There Is No God and He Is Always with You is the title of Brad Warner’s latest book which is sure to raise a few eyebrows along with many questions, such as, “Can you be an atheist and still believe in God? Can you be a true believer and still doubt? Can Zen give us a way past our constant fighting about God?”
From Publisher’s Weekly, “In his new book, Warner (Hardcore Zen) momentarily sets aside his punk weapons of iconoclasm and takes a more respectful, even reverential tone to a perennial question: does God exist? As a practicing Zen Buddhist, his way of considering this question is entangled in oft-misunderstood concepts such as enlightenment. Warner never shies away from such complications; instead, they become grounds where the Western understanding of God and the Buddhist approach to reality and experience meet. For Warner, his practice is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion. His God is one to be experienced, felt, and intuited, something that lies beneath the surface of reality that is already naturally understood, if only one could learn to listen to silence, to listen to nothing, and to learn from nothing. In accompanying the punk Zen priest on such a singular journey through his understanding of God, the reader is asked to partake in meditation with Warner not on the Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, or any other traditional God, but rather One that can be found in daily experience when conceptual thinking has been silenced.”
He describes himself on Twitter as, “Monk. Punk. Dr Funk.” Brad wrote Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. He has also penned Sex, Sin and Zen as well as Sit Down and Shut Up. Warner hails from Ohio and plays bass for the Akron-based punk band 0DFx. He is a Zen monk, has made monster movies in Japan, made a documentary on the Cleveland punk scene (Cleveland’s Screaming), and occasionally contributes articles to SuicideGirls.com.
Brad recently finished a book tour of the Northeast United States and was kind enough to sit down with me before leading zazen and speaking to a group of Buddhists in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. Zazen is a form of meditation lovingly referred to as “staring at the wall.” You sit. You stare. That’s about it. Warner has more (slightly) detailed instructions on his website and in the back of Hardcore Zen should you need them.
Brad Warner is a quirky, eccentric fellow which is why I enjoyed our conversation so much. We found a quiet room as the guests arrived and we talked about everything from his bass rig to boobies. It turns out that Brad is into stoner rock in addition to having deep roots in punk. Warner is an ordained Zen priest and he’s the first to make a wise crack about gaining enlightenment in three easy payments of $19.95. He is outspoken and honest, often turning away from institutional conventions associated with most quasi-religious organizations. Warner’s latest book takes aim at the idea of God as an old, white dude (with a killer beard) sitting on a throne telling people to “drive a plane into the World Trade Center or…to hate fags.” He writes about a different type of God that isn’t in the image portrayed by most organized religions, and at the same time, denies the pure materialism notions put forth by the neo-Atheists. The fundamentals of Buddhism are very simple, and at the same time, infinitely complex; just like Brad Warner. What seems to be easily explained on the surface can have very deep roots and that’s what makes life interesting. I could have spent hours talking to Brad and if you feel like you want more after this interview, be sure to buy his books.
Please allow me to introduce, Brad Warner. Monk. Punk. Dr. Funk.
What’s in your bass rig?
Are we recording?
Then it’s a secret. [laughing] The main thing I have is this Fender Precision, a really nice Fender Precision. But I got this Hondo longhorn bass in a trade. They are a Japanese manufacturer and they’re not in business anymore. They made an imitation Danelectro longhorn before Danelectro came back into business and started doing it themselves. So it’s mid-80s, I guess. So I got that in a trade from a guy, from the guitar player in the Rubber City Rebels, so I brought that up with me to Akron and that’s gonna live in Akron so every time I do a 0Dfx gig it would be with that bass.
I noticed a stoner rock reference in your latest book. Do you have any favorite bands in that genre? I have to ask since I’m in a stoner rock/doom band myself.
Yes, Threefold Law.
