Zen is Boring
By Brad Warner
Let's face it. Zen is boring. You couldn't find a duller, more tedious practice than Zazen. The philosophy is dry and unexciting. It's amazing to me anyone reads this page at all. Don't you people know you could be playing Tetris, right now? That there are a million free porno sites out there? Get a life, why don't you?!
Joshu Sasaki, a Zen teacher from the Rinzai Sect, once said that Buddhist teachers always try to make students long for the Buddha World, but that if the students knew how really dry and tasteless the Buddha World actually was, they'd never want to go. He's right. Look at Zen teachers. Not a one of them has any sense of fashion. They sit around staring at blank walls. Ask them about levitation, they won't tell you. Ask them about life after death, they change the subject. Ask them about miracles and they start spouting nonsense about carrying buckets of water and chopping up fire wood. They go to bed early and wake up early. Zen is a philosophy for nerds.
Boredom is important. Most of your life is dull, tasteless and boring. If you practice Zazen, you learn a lot about boredom. I remember the first time I sat Zazen, I was real excited. I figured I'd be seeing visions of four armed Krishnas descending from the Heavens, or I'd be fading into The Void just like the old Beatles song, or reach Nirvana (whatever that was) or some great wonderful thing. But the clock just ticked away, my legs started aching, and stupid thoughts kept drifting by. Maybe I wasn't doing it right, I thought. But no, year after year it was the same. Boring, boring, boring. After almost 20 years it's still boring as Hell.
People hate their ordinary lives. We want something better. This, our day to day life of drudgery and work, is boring, dull and ordinary, we think. But someday, someday... There's an episode of The Monkees* where Mike Nesmith says that when he was in high school he used to walk out on the school's empty stage with a guitar in his hands thinking "Someday, someday." Then he said that now (now being 1967, at the height of the Monkees fame) he walks out on stage in front of thousands of fans and thinks "Someday, someday." That's the way life is. It's never going to be perfect. Whatever "someday" you imagine, it will ever come. Never. No matter what it is. No matter how well you build your fantasy or how carefully you follow all the steps necessary to achieve it. Even if it comes true exactly the way you planned, you'll end up just like Mike Nesmith. Someday, someday... I guarantee you.
Your life will change. That's for sure. But it won't get any better and it won't get any worse. How can you compare now to the past? What do you know about the past? You don't have a clue! You have no idea at all what yesterday was really like, let alone last week or ten years ago. The future? Forget about it...
People long for big thrills. Peak experiences. Some people come to Zen expecting that Enlightenment will be the Ultimate Peak Experience. The Mother of All Peak Experiences. But real enlightenment is the most ordinary of the ordinary. Once I had an amazing vision. I saw myself transported through time and space. Millions, no, billions, trillions, Godzillions of years passed. Not figuratively, but literally. Whizzed by. I found myself at the very rim of time and space, a vast giant being composed of the living minds and bodies of every thing that ever was. It was an incredibly moving experience. Exhilarating. I was high for weeks. Finally I told Nishijima Sensei about it . He said it was nonsense. Just my imagination. I can't tell you how that made me feel. Imagination? This was as real an experience as any I've ever had. I just about cried. Later on that day I was eating a tangerine. I noticed how incredibly lovely a thing it was. So delicate. So amazingly orange. So very tasty. So I told Nishijima about that. That experience, he said, was enlightenment.
You need a teacher like that. The world needs lots more teachers like that. Countless teachers would have interpreted my experience as a merging of my Atman with God, as a portent of great and wonderful things, would have praised my spiritual growth and given me pointers on how to go even further. And I would have been suckered right in to that, let me tell you! Woulda fallen for it hook line and sinker, boy howdy. If a teacher doesn't shatter your illusions he's doing you no favors at all.
Boredom is what you need. Merging with the Mind of God at the Edge of the Universe, that's excitement. That's what we're all into this Zen thing for, right? Eating tangerines? Come on, dude! What could be more boring than eating a tangerine?
Some years ago some psychologists did a study in which they sat some Buddhists monks and some regular folks in a room and wired them up to EEG machines to record their brain activity. They told everyone to relax, then introduced a repetitive stimulus, a loudly ticking clock, into the room. The normal folks' EEG showed that their brains stopped reacting the stimulus after a few seconds. But the Buddhists just kept on mentally registering the tick every time it happened. Psychologists and journalists never quite know how to interpret that finding, though it's often cited. It's a simple matter. Buddhists pay attention to their lives. Ordinary folks figure they have better things to think about.
