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Sit Down and Shut Up
Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye
By Brad Warner
New World LibraryCopyright © 2007 Brad Warner
All rights reserved.
Why Dogen Matters
Long before I was a Zen monk, I was a punk rock bass player. Long before I was exposed to the teachings of Dogen Zenji, I studied the teachings of Ian MacKaye, of the DC-based hardcore band Minor Threat, who advocated a remarkably similar philosophy — no drink, no drugs, no smoking, just honest hard work and a commitment to what was true.
When I was seventeen, I saw the hardcore punk band Zero Defects (aka 0DFx or Zero Defex) play at a nightclub called The Bank in downtown Akron, Ohio. I thought they were God's gift to music. They were the most over-the-top thing I had ever seen onstage, and to me they remain so to this day. When I found out they were looking for a bass player, I jumped at the chance to join. Zero Defects was Akron's premier punk band — which means we played to crowds of fifty people instead of crowds of five. We were big fish in a very small pond. And we didn't last very long. The band played its last show sometime in the spring of 1983.
In almost no time at all hardcore punk had gone from being a potent force for change to being an excuse for tough dudes to beat the crap out of each other. I loved the guys in the band. But I was ready to do something else. It turned out that we all were ready to do something else. If we could have found a way to do that within the group, I have no doubt that Zero Defects would have been a major force on the music scene in the 1980s rather than a footnote. But such is life.
I moved on to other things. I signed with New York's Midnight Records label and put out five albums of the most antipunk music on earth — psychedelia — with an ever-changing lineup I dubbed Dimentia 13, after a cheesy horror flick made by a young Francis Ford Coppola. I discovered Zen Buddhism. I moved to Japan. Appeared in monster movies. Became a Buddhist monk.* Got married. Moved to Los Angeles. And somewhere in the middle of all that the Internet appeared. Suddenly, kids who had been in diapers when Zero Defects breathed its last wanted to know about the old hardcore scene. The members of the band found each other via a website called ClePunk, dedicated to the Cleveland and Akron punk rock scene. We started talking about playing shows again.
In the meantime I was working on a book. As some of you must surely know, I wrote a book a few years ago called Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality. I didn't come up with that title, by the way. That's what my publishers decided to call it. But I liked that title, so I went with it.
I wrote the book believing there was no way in hell anyone would ever publish such a thing. I'd been dedicated to Zen for nearly two decades before I'd started working on the book. But my take on Zen seemed to be completely at odds with that of nearly everyone else I encountered who was interested in the philosophy.
The people I met at Zen centers I visited were usually older than me. And smarter, too. And a lot quieter. They were generally almost studiously ignorant of popular culture, the kind of people who don't own TVs or purchase CDs, unless maybe they're recordings of Chinese chants or something. I never met a single Zen practitioner who was into punk rock or who liked Godzilla movies, let alone one who played punk rock and appeared in Godzilla movies.* Zen people tend to be bookish intellectuals in pale-blue pullovers rather than ratty-haired guitarists in ripped-up jeans.
Yet I had found this philosophy to be deeply appealing for the same reasons I had found punk rock appealing. It was a philosophy that asked questions rather than providing pat answers. It didn't have any time for bullshit. It was completely unpretentious. Zen teachers were rude and uncouth, rebellious, real.
I thought that maybe, just maybe, there might be a few people out there who would be interested in Zen if only it weren't presented in such a wimpy, nerdy fashion. So I wrote what I conceived of as a loud book about silence. When I was done, I wasn't sure what to do with it. My most concrete plan was to xerox it myself and see if I could get it distributed by whoever stocks the bookshelves at Tower Records, since they seemed to carry a lot of off-the-wall stuff. But, I thought, I might as well give it a shot with a few publishers before I take it to the local Kinko's.
I got turned down by most of the publishers I sent it to, which was no surprise. But one publisher liked it and wanted to put it out. I was game. So I signed a contract and got down to the work of turning my fanzine- quality writings into a slick, shiny, professional-type book. The result was okay. And there was immediately a demand for another one just like it. But I'd written that book already, and I really didn't want to turn it into some sort of Chicken (Tofu?) Soup for the Zen Soul kind of thing. So I hemmed and hawed for a long time.
Eventually, though, I started writing another book. I wanted it to be something completely different from Hardcore Zen. It was going to be about a very old book called Shobogenzo, or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], if you're into reading it in Japanese (the Japanese language spells out most words in Chinese characters). It means "Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye." Don't ask about the left dharma eye, by the way. It's by a dead Japanese guy named Dogen, sometimes known as Dogen Zenji, meaning "Zen Master Dogen," or Eihei Dogen, meaning "Dogen, you know, that dude who lives in Eihei temple."
