On October 18, we’ve got zen priest Brad Warner in-store to talk about his latest book It Came From Beyond Zen! I’ve spent time in Japan but never met a zen priest, so I had some questions ahead of the event. Here’s our conversation…
Eric Larkin – What is zazen?
Brad Warner – Zazen is a kind of meditation practice. But it’s a meditation practice without a goal. The type of zazen I teach is called “shikantaza,” which means, “just sitting.” You’re trying to do nothing but have the pure experience of only sitting still, just doing that one dirt simple thing. Since all things are interconnected, your experience of just sitting is a universal experience that takes place throughout all of space and time. Trippy!
EL – I seem to remember from college (I studied Japanese lit) that zazen was more successful in Japan than in other parts of the Buddhist world. Is this true? And if so, why?
BW – Dozen said he learned the type of zazen he taught in China. So it existed there before it existed in Japan. But the Chinese “Cultural Revolution” under Chairman Mao made it difficult to do any sort of what was considered religious practice. So zazen kind of faded away there. It was still practiced in other areas, though. What we call “Zen Buddhism” first appeared in China as a reform movement to try to bring Buddhism back to its roots. The historical Buddha taught meditation. But after he died, later followers added a lot of very elaborate rituals, prayers, recitations, and other such stuff. Eventually people thought meditation was just one small part of Buddhism, when, if you look at the historical record, you can see that it had originally been the central thing. History being what it was, this reform movement stayed alive in Japan whereas it kind of faded away in other parts of Asia.
EL – How did you discover (not sure if that’s the right word) zazen?
BW – I was a student at Kent State University in Ohio and I signed up for a class called Zen Buddhism. I wasn’t raised in a religious family. But my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya when was about seven years old. In Kenya I started seeing a lot of religious traditions I wouldn’t have been exposed to if we’d stayed in the Akron, Ohio suburb I’d lived in since I was born. I saw Hindus, Muslims, African religions, and even a few Buddhists. Even though Kenya is a majority Christian country. After we came back to the US, I wanted to know more. I was eleven when we returned, so it took me a long time. I signed up for that class because it was the only one offered that semester that dealt with any non-Western religion. The first day of class the teacher showed us how to do zazen. I immediately saw that this was a sensible kind of meditative practice that I could do. That teacher, Tim McCarthy, became my first Zen teacher. I moved to Japan in the 90s and lived there for eleven years. That’s where I got more deeply into Zen and ended up getting ordained.
EL – It Came From Beyond Zen! is your interpretation of (parts of) Dogen Eihei’s writings. Why are the essays of a 13th century Buddhist priest relevant for this overwhelmingly complex moment in American history?
BW – Dogen was way ahead of his time, the 13th century CE. In his own day, hardly anyone read Dogen’s writings. In fact, they were not widely rediscovered until the 20th century. A few people knew about them, and certain short things Dogen wrote were incorporated into the liturgy at the temples that branched off from the one he established. But his major writings were not widely read. I think the reason is that it took us 800 years to catch up to where he was. He sounds very modern when you sort of “remaster” his works the way I’m trying to do, meaning when you strip away some of the ancient language and the references that are now too obscure for us to get anymore. I think Americans today can use a bit of Dogen because he gives us a way to understand our world more directly. His philosophy resembles existentialism in a lot of ways, but he also has a meditation practice. This means his philosophy has a physical component that’s just as important as the mental aspects. It’s a philosophy of action, as my teacher used to say. I think we need a philosophy of action now more than ever. I think he provides an understanding of how we can be ethical even in a world in which nothing seems to matter.
EL – Non-sequitur: you promote Japanese monster movies. What would you say are the essential Japanese monster movies? Also, what do you think about Pacific Rim and its upcoming sequel?
BW – I love that question. Of course, the first Godzilla from 1954 is the granddaddy of them all. You can now get the original Japanese cut with subtitles, which is very dark. It’s about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but with a big fat radioactive dinosaur as a metaphor. That being said, my personal favorite Godzilla film is now known as Invasion of Astro Monster. It used to be called Monster Zero, or sometimes Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. It’s from 1965 and it’s got aliens and flying saucers and Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster as well as Godzilla.
In Japan, I worked for Tsuburaya Productions who made a TV series called Ultraman. It was live action, like the Godzilla films. The company founder was the special effects director for Godzilla. Anyway, Pacific Rim is basically Ultraman but re-imagined for American audiences. It’s so similar to Ultraman that I know whoever made it had to have been a fan. So I liked Pacific Rim, but I could also see where it came from.
EL – You’re in a punk band. We did two 4-part series on this blog about Punk and Hip Hop, respectively. Everything currently important in pop music started in New York in the 70s. Agree or disagree, and why?
BW – Oh dear… That’s hard to say. Punk rock does seem to have come out of New York, although there were British forms that also fed into what became punk. I happen to be a huge fan of 60s psychedelic music. A lot of the best of that genre emerged right here in Los Angeles with the Byrds, Frank Zappa, Love, and a whole load of others. There’s a huge revival of that style going on these days. Lollipop Records, based in Boyle Heights, which was formerly based in Echo Park, where I live, is putting out tons of really great new psychedelic rock. So I think LA has been very important too.
EL – What’s up next for you?
BW – I just opened a Zen center in Echo Park called the Angel City Zen Center. We offer zazen several times a week, particularly on Saturday mornings and Monday evenings. I’m working on trying to make that become a viable center. I’m starting to work on another book, though I’m not sure exactly what it’s going to be just yet. I just finished a monthlong tour of Europe where I led retreats in Finland, Sweden, Germany and England. I’m going to Canada in November to do some more of that. I’m sure I’ll continue leading zen retreats and writing books.
“…An understanding of how we can be ethical even in a world in which nothing seems to matter.” That sounds good to me. We’ll see you here October 18 @ 7:30 for what could be the start of something life-changing.