure to close my mouth when I chew than it did before. It might even be a little louder to me. But my roommates don't complain when I chew it with my mouth closed.

It's sort of like that.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


There's a new podcast up called No Time to Kill. It insults Wisdom publications! I'm sorry about that, Josh. It comes off less funny and seems more truly angry than it was intended to. I wasn't angry. But you guys should have put the book out. It's true.

And speaking of wasting time, lately I've been wasting a lot of time doing my own version of Guitar Hero. I've discovered that if you go on YouTube and type in the name of some song you like plus the words "bass cover," you will find tons of guys who have taped themselves in their bedrooms playing that song on the bass. By watching these, one can learn the bass lines of these songs!

So far I have learned the following songs by KISS: Christine Sixteen, Love Gun, She, Strutter, Deuce, Detroit Rock City, Black Diamond, Rock and Roll All Night and Sure Know Something. Plus Lady Madonna by the Beatles, Substitute by the Who, Beat It by Michael Jackson and most of Money by Pink Floyd. Phew!

Zero Defex is playing a gig on February 9th at the Matinee in Akron, Ohio. Every time we have a gig, which lately has been about once a year, I get serious about the bass again and start practicing like crazy. It's not that the Zero Defex bass parts are that tough, except for the one from By The Day. It's just that I feel like I ought be really good before I get out on stage in front of people.

And speaking of really good, here's one thing I'm not really good at. I've been trying to catch up with some of the emails people send. I'm just getting to ones from October. I'm sorry I'm so lousy at this! But it just takes up so much time. I can't give a half-assed answer. If you receive a one-liner from me, you can trust that it's probably the distillation of a few paragraphs. Ugh.

Still the #1 most frequently asked question is, "I live in Bumfuck, Egypt, how can I find a Zen teacher?"

I wish I knew. I think one thing is that you probably don't need a teacher that urgently. Secondly, you probably don't need me to be your teacher as much as you think you do (often writers of this question seem to imply they want me to teach them). You can relax about it a little. Just do your home practice by yourself for a while and see if anyone groovy turns up in your life.

A number of people want me to be their long-distance on-line teacher. But I'm still working in emails I received three months ago! I'm really not reliable as anyone's on-line Zen teacher.

I have a problem with the on-line Zen teachers I've seen. Some of the on-line forums I've checked out are packed with dubious "Masters" spouting dogma that sounds like the worst forms of authoritarian religion. But, I'll admit I have not checked out this world very thoroughly because I'd rather be writing a book or learning new bass parts.

I know a bunch of commenters are gonna think I'm taking digs at someone specific (if you must know, the one that grinds me most is e-Sangha). But really, the on-line option is one that lots of people who send this question seem to want me to endorse. I'm trying to say why I still have serious reservations about it. I can't do that without saying why I still have serious reservations about it.

A couple people have recommended I go into on-line teaching and charge for Skype chats and suchlike with students. A guy I know argued very rationally that I would not be charging for the dharma but for my time. People who go to in-the-flesh teachers usually donate to their centers, so why shouldn't people who get Skype chat time with a well-known teacher contribute some dana? But I just don't know. It feels weird.

Plus I feel like it's not the proper way to meet a teacher. One of the other problems I have with on-line Zen is the celebrity aspect. Instead of going to the Zen teacher down the street, you can pick out a more famous guy on line. I know for certain this happens because I've watched it happen. It's not all shut-ins and people in the boondocks who inhabit the on-line sanghas. It's often people who live right near a Zen center but like the on-line guy better.

Too much choice and too much convenience in this kind of thing just seems somehow off to me.

I'm not saying I'll never do it. Especially since hardly anyone seems to be hitting my little donation button anymore. But I am still not convinced it can be done in a way that is truly ethical.

Monday, January 17, 2011


First off, I keep neglecting to post that I am on the verge of starting yet another tour. I've already put up a new page about my tour dates. You'll see there's still some missing info. This will be filled in when I get it.

