My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The strongest part of Hardcore Zen comes in Warner’s description of what Zen is almost like, but most definitely is not.
It’s most evident in the section anchored by his encounter with Gene Simmons of KISS. Gene Simmons is not a Zen master, but as an artist (yeah, I’ll call him an “artist”) he comes closer to some apprehension of “that which just is” than do most of us.
Warner himself comes from a background in the performing arts. His description of the punk scene in Akron, Ohio in the early ’80s through his eyes as the bassist in Zero Defex is almost itself worth the price of admission. But his swirling life journey doesn’t end there. It also took him to the monster movie industry in Japan, nailing prime roles as “American fighter pilot trying to shoot Gammera” or somesuch, in addition to being the main evangelist of Ultraman to the West. While in Japan, he also ascended to his own mastery of Zen under the tutelage of a teacher he frequently refers to as an irritant.
The book starts as his document of his own wild ride, and as a story it features more than enough unnerving irritations along the way.
But see, the irritation is an inseparable part of Zen. It’s irritating to be presented with the total loss of ego as a necessity. The practice of zazen meditation on the way to self-abnegation is described as irritating. It’s even more irritating when the student realizes that there’s no simple exchange involved: Enlightenment isn’t what it seems, and it doesn’t follow in easy sequence after one has spent “ten years staring at a wooden wall” with legs folded on a cushion.
As a reader, the minute you think you understand what it’s all about, you realize that was just you thinking about yourself. You were just thinking about you understanding it. And that means you don’t understand it. The author makes it clear that this sort of pulling-the-rug-out sensation bedeviled him for years.
Nevertheless, when Brad Warner the former-bassist/songwriter-sometimes-movie promoter/actor/writer-Zen master describes the fundamental experience of a performer like Gene Simmons, we can maybe see a hint of Zen through a narrow window:
I suspect we care so much about what famous people say or do because we understand that their ability to focus gives them a kind of rare insight we rightly admire. We see their balance but don’t see that it comes from pursuing one things wholeheartedly. We imagine that their balance or insight comes from some inherent quality they have and we don’t. Celebrities themselves are rarely any brighter than anyone else and tend to see the situation in the same mistaken way.
When we’re admiring the performer at his/her best, we’re seeing the results of them submitting themselves to their craft — losing themselves in it in some small way. They lose some troublesome part of themselves during the performance and approach Zen, then get off the stage and pretty reliably act like asses in real life.
Overall, Hardcore Zen provides a light-hearted, readable, and humorous introduction to Zen for the neophyte. Where it breaks down somewhat is in the lack of awareness of how Zen precepts can also be seen in spiritual and intellectual traditions very foreign to Buddhism. Warner drives home the fact that there is only universe, and all is one, and emptiness is form and form emptiness, but for these insights to be universally true, they would need some reference to systems of belief outside of Zen. If all is one, then — well — all is one. In some ways I see Warner as another talented and intelligent victim of the narrow-mindedness of typical middle-American mainline Christian conventionality. Also, the argument against reincarnation could be summed up better and more quickly just by saying something along the lines of “The self isn’t reincarnated because the self is an illusion in the first place. A dangerous one.”
I’d recommend it as a good place to start one’s journey into a topic almost everyone thinks they understand somewhat, but in reality, usually don’t at all.