Well, OM is one that I like because it was the first sort of stoner rock band I got into. I had this girlfriend who said, “There’s this band, OM. You should see them. They’re playing in L.A.” I’m back in L.A. now, so this was the first time I moved to L.A. She said that they’re like Black Sabbath only if you imagined Black Sabbath slowed down and every song is twenty minutes long. And I said, “Oh, that sounds cool.” So I really like them and from there I listened to Sleep. There’s this band called Nebula that I like a lot. I like a lot of stuff that I get and I forget the names of the bands. There’s a lot of these neo-psychedelic bands I’m getting into that nobody seems to know. Like, The Sufis is one. Paperhead is another. They’re both out of Nashville, Tennessee. There’s another band called Strangers Family Band that I think are from San Francisco. But none of them are very big. It’s really great that there’s some current contemporary music that I like again. You see, the thing with me was, even when I was a teenager, I didn’t really like anything contemporary. But that’s understandable cause then everything contemporary was so bad.
There’s a great film called Such Hawks, Such Hounds about the American underground music scene. Have you seen it?
I did. It was on YouTube for a while.
Those bands are all faves of mine. I absolutely love heavy, riff-based music. In fact, Threefold Law has played at Now That’s Class, the club where 0Dfx is playing tonight (“tonight” was in June of 2013 – you missed it). The owner there is really cool and he’ll take care of you guys.
Yeah, we’ve played there once before. The best show that I can remember 0Dfx ever playing was at Now That’s Class. It was just one of those nights where everything clicked.
I haven’t been there in a while. Is the skateboard ramp still in the main room?
It was when we played there a year ago.
Yeah, not something you normally expect to see when you show up for a gig.
Yeah, nobody was using it.
You’re a performing musician. What are your thoughts on enlightenment and the feeling musicians experience on stage? That’s often called being “in the zone” and I wonder if there is any comparison to the feeling of enlightenment. Is there any correlation between those two ideas?
Yes, there is a correlation. It’s a related phenomenon or like a smaller version of the same phenomenon. I think musicians feel it a lot of times when they’re playing their music. I think athletes get into it. I think almost everybody has some glimmer of it in their lives but it’s especially true if you do anything sort of artistic or performance related because you just lock into a place where you’re just absolutely in accord with what needs to happen. And in music that’s related to the performance of the music. It’s something that goes beyond just hitting the right notes. It’s being totally in sync with the other musicians and totally in sync with the audience. Like I mentioned about that gig at Now That’s Class, it was one of those really rare instances where we got into it, and it was like…I don’t know how to describe the feeling. This is a dangerous thing to say because people will take this wrong, but once you’re locked into it there’s nothing you can do wrong. And that’s true but a lot of sort of guru types will extrapolate from that to, “I am enlightened therefore nothing I do from now on for the rest of my life is wrong. Even if I do something shitty, then you’re just perceiving it wrong.” And that’s used very frequently by people in the sort of business I’m in, and it’s a lie. It may be that these people think it’s true because self-delusion is really powerful so even a genuine experience of enlightenment can’t destroy all of your capacity for self-delusion. So there’s always a little bit left. Buddha even experienced that and it’s told in the version that comes down to us of his life story. It’s told metaphorically. He’s encountered Mara which is kind of a demon god. But what they’re really talking about is his ongoing struggle with that, with the same thing all of us struggle with to some extent or another.
Is that why musicians do it? Is chasing that feeling why we keep getting on stage?
That and the pussy. [laughing]
For some of us. [more laughter]
Well, I suppose if you’re a gay musician you probably get a lot of dick that way. And I know for sure that if you’re a female musician you get a lot of action. And that’s always a powerful initial thing. Gene Simmons writes about that in his book. He says, “If anybody ever tells you that they got into music for the beauty of music, in truth, he’s lying.” You know, we all get into it for sex. But I think that can be an initial in. I think in my case that I don’t remember thinking about that as a teenager. There was something that attracted me to music and the playing of it. And yeah, there were moments early on when I caught onto that. I’m trying to come up with an image that conjures it properly. Imagine there’s like a ski lift, it’s going really fast but you can just grab onto it and hang on, you know, and go. But you’re gonna lose your grip at some point and fall off into the snow. And that’s kind of what it feels like. You grab onto it and have it for a little while and, “Wow this great!” And then as soon as you start thinking that, you’re thinking, “My hand is freezing and this thing really hurts!” And you’re off into the snow and you don’t have it anymore. I can remember when I first started playing guitar, catching onto that a couple of times. And this is a long time ago; I was like ten or something when I first picked up a guitar. But I didn’t really start playing until I was fourteen. There was one in the house that I picked up and sort of messed around… and I kind of remember catching that and thinking, “Wow, there’s something here,” you know?
