Cleaning up a messy unconscious

By DANIEL BURKE, Religion News Service – There aren’t many Zen priests like Brad Warner.

Before turning to Buddhism 25 years ago, the 43-year-old Californian hit the hardcore punk scene in Ohio as bassist for the Akron-based band Zero Defects.

Now a writer as well as a Buddhist priest, Warner, 43, combines his love of punk and Zen to produce straight-talking meditations on sex, death, God and the Buddha. His latest book, Sit Down and Shut Up, centers on “Shobogenzo,” a mysterious 13th-century text.

Warner talked recently about practicing Buddhism and playing in a punk band, why we need books and how meditating is like cleaning your room.

RNS: I’ve heard Buddhist teachers say you don’t need to know anything about Buddhism, if you just sit down and shut up long enough, you’ll get it. Do you think that’s true?
Warner: I think that’s basically true. The philosophical aspect of Buddhism is important, but practicing it is much more critical. A lot of Americans who are into Buddhism will study the philosophy but never do the practice. If you had to do one or the other I think the practice is more important.

Your book posits some surprising similarities between playing in a punk band and practicing Zen.
People think they are entirely different worlds. Punk rock is very noisy and in your face. Zen tends to be quiet and out of your face. They’re comparable in the sense that you have to just do the thing you’re doing. When you’re playing bass, you have to just play bass or you’ll lose the thread and make a mistake. Zazen [meditation] may be a little harder in that sense because all you’re doing is sitting. But it is a kind of action even though you’re not doing anything. It’s not like you’re just being lazy.

What’s the biggest hang-up for Zen beginners?
That you’re doing zazen wrong because you sit there and your mind is full of desire and plans and hopes and all kinds of thoughts. People imagine zazen must be this beautiful tranquil place of ease. Generally speaking, when you first start out, it’s not like that at all. It wasn’t even like that for the Buddha when he started.

How long does it take to get your mind to settle down?
Sometimes it takes ages. I’m still waiting for it to settle down.

Your book says that the old Japanese Zen masters were the original punks. How’s that so?
They went against their society. It was a socially accepted thing to be a monk but it was still a pretty weird thing to do. They were rejecting those things of society that everyone else was striving for.

You’re pretty critical of some of the books on Buddhism out there. How is yours different?
A lot of those books point to some beautiful thing that’s far away that the author has and he wants to help you achieve. I’m trying to bring it down to something more real, to combat that sense that the only way to practice meditation is to run off to India and sit on top of a mountain for 10 years.

Your book centers on “Shobogenzo,” which, from the excerpts, seems pretty tough to grasp. How long did it take you to understand it?
It’s definitely difficult. I read the book completely through three times before I “got” it. But even when I didn’t understand it, I could feel instantly that it wasn’t just some guy talking nonsense.

You’ve got an interesting metaphor in your book: how meditation practice is like cleaning your room.
Yeah, I’m a really messy person, I probably came up with that one day while I was cleaning my room. Basically, it’s that you can’t just get somebody else to shove all your stuff in the closet and you can’t clean it all at once. That’s like moving all the mess to an area of your unconscious. It’s still there. So, there’s no instant miracle. It’s a gradual process.

Your book is pretty clear, we’ve all got “it,” that is, universal truth, within us. Do we need books, then?
That’s the big question, isn’t it? A book can be a useful kick in the pants to take action and look at your surroundings. My big kick in the pants was to find a teacher; maybe, hopefully, my book will spur somebody to come on and do the practice.

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