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Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between

1 rating: 4.0
A book by Brad Warner

There's not exactly a large shelf of books on this subject, so leave it to the iconoclastic ex-punk-rocker Zen teacher Warner (Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate) to plunge in, double entendres in footnotes and all. The subject is as fundamental … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Brad Warner
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: New World Library
1 review about Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration...

Speaking of (and meditating on) "hardcore Zen"

  • Sep 24, 2010
Punk bassist and Zen priest, columnist at the alt.porn Suicide Girls website, and marketer of Japanese monster movies, Brad Warner's resumé's not the Dalai Lama's. His "Hardcore Zen" replaces the material-spiritual, body-mind split, reincarnation and mantras, and "cheesy" or "drippy" Buddhism marketed as pop culture. However "dubious" may seem to earnest adepts his four books, they articulate an existential, realistic approach to dharma. They also feature his raunchy, erudite, self-deprecation. He blends philosophical ruminations with raw memoir, confessional admissions, and textual explication.

"Hardcore Zen" (2003; see my review) narrates his coming of age, his move to Japan working for the company who gave us Godzilla, and his understanding of zazen, "just sitting." It confronts the mess we're in. This approach, shorn of exotic trappings or false hopes, resembles Stephen Batchelor's recent "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" (reviewed by me). Both authors free Buddhism from its own delusions, as peddled in pop culture.

Warner's follow-up to "Hardcore Zen" reveals in its subtitle what's happened since: "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma" (2009; see my review). His struggles resonated with his intuitive code that demanded truth-telling. He takes us on his global and interior journeys while he tries to sort his real destiny out from his false desires.

Warner's collaboration with the Suicide Girls website in explaining Buddhism beyond a New Age fringe or earnest do-gooders deepened his determination to articulate how his philosophy addressed sexuality. In his slightly more traditional 2007 "Sit Down and Shut Up" (see my review), he blends the founder of his Soto Zen school's iconoclastic attitudes into his own "punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death."

Again, as the book's subtitle promises in its consideration of verities as constructions of our minds and predicaments of our bodies, Warner stresses the everyday as the only enlightenment we will obtain. He emphasizes the "eternal now" as all we can grasp, as the past and future stretch beyond our control. Coming from the Straight Edge punk scene of the early 1980s that advocated freedom from intoxicants or "meaningless" sex, Warner found its tenets compatible with his youthful Zen interest. Even if, as he adds, the sexual temptations for his band, Zero Defex, appeared as illusory as the "materialism" overcome in the precepts preached by old Dogen.

His chapter on "Sex and Sin" in "Sit" anticipates, in advocating a "Middle Way" for those not celibate, and in denying "sin" as a Buddhist conception, his contributions to Suicide [...]. These in turn led to this newest work. As his début surely marked the first time a toilet graced the cover of a Buddhist primer, so "Sex" claims, unsurprisingly, to sit on its own crossover shelf, the first mass-market paperback about sexuality from a Buddhist perspective.

Sex brings attachment; Buddhism resists attachment. Warner counsels moderns to not cling to anyone. That is, to enjoy each other's company while we can, but not to turn despondent if he or she leaves, if we're rejected, if they die. His own divorce and his own sober grappling with intimacy deepen his insights. His own fears growing up that he would inherit what killed his mother very slowly, Huntington's Disease, matured Warner early on. He brings a seasoned sensibility to his reflections. He investigates how the transports of sex may bring many people the closest they may come to leaving behind the senses and merging with a greater oneness, the same direction a practitioner may contemplate upon a cushion while meditating. Some who scoff at a higher realm may be those who long most for intimacy.

He resents the incense-scented whiff of self-righteousness peddled by many Buddhist colleagues, and reminds us how "mystical serenity" has nothing to do with true wisdom. The very lack of fulfillment we suffer, Warner avers, presents us with Dogen's hard-nosed enlightenment breakthrough. Zazen offers us, he insists, incompletion. This humbling message can be compared to "leaving home" as the Buddha departed his palace, his sleeping child, and his longtime wife. That is, "the pursuit of the truth is more vital than the pursuit of what society--your home--tells you is important."

Considering his modest role as a spokesperson for punk-Buddhism, he suggests why spiritual leaders may succumb mid-life to scandals. His reasoning that these serious men, for many years devoted to study and solitude, when brought into a position of acclaim and power, give in to the fame and lusts that they were long denied makes sense. He also wonders if the jealousy engendered within certain Buddhist experiments in America with coed monastic living (never attempted in Asia) bring on competition between celibate followers of a guru revered as a chaste "father figure" and those who seek to become his more physical partners, as if akin to a sort of "incest" as perceived by the chaste, self-denying brethren.

I am not sure if for many more texts, Warner can sustain his relentless pace. His four books tend to leap from topic to topic; he includes transitions and connects a dizzying array of subjects, but he may run the risk of repetition. This in punk as in Zen's not a flaw, all the same, even if for publishing he may find himself telling the same old stories to the same devoted fans. I hope his audience keeps growing, and that he keeps his balance off the mat as well as his many hours on it, this quarter-century.

Warner's most inventive technique taught here? He interviews Nina Hartley. For twenty-five years, she's been in the adult entertainment industry. She grew up in 1970s Berkeley as a "Zen kid," the daughter of parents who became prominent Buddhist teachers. This "sex activist" and "registered nurse" expounds about pair-bonding as opposed to lifelong monogamy, the pressures of performing with actors, the responsibility for morality among polyamorists (see my review of "Sex At Dawn" for more on this issue), and the difficulties of matching one's own libido with that of partners. She explains, in short follow-up discussion, a connection between "power balance," zazen, and "ungulate animals" in a scientific rather than "kinky" manner that shows how well she has reflected upon such disparate material.

As their conversation proves, this book roams far from the expected topics, for sexuality as well as meditation overlap with Buddhism. So does pop culture and life itself. Study this and you may find your expectations upended. The cover may convince you of a wacky jaunt through the wreckage of an Asian fraternity's lost weekend in Vegas, but as with all of Warner's writing, the subtlety and seriousness despite the incessant footnotes and goofy asides remains longest with a patient reader. A poignant account of a young student's abortion after being date raped segues into the Japanese tradition of venerating Jizo, a goddess adopted by those who have aborted and seek reconciliation with the deceased. Warner for all his bluster knows when to step back and listen to the pain and hope of others.

He pivots between the punk concert and the Zen platform, the silent sittings for weeks on end in a remote hideaway and the press of a sweaty moshpit below where he pummels his instrument. "If I'm in a room full of pompous wannabee Buddhists all trying to be pure of heart and mind, I just want to rip my clothes off, plug my Stratocaster into a stack of Marshalls, and blow the fake-ass beatific smiles off their faces. All that lovey-dovey good-vibes s{--]t makes me gag." But, he goes on to muse over his own lovey-doveyness divvied out at Suicide Girls. Both venues enable him to reach those seeking compassion and questioning emptiness beyond the mundane. He may wander far in his writings, but "Sex, Sin, and Zen" attests that for all its stage stances, an ethical and sane Warner's as rooted in the everyday as are you and me.

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