Can we talk about Akron?
I came across this passage and smiled: [J. reading from the book] “I’m sitting in an apartment in Akron right now, writing this chapter. And you know what? This is not a mundane place at all.” I imagined the mayor of Akron reading this and then I could picture him saying something like, “Guys, get the public relations department on the phone. We’ve got a new billboard slogan. Akron: This is not a mundane place at all.” How much of Wadsworth, or Akron, or Northeast Ohio, is still in you?
I think it’s always there. I think it’s something really, really strong in my background and it took getting away from it to realize that. Almost as soon as I could, I got out of the area. Sometime in the mid-80s I escaped and went to Chicago. And in Chicago, I started feeling like, “Oh God, I’m really an Ohio person.” People in Illinois are very arrogant, or I should say, people in Chicago are very arrogant. They go, “Ohio. Yeah, what’s there?” and I say, “Well, a lot more than what’s in Illinois.” You know, the only thing you’ve got in Illinois is Chicago. What, Peoria? C’mon… But we’ve got several major cities. We’ve got Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron, Cleveland…So it’s always been part of me. I moved to Japan, moved back for a little while to Akron and then moved to Japan. I really started feeling it there, too. I don’t know exactly what it is. When I moved to Los Angeles, I realized that there are so many people that are working in the film industries, specifically artistic industries, that to have an occupation where you are at home on a Tuesday at ten o’clock in the morning doesn’t surprise anyone in L.A. But if you’re a person from Akron, you grew up around people for whom if you are at home on ten o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday, you must be a deadbeat. You don’t have a job, you’re no good. And I really felt that because I got to L.A. and the company I was working for, that situation fell apart, so I tried to make it as a writer and lecturer and teacher of Buddhism and I’d feel horrible. I mean, I’d be in my room at ten o’clock trying to write something on a Tuesday and I’d be like, “Oh, what a deadbeat I am. I should be working.” And working means, I don’t know, pulling a lever and having a guy yell at you. You can’t be typing something.
Did you cross paths with Chuck Klosterman? Didn’t he write for the Akron Beacon Journal at that time?
Yes, he did. I know his friend Dave Giffels who ended up working for the Akron Beacon Journal with Klosterman. They were both working together at the Journal but I’ve never met him. I like his writing a lot. He’s been influential to me. I wrote Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up before I ever saw anything of Klosterman’s and then I saw his stuff and I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is kinda like what I’m doing.”
That’s why I asked because you two have very similar writing styles.
I thought that was interesting and so now I have to avoid being influenced by him. [laughing] It was good to see somebody else doing something like what I was doing, but of course he’s much more successful at it than I am. There you go.
As I read your new book, There is No God and He Is Always With You, “purity” and “tolerance” were the words that came to mind. There’s an honesty there. You could have hid behind the title of the book and avoided the difficult conversations but you didn’t do that. You said what you meant to say.
I’ve always, as far back as I can remember, been really concerned with integrity because I think any time you get away from that you’re really being almost selfish because I think you hurt yourself by not having integrity. There was a specific turning point in my life which happened during the writing of Sit Down and Shut Up which is when my mother died. She died while I was sort of finishing that book off and I remember specifically thinking after my mom died and then my grandmother died a few months later–I was actually with my grandmother when she died–and at that moment with those two things happening, I thought all bets were off. I see what happens to people, what happens to all of us. We’re all gonna die. So why mess around, you know? Why do anything you don’t want to do? Of course, within reason. We all have to do things we don’t want to do but not because you think you have to. You need to make a living and sometimes that involves things you don’t really like. I’ve had those jobs, too. But in terms of just personal choices, especially from that moment, but even before that, I’d be like, “I don’t care. I don’t care if nobody else likes the choices I’ve made.” I mean as a human being you are programmed to care about what other people think because we’re social animals and that’s how we survive. So I’ve actually been reading about this and there’s research that shows that very strongly, within our brains, there are mechanisms that are programmed to take cues from other people whether we’re doing the acceptable thing. And that’s in me like it’s in anybody else. But I realized that you can satisfy that urge pretty easily. People get worried about all these details. It’s like, in order to be accepted you have to dress in a three piece suit and a tie. You don’t. You just have to have pants on and then you fulfill the duty. That’s kinda what I thought. “Okay. I got pants on so fuck you. If you don’t like that they’re bell bottoms I don’t care.” [laughing] I have a magnificent pair of bell bottoms but I rarely dig them out.
