Wednesday, October 9, 2019

KIND OF A BOOK REVIEW: "Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen," by Brad Warner

(A book review in epistolary form...)

Dear Brad Warner,

I have a few thoughts about your new book, “Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen.” (They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I hope you’ll forgive this clumsy appropriation of your letter-writing style!) The dead friend of the title and the one you write to, Marky, is---well, was—a punk rocker like yourself, a black musician who died of cancer at much too young an age. Your
letters build an endearing portrait of the man—and not incidentally of yourself, the letter writer, Soto Zen teacher at the Angel City Zen Center in Los Angeles, filmmaker and bass guitarist as well as an itinerant guest lecturer—and suggest a loving bond between you, an intimacy that it’s nice to be let in on.

Given this relationship, it’s natural that you’d write to him with the slangy familiarity of a couple of musician pals. It’s not my language, so I honestly found it quite difficult to adjust to; I worried, from the start, that it would prove just too hip, even a bit condescending, at least for this reader. But don’t worry. I got over it.

And I found plenty of good stuff. (I hate that word, and wish you wouldn’t use it as much as you do. But then, I use it too, so I’m hardly in a position to complain.) Anyway, I’d like to thank you for a solid introduction to Zen—a branch of the Buddhist tree that has attracted me from afar, but with which I have little familiarity. I did spend a week sitting zazen on Mt. Baldy in the early days of my own Buddhist education, but that was long ago. I branched off elsewhere.

What I like particularly is that you do not make it easy. There are a zillion books out there that make Buddhism in all its forms sound like an easy answer to life’s many problems—and we have enough of them, in this contemporary world! Meditation and mindfulness are all the rage, and there’s no shortage of people—including those in the book-publishing business—who are all too happy to cash in on it. You make no such promises. On the contrary, you stress constantly that the practice of Zen is a long, hard road, and one that requires dedication, determination, and years of hard work. I like that you revert frequently to the example of your own life and admit freely to your failings along the way as well as your successes. Buddhism is no sinecure.

I share your distrust of easy answers, and of teachers who offer them. I share your skepticism when it comes to religions and putative gods of all kinds. Your practical, no-nonsense approach to the conundrums with which life and death confront us appeals to my own learned sense of what I hope is healthy pragmatism. When it comes to the unanswerable questions, you honor the beliefs of others with the proper respect, but test them out with astute critical analysis.

I like that you are unafraid to tackle the unanswerable questions, however, and that you do not make light of the sometimes difficult and confusing concepts that Buddhism requires us to address. You do so forthrightly, and with both humility and clarity. Humility when it comes to not claiming to possess the right, or the only answers; clarity in being able to write about those concepts so that we can understand them. Most of us have a hard time with the Heart Sutra, for example: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” A conundrum, if ever there was one, not unlike other widely misunderstood or easily diluted concepts like no-self.. Rather than offering explanations, your clarity seems to offer us a way to get in on the secret, helping us to be comfortable with paradox and contradiction, to be open to meaning even when it’s hard to come to a rational understanding.

I like that you are knowledgeable about other branches of the Buddhist tree than Zen, and that you are able to bring that knowledge to bare sparingly, and appropriately. That you can refer us without pretension to literary sources and other fields of thought, providing us with historical, religious and philosophical context. I like that you share your obvious familiarity with many of the colorful characters who have followed in the Buddha’s path, and that you write about them with humorous affection for their foibles. That you make them come as alive for us as they seem to be for you.

I feel obliged to add that there’s some iffy stuff (that word again!) The big one is the reveal that comes at the end of your book, where your very last sentence reads, “And I apologize for lying to you.” Yes. You lied. I won’t be more specific because that would be a spoiler and I want other people to read your book. But I have to say that your last letter, this one addressed not to Marky but to your “Dear Readers,” felt like a slap in the face. You wrote eloquently about the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, one element of which is Right Speech; and about the precepts common to all branches of Buddhism, one of the most basic of which is the injunction: “Don’t lie.” So when I read that you’d been lying to me all along, I was pretty much outraged. Having been taken in by it all I quite honestly felt betrayed…

But then my outrage made me think again. Perhaps I should think of this slap-in-the-face as a kind of Zen wake-up call. Do they still use the keisaku in the zendo, that rod they smack across your shoulders in zazen when you get sloppy or sleepy? Or do contemporary Western sensibilities forbid that kind of physical correction? Anyway, that’s how it felt. So maybe I should read your whole book as a kind of Zen koan, one of those stories you also write about, the kind that often ends with the teacher rewarding the student with a nasty jab—or a kick in the pants—as the inscrutable answer to some absurd, unanswerable question. To jolt him past the quagmire of doubts and questions into enlightenment. Perhaps I needed this reminder, at the end of your book, of the Buddha’s injunction not to take anything for granted, to distrust even teachers, to distrust even his great wisdom, and return to the evidence of my own eyes, my own tested experience. Perhaps I needed that shock to remind me that it all comes back to the present moment.

Which is after all why we learn to just sit. So, okay, thanks, Brad. I enjoyed your sometimes perilous travels in Europe too. And your book is a good read, a good reminder. So, ta-ta for now. Be well. Your friend, Peter

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