Tyler Vile Interviews Author
I had the chance to interview Brad Warner, author of Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate and Sex, Sin ,and Zen. A punk musician and writer for Suicide Girls, Brad isn't exactly the kind of spiritual teacher you'd find Oprah getting cozy with, but he's not Sid Vicious either. His books explore a personal journey rather than a spiritual one and he's got about the sharpest wit of any current author I've read. Hope you enjoy the interview!
Punk Globe: Hey Brad, Punk seems to draw those of us who are sort of outcast or "different" in with a sense of connection and family, is that what also drew you to the Buddhist sangha (spiritual community)?
Brad Warner: The three cornerstones of Buddhism are Buddha, dharma, which means Buddhist teachings, and sangha, the Buddhist community. I always feel like I'm into Buddha and Dharma. It's the sangha I have trouble with! I'm not so much drawn to the communal aspects of Buddhism. They can be nice. Or they can be annoying. In some ways it's like punk in that it's very much an outcast community. But often the only thing everyone has in common is Buddhism. They may not have any other interests or attitudes in common with each other apart from that. That aspect can be interesting.
Punk Globe: In Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate you talk about your friend Iggy Morningstar's death being the catalyst for you getting into Buddhism. Did you see a lot of what you'd call Buddha Nature in Iggy?
Brad Warner: Does Iggy have Buddha nature? I don't know. Iggy could be a real asshole. And I'm talking about the Iggy I knew, not the famous one. His suicide was a supreme asshole move. He did it in such a way as to ensure that his closest friends were the ones who found him. It was pretty awful. And yet he was a very creative guy and could be a lot of fun. Everyone is Buddha, even assholes.
Punk Globe: I'm fascinated by your ability to "spin yarn" as we say in writing, to tell a story within a story. Telling Iggy's story entirely in a footnote and really giving the smaller footnotes a distinctly human flavor is an interesting technique. How did you come to implement that?
Brad Warner: I'm not sure. I started doing it in my first book, and my editor was like, "Hey! You're so influenced by David Foster Wallace!" And I was like, "Who?" I still haven't read any of his stuff. It just seemed funny to me to do that, to use the footnoting technique I'd learned by writing college papers to do something creative. I would imagine that's the same idea David Foster Wallace had. I did an immensely long footnote about the movie Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet that I was really proud of. But we had to cut it down. It went on forever! I was sad to see it go. But I understood why it had to be trimmed.
Punk Globe: Where have you seen Zen practice and the do it yourself, "punk" ethos intersect most in your life?
Brad Warner: The DIY stuff is a very useful attitude. Don't wait for someone else to come along and do something for you. Just do it. Where do they intersect? I don't know. Everywhere probably! I'm not a great "team player" in life. I get frustrated when I have to depend on someone else to contribute their part to some given thing. So DIY works well for me.
Punk Globe: Many Buddhists and yogis that I've met who have roots in punk are left with a bad taste by this commercialized New Age movement. What do you think this sort of yoga for the suburban masses leaves out of dharma teaching if anything?
Brad Warner: Mass marketed anything always sucks. There might be a few exceptions. The Beatles were genuinely good and very commercial. But most things get watered down and become terrible. What the mass marketed stuff leaves out is the sincerity. In order to operate a big yoga studio or meditation center you need to be able to make money. So making money becomes the sole focus, even if you don't want it to be. In order to make money you have to get "butts in seats" as they say. In order to get butts in seats you have to give the people what they want to site another cliche. So things get very compromised in order to attract the greatest number of people.
Punk Globe: Some of us who reject authority might at first be a bit thrown off by the term "Zen master," and think of it as an official who has power over the lives of others. As a Zen master, can you clear up that misconception?
Brad Warner: Zen Master is a misnomer. I only ever use it ironically. It's a joke. Anyone who uses the term Zen Master in a non-ironic way is not worth listening to. OK. There may be exceptions if you're talking about someone from an Asian country who doesn't really understand English and uses the word because that's how it has been badly translated. Anyone with a command of English who calls themselves a Zen Master is a joke. Nobody masters Zen!
Punk Globe: How did you meet your first Zen teacher?
Brad Warner: I was a student at Kent State University and I took a class called Zen Buddhism, just on a whim. It changed my life. The teacher of that class also rejects the term Zen Master. So does my other teacher.
Punk Globe: Was teaching in the JET (Japanese English Teachers) program your first experience in Japan? Were you able to study under your roshi (teacher) and teach English simultaneously?
