A Snarky Review of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between

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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.

Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17017153635384930856 Will Simpson

    Nice review. I think I'll pass on this book. Sounds like the mix of immature humor and wisdom is weighted too heavily towards the immature. This is a topic that is worth deep and honest exploration. Maybe Dosho Port has a book on this subject in him?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05168631752214481563 Harry

    "And if he does write just such a swell[*] book, I will probably have to pay for a copy of it."*Tee hee hee, he made you say "swell".I quite appreciate Brad's voice on this (others, particularly female ones, are required tho); it reminds me that I am a male animal who sometimes just wants (and sometimes really needs) sex, and that this is a very powerful drive which makes me act even more like an idiot or a stupid child than I am already inclined to… what can I say, I could 'classy' it up for the squeaky clean Buddhisty types, but, well, fuck 'em (as the Bradster might retort), I have a strange and very real life to get on with that is not the same as some middle class, suburban, white WASPen cum* latter-day-buddhist hymn book. I think this is more-or-less what Brad's at here, messing with people's 'Buddhist values'. Long may he do it, and long may it annoy people. He doesn't always do it well, of course, and it's a risky game that sometimes backfires, but his voice (to me) seems to be a necessary chili in the pot of what you all have going down over there.I'm glad the book's there/here, and it looks like a good thing for young (and not-so-young) post pubescent adults, or big post pubescent kids like me, to read in a era when sex has again become rendered a dirty and a dangerous thing.Regards,Harry.* I said "cum".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05168631752214481563 Harry

    p.s.Re his 'nudge, nudge' language/low humour, I think he's just playing with it* to razz people up. Via the emerging reviews of the book it has already done the interesting thing of exposing attitudes to sex/language around sex and 'low' sexual humour: there are, of course, hundreds of crap dirty joke books out there… but a Buddhist one? Oh, sweet Baby Buddha, NO!!!I also like that it pokes* (you know what I mean) at the feminist line that I, and the rest of the Western male world, pretend to adhere to so much. He's a wind up merchant; we can appreciate him as a pretty damn good one too. Look what his 'Satori is bullshit' statement kicked up; some brilliant insight and soul searching and opposition, and indignation, and enlightened indifference, from other commentators. Great![*'playing with it' eh, eh? know what I mean?]Regards,Harry.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05168631752214481563 Harry

    pps…Here's what one woman (one of those pervy koan fetishists!) has to say about the book:http://tinyurl.com/2u8nlceRegards,H.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13872627575358759862 Zentient

    Sounds like this book is of little use to anyone, nothing new or insightful. Maybe for a Buddhist who has sexual confusion and guilt. But, like they say, "sex sells", and Buddhist books are popular now, so the author might come out OK.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13809372360403703790 Gary

    Brad is a very smart Buddhist. He writes about topics that will sell. He tries to keep the pot boiling so to speak.I can get the same message watching TV, or just walking down the street. Nothing new here! For me most Zen books are not much different than the tons self help books. Same message over and over. Say some cool magic stuff and think of a clever title will equate to money. The dharma was a hot topic and sold for a bit. Now it must add sex and next lots of explosions and cold blooded killing. It is also important to say fuck a lot to show that nothing affects the calmness of a real Buddhist.There is no risk with this book. This is a sure thing.GS

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08768421376288655378 john e mumbles

    Good review.Underground cartoonist Ace Backwords said it well in the early 1980's: "I'd sell out in a minute if anyone is buying."Brad is obviously willing to exploit his position within the Buddhist community to make a living selling sensational books on otherwise tired subjects.Couple "punk" or "sex" with "zen" and you've hooked an audience.Wasn't his his last book about sex and zen? Oh yeah, and death.Maybe next time he'll cut to the chase and title it Zen and Boredom (and everything in between and outside).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04670642974899172755 BuddhaFrog

    When you're hungry eat,When you're tired sleep.marketing sex and Buddhismis like trying to eat and sleep at the same time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07398119359495701207 ronsem

    I read the book and thought it quite the yawner. The interview with Nina Hartley seemed like it would never end. There were a few things of some substance, but overall I felt the book was a toss-off. Brad has done better.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12649237112389489841 Mysterion

    Brad is what Brad is.As you know from his second book, there is a 50-50 chance that Brad will inherit the disease that took his mother's mind.That is not making an excuse for Brad, as I said first (above)…In his C.V. Brad sez: "I'm a Zen monk, writer, bass player and film-maker. I wrote the books…"As the subject of an ethnographic research project where an anomalous subject is studied, Brad might qualify. But so too, I would hope, are you and I.Es lebe der Unterschied!Sex is like sneezing – just another biological function.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13642593584289555995 senshin mats fredriksson

    I appriciate your review.I have not read any of Bad Warners books, probably will not.Feel rather uninterested…Not in sex, of course but…I think I would not bring his book with me in bed to solve the Koan of sex.Cant wait for your review of Steven Heine´s BOB DYLAN, A ZEN MASTER?Heine writes he would rather take the complete works of Dylan with him into his grave than Dogens…All the best,Senshin

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12763801339399951488 Shibo Saru

    I snatched this book up as fast as I could. Read it. And thought I could have saved 300 or so pages by Brad just emailing us all a "Hey. Be careful out there."I thought it was meandering and unfocussed, even for Mr Warner. The power of his previous books came from the autobiographical context. Using events in his life to demonstrate how a Buddhist should or (as often as not) shouldn't behave. This book felt like he was guarding and covering his ass too much. Too careful not to reveal sordid details about himself and people in his life. Which is good that he cares enough not to sully his friends and acquaintances but it then stripped the candor that I enjoyed from his previous books.I'll keep it on the shelf as part of a complete collection but I'll suggest they read Sit down and Shut up first.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04128715264799883762 Dan

    How important is it to the spread of the dharma in the west to wear your robes correctly? Perhaps its just me, but the image of western zen teachers in Asian robes, addressing each other by Asian names, has always seemed alienating. Surely for the dharma to spread here it has to take a form that those of us in the west can relate to. Brad, for all his faults, is at least trying to work in that direction. On the other hand, the comment about not wearing robes correctly seems almost elitist and insular and frankly a little bizarre to a simple North American practitioner like myself. (Just to be clear, I don't mean to attribute these qualities to Dosho — I love this blog and always get something positive from it — but just a description of my reaction on reading this review).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16265257636899637610 Tarra

    i think before posting anything critical of the book, it should be read. Even if its not a purchase it is worth a full read, as there is a pretty good exploration of the topic under the surface and there is even a lot of Dharma espoused in the book which can be applied to other situations as well, sometimes its an update of info from previous books..While this is not his best book, i think this could actually be a a good stepping stone for someone who thinks zen is boring (which it is) to slip in some Dharma