The English translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo by my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, and his student, Chodo Cross — which is the source of most of the quotations in this book — had been the cornerstone of the intellectual side of my Zen practice. But Zen isn't really about intellectual stuff like books. It's a philosophy of action, a philosophy you do rather than read about. Yet what really sets Dogen apart from all the other Buddhist masters before and since is his ability to express his insights in words. Others may have plumbed the same depths. But none had ever described what they'd discovered quite so well. In order to describe what he'd understood, Dogen almost had to reinvent human language. Even in the original Japanese, his style is full of weird turns of phrase and bizarre grammar. When you first read it, either in translation or in the original, Shobogenzo almost sounds like the ramblings of a crazy person. Get into the rhythm a little bit, though, and you discover that Dogen wasn't just a guy who talked crazy. In fact, all his crazy talk has a very clear and consistent logic to it. It may be the sanest material anyone has ever committed to words. I'd gotten a lot out of my reading of Dogen, and I thought I'd try to share some of that. So I bit the bullet and wrote another goddamned book.
To start off with, let me give you a little background on Dogen. He was born in 1200 to an aristocratic family back in the days when all Japan looked like the sets in The Last Samurai. His father died when he was just three years old, and his mother died five years later. Having lost the people children believe to be the most reliable, stable things in the world — parents — at such a young age, he started searching for something that was perfectly reliable. That's what got him into Buddhism.
I can relate to this myself. My parents are both still alive. But several people in my family have contracted a particular disease and died from it while still quite young. I saw some of this happening when I was a child. At the time, I also learned that this disease runs in families. So there was a chance that I would suffer from the same illness and linger for years in a pretty miserable condition until the sickness did me in, as had happened to my grandmother and a couple of my aunts.* So I started looking into religious and philosophical matters at a very early age. In Dogen's case Buddhism was really the only religion he would have encountered. Though Shintoism was around, too, it tends to be confined to rituals and doesn't really address the deeper aspects of human life. In my case, though, the first religion I encountered was Christianity. And, although I was very intrigued by Christian ideas, they didn't really address my concerns.
As a young kid Dogen had a similar problem. Although Buddhism offered a lot of valuable things, he found there was one seemingly simple question that none of the old Buddhist masters he encountered could answer to his satisfaction. Buddhism says that all beings are perfect as they are, with nothing lacking and nothing extra. But it also recommends doing a lot of difficult stuff to try and realize this fact. Different sects of Buddhism recommend different stuff to do — some want you to chant, others want you to meditate, others want you to memorize a lot of stuff out of old books — but they all require you to do things, most of which aren't a big barrel o' fun. Why? That's all Dogen wanted to know. If we're already perfect, why do we need all this Buddhist practice to understand that? Why not just sit around messing with your PlayStation? It doesn't make any difference anyhow. Right?
In spite of his lingering doubts, Dogen was impressed enough with Buddhism that by the time he was twelve, he became a monk. He studied for a time at a temple called Enryaku, which was part of the Tendai sect, an esoteric line of Buddhism with lots of mudras and mandalas — weird gestures and symbols that are supposed to have mystical meaning and power. He stayed there for three years but eventually found no satisfactory answer to his question. But when he was hanging out at the temple across the street from Enryaku — a place called Miidera (or sometimes Onjyoji for those keeping score at home) — he heard about a teacher in Kyoto named Eisai who lived at a temple called Kenninji.
Kenninji was, at the time, Japan's head temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Zen was a sect of Buddhism that attempted to strip away a lot of the elaborate ritual that had grown up around the teachings since Buddha's death to find the essential practice. Eisai was supposed to be pretty wise. So Dogen went to his place and put his question to him. Eisai answered, "I don't know anything about Buddhas of the past, present, or future. But I know that cats exist, and I know that cows exist." Eisai's answer struck Dogen as extraordinarily practical.
Now hold up a second,' cuz I know what you're thinking — they were both nuts! But let's look at Eisai's answer again. It's not just some Monty Python–type wisecrack. Everything else Dogen had heard was all caught up in theory and intellectualization. Eisai, however, answered on the basis of his own experience. Buddhas of the past, present, and future were matters of theory and speculation. But Eisai himself had seen cats. They probably hung around the temple, as cats often do at Japanese monasteries, and he'd seen cows. Those he could confirm. Eisai wasn't interested in theoretical speculation. He was interested in reality.