I’m sure you encountered that when you started writing for Suicide Girls. I’m sure there were people in the Zen community that were not real pleased about that decision.
I used to write a weekly column for them and now it’s just an occasional thing that I do. I just contribute something whenever I think of something they might be able to use, but it’s not a regular thing. That was an offer that came to me out of the blue. I just received the email one day from someone who called herself “Helen Suicide”. Turns out her real name was “Helen Jupiter”, which is even weirder, right? I don’t know if they’re doing it anymore, but in those days, they would all sign their last names Suicide…Whatever Suicide.
Like the Ramones. [laughing]
Yeah! So it’s Mrs. Suicide, or you know whatever, Aspen Suicide. So anyway, she just asked me if I would contribute and I said, “Yeah, sure. I’ll do it.” It sounded really interesting and I didn’t think too much about the repercussions of it or whether I should. I was ordained by this guy Nishijima Roshi and they were asking me to do this because I was ordained, therefore, I should see what he thinks about it. You know, just him personally. And I asked him and he said, “It sounds like a great thing.” He was happy about it.
Did he know what it was?
Oh yeah, I showed him.
I was like, “Here. This is what they got on here. Here’s the naked ladies, here’s the boobies, here’s the tattoos,” and he thought it was great. He didn’t think it was offensive or anything. So, that’s really all I needed and I moved forward with it. As far as controversy, it’s not been massive controversy but every so often I run into somebody who’s upset about it. The funny thing about Buddhists is they have this idea of protecting the peace, and you know, being all peaceful or whatever. They’re reluctant to say when something makes them mad because it makes them look bad. They go, “Oh, I should never be angry.” It recently came up from a woman named Grace Schireson who really got upset over a bunch of things I’ve done and I think she never mentioned the Suicide Girls. In fact, I’m certain that’s part of a whole bundle of things that upset her about me and so she came after me on the internet a year or so ago. Her and her husband started writing a series of articles about how awful of a human being I was. And it was just funny. I was like, “What are you doing? I don’t understand.”
It’s wasted energy in a way.
Well, it seems like it. I had criticisms about her before any of this came up and I just didn’t think it was worth talking about so I never brought it up. But, there you go.
There is No God and He Is Always With You. Who is the person that’s going to buy this book? Who is your audience?
