Monday, July 22, 2013
"There Is No God and He Is Always with You" - A Conversation with Brad Warner; Monk. Punk. Dr. Funk.
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 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.
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]
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
Official - http://hardcorezen.info/
Twitter - http://twitter.com/BradWarner
0DFx - http://www.myspace.com/0dfx
Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D601YDI/