For now, a brief list of where I'll be is as follows:

• February 9, 2011 (Wed) 10 PM Akron, OH: Zero Defex at The Matinee 812 W. Market St. Akron, OH
• February 15, 2011 (Tues) 7 PM 7:00 pm Lawrence, KS: Kansas Zen Center 423 New York St, Lawrence, KS 66044
• February 17, 2011 (Thu) 7:30 PM Kansas City, MO: Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St., Kansas City, MO 64112
• February 20, 2011 (Sun) Cedar Rapids, IA: Cedar Rapids Zen Center 1618 Bever Ave SE, Cedar Rapids, IA
• February 22, 2011 (Tue) 6:30 PM St Louis, MO: Seki’s Japanese Restaurant 6335 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, MO
• February 26, 2011 (Sat) St Louis, MO: Missouri Zen Center, 220 Spring Ave., Webster Groves, MO 63119

• March 5, 2011 (Sat) Cocoa, FL
• March 15-20, 2011 Saskatoon, SK, Canada
• March 25, 2011 (Fri) 12-2 pm Stony Brook University: SBU Campus Book Store Basement of Melville Library 100 Nicolls Road Setauket-East Setauket, NY 11733
• March 26, 2011 (Sat) 9:30 AM - 2:30 PM Sony Brook University: Stony Brook Buddhism Study Group Meditation Workshop

• April 22-24, 2011 (Fri-Sun) Nashville, TN
• April 29-May 1, 2011 (Fri-Sun) Atlanta, GA

The book tour site has links to all of the webpages for these places (where I could find them). So go there for further information.

Secondly, for those who have been asking, I have just heard from the publishers that Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika by Gudo Nishijima and Brad Warner will be available in March. Amazon still lists it both as coming out on January first and as being unavailable. Hopefully they'll soon re-list it as available for pre-order.

Thirdly, I stupidly fell in love with and subsequently bought a bass. It's a lovely 1975 Fender Precision, apparently once owned by someone who abused the poor thing horribly. There are scratches that look like knife marks, as well as what appear to be burn marks in the finish. This bass has been through Heck! But it played so beautifully and sounded precisely the way I've always dreamed a bass guitar should sound, so I bought it even though I really cannot afford it. (FYI, it was not even close to as expensive as an instrument of this vintage ought to have been)

This means I need to sell the two basses I already own. Nobody really needs three bass guitars anyway. I thought that before I put them on Craig's List or eBay for just anyone to purchase I'd offer them up here and see what happens.

One is the 1974 Fender Musicmaster seen in this photo at the Matinee in Akron, Ohio in 2007. This is the gig that was written about in the book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma. Imagine! You could actually own the bass I played in the gig from the book! What a thrill! (I'm geeky enough that if I were a fan of someone, this kind of thing would be really cool to me. So I'm not making fun at all here.)

It has some minor issues with the jack. It cuts out sometimes and you have to jiggle the plug to get the sound back. This is a very small problem that would take a couple minutes with a soldering iron to fix. Unfortunately I don't have a soldering iron. Otherwise the bass is amazing. There are a couple little dings in the finish. But all that stuff you've heard about short scale basses sounding less awesome than long scale basses is a lie! This thing sounds incredible. I used it on all tracks on the Zero Defex CD. You can listen to the MP3 samples of the tracks there to hear what it sounds like.

I paid about $700 for this back when I had a decent job. You can find Musicmasters for less than that and you can find them for more than that. I'd like to get at least what I paid for it. It's an American-made vintage instrument.

The other is my Ibanez Rickenbacker copy, which can also be seen in this video. It is not a Rickenbacker, but an incredible simulation. The only significant difference is that the neck is bolted on. It doesn't go through the body like a real Rick. It is probably also not made out of the same type of wood that Rickenbacker used. But I do not know for sure.

In the 1970s Ibanez produced a lot of very high quality copies of US-made guitars and basses. They had a lot of trouble over these when the US companies sued them for violating their intellectual property rights by copying their designs. Rickenbacker was especially vigorous in pursuing those cases. Thus, while Ibanez and other Japanese companies' copies of Fenders and Gibsons are still easy to find, you will not find very many Rickenbacker copies anymore. In fact, this is the only Ibanez Rick copy I have ever seen or even heard of. It is one of only two copies I have ever seen of a Rickenbacker bass.