I don’t know. I think there’s been a lot of books about God in the past few years. I don’t know when this whole Neo-Atheist thing happened. But Richard Dawkins started publishing books, and Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. And they’re all really good writers. Christopher Hitchens is probably the best writer among the three but unfortunately he drank himself to death, which is sad. But all of them are very good writers and very solid intellectual people who can express themselves well and they were taking on this belief in God and being very edgy. “We are the Atheists and we don’t believe in God.” I was interested in their writing but I was disappointed because I thought it was kind of shallow and the reaction to it was even more shallow. People get upset when I say Richard Dawkins is shallow but I feel like–I don’t know if he’s a shallow human being–but I thought a book like The God Delusion was firing shots at a version of God that I don’t how many people believe in. I know there are people who believe in that version of God so I don’t say it’s non-existent. And I know some of those people who believe in that version of God are very dangerous as the events of September 11, 2001 showed. So I get that. But I also feel like there’s a lot of people for whom God doesn’t mean a guy who sits in judgment on a throne in heaven and tells you to drive a plane into the World Trade Center or tells you to hate fags. I thought there was more depth to it than that and then the reaction to it was even worse. If you go on Amazon or if you go to a bookstore you’ll see a lot of reaction books to those but they’re all even worse. They’re like, the Bible is true because you know, whatever…and so it’s just a lot of noise and nonsense and there were few interesting reactions to it. I thought Karen Armstrong’s The Case of God was really good where she puts forth this idea that there is some utilitarian value in this idea of God. I’ve done this Zen practice for a few years, almost thirty since I started, but I felt like there is something within this universe that can be called God and it’s difficult to talk about this thing because the noise on both sides is so loud and there’s so many people who grabbed onto the idea of God in both directions and are fighting over it like a pair of puppies grabbing a blanket. But I think it’s a very significant topic in a lot of people’s lives. A lot of the time the Atheist movement devolves into a really simple sort of materialism which says that matter is the only thing that exists in this universe. I think all of us are aware that’s not true but the other side says that experience, or the soul, or God, or Jesus, is the only thing existent in the universe and I think all of us also know that’s not true either. So we can feel it whether we can intellectualize it or not and I felt like the Zen practice gave me a way of approaching a middle ground. Even calling it Zen is kind of limiting. I think it’s a human thing that we can all have and I think that Zen practice is something that has been developed and refined for 2,500 years so it’s got some practical value to it because it’s been worked out by so many people for so long that it’s a path worth pursuing. But I don’t like to get sectarian about it and say, “My way is the only way.” But I feel like Zen for me was always very much divorced from religion. It can be whatever religion you want. That’s the interesting thing. That’s probably the main reason I had come down on the side of people who say it’s not a religion at all because you can have any belief system and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have anything to do with it. It has no more to do with belief than weightlifting has to do with belief.
You really articulate that well in your book when you talk about Christianity as one example. You state that maybe that religion started out more like Buddhism but then it evolved into something more organized. Do you think organized religion is part of the problem in this conversation?
Yes. Organized religion is definitely part of the problem. Within the Zen realm in America these days there’s a large movement towards standardization and bringing everything under one umbrella. There’s a couple of big organizations who have meetings and both organizations have asked me to join and I have so far declined but not because I hate them or anything. I happen to know the president of one of the organizations and she’s great, one of my favorite people in the world. But I feel like the idea of standardizing Zen is the best way to destroy it. On the other hand, I understand why they want to do this because the word “Zen” is so overused. I wrote a book called Zen Wrapped in Caramel Dipped in Chocolatewhich was based on something I heard in a Yoplait yogurt commercial. And I thought, “This is what Zen means to people. It’s just, you know, Zen wrapped in caramel dipped in chocolate.” You wouldn’t know what it means, right? And there’s a lot of people abusing it, literally. There are people out there claiming, “I’m a Zen master.” Because it’s always been so loose it’s very easy to do. So this organization seeks to try to rein in some of these abuses and try to get everybody together and so we’re all on the same page. But I think Zen requires a certain amount of maverick independence and the price we pay for that is that sometimes people abuse it. People hate this when I say it, but the teachers have the responsibility to be responsible people and students also have a responsibility to be responsible people. In spirituality, people come to it looking for a way to abdicate their personal responsibility and say, “I’m gonna give all my personal responsibility over to my guru, or my priest, or my pastor, or my Zen master.” We gotta stop doing that. We all have to stop doing that. We all have to understand that we’re ultimately responsible for ourselves. These major scandals in the Zen world pale in comparison to the major scandals in some other religions and so I think we should be happy for that. The worst we got is Joshu Sasaki going around groping women–which is a bad thing. I don’t think that’s a great thing and it’s kinda shameful for a guru. But if that’s the worst, then we’re doing pretty good.
At least he wasn’t groping little kids or anything. Knock on wood, I’ve yet to hear about a Zen teacher taking advantage of children for example, or poisoning a salad bar in Montana, or stockpiling guns. I haven’t really heard any of this kind of stuff. Occasionally, we get a little sex mad.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
People ask that sometimes at the end of interviews and I never know what to say. I don’t have any great burning message. Sometimes it’s good to get a chance to air certain things out and I try to use my power wisely.
I really appreciate your time. Thank you.