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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity In Search of the True Dharma
By Brad Warner
New World Library Copyright © 2009 Brad Warner
All rights reserved.
ZEN DEATH TRIP
My mother's piercing howl careened off the walls of the museum, like the noise a coyote might make if you tied it up in the middle of a granite cave and started sawing off its tail. The high, hard walls amplified her screech, ricocheting it from one room to another so it could be heard by everyone inside — the schoolkids on their field trips, the grandmas and grandpas out for a pleasant afternoon, the art students dressed in black trying to pick up other art students dressed in black. Everyone turned to see who was torturing the poor old woman in the wheelchair.
My dad and I tried our best to keep her quiet. It was hard to know for sure what she was trying to communicate. She used to be an art student herself and always liked museums. But her speech, once full of deep insights and bad jokes, had degenerated into a single, all-purpose yowl. Happy, sad, urgent, bored: it all came out exactly the same. She didn't really seem upset. But she wanted to say something, and none of us had any idea what it was. We finally tried wheeling her up to a painting. She quieted down and studied the colors and brushstrokes. She used to be a painter herself, though her real forte was charcoal drawing. For a moment she was almost like she used to be twenty years before. Then she started howling again.
The Zen Death Trip* with my mom and dad to see my grandma took place in the late summer of 2006, a few months before my mom died. Although my mom wouldn't actually die until January 2007, Dad and I both pretty much knew this was probably the last journey she'd be taking. Neither of us would say so, though.
* I didn't make up the phrase Zen Death Trip, by the way. When I was a student at Kent State University in the early 1980s I lived in a place they called the f-Models house because a local punk band called the f-Models lived there and rehearsed in the basement.
Iggy Morningstar, the band's leader, shared a room upstairs with his girlfriend, Lisa, but she kicked him out for being drunk all the time and never paying rent. Then Iggy hanged himself. Iggy's death was the end of punk rock for me for a very long time.
Up till then I'd been deeply committed to punk. Reagan and Brezhnev were determined to burn the planet to a cinder before I could graduate from college. Yet the entire nation seemed to be in deep denial. It was my sacred duty to scream that message as loudly and as often as possible.
By the time Iggy died, though, our little punk scene in Akron had already been infiltrated by brain-dead jock dudes who saw slam dancing as a way to get wasted and beat up on anyone smaller than themselves. I didn't want to play background music for assholes fighting anymore. Iggy's death just sealed the deal. His band was the first punk rock band I had ever seen in real life and was a tremendous influence not just on me, but on the whole scene. If Iggy wasn't gonna fight the fight anymore, why should I?
Iggy and Lisa's room was taken over by another KSU student whose name I can't remember. I'll just call him Larry, though. He looked like a Larry. He was tall and wiry, and he was really into riding bicycles. He was also into the Nichiren Shoshu sect of Buddhism. They said the best way to attain salvation was to chant "Nam Yoho Renge Kyo" — which means roughly "the Lotus Sutra is the coolest sutra of all" — over and over while kneeling in front of a little miniature Lotus Sutra. So Larry used to do that a lot up in his room.
One day I noticed that Larry was wearing a little pin that said Zen Death Trip on it. He told me it was something one of his bicycle-riding buddies had made after a particularly grueling ride he and Larry had taken. Because of Larry's affiliation with Buddhism, they'd named it the Zen Death Trip, even though Larry wasn't actually a student of Zen per se.
Here's why we knew. My mom and dad were both sixty-five by then. My mom had been diagnosed with Huntington's disease about twenty years earlier. Huntington's, if you don't know — and most people don't, so don't feel bad — is a degenerative neuromuscular disease similar to Parkinson's. A person who has Huntington's gradually loses control of their muscular functions until they pretty much can't do anything for themselves. After a while they look something like Stephen Hawking, scrunched up in a wheelchair with their face all contorted and their limbs not doing anything they ask them to. Unlike Stephen Hawking, though, if you're a Huntington's patient, you usually end up losing your mind as well. Or that's what they say. Then you die.
The progress of my mom's illness had been pretty slow. So up until a few years ago you could mostly understand the things she said, and she could handle herself okay. She could walk if someone helped her keep her balance. She could go to the bathroom by herself if someone helped her in and out.