The Ibanez is probably worth at least $1000 to a collector. I didn't pay that much for it because the guy who was selling it just didn't want it anymore. I got real lucky on this one. An actual Rickenbacker 4001 bass will set you back three or four grand and will not look or sound significantly different from this (if you ask me, at least).

E-mail me at if you are interested. We'll talk. I'm really sad to see these go, so you'll have to be nice to me.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Depression Again

I got an interesting response to my Suicide Girls article about depression:

"Part of the problem is that you seem clearly to be talking about clinical depression and not 'the blues' but I think you give some of the mental illness part of it short shrift. I'm assuming we're talking about actual clinical depression.

I have a fundamental problem with the article. I believe that any article that attempts to discuss mental illness should definitely include statement saying, 'if you are suicidal or think you may cause harm to yourself or others, please seek medical attention. Call a suicide hotline. Talk to a trusted friend, relative or doctor.' Otherwise, we're just Scientologists who forbid you to seek medical help."

OK. Sure. Maybe I should have included that disclaimer. But I really think that's a given. I tend to assume that anyone who can read is at least intelligent enough to figure out they have other options if they're suicidal than taking me at my word on this blog. But perhaps I shouldn't make such assumptions.

The guy who wrote this then went on to say a lot about the use of anti-depressants and other such medication in the treatment of depression.

First off, there is no general Buddhist rule that says one must never use these kinds of medications. Some Buddhist teachers are OK with them. Others are not. Nishijima Roshi does not seem to be a fan of them. But, then again, this is one of the many things you had to ask him about in person when referring specifically to yourself in a particular situation. He did not go around making general pronouncements about it. I never once heard him address the subject publicly in the 15 years I followed him around. He talked about it with me in private a couple times though.

Dogen, in his list of pieces of advice he received from his teacher Tendo Nyojo, quotes Tendo as saying, "Do not take medications for mental illness." Who knows what sort of medications the Chinese of the 12th century had. But apparently they had some and Tendo Nyojo didn't think it was a good idea for monks to take them.

Contemporary Western Zen places tend to be OK with residents using prescription anti-depressants and the like. I recall it was one of the items on the Tassajara check list of things you'd better remember because you can't get them down in the valley. I also recall they wanted to know if you were on such meds and which ones you were taking when you applied to be admitted.

Personally I am not the world's biggest fan of such medications. But I understand they have some use and value. Still, I think they are terribly over-prescribed and often act to normalize conditions that maybe ought not to be normalized. By that I mean drugs can mask the effects of poor diet, poor living conditions, overwork, etc. etc. that ought to be addressed either before or at least during treatment. You overload a kid with sugar and 18 hrs a day of video games, he gets hyperactive, so you feed him downers AND sugar and video games, and then he seems more normal. But really you should have tried taking away the sugar and 18 hrs a day of video games first. Oversimplification, I know. But it happens.

On the other hand, there are people with far deeper problems for whom the drugs can be useful. But I really don't like them unless all other options have been checked out. I think we live in a culture that goes right for the pills.

On a larger scale, I think these kinds of medication can act to help mask deep rooted cultural problems that really must be addressed. Our society is generally pretty fucked up. And this is the cause of much of our mental illnesses and depression. Rather than finding a different way to live, though, we turn to medications that make our fucked up situation bearable. And so the root problem goes unaddressed.

I've never been on anti-depressants or any similar types of medication for mental illness. So you could accuse me of talking out my ass here. But I believe the only reason I was never on anything like that is that I went through my teenage years just before they became really popular and in my twenties I couldn't even afford to see a doctor for the mononucleosis I caught, let alone go to a psychiatrist each week to deal with the nearly unbearable bouts of depression I had to endure.

I found another way because I was forced to. I had to really address these things step by step in a very dynamic manner. I'm not trying to sound heroic here. It's just that I had no other choice. I saw what friends of mine in similar situations did, self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs, cutting themselves, killing themselves. I did not like those options. So I dove headfirst into the meditation thing.

I do not consider those who turn to prescribed psychiatric medications weak or stupid. You do what you have to do to get by in life. Some people have it way worse than I ever did in the depression area. I cannot judge so I do not judge.

