Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why I'm So Hardcore

In October of 2003, Hardcore Zen, by Brad Warner was published. I cannot possibly overestimate the importance of this book. Wait. That actually sounds like a challenge. Of course I can overestimate the importance of this book. Watch: Hardcore Zen was to Buddhism what Citizen Kane was to film. Without Hardcore Zen, there would be absolutely no chance of survival for the human race. Brad Warner, as an author, holds in his talented hands, the entire future of the written word.

There. That wasn’t so hard. Now, let’s get on with it. There are two books that I discovered after I began studying Buddhism that affected me deeply. One was Dharma Punx, by Noah Levine, and the other was Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen. As the years have gone by, my love of Dharma Punx has faded a bit. Noah is a devout punk rocker, and he believes the Buddha’s path mirrors the contumacious nature of his favorite music. Sometimes, this seems to be the only way that Noah relates to the path and it can appear one-dimensional. I think I’m outgrowing this approach, though I don’t disagree with him. Buddhism IS the ultimate rebellion. The problem is that Buddhism is so much more than rebellion. It goes so far beyond the generally agreed-upon idea of personal revolt that it’s something else entirely. That something else is Zen.

Noah practices a version of the path called Theravada, which is often referred to as the “School of the Elders,” because it is the oldest surviving lineage of Buddhism. It’s also the most conservative branch of Buddhism, and the one least likely to tolerate any but the most moderate forms of hanky-panky. It is straight-laced, y’all, and I’m not even kidding. But there’s no doubt that this breed of Buddhism is still in the 99th percentile of rebellion. If rebellion were geniuses, Theravada would have this year’s graduating class of MIT. However, Zen would still have Max Planck and Isaac Newton.

I read Dharma Punx first and it rocked me. It was fantastic to learn that Buddhism didn’t have to be the granola-studded turd of hippie philosophy it had come to be in the West. Plus, Noah looked like me, with his shaved head and extensive tattooing. So Dharma Punx kind of paved the way. It skulked up to the door and fiddled real criminal-like with the lock. Then it knocked like the police and gave the knob one last good jiggle before it stomped off.

So the door was already in bad shape when Hardcore Zen got there. It didn’t provide much resistance when Brad Warner rammed it down with his massive steel Zen erection, jumped out on Godzilla’s back and threw the most fucked-up party the house had ever seen.

Hardcore Zen did things to me that Dharma Punx was way too vanilla to ever pull off. It shattered all my notions of what I thought Buddhism was. It destroyed notions I didn’t even know I had. It dragged those shadowy, vampiric ideas out into the daylight and laughed as they turned into bubbling goo. The book read like Brad was right beside me, screaming in my ear that I didn’t know shit, I would never know shit, and, frankly, I didn’t deserve shit. He used Zen to beat the dumb outta me.

When I got done with this book I was empty. All the structure I’d based my practice on was gone. Everything I’d built up that defined my view of Buddhism had vanished. I felt fucking great. It was like starting over.

So I did start over. I read more books on Zen and began practicing its peculiar breed of meditation: zazen. Zazen is pretty much the opposite of all other forms of meditation. When I studied Vajrayana with the Shambhala folks, there were so many practices you needed a fuckin spreadsheet to keep track of em. It all boils down to the two biggies, though, and those are shamatha and vipassana meditation.

Shamatha loosely means “calm abiding” and vipassana means “insight.” So the practitioner started with shamatha, and focused on the breathing until the mind cooled out a little. When the mental chatter had died down, vipassana was used to analyze the mind and body. Imagine a large clear jug of water with a tiny diamond resting on the bottom. Now, dump some sand and dirt into the jug and swirl it around until it’s all murky and opaque. That represents the mind in its usual state of hectic daily activity. Next, put the jug back down and allow it to sit there undisturbed. In the absence of agitation, the muck that clouds the water begins to settle down. It drifts to the bottom and collects, leaving the water clear and unblemished. This is shamatha meditation. Now, imagine you go over to the jug and begin peering through the sides, into the water, searching for that diamond you so foolishly dropped in there. Your eyes scour the thin layer of filth on the bottom, carefully and methodically looking over every centimeter. The more you look, the deeper your gaze penetrates until, finally, you spot the diamond nestled in amongst the detritus. This is vipassana meditation, and when you find the diamond, you have won major cash and prizes, namely enlightenment. You have seen through the veil and realized the ultimate truth.

Zen says all this is moose shit. The rigid structure of the meditation, the ceaseless searching and digging is all just going to reinforce your ignorance. Zen says there’s nothing to search for so this ridiculous hunt is all a waste of time. What it suggests instead is zazen. Since I went to all the trouble to describe shamatha and vipassana with such an elaborate metaphor, let me see if I can sum up zazen before everyone is too bored to read any farther.

Here goes: Sit down. Be very quiet and very still. Stare directly at the wall for 30 minutes.