But all the things she had managed to keep together started falling apart one by one. Dad used to shield the family from a lot of this, pretending that Mom was doing for herself a lot of the things he'd actually started doing for her. By the time we took the trip she couldn't walk at all. Oh, she insisted that she could walk. But it was more like you'd drag her around. She said very little that you could understand. She couldn't go to the bathroom without a tremendous amount of help. And for the last two years or so she hadn't been able to feed herself. Mom really should have been in a nursing facility with a full-time staff. But unfortunately she was American, and my dad worked independently as a sales rep for various companies in the rubber chemical business. So there was no way he could afford professional help. Besides, he was deeply in denial about the whole thing. Interestingly enough, he was never in denial about being in denial. He openly admitted to it. But he refused to admit that he could no longer care for her by himself.
Mom's disease probably pushed me into studying Buddhism more than any other factor in my life. Two of my aunts, Mom's sisters, had started showing symptoms long before Mom did. My mom's own mother had died from the disease not long after I was born. I'd known since I was a child that we had a deadly disease in the family. By the time I was a teenager I was aware that, according to the experts, I had a 50 percent chance of inheriting it. When I was in junior high I was so massively uncoordinated and terrible at sports that my parents suspected I might have the juvenile form of the disease. The specialists they took me to discovered that the real problem was that I had one very bad eye and one very good eye. The resulting near total lack of depth perception made it nigh on impossible for me to judge whether I'd catch a ball or get hit in the nose by it. Since I hated getting hit in the nose by balls and then being made fun of for it, I hated sports. Since I had one very good eye I could still read and do all kinds of other stuff, so no one ever realized how bad my vision out of the other one was. Not even me.
My parents got me my first guitar as a way of seeing if I really was uncoordinated or just unmotivated. When I got a giant Fender Showman amp and started blasting the neighborhood with inept renditions of the Ramones' first album, Mom and Dad began to regret their decision. But it was too late.
Knowing early on that I could die a horrible death made me start looking for answers. I saw through the bullshit handed out by the churches I went to pretty fast. The burgeoning new-age movement, with its hippy-dippy fixation on spirit channeling and crystals, held my interest for about ten or fifteen minutes. Drugs promised enlightenment but only showed me what it was like to be unenlightened on drugs. The Hare Krishnas had nice songs and delicious food, but the more I looked into their philosophy the stupider it sounded.
I wasn't satisfied with fantasies about heaven or hell or dreams about reincarnating in a better place. I wanted to know about this life because I might not have it for very long. I wanted real answers, not bullshit. In my first year of college I was introduced to Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of Eihei Dogen by a teacher named Tim McCarthy. What I found in Dogen's take on Zen was real. I tested it myself, and it worked.
When I say that Buddhism worked, I don't mean that it was a magic solution to my problems. Nor do I mean that any miracles happened or that I was able to erase all doubt and fear from my mind through some kind of special power. What I mean is that Buddhism, especially Dogen's Buddhism, provided the most truly realistic and practical way of dealing with life. It isn't spirituality, but it isn't materialism either. Dogen's Buddhism does what no other philosophy I've ever come across is able to do. It bridges the gap between these two forever mutually opposing ways of understanding reality. It negates both spirituality and materialism yet simultaneously embraces them. And it's more than just a way of thinking about things. There's a practice involved — zazen. You cannot separate the philosophy from the practice. If you don't do zazen practice you cannot ever hope even to come close to comprehending the philosophy.
My family is from Ohio. But Mom and Dad moved to a suburb of Dallas, Texas, in the early eighties when my dad left his longtime Akron-based employer, Firestone, to work for one of the new rubber industry companies down there. My sister, who was in high school at the time, went with them, but I stayed up in Ohio to finish college. So I never actually lived at the house my parents had in Flower Mound, Texas, for over two decades. By 2006 Dad had quit the company he'd been working for down there and was freelancing as a rubber chemical salesman.
About a month before we took our Zen Death Trip my eighty-six-year-old grandma, who lived near Cincinnati, where my dad grew up, broke her pelvis. My cousin Tina, who lived with her, has a son who is autistic. At age five, he could read and write and Google whatever struck his fancy, yet he couldn't talk intelligibly and he'd only just been potty trained. Apparently he was racing around Grandma's house one afternoon, as he often did, and smashed into Grandma, causing her to fall and break her pelvis. So now she was in some kind of a rehab place recuperating and learning how to walk again.
Coincidentally there was some kind of rubber chemical convention going on in Cincinnati where my dad could drum up some much-needed business. He decided it would be cool to take care of two things at once by visiting his mom and going to the convention. And since killing two birds with one stone sounded so attractive, he thought, why not try for three or four? So he decided to take Mom along with him so that she could visit with Grandma, since who knew how long either Mom or Grandma had left, and he decided to ask me to come along as well, since I could help look after Mom and I could see Grandma too, since I hadn't visited for a while.