I've talked to and held dokusan with lots of people who use these medications. I've spoken to some who have decided to stop doing the drugs and work on themselves through zazen instead. I try to be helpful in these cases. But I've had conversations with people who tried this and then decided they needed the medications after all. When that has happened, I've supported that as well. It is up to you, not me, what you do in your life. Gurus and "Masters" who give advice on matters like this should probably shut up.

I've also known people who really, really needed those medications and did not want to take them. I understand that too because those drugs all have unpleasant side-effects. It's seems to me like trying to tune a piano with a sledge hammer. If you're really skilled you might get the string you aim for to sound right, but you'll mess up the ones around it. The options have to be weighed carefully. Maybe you need medication to get to the point where other approaches are even possible.

I do not know if the stuff I have gone through qualifies as clinical depression or not. I've never had anyone examine me in any manner that might have determined that. I suspect I had enough symptoms to be prescribed medication had I gone to a doctor inclined to do so during my darkest years. But I'll never know for sure. I do know that whatever affected me then still comes on from time to time even now. But I know how to allow it to pass over. I know how to patiently wait for it to finish its business and go.

It's not as bad for me these days as it used to be. Maybe it was never as bad for me as it is for you, dear reader. I have no way of knowing.

I also changed my lifestyle and my diet. They're still not exemplary. But they're better. I stopped drinking. I was never a big drinker to begin with. But I started seeing that if I got drunk, I didn't really sober up completely after a good night's sleep. The alcohol lingered in my system for quite a while. Same with other drugs. This, I had not noticed before I started doing more zazen. I started seeing what large amounts of refined sugar did to my mental state. This, too, I had not noticed before. I saw what a lack of exercise did. All kinds of things I hadn't noticed because I had not been in touch with myself enough to notice them became clear.

I'm not a skeptic who says you ought to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." I know things can be really bad. I'll say it again: Only you know how bad it is for you.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


There's a new article by me on the safe-for-work Suicide Girls blog. Go here to read it. Yay!

A couple of days ago I attended my first ever Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. No. I'm not an alcoholic, nor am I particularly anonymous. But I was staying with a friend in Virginia and he was going, so he invited me along. Seeing as how I'm from Akron, Ohio, where Doctor Bob started AA, I felt it was my duty to go.

It was quite interesting and I'm still processing what I felt and learned from attending. There's a lot to be said for fellowship and social support when you're trying to do something difficult. Kicking addictions is not easy. The only physical addiction I ever had to kick was to caffeine. And that was really hard because I was so addicted to the stuff. I had a headache and nausea for a month and I knew all I needed to do to cure it was go out to the vending machine on the corner and buy some Boss iced coffee for 110 yen.

That's just because I'm not much for getting addicted to substances. My addictions are much deeper and harder to kick.

The false sense of self is very much like an addiction. And one way to make it easier to beat such an addiction is through fellowship with other people who have realized they're addicted to it and want to kick the habit. A Zen monastery is a lot like an AA meeting but more intense since the addiction everyone is trying to root out is much deeper and more pernicious.

The basic ideas behind AA and Zen have a lot in common. Part of the methodology is based on shared faith and belief. Both AA and Zen also have the idea that you don't really have to believe exactly the same thing as the rest of the members of the group. It's enough to sort of pretend you do.

In AA one must acknowledge a "higher power" in one's life. It doesn't matter how that higher power is defined. And, at some level, it doesn't even matter if you really even believe in your higher power deep down. You just have to say that you do and play along with the game.

I think that's a tremendously brilliant strategy. It brings something more basic than the thinking mind into play. Going through the motions even if you don't believe in them does have a real effect. I tend to believe that the really harmful parts of religion start with the thinking mind's involvement in things. And the thinking mind doesn't really need to get involved.

Anyway, that's my little rant about AA. Thank you very much.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

New Year's Resolution

First up, a nice interview I did on a podcast called The Secular Buddhist is up now. So go here and have a listen.

Next up, dig this review of the New Hope compilation. The New Hope was a compilation album dedicated the the Cleveland/Akron hardcore scene that came out in 1983. It was the very first record I was ever on!

If you don't wanna buy the LP, just look it up on iTunes. It's there!

That last post I put up got so much response I almost hate to break up the party. But I decided a while back to try and update this blog at least every three days. I've been traveling and haven't been able to for a couple days. Now I'm back in Brooklyn.