There you go. I have just described the entire core of Zen practice. Of course there’s tons of crazy-ass philosophy you can study, and silly koans to drive you nuts, and something to do with fucking archery, but all that stuff isn’t really necessary. The only thing that’s truly necessary is zazen. Without it, Zen is just another chunk of the retarded, pop-culture vomit that passes for Buddhism in this country.

Stay tuned! More semi-coherent ramblings about zazen coming up!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dirty Bastard

I read something a few months ago in the Buddhist publication Shambhala Sun that I really liked. There was an interview with Joan Halifax, a Zen teacher. I mostly skimmed the article but one line really caught my eye. It pretty much sums up everything I feel about my particular approach to Buddhism in America. She said, "I am not a 'nice' Buddhist. I'm more interested in plain rice, 'get down in the street and get dirty' Buddhism."

Hell. Yes.

That is what I'm talking about. Buddhism, despite its image as a most holy religion that takes place in lavishly appointed temples, is not that at all. The practice of Buddhism occurs internally, and it's not nice, or pretty or easy. Ms. Halifax says that she originally was very interested in Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, but found his style to be too clean and precise. To his credit, Thich Nhat Hanh is, in fact, a genius, at least when it comes to bringing Buddhism to Westerners. His particular breed of Zen is amazingly soft-spoken and compassionate, as well as being non-judgmental and just generally full of the warm, woolly goodness of your favorite blanket. It is not scary at all.

He makes it look very easy. That's his skill. He radiates a sense of calm accomplishment that makes people feel good about trusting him. That's not what draws me to Buddhism, however. I'm interested in the sweat and the blood. When Joan Halifax talks about Buddhism being "down in the street" and "dirty" she's speaking my language. This practice needs to be brought to folks that have always regarded it as goofy, hippie shit. The image of Buddhism in America is generally one of guys in funny clothes chanting in some unintelligible tongue while they light incense and bow to statues with more arms than is truly necessary. This makes many Americans ambivalent. They're attracted to the exotic nature of it all yet simultaneously put off by the obvious whimsy and ritual. There are lots of people that are interested in a practical approach to freedom. That approach is often obviated by the overt Asian characteristics of the white guys that teach it.

Look, I know Buddhism comes from the East. I know it's way old and other cultures have been steeped in its influence long before we upstarts in the New World ever heard of it. But when I look for someone to teach me its pertinent aspects, I'm looking for someone that will admit we're living in a totally different milieu. The robes are not necessary for me to understand that what's going on here is totally revolutionary. I don't need a crash course in Japanese or Tibetan customs to undertake this path. I would like to be taught by someone who has understood the Buddha's path with an American psyche. Because, like it or not, we ARE different from our Asian cousins.

Despite the fact that Ms. Halifax bears the dubious and much-misunderstood Zen title of "Roshi," her comments in this interview point to an incredibly deep understanding of what it means to be an American Buddhist. This is a nation that was built from the mud up. Our ancestors were European pioneers looking for a fresh start in a totally new land. And so it is with our Dharma. We can't just expect the Buddha's teachings to be transplanted here and grow with the perfect Asian flavors that were cultivated in the East. We don't have thousands of years of tradition to nurture and shape these ideas. What we have, after 234 years of existence, is a nation of outcasts, rebels and skeptics.

America is not a land of hermits and crazy-wise sages living in the wilderness. The Dharma has not taken root here and spread across the countryside like kudzu. We don't have mountaintops that house gurus at their cloudy peaks, ready to entertain the questions of those hardy enough to make the climb. That shit is not us and it never will be. In America, the Dharma is spread in urban canyons. It springs across the digital landscape and is burned into DVDs. It's taught in mid-town Manhattan, Hollywood, CA and the flesh-obsessed alleys of Miami Beach. It's spray painted across concrete and steel and represented by tattooed preachers and multi-pierced disciples from Santa Cruz to Boston, MA.

In short, the Buddha's revolution continues. The dirty, street-level Dharma that Joan Halifax so enjoys is pulsing in our counterculture. Why is it COUNTERculture, you might ask? Because it goes against the avarice, materialism, ignorance, violence, selfishness and ridiculous spiritualism that pervade so much of our society.

Buddhism teaches the way to freedom. And that freedom is sometimes counterintuitive to the world we live in. There's no doubt that it's a radical path, one that often asks us to question the very things that we identify with as Americans. And yet, the opportunities we have here are unique. We shouldn't waste them.

America is the place to get down and dirty. Our practice should reflect that. We haven't been exposed to this philosophy long enough to be perfectly graceful and totally sympathetic with it. It's not a part of our DNA yet. But it will be. And it's going to take a lot of struggling with filthy demons to get there. America is the last, great place where this path can flourish. And we need to live up to our image as iconoclasts by embracing this revolution.