After I was the tenzo (Zen cook) for a practice period, I noticed that my judgments of the food served during sesshin dropped off. I knew how hard it was to get a meal to the practitioners and I was grateful for whatever arrived in the zendo.
So I confess to having some conflicted feelings about giving a book a negative review. I know how hard it is to write and I’d much to prefer to lavish praise. But in this case, that would be mostly bullshit.
Last summer a friend told me that Brad Warner was writing book about sexual ethics and from his conversation about it with Brad, he expected it to be an important statement that would help mature what my friend sees as a sexually naïve and moralistic American Zen community.
So I had high expectations and was happy to be offered a review copy if I’d write a review. But my expectations were dashed just by seeing the cover, glancing at the table of contents and notes … and then partially redeemed by reading the book through.
First let’s look at the above cover. Granted, Brad may have had nothing to do with it (usually the publisher chooses the cover without much input from the author) but it is thoroughly Hardcore brand.
And the artist successfully captures the tone of the book. Brad is surrounded by a bevy of young beauties, partially clothed. Listen closely and you can almost hear them cooing, “Uh, ah, Brad. You’re so hot in your monkish attire.”
Brad, of course, repeatedly makes clear in his writing that it is a lot about making money. Sex sells. If you want to make a living writing Zen books, Dogen commentary won’t even pay for more than a year or two of one’s favorite chai while you’re holed up in a coffee shop writing your next book.
Color it pink, put some naked women on the cover, throw in a fat, punkish Buddha and ka-ching, ka-ching goes the digital cash register.
I’m thinking the cover targets – hopefully without success (because it’d reinforce some of the darkest aspects of male sexuality) – youngish males and/or those who are working through adolescent-sexual-issues hangovers.
On the bright side, the artist did portray Brad wearing his robes correctly and that is new and refreshing, although as much a fantasy, I suppose, as the troupe of agape women surrounding him (alright, that was unnecessary!).
Then there’s the notes for which I’ll give you just one of many possible examples. Brad writes, “[Buddha] had everything he could possibly want – money, hot babes, power. We’ll get into the hot babes bit a little deeper* later on in the book.”
The note says, *“Heh, heh! I said, ‘Get into hot babes deeper!’”
Oh, come on! My son is thirteen and I work with teenaged males so I get enough of this at home and at the job – and a lot more creatively. Onset-of-puberty “humor” does not contribute to an adult conversation about sexuality and instead creates cognitive dissonance – the subject is sometimes serious (i.e., the ethics of pornography and prostitution) as is Brad’s message, but the “Heh, heh,” notes will be offensive to some and will trivialize the message for others – like me.
Adding to the puerile tone are many of the chapter titles, “The Piece of Ass Chant,” “Are Buddhists Allowed to Jack Off,” and “Saving All Beings … from My Dick.” I’m not making that up.
Now some of this is kinda cute and reinforces Brad’s brash image but most of it does not contribute to the book’s mostly loveless and nonintimate message.
What is the message? A lot of it is selectively using Buddhism to justify Brad’s opinions, it seems to me. Some of his opinions I’d say are healthy because I agree with them. For example, Brad preaches tolerance for sexual choices as long as the sex happens between consenting adults and nobody gets physically hurt – too badly. “Just be careful,” he says.
Okay, he’s not singing “Get it While You Can” with Janis Joplin but this is hardly a breakthrough idea.
Brad also weighs various sexual choices in context, considering the myriad circumstances, rather than simplistic sexual commandments.
“I would say,” writes Brad in his “You Celibate, I’ll Buy a Bit!” chapter, “that I’ve found that what’s most important to most people is to live as stable a life as possible. If you understand that you want that, then sex has to be handled carefully. It pushes a whole lot of buttons, whether or not you want to admit that. Pay attention, and be willing to accept things you don’t really want to accept.”
I’d say that’s good advice, clearly spoken. Throughout, Brad emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for our actions and their consequences while he questions cultural mores that are repressive, whether toward people having same-sex relationships or going polyamoric (lots of lovers) or consuming pornography.
Earlier in the “You Celibate, I’ll Buy a Bit!” chapter, Brad briefly takes up the precept, “Do not misuse sexuality,” and notes that his teacher, Nishijima Roshi has rephrased it as “Do not desire too much.”
Brad continues, “I wouldn’t put forth what I’m about to say as the definitive definition of misuse of sex. But one clear indication that you’re desiring too much is when you fuck someone even though you aren’t even that into it.”
Hmm. Well, I agree that this isn’t the definitive definition. And I keep wondering, does the final “it” refer to the “fuck” or to the “someone?” The double-level message here gives me a cognitive dissonance attack every time I look at the sentence!
Had enough? Well, let me give you some virtues of the book before you surf on.
The chapter, “Women, Evolution, and Buddhism,” is strong (ironically) and Brad uses some Dogen material from “Prostrating, Attaining the Marrow” very nicely. On blaming women for men’s lust, Brad writes, “We’ve all got our own specific objects of greed, and it’s up to us to deal with that. It’s not up to other people to shield us from temptation.”
The earth isn’t shaking in ten directions, but still – a nice, solid perspective.
The strongest chapter, though, is “When Good Spiritual Masters Go Bad.” Rather than an authority figure, Brad likens the Zen teacher to an artist who has worked through some of the issues in the art of living and invites his/her students to study along.
Regarding sexual relationships between a teacher and a student, he says,
“…Teacher-student romantic relationships will always be a part of the landscape of Zen and other spiritual traditions. It’s important to understand that these relationships do happen and to understand that when they do, the reasons are always various and complex. Sometimes the relationship is clearly abusive and wrong, but not always. In fact, I’ll also be so bold as to say that most of the time there is nothing any more sleazy or abusive going on than goes on in any other romantic relationship. It’s also vital that members of the community examine the real reasons behind whatever feelings they have about the matter. This is after all, what the practice is for – self-examination rather than the examination of others.”
Brad might have what it takes to write a really fine Zen book, even a fine book on Zen and sex. This isn’t it.
And if he does write just such a swell book, I will probably have to pay for a copy of it.