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Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality

by Brad Warner

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

By

Hardcore Zen Brad Warner
Wisdom Publications
2003

In his new book, Brad Warner explores Buddhism and metaphysics through a philosophy he dubs “Hardcore Zen.” The “Hardcore” refers to hardcore punk music of the early ’80s. Hardcore punk was a faster, often sloppier, version of the mid-’70s punk rock made famous by bands like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Buzzcocks, but without all the flash and extravaganza. At the roots of the hardcore mindset is a fundamental anarchy––everything taken for granted must be questioned, no leaders can be accepted, and the only rules that matter are those you’ve written for yourself. As a lifestyle, it was an attractive alternative for rabid legions of young disenfranchised (mostly white, angry, and male) fans, but, with time would take on its own conformity and, by the late ’80s, become just another suburban high school clique. This is just the kind of contradiction and irony that the language of Zen is spoken with. “Zen” is the ancient Japanese form of Buddhism where the trick to knowing everything is achieved by understanding that knowledge doesn’t exist.
Now, any self-respecting disciple of hardcore punk anarchy should outright reject any doctrine, especially anything that even comes close to being considred a religion. But this, argues Brad Warner, is just the reason why, as an angry young punk in the wee years of his 20s, he was drawn towards Zen Buddhism:

“ 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 the increased understanding of reality that emerged in the twentieth 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.”

Warner takes the audience along the path (not toward “enlightenment,” which, as he often reminds the reader doesn’t really exist, but towards a basic understanding of the universe) that led him from an angry young punk rocker (with his band Zero Defex) at Kent State University, to working for a producer of low-grade monster movies in Japan, and eventually to becoming a Zen master. Warner’s narration is witty and charming, but unlike Buddhist authors such as the Dalai Lama, he has a better grasp on the mindset of western readers and is able to pepper the text with metaphors involving thought-inducing images such as turds floating in a toilet, Hollywood references, and the dynasty of rock ‘n’ roll:

“[One of Warner’s Zen guides,] Gudo Nishijima is like a force of nature. Describing his personality is like trying to describe the personality of an earthquake or a typhoon. Mostly you’re not concerned about what he’s really like so much as concerned about how to stay alive until he passes by the area. He’s just a little old bald man in robes, but he has this voice that can rattle walls for miles in all directions. There are times he seems to be baiting the audience to come after him, sort of like GG Allin used to do.”

For those of you who had lives during your adolescence, GG Allin was the notorious and truly insane New York punker who performed naked, threw and consumed his own feces, while violently assaulting audience members before a drug overdose in the early ’90s. It takes an author with a vivid imagination, or perhaps simply an open mind, to make the connection between ol’ GG and Zen truths, but Warner achieves the feat seamlessly with an equal appreciation and respect for the sacred canon of rebellion, as well as the consciousness of the universe.

Like Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” (as meandering and overrated as it may be) Warner insists that Buddhist notions of truth can only be grasped via first-hand experience. He repeatedly implores us not to accept his ideas on faith alone, but rather presents concepts that worked for this teacher who is still learning, and may be of assistance to the reader. Hardcore Zen is a philosophy that opens the possibility to spiritual stability for people who, in this enlightened age, simply can’t allow a blind faith in a mystical deity to run their lives--an engrossing and entertaining Chicken Soup for the Anarchist, Over-Intellectualizing Soul.
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