This was the same thing I discovered when I encountered my first Buddhist teacher, Tim McCarthy. I came to him with loads of deep questions about the meaning of life, heaven, hell, God, and all that stuff. But he had no answers. Well, I shouldn't say no answers. See, I had already come across a few dozen sets of answers to my questions, from Christians, from Hare Krishnas, from New Agers, from scientists, from punk rock philosophers. But none of those answers was any good at all. I couldn't believe in them even when I tried. Tim, on the other hand, made no attempt to fix reality in place and explain it all away with some formula like those guys had. That, in itself, was his answer — that you cannot possibly nail down the answers to questions like that and that it's a waste of energy even to try. But he wasn't a nihilist either. I'd already run into plenty of those, and their attitude of just saying screw it to everything and basically giving up was as unappealing to me as the idea of sitting in church pews listening to a bunch of old stories being repeated over and over and over again. Buddhism was different.
When Dogen found a different, more satisfying, form of Buddhism, he jumped ship and left the Tendai sect to study Zen at Kenninji. Though he spent nine years there trying to find the enlightenment that the adherents of the Rinzai sect said was supposed to come from hours and days and weeks on end of seated meditation practice called zazen, Dogen never found anything that he felt qualified as the kind of enlightenment they promised. By this time Eisai, who was already an old codger when Dogen met him, had bit the big one. So Dogen decided to take a trip to China to find a style of Buddhism closer to its Indian source.
Meanwhile, back in my real life, I was about to make a trip, too. In December 2005 a guy named Jim Lanza had the idea of getting a bunch of the old Cleveland-area hardcore bands together to play a one-off show called Cleveland's Screaming. He worked tirelessly to bring us all together and get it happening. A few people called the reunion show a sham, my friend Johnny Phlegm for one, pointing out that we'd formed those bands as a reaction against fat forty-year-olds dominating the music scene with out-of-date irrelevant nonsense, and here we were, all old and out of shape, playing music that had been cutting-edge twenty years ago but now was the stuff of Pepsi commercials. I tended to agree with Johnny, actually. But I also wanted to rock out with those guys again, so I got me a plane ticket and headed for Ohio.
I also decided I wanted to do more than just play at the show. I wanted to document it. A number of movies about punk rock have been made already. But all of them focus on the national or international scene, the big groups, the movers and shakers. None of those bands mattered much to me. At the time I played with Zero Defects I owned exactly three hardcore punk records, all by bands we'd opened for, all bought from the bands themselves. For me, the hard-core scene was the local scene. I didn't give a shit about Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. But I loved Starvation Army and the Urban Mutants. As hard as I looked, I never came across a single film about any of the hundreds of local hardcore scenes that existed in the eighties. I figured if nobody else was gonna make a movie like that, it was up to me. So I wrote up a bunch of interview questions, packed up my little digital video camera, and off I went.
Of course, my trip was nothing compared to Dogen's. Remember, folks, making a trip from Kyoto, Japan, to China in 1223 wasn't like it is today, when you can hop on a plane at Kansai International Airport and be in Shanghai in less time than it takes you just to get through traffic on the way to the airport. A trip to China meant a long voyage over the notoriously stormy Sea of Japan in a dodgy wooden ship. In those days lots of people never returned from trips to China. Dogen was willing to risk his life to find the answers to his questions.
But once he got to China, Dogen found the Buddhist teachings he came across there just as unsatisfactory as the ones he'd encountered in Japan. After two years of searching in vain for something different, he was about to give up and go back home when he heard about a teacher named Tendo Nyojo. Actually, his name was pronounced more like Tien-tung Ju-tsing, but in Japan they insist on pronouncing the Chinese characters used to spell out his name their own way; thus he's known in Japanese as Tendo Nyojo. Tien-tung (or Tendo) is the name of the mountain where he had his monastery, while Ju-tsing was his personal name. Master Tendo was supposed to be really different from the other Zen teachers he'd met, so Dogen figured he'd check the guy out. Turns out that Tendo Nyojo was from a school of Zen called the Soto school and taught a way of doing zazen that was fundamentally different from the style practiced in the Rinzai temples where Dogen had studied previously. Though both schools teach the practice of zazen, the Rinzai school emphasizes the idea that zazen is a way to gain enlightenment. Enlightenment is the end, and zazen is the means. Clear and simple. But according to Tendo Nyojo, zazen was its own end, and the mere practice of zazen was enlightenment itself.
Excerpted from Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner. Copyright © 2007 Brad Warner. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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