May 1, 2006
58, Number 29
May 1 , 2006
Punk-rocking Zen teacher relates winding path from Ohio to dharma
BY michael terrazas
To the uninformed, Godzilla, Zen masters and the thrashing chords of punk rock may not have much in common, but Brad Warner brought all three together April 26 in White Hall with an informal lecture about his book, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality.
In an appearance sponsored by the Department of Religion and the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, Warner outlined his circuitous personal history from growing up a young misfit playing bass guitar for punk bands in Akron, Ohio, to first learning about Zen as a student at Kent State University, to teaching English in Japan and going to work for the company that brought the world Godzilla and Ultraman, to receiving “dharma transmission” and becoming a Zen master under the instruction of Gudo Nishijima in Tokyo.
“When you become a Zen teacher, they give you three things: a set of bowls, which are supposed to symbolize the bowls Buddha ate from, a robe and a stick, which is supposed to be like the fly whisk Buddha carried,” said Warner, dressed casually and talking to his audience as if they were friends gathered around a living room. “I couldn’t figure out what the stick was for, and now I know—it’s so when I talk to you I’d have something to wave around.”
A friendly and unassuming presence, Warner admitted up front he had no secrets of “enlightenment” to share and even that he viewed the term itself as highly suspect. “The goal of this talk is to convey an attitude,” he said, and then began telling his own story.
After spending three years of grade school in Nairobi, Kenya, where his father had been transferred as a chemist for Firestone Tires, Warner returned to his home state of Ohio “doomed to be an outsider,” he said. He became attracted to rock music, and his parents bought him a guitar, but he was left quite unimpressed by what was on the radio in the late 1970s.
Then he turned on Saturday Night Live one night, and on stage was a band from nearby Akron called “Devo.”
“Rock music lives,” said Warner of his reaction, and soon he began playing bass in a garage punk band called Zero Defex. Later on in college at Kent State, he formed his own band, Dimentia 13, which released five albums on the Midnight Records label.
At the same time, he was studying Zen under a teacher named Tim McCarthy from northern Ohio (whose studio, Kent Zendo, had as its tagline, “We’re the smallest,” Warner said).
After life in Dimentia 13 started to go south, Warner traveled to Japan to teach English in the remote western town of Toyama. Later moving to Tokyo, Warner pursued one of his other lifelong passions (monster movies) when he went to work for Tsuburaya Productions, which invented the characters Godzilla and Ultraman. Warner still works for the company in Los Angeles.
While in Tokyo, Warner began studying under Gudo Wafu Nishijima, whom Warner admitted he did not like at first. “I hated him,” Warner said. “But something in his way was interesting and compelling.”
Eventually Warner become one of Nishijima’s favored pupils, and one day the old master informed the young student that he would like to give him Dharma transmission, which would make Warner a Zen master himself. Later on, both Nishijima and McCarthy would urge Warner to write down his interesting path to Zen in book form.
The following is a quote from Hardcore Zen:
“People have taken exception to my equating a noble tradition like Zen Buddhism with a scrappy upstart thing like punk rock. Zen Buddhism is ancient and venerable. Punk is trash. But punk is a cultural movement that was made possible only because of an increased understanding of reality that emerged in the 20th century, the so-called postmodern worldview. The punks understood that all social institutions and socially approved codes of dress and behavior were a sham.
“This is one of the first steps to true understanding. Questioning society’s values is a great and important thing to do. But that’s easy compared to questioning your own values. Questioning your own values means really questioning yourself, really looking at who and what you believe and who you are. Who are you? That’s where Buddhism comes into the picture. Stay tuned.”
To learn more about Warner, visit www.hardcorezen.blogspot.com.