If you really take a look at your ordinary boring life, you'll discover something truly wonderful. Our regular old pointless lives are incredibly joyful -- amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly, mercilessly joyful. You don't need to do a damned thing to experience such joy either. People think they need big experiences, interesting experiences. And it's true that gigantic, traumatic experiences sometimes bring people, for a fleeting moment, into a kind of enlightened state. That's why such experiences are so desired. But it wears off fast and you're right back out there looking for the next thrill. You don't need to take drugs, blow up buildings, win the Indy 500 or walk on the moon. You don't need to go hang-gliding over the Himalayas, you don't need to screw your luscious and oh-so-willing secretary or party all night with the beautiful people. You don't need visions of merging with the totality of the Universe. Just be what you are, where you are. Clean the toilet. Walk the dog. Do your work. That's the most magical thing there is. If you really want to merge with God, that's the way to do it. This moment. You sitting there with your hand in your underwear and potato chip crumbs on your chin, scrolling down your computer screen thinking "This guy's out of his mind." This very moment is Enlightenment. This moment has never come before and once it's gone, it's gone forever. You are this moment. This moment is you. This very moment is you merging with the total Universe, with God Himself.
The life you're living right now has joys even God will never know.
*For those of you not up on old US pop culture, The Monkees was a TV comedy show about a rock and roll band that ran from 1967-68 and was rerun throughout the 70s. The Monkees were supposed to be just like The Beatles. Mike Nesmith was the "leader" of the band, the John Lennon character. To everyone's surprise, when The Monkees, a fake rock band, went on tour they attracted almost as many squealing teenage fans as The Beatles had a few years before.
© Brad Warner
Electronically re-printed for Lotus and Rose by permission from Brad Warner, the author.
Check out Brad Warner's book: Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality as well as his latest, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate on the Books page.
Brad Warner was born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1964 and spent most of his growing up years in Wadsworth, Ohio a suburb of Akron. In 1972, his family relocated to Nairobi, Kenya. When Brad returned to Wadsworth three years later, nothing about rural Ohio seemed quite the same anymore.
In 1982, just after high school, Brad joined Zero Defects (a.k.a. ODFx), a hardcore punk band for whom he played bass guitar. Zero Defects caught the attention of a number of major bands on the hardcore punk scene. But they soon broke up leaving a single eighteen second burst of noise, titled Drop the A-Bomb On Me, as their only recorded legacy on a compilation album called P.E.A.C.E./War. That album remains in print today. Brad went on to record five albums of his own garage rock music under the band name Dimentia 13 for New York’s Midnight Records label.
In 1993, Brad went to Japan to teach high school English. Quickly growing bored with that, he decided to take a shot at realizing a childhood dream — to actually work for the people who made low budget Japanese monster movies. To his own astonishment, he landed himself a job with one of Japan’s leading producers of man-in-a-rubber-dinosaur costume giant monster movies. He still works for the same company.
Back in the early 80’s, while still playing hardcore punk, Brad became involved in Zen Buddhism. The realistic, no bullshit philosophy reminded him of the attitude the punks took towards music. Once he got to Japan, he began studying the philosophy with an iconoclastic rebel Zen Master named Gudo Nishijima. After a few years, Nishijima decided to make Brad his successor as a teacher of Zen. It was an honor and responsibility Brad was reluctant to accept. But he gave up his misgivings and became a certified Zen Master himself. He is quick to point out that the term Zen Master is a misnomer. No one masters Zen.
Brad had been an amateur author since grade school and had published fanzines and short stories for a number of years when Nishijima prevailed upon him to write a book about Buddhism. But Brad was disgusted by most of the supposedly Buddhist books he found at the shops and knew he couldn’t write anything like that. So he published his abrasive, in your face writings about the Dharma as a website called Sit Down and Shut Up. When the website became tremendously popular, he began to think again about putting out a book. So he collated his writing, sent them off, and soon he had a book out called Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality.
After eleven years in Japan, Brad moved to Los Angeles to head up his company’s Los Angeles branch office. He lives there today with his wife Yuka in an apartment filled with Japanese monster memorabilia and pawnshop guitars.
Also some neat stuff at:
Hard Core Zen -- Brad Warner's blog
Dogen Sanga, including articles in English and French,
plus two videos with Gudo Nishijima, Brad Warner's teacher:
How to Practice Zazen and
The Meaning of Zazen.