Renegade Zen Man

Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master By Brad Warner.  New World Library.  306 pp.  $16.95.

Brad Warner is that rare thing, a Buddhist teacher who primarily teaches by writing.  In fact—though he leads retreats and gives lectures, does podcasts and has even appeared in a movie or two—I would call him a writer first and a teacher second.  He’s the author of six books, and writes the most consistently interesting of the Zen blogs.  I’ve been reading him for years, ever since his first book came out, and check out his blog every day, just to see what’s up.  I’ve read some posts multiple times.

I’ve said that his last book, There Is No God and He Is Always With You was his best, and it’s still my favorite, his most mature and wide-ranging.  But I find Don’t Be a Jerk is his most useful book, the one most packed with information.  Though he has written about the great Zen Master Eihei Dogen—founder of Japanese Soto Zen—in all his books, in this book he has waded into Dogen’s famously difficult writing itself, and actually made sense of it.  I’m grateful for this book.  My copy is seriously marked up, and I’ll be coming back to it.

I have to admit somewhat sheepishly that, though I’m a big reader (obviously), and deeply interested in Soto Zen, I’ve never made it through the entirety of Dogen’s Shobogenzo.  I’ve tried.  I’ve sat down with the two translations Brad most favors, dutifully labored to make my way through, but at some point was passing my eyes over words on the page, not understanding them at all, and I can only do that for so long.  Brad admits to the same thing in his earliest reading.  But his teacher, Gudo Nishijima, was translating that massive work at the time, with the help of another student, Chodo Cross, and Nishijima was reading from his translations at their weekly sittings.

Brad in the meantime had a long commute to work, an hour each way, and was pouring over Dogen as he did that.  (Perhaps long subway rides are a key to understanding this text; another famous Zen teacher had an enlightenment experience while reading it on the subway).  He has actually been through the entire Shobogenzo three times.  He also speaks fluent Japanese, though I’m not sure how much that helps with Dogen’s arcane 13th century writing.  What he has done in Don’t Be a Jerk is to paraphrase the first 21 fascicles—the first volume of Nishijima’s translation—and comment on the text.  He shortens things—often drastically—when he finds that appropriate, occasionally combines two talks into one.  He has produced a readable text that, to my mind, finally makes sense of some of Dogen’s most difficult writing.  I feel empowered to go back and try the more literal translations again.  His commentary is especially helpful.

I don’t doubt that this project will be frowned on and even ignored by some people in the Zen establishment.  Brad takes liberties with the text—Dogen didn’t literally say Don’t Be a Jerk, and didn’t have a teaching entitled The Beer and Doritos Sutra—and his lighthearted view won’t appeal to the solemn people who inhabit zendos and take themselves (terribly) seriously.  Brad has already alienated the old fogie crowd by writing titles like Sex, Sin, and Zen and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, and by admitting in the latter book that he had recently broken a number of precepts.  He started out as a punk rocker and a punk in general, made his living for years with a company that made Japanese monster movies.  He wrote about those pastimes in his first book, Hardcore Zen, and continues to write about them when he feels like it.  He also wrote a column for some months for the online porn magazine Suicide Girls—those columns, accessible from his website, include some of his best writing—and one gets the impression that his following is heavily tattooed, body pierced, and spends more time perusing Suicide Girls than reading Dogen.

Nishijima was suspect to the establishment too.  He spent most of his life as a businessman, sat on retreats with the famous “homeless” Zen priest Sawaki Kodo, but wasn’t actually ordained in that lineage (which includes the highly respected teachers Kosho Uchiyama and Shohaku Okumura).  He became a priest later in life, and even while he was teaching those weekly Zen classes still had a day job.  He wasn’t a lifelong priest like Sawaki and Uchiyama and Okumura.  He had begun reading Dogen himself when he was a young man and discovered this book which, though it was written in his native language, seemed utterly incomprehensible.  Nishijima was widely read in general, had various theories that seem somewhat crackpot; he felt, for instance, that Dogen’s famous phrase “dropping body and mind” refers to a state in which the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system are in balance.[1]  He related his Zen teaching to work by such Western writers as Karl Menninger.

But you can hardly fault the man’s dedication to his practice or to Buddhism.  While working a day job in Japan, he found time to lead a weekly Zen group and also to translate Dogen (while other Japanese priests were playing Go and following baseball in their spare time).  In addition to Brad, he has a number of other students who are dedicated to him and to the teachings he espoused.  (Just to mention the ones who are active on the web, there is Jundo Cohen, Gustave Ericsson, and Peter Rocca.)  He was a fierce advocate of daily zazen, once a day if not twice, and practiced it all his life.  He was a Zen teacher who devoted himself to lay people, not just those who entered a monastery and made a career out of it.

Brad Warner has followed in his teacher’s tradition.  I am a certified Old Fart, have zero interest in punk rock and monster movies, but everything Brad says about Zen seems right on the money to me.  His teachings have been a great help in my life, his writing has gotten deeper and more mature as he has gotten older, and he has the same dedication to his vocation that Nishijima had.  Don’t Be a Jerk is his most helpful book to date, and though I suspect it may not be read as much as some of his other books—even in paraphrase, Dogen’s teachings are rough—it should be.  This book is the real thing.  It illustrates Brad’s contention that, though he seems to be an arcane thinker, Dogen is “a pretty straightforward, no-nonsense guy.”

I hope to write in the future on some specific teachings in this book.  In the meantime, go out and buy it.  It’s the most accessible book of Dogen’s teachings I’ve found.

[1] Crackpot idea or not, it makes sense to me.  I do think zazen produces a balanced state, though we don’t always notice it.