Brad Warner: I didn't meet Nishijima Roshi while I was in the JET program. I did JET for a year. I met Nishijima the following year when I started working in Tokyo for Tsuburaya Productions, the film company. But yes JET was my first time in Japan. As a child, I traveled to a lot of countries when my dad worked for Firestone in Africa, but we never went to Japan then.
Punk Globe: In Sex, Sin, and Zen, you say that you and Nishijima Roshi have differing opinions on the fluidity of sexuality. It's his opinion, and not a "Buddhist truth" that homosexual behavior would fade if everyone practiced meditation, but he doesn't have a problem with anything like that as long as it's consensual. Your take on that seems a bit different. Do you think there's a difference between male and female attitudes toward the labels we put on our sexuality?
Brad Warner: You wouldn't hear an opinion on a subject like homosexuality from a Zen teacher unless you specifically asked. You also don't have to agree with their spin on it, but here's my interpretation:
The whole gay vs bisexual thing is different for males & females. It's something I've learned since I wrote the sex book. Males tend to be sexualized early and stick with a single orientation. Gay men generally stay gay their whole lives, hetero men like me pretty much stay hetero. Like I said in the book, I have no issues with non-hetero people. It's just not an inclination of mine to switch teams. On the other hand, females tend to be rather fluid. Women who have identified for years as lesbian will suddenly fall for some guy and stay with him for the rest of their lives. It happens a lot. My ex-sister-in-law (sister's ex-husband's sister) who is as lesbian as they come, recently confessed to me that many years ago she had a huge crush on me that, at the time, really confused her. I told her what I'd just learned and she had never heard that before.
Punk Globe: You produced Japanese horror movies while you were living in Japan, right? Was that an interest you had before moving there? Did your co workers find it refreshing to have an American perspective on their work?
Brad Warner: I didn't really produce the films. I worked for a company that made them. Also, we only made a couple of what you'd call "horror" programs. They were late night TV shows. And most of them were kind of bad. Mainly we made giant monster type movies and TV shows. I loved those movies before I went to Japan. In fact, I went to Japan much more to hunt for Godzilla junk than to study Zen. I think the company wanted an American perspective. But they rarely listened to me. Once or twice they did. I can site certain shows where something I suggested made it into the show. But not often.
Punk Globe: Would you consider playing bass, writing, and graphic design all to be equal in terms of the energy that you put into them? If not, which one is your greatest outlet and why?
Brad Warner: I write more than anything else. I love playing bass much more than writing, though. But I'm a better writer than bass player. Graphic design I can do. But I feel like I just imitate others when I do that.
Punk Globe: Your band, Zero Defex is gearing up for a gig soon, right? Are you excited about that? What do your band mates bring out in you that you find empowering?
Brad Warner: We're playing in 2 days. It's great. It's so much fun to play with those guys. The band knew me long before any of the books and other things happened. I am not the leader of Zero Defex. I just play bass. I'm not the focal point. The band are true long term friends. I can be very much myself in front of them, whereas I'm always a bit restrained when I'm doing a talk as a writer or Zen teacher.
Punk Globe: Reviews of your early band, Dementia 13 liken you to Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd. How do you feel about that comparison?
Brad Warner: Syd Barrett is one of the greats. So of course I love the comparison. I don't feel like I'm at all in his league, though. I just do a passable imitation.
Punk Globe: One of the things that I find a bit strange is this subgenre of Krishnacore, some of the stuff is really intense and actually makes for great songs, but sometimes it gets too preachy. Even Bad Brains who are into Rastafari go a little too heavy on the positive message. Where do you think the line is? Would a "Buddhacore" subgenre be too dogmatic?
Brad Warner: Buddhacore? Oh God. I'm sure it's out there. But I wouldn't want to be involved in it. I always hate it when musicians try to push their religion on you. Christian rock and things like that are always so terrible. Messages need to be honest, not dogmatic.
Punk Globe: Jesse Michaels from Operation Ivy told me in an interview that, "The appeal of Buddhism is that it tries to avoid dogma in favor of experience. " What's your take on that and if you agree, what would you add to that?
Brad Warner: I totally agree. Buddhism to me is mostly an attitude. That attitude can manifest in many different ways. It depends on who you are. It's about being completely yourself without any filters. Well, maybe some filters are necessary. But it's not about dogma or belief. It doesn't really matter what you believe.
Punk Globe: Once again, thank you so much for doing this interview Brad. Much respect. Please share with Punk Globe readers some final words of wisdom if you'd like.
Brad Warner: You're welcome!
Punk Globe would like to thank Brad Warner and Tyler Vile for the interview...