After my talk last weekend at Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York, I posted my status on Facebook as :"Weirdest. Zen talk. Ever." Lots of people asked what that meant. I was considering writing up my impressions of the event. But before I even got started I received an email from a guy who had been there. He attached an email he sent to some of his friends about the event. I asked if I could reproduce it on this blog. He said OK as long as I kept him anonymous.
So here it is, one anonymous person's impressions of my talk at Ordinary Mind Zendo on Saturday June 18, 2011. Take it away anonymous:
...totally by coincidence i went to 'ordinary mind zendo' (nyc branch of joko's teachings) on saturday to hear brad warner talk about his new book 'sex, sin and zen.' the zendo is actually an upper west side apartment, very beautifully polished and japanified with a lovely enclosed garden patio.
there had been a funeral service in the morning before i got there and there was a table out in the garden with a lovely photo of joko beck and flowers, incense, etc. with the surrounding garden it reminded me of one of those grottos with shrines to the virgin mary. i read joko's books long ago when they first came out but i couldn't remember anything about them. i know she's much loved--er--she was much loved. brad warner didn't have much to say about her except that he had imagined her to be much younger--as had i, but i see by the wiki that she was in her 40's before she started doing zen.
i don't think i've gone to see a 'spiritual teacher' in years and years (and i exempt the dalai lama as more of an international monument like the eiffel tower where i think 'i live in an era where instead of climbing the mountains into secret tibet i can just buy a ticket to the beacon theater'); but i do go to hear authors read and there's a lot i've liked about brad warner's cheezy books. i also like that he's very outspoken about the big mind fraud and when there was a huge furor about genpo's sex life, brad said the sex was no big deal, that genpo was charging rich people $50,000 for 'big mind' training was the real scandal.
brad is in his mid 40's but looks like he's in his 30's. he was wearing a black tee shirt with "shoplifting from american apparel" printed in white on the front. it turns out that's the name of a novel and he's acting in a movie being made from it.
i would say this was a case of the guy being exactly like the author--he's not real charismatic, he makes terrible puns and giggles at them, he's confessional to a fault; his views are clear and consistent. he lived in japan for 11 years and is Nishijima Roshi's chosen dharma heir--he's studied dogen and is steeped in the zen culture--but his affect is as if someone selected a guy out of a crowd at random and dubbed him a zen master. i suppose this could be seen as a cultivated act, but my impression is it's quite genuine. he read a little bit from the book and tried to engage the group in conversation.
i would like to live in that beautiful polished apartment, but my impressions of the group weren't so great. i arrived at 11:40, as told, for a noon talk. when i stepped in nobody said anything to me, i said hello to a few people and they ignored me. everyone was sitting on zafus chatting, and all the spaces were taken, so i finally just stood in one place. after about 10 minutes a nice guy introduced himself and showed me a place to sit, but soon after i sat down a woman came and said that was her place. brad apologized for missing the morning zazen. barry magrid (psychoanalyst and zen teacher who heads up the zendo) said, 'with that shirt we would have thrown you out. it's inappropriate for a funeral.' if he was joking, it didn't come across that way and nobody laughed.
brad did his reading and talked a little--his theme had to do with sex and authority and how the zen teacher's practice is to deny and undercut his own authority and the student's desire to have an authority (pretty standard zenspeak i'd say)--and then opened the floor for questions. a woman announced that she was a psychotherapist and reminded brad that barry magrid was also a psychotherapist (brad winced and said something about being very afraid). she started talking about--actually said, "we call it 'the tranference'"-- and how painful to her brad's 'glib tone' was because he wasn't taking seriously the transference relationship.
i think i mentioned to you recently the wittgenstein workbook question, 'does the fact that someone feels strongly about something make it more likely to be true?' i was sitting a couple of feet away from brad and i felt the attack vibrations: 'i'm in pain so you must be wrong' kind of force. she contrasted his attitude with her own, which was to take her work very seriously. brad said that he was basically trying to give an entertaining talk; that his zen teaching would take place one-on-one or in a small group where he knew people well. then the other psychotherapist--barry magrid--said, 'do you think that unresolved problems in your childhood might have something to do with your acting like a perpetual adolescent and refusing to become an adult?' so, i thought, the head of the zendo had said two things to his guest speaker and they were both public insults.
in zen circles brad warner is pretty famous and it seems to me that barry magrid would have known what he was getting. was the invitation to speak an opportunity for him to put brad down? that's what it seemed like to me. it would have been more honest to invite him to a debate. i felt that he was put on the defensive and was a little shaky because of it--but perhaps it's typical experience for him. there's endless talk in some zen places about how wild and iconoclastic zen is, but the tiniest departure from conservative behavior is greeted with gasps and condemnation.
someone asked brad 'why do you teach?' and after saying he didn't know a few times he basically boiled it down to that his teacher had asked him to (and sort of tricked him into it) and that he needed a job and thought he could maybe get by giving talks and writing books (he also has a punk band but i get the impression it's not a money-maker). this seemed pretty honest to me. i also feel like most (not all) of the problems about zen and authority and sex would be cleared up by eliminating the job of teacher. then meditation would be communicated like sewing or carpentry--but, of course, this is idealism on my part and, anyway, i'm sure there are institutes of sewing and carpentry where authority rages.
i can't resist the urge to pick up on one other thing he talked about briefly which is the organization of the "zen community." i wanted to draw the parallel to yoga. 30 years ago (or so) the American yogis started campaigning for certification. the Indian yogis weren't really into it. they had the long tradition of a teacher deciding when a student was ready to teach, and a sort of freewheeling mode without any central organization. iyengar, one of the biggest of the Indian teachers--said if person practiced ten postures they could teach ten postures. but there is no money in that, and the Americans kept pressuring their teachers, saying there had to be "standards." nowadays of course yoga is a completely bogus practice that has nothing to do with it's aims or origins, but everybody is certified. i hope brad will keep up his protest.