I'm going to do a book review of a book I borrowed from my friend Rod Firestone of the Rubber City Rebels. The book's called A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain. But since I haven't finished reading it yet, I don't think I'm ready for a review. It's pretty good. Maybe next time I'll review it.

I was also thinking of reviewing West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology, which I just got and listened to on the road. Quick review: It's not quite as entertaining as the previous boxed set of Hendrix alternate takes, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. That had the full-length version of If Six Was Nine, which nobody ever thought would get released. The story goes that Hendrix left the master in a taxi and the take heard on the record was edited together from the undamaged portions of a badly stored rough mix. A couple years ago they restored the the damaged bits and now you can hear the whole thing. The rest of that anthology is mainly alternate takes of familiar songs from the days of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

West Coast Seattle Boy includes both pre- and post-Experience recordings. It provides a whole disc of Hendrix's so-called "chitlin' circuit years," when he was a struggling nobody backing up various r&b singers including Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. None of these tracks are especially amazing in themselves. But you get to hear Hendrix developing his soon-to-be signature sound.

The other discs are sometimes revelatory, sometimes cool, but often kind of boring. Jimi taped most of his jam sessions and he is damned good as are the people he played with. But jamming is still jamming. It's fun to do, sometimes fun to see done live, but usually boring to listen to decades later. Unless it's The Who's Live At Leeds album. But maybe that's because Pete Townshend was a songwriter and jamming by The Who in those days was more like instant composition right on stage than just noodling in the key of A.

My new year's resolution was to set myself a schedule and stick to it. I'm already way off schedule today. Ah well....

But I did get a new Suicide Girls piece done and turned in on time. It will run on Monday. It's about depression.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

In Which I Am Criticized by the Master of Antaiji Temple

Markus in Finland recently sent me a link to this post in which Muho Roshi, the abbot of Antaiji temple in Japan criticizes me and then proceeds to praise himself for how much more of a bodhisattva he is than I am.

For those who don't know, Antaiji is famous mainly for being the temple that "Homeless" Kodo Sawaki and his student Kosho Uchiyama lived in. I've always been a little vague on this because Sawaki was known for being a master without a temple. Apparently he actually had a temple of his own, but he wasn't there most of the time because he traveled around the country leading retreats and teaching zazen as well as promoting the many books he wrote. Sawaki is my teacher Nishijima Roshi's biggest influence. Shunryu Suzki was also a big fan of Sawaki.

These days Antaiji is one of the few Japanese Zen temples that a foreign person can go and train in. Often when people ask me about training in a Japanese Zen temple, I refer them to Antaiji. A few people who have come to my Zen retreats and talks have taken the bait and gone out there.

All I know about Muho, other than what I just now gleaned from a quick skim of the Wikipedia entry on him, is that he's German. I'm not sure how he got to be the abbot of Antaiji. I've read a few of his pieces on-line and I always liked them. I believe it was Muho who first shed light on the hatchet job done on Kodo Sawaki by Brian Victoria in his book Zen At War. Muho pointed out a number of places where Victoria wildly mistranslated Sawaki to make him sound like he was a blood-thirsty promoter of the Japanese war effort in WWII. Sawaki was nothing of the sort and anyone who can read Japanese can read the pieces Victoria translated and easily see that Sawaki said nothing at all like what Victoria has him saying in his book.

Muho's criticism of me comes completely out of the blue as far as I can see. But judging by the piece Muho chose to write about, the man must be quite a follower of my writing. This is the kind of thing one could only find by conducting a pretty thorough search of stuff I've written. He chose to pick on something I wrote specifically to the group in Los Angeles that I used to sit with who had asked what it would take to get me to return there as a full time teacher for the group.

I thought about it for a very long time and came up with a list of conditions under which it would be feasible for me to do so. Apparently Muho thought the conditions I stipulated proved that I was not the kind, caring individual that he (Muho) is and he decided he'd better point that out.

The piece he criticized was not really intended for public consumption, although it was not in any way secret either. It was meant to point out to the folks who were asking me about this what I, as a guy who makes his living from writing books and lecturing, would need in order to lead a group in Los Angeles. I wanted the group to have realistic expectations as to what I could and could not do for them.