As you may well imagine my mom didn't do airplanes too well by this time, especially in the post–9/11 era of massive airport paranoia. The last time Dad had tried flying with her somewhere, getting her wheelchair through security and then dealing with Mom's near constant howling on a crowded aircraft proved too much for both of them. So the only way this was gonna happen was if we drove from Dallas to Cincinnati. Now, ever since I was in high school, my dad's work has had him traveling long distances by car all the time. For him an eighteen-hour road trip sounds pretty easy. I'm not even sure if he can understand why other people think that eighteen hours in a car sounds kind of long.
And mind you, this isn't just any old eighteen-hour road trip. This is an eighteen-hour road trip with a woman who could barely walk, needed to have her undergarments changed every three hours, and liked to make a noise that sounded like someone had set fire to a live cow. I loved my mother dearly. But man, oh, man, that sound ....
Now, as if that wasn't enough, after my grandfather died six years before all this, my grandma discovered that he had left behind around half a million dollars. This was a major shock. Grandpa was not a rich man by any stretch of the imagination. He worked most of his life in a middle-management position at a paper factory and lived in a modest brick house he and his cousins had built by themselves back sometime before World War II. But evidently he'd made a few wise investments and had been socking away nearly every cent he earned into a couple of savings accounts. Over the course of his seventy-odd-year working life this had added up. He never told anyone about the money, not even my grandmother or my dad and his sister. And Grandpa didn't leave a will.
For the past six years that money had been a bone of contention between my dad and my grandmother. Dad thought she ought to be using that money to help him out with my mom. Besides being a nice thing to do, it would relieve her tax burden. And she wasn't doing anything with that money anyway.
So there was this big pile of money sitting in Grandma's bank account doing nothing but waiting for her to die so that everyone could go nuts over it. Word around the family had it that Dad was not in Grandma's will. Or maybe he was. Or maybe Grandma, like her late husband, hadn't written a will. No one would talk to each other straight about it. Grandma's version of the story changed every time she told it. It's possible that even she didn't really know. As upset as Dad was over having been disowned, my sister was even madder. She'd stopped talking to Grandma years ago.
And just FYI, I did not want the fucking money. They could keep it. I'll get my own money. Free money is never free. Never, ever, ever. It doesn't work that way. You wish it did. I wish it did. But it doesn't.
In any case, Dad planned to have it out with his mother about this — for, like, the fifth time — when he got up to Ohio.
Given this set of circumstances, there was no way an eighteen-hour car ride from the Dallas suburbs to Cincinnati with my mom in tow to see Grandma was going to be anything other than a Zen Death Trip, even if no one actually got killed. And walking into it, I seriously wondered if any of us would survive.CHAPTER 2
Before I tell you all about the Zen Death Trip, though, I ought to tell you how I even got myself in the position to be taking it. Fourteen years ago I moved halfway across the world, from Akron, Ohio, to Japan, because I figured it was a more reasonable alternative to killing myself. I was making records, but they weren't selling. I couldn't find a decent job. I felt useless and without direction or hope.
One day I threw a length of rope in my trunk and drove out to a park where I planned to hang myself from a tree so deep in the woods that nobody would ever find me. When I parked my car I saw some little kids playing on the swings. And I thought, there's nowhere I can do this where I can guarantee my body won't be found by those kids. Or by some young couple going for a stroll. Or by an old man out hiking. Or just someone who doesn't really want to see my dead body swinging from a tree. And just like I'd spent the past two decades bummed about Iggy's death, that person would be bummed about finding my stinking corpse. And my mom would be sad. My dad would be sad. My sister would be sad. All kinds of people would be sad. I couldn't do it. But I couldn't go on the way I had been either.
The Zen practice that I'd been doing since the early eighties was probably what saved me from taking the same way out that Iggy had. Before that I might never have considered the impact my death might have on others. I'd always had a romantic fascination with suicide that even Iggy's death hadn't cured. What finally cured it was when I had a clear enough head to look at the truth of the matter.
When my sister told me they were hiring teachers in Japan I knew I'd found a way to kill myself without actually killing myself, a way to leave absolutely everything behind, to disappear. So I went for it, and I got the job.
After I'd been in Japan just over a year, working as a teacher, I took a completely different job with a film- and TV-production company. I left them after a little while and then joined a similar company in the same industry — Nakano Productions. What I'm going to say about them is all true, but not necessarily strictly factual.
Excerpted from Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate by Brad Warner. Copyright © 2009 Brad Warner. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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