How Truly Unreal They Are: An Interview with Brad Warner

Lucy Tiven


Pirooz Kalayah’s documentary Hardcore Zen focuses on Zen Buddhist Brad Warner. In particular, the film discusses how Buddhist practices intersect with Brad’s experiences as a punk rock musician and writer. While common Western apprehensions of Buddhism often fixate on abstention (sexual or otherwise), Brad teaches and writes about reconciling experiences of “flesh” and “mind.”

Warner also appears in the director’s short film Brunch on the Fourth of July, which was shown before the feature. While I was charmed by Brunch’s clever repartee and off-hand, distracted sensibility, it provided a stark, if unintentional, counterpoint to the documentary. Also of note in Brunch is the director’s humorous autobiographical performance, elegant cinematography, and San Francisco writer Jayinee Basu’s charismatic stage presence.

Hardcore Zen is not a self-help manual, but a study of a man whose beliefs and interests are less contradictory than they might initially sound offhand. I do think self-help culture is worth mentioning though, since scripture is basically the oldest form of self-help literature, and, these days, self-help literature is perhaps more pervasive and revered than any religious text. Most reality TV shows involve competitive self-improvement and reward whoever can lose the most weight, improve their fucked-up marriage the most drastically, plan a wedding that echoes a vision of an improved life generally, and so on.

Throughout the film, Warner advocates a life in which physical pleasure is approached as an aspect of a healthy physical and mental reality. The story of Hardcore Zen begins in Japan, where Brad Warner worked on Japanese horror movies. It is emphasized that he did not “go East” in search of spirituality and warns the viewer about doing the same. I was amused to learn that Brad was a columnist for Suicide Girls; like the author, I was previously only aware of the website’s visual content.

In one provoking, if brief, scene, Warner and a friend are shown at the grave of Robert Smith, aka “Dr. Bob”: founder of AA. I was particularly interested in overlap of Alcoholics Anonymous members and Buddhists Warner mentions. People enter religious and addiction programs for similar reasons. Whether or not we are aware of our One Big Problem, most of us want to be better than we are or have behaved. Which is so very personal it seems, paradoxically, to necessitate structure at the same time: something to regiment and legitimatize this otherwise imaginary journey or experience. After all, the fallout of most any culture or practice offering salvation of betterment is made up of both people who claim it saved their lives and those who deem it cultish and fucked up.

After I saw the film, I decided to email Brad with some follow up questions.


FZ: You said Zen Buddhism wasn’t spiritual or wasn’t about spirituality. What do you think it is, or what term do you think most fitting to describe it?

BW: My teacher said it’s “just realism.” Unfortunately, these days “realism” is often a synonym for “materialism.” But there is much more to reality than just that which is quantifiable and identified as matter. What we call the spiritual side of life is also real. Buddhism includes that spiritual side but it does not say, as most religions tend to say, that the spiritual side is more real or more important than the material side.


How do you think Zen Buddhism can enhance or alter people’s lives?

It’s hard for me to speak in terms of generalized “people” whose lives can be enhanced or altered. It has enhance my life by letting me see that my thoughts are just thoughts. Of course anyone can say this, and anyone can understand it as an intellectual proposition. But you have to work with your own thoughts for years before you ever get a sense of how truly unreal they are. Once you stop believing in your own thoughts, a huge world of possibility emerges. I think meditation isn’t just a luxury or an optional thing one can choose to do if one wishes. I really believe that meditation is absolutely necessary for a healthy human life, as much as dental hygiene or regular exercise.


Do you consider your books self-help literature?

No. That would mean I write my books with the idea in mind that people are going to use them to better themselves. I don’t ever think about things like that. I write what I feel passionate about. If it’s beneficial to others, that’s great. I hope it is. But I never actually try to be.


Have you ever been accused of being a cult leader or anything like that?

I’m far too disorganized to be a cult leader. That would take a lot of work. Sometimes I jokingly say that I wish I had a cult because then I could make my culties do all the things I don’t want to do. But I’m totally a self-financed one-person operation.


How would you characterize the experience self in Zen Buddhism, in terms of your own life and what you teach? etc.

There’s a lot of confusion about the Buddhist idea of no-self. Maybe I should do my next book about that! I think most people understand it the way I did when I first heard it. I thought there was a self and it was my job to eradicate it and become kind of blank. But that’s not the idea at all. The idea is that what we call “self” is real, but that “self” is a highly mistaken way of understanding it.

So you don’t have to eradicate your “self” to become a good, blank Buddhist. Your personality, your history, your connections to others, your sense of how you fit into the world, these all remain even though they may change. You just stop believing that there is a “self” behind all this stuff.

I’ve had people criticize my writing because they say I use the word “I” too much. This is because they misconstrue the idea of no-self as being about eradicating “I” from the picture. But “I” is just a conventional linguistic indicator. It’s necessary.

I connected with my teachers not just because of the wise things they said, but because of what kind of people they were. That was equally important. They had “selves.” But they also understood that this was a kind of illusion or trick.

There is “something bigger,” too. In my most recent book I tried to argue that “God” was just as good a name for this bigger something as anything else anyone has come up with. I think the other words we’ve tried on for it don’t give people the sense of awe that a “higher power” (to use AA language) needs to inspire. Because it is awesome and incredible. But at the same time, it’s also you and me and the guy who picks up the trash and the winos in the street. They are all manifestations of God.


Hardcore Zen is available for download and preview here.