I have quite a bit of difficulty with what Americans call "setting boundaries." Very often when I am leading any kind of a group, certain people will take advantage of what a total push-over I am and monopolize my time. I decided that one way to remedy this and to be available to everyone fairly was to do what college professors do and have specific "office hours" during which I'd be available by appointment.

What I'm suggesting in the letter I wrote to the people in Los Angeles is an entirely new system very specifically tailored to my own personal life. It's completely different from what happens if one steps into an established temple with an established protocol and an established way of generating income. I'm not saying that's easy to do either. But most of the problems that my letter to the people in Los Angeles addresses are already solved if one has that kind of a temple.

Muho criticizes me for suggesting that I would not be available all the time for such a group in much the same way and for much the same reasons that Kodo Sawaki was not always available all the time for the regular attendees at Antaiji. I'm sorry, Muho, but if I were to make myself available 365 days a year at such a temple, I have no idea how I could earn my keep. And I'm pretty stubborn about earning my own keep.

FYI: Just in case the reaction to this piece becomes "Brad is planning to move back to Los Angeles and lead a group," I want to point out that I have no such plans at all. I am willing to discuss such a possibility if it becomes feasible. As of now, it is not feasible at all and there is no reason to believe it will become feasible any time soon.

ANYWAY, what bums me out most about Muho's piece is that it is so utterly disappointing. There are a small handful of people out there in the Zen world who take an attitude that goes something like, "You cannot be a real Zen teacher if you didn't become a Zen teacher the way I became a Zen teacher." This is completely missing the point of what it is to be a Zen teacher. Muho's sneering remarks about me make it clear that he holds that attitude.

It's pleasantly surprising to me that I encounter very little of this type of criticism. Most Zen teachers I know are very accepting of me, even though I didn't become a Zen teacher in what is now considered to be the standard way. I think most of them understand that what is commonly thought of as the "standard way" of becoming a Zen teacher is something that developed rather recently. Dogen never did zuise. Nor did Bodhidharma. Buddha himself never did either. Nor did any of these people suggest you had to. I'm unaware of Dogen ever recommending these steps either. The head monk ceremony and all of that stuff are, at best, from the late-medieval period. Many are very recent developments.

I'm hardly the only Zen teacher out there who has come by his Zen credentials in a non-standard way. Most of the teachers ordained by Kobun Chino Roshi were also ordained in non-standard ways, as were a lot of others. So I am not writing this just to defend myself.

Oddly enough, I can think of many situations in my association with Nishijima Roshi in which he placed me in much the same position as a ceremonially appointed "head student" and in which I did things that were sort of like zuise, though it was not at Eiheiji or Sojiji temples. Also my "training period" with him, though it was never called that, lasted about seven years, which would be pretty standard at a "real" temple. It involved, in an informal form, many of the same steps one would do ceremonially at a "real" temple.

Nishijima Roshi was not a fan of Soto-shu and its bureaucracy, organizational protocols, ceremonies and rituals. He didn't think it was necessary for a Zen teacher to be recognized by Soto-shu, even though he himself is. Dogen was never recognized by any such organization, nor were any of the great masters of the past. Organizations like Soto-shu arose much later and retroactively included the great masters of the past in their ranks. One wonders if Dogen would really have wanted to be seen as the founder of contemporary Soto-shu if he'd had any choice in the matter. I imagine he would not.

Having said that, I am aware that there need to be some kind of standards as to who is and is not a legitimate Zen teacher. Otherwise you get guys like "Zen Master Rama" claiming to be Zen teachers because they had a dream in which Buddha made them a Zen teacher or some such nonsense. But the basic standard is only that you have a legitimate lineage of a living Zen teacher who recognized your qualification to teach and who himself had a living Zen teacher, and so on for at least a few generations back. I have that. So does Muho. For that matter so, unfortunately, does Genpo Roshi. Which goes to show that this, in itself, doesn't mean everything. But it does mean something.

Still, I am very firm in my conviction that official recognition by the Soto-shu corporation of Japan is not a very good final criteria for what makes one a real Zen teacher. Muho seems to be concerned about the future of Western Zen. I sincerely hope he is not suggesting that recognition by the Soto-shu is the way to solve all of our problems.