Book Review: Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner. Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality


This past year, while being one of the most difficult of my life, has also been amazing for many things. One of those things is reading. For some reason, when I am single I always read more. I know that sounds really bad, like, ‘I’ve found a man now, I don’t need to be smart’, but actually I think it’s just a time thing. When you’re in a relationship so much of your leisure time goes to hanging out with that person. It doesn’t help that every person I’ve dated was not a reader (except for one, the German, I loved talking about books with him). Every time I’m newly single (god, that’s a depressing thing to write) one of the first things I do is get straight back into reading.

So. I’ve just moved to Brooklyn, and one of the first things I do when I move somewhere is join the library. I feel like I need to write a whole book, or maybe just a blog post, about how much I fucking love libraries at some point. I don’t think I know a single person my age who has a library card and it drives me crazy (edit – I met one!). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – public libraries are the greatest thing organised society has come up with.

Anyway, I digress. I joined at my local branch and as usual got a bit excited and ended up with about 7 books, and as usual started to read them all at the same time. The one that I got really hooked on was one called Hardcore Zen. The subheading was ‘Punk Rock, monster movies and the truth about reality.’ Obviously, he had me at ‘punk rock’ and also the fact that the back of jacket blurb start with ‘Question Authority’. Yup, I’m a sucker.

So, it’s great! This guy Brad Warner plays bass in a punk band, was drawn to Buddhism from a young age, moved to Japan for a teaching job and wormed his way into working at a studio that produces monster movies. At the same time he got more and more into Buddhism. He doesn’t dwell a whole bunch on his personal life, I almost wish he did more, but there are elements of his kind of random life story that remind me of my own.

The major difference being, of course, that Warner is an ordained Buddhist priest. But he can also actually write. I am so picky with what I read, and generally tend to avoid travelogue/ biographies that are too folsky, or maybe let’s say bro-ey in tone. I was worried this was going to be like that at the start, with lots of low-level swearing and pop culture references. But NO, turns out Warner is a great conversational writer who has a knack for ridiculous but apt analogies and can describe really abstract experiences in a very grounded way.

For example, I love that he uses the Cronenburg’s ‘The Fly’ more than once to introduce the concept that, in the words of the late great Bill Hicks, “all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively”:

This book is you, you are this book. Reality is you, you are reality.

It’s like the scene in David Cronenburg’s movie The Fly. Having subjected himself to a scientific experiment involving teleportation, Professor Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum 😍*) gets his molecular structure combined with that of a fly that gets into the machinery. Brundle becomes progressively more and more flylike , both physically and mentally. As he comes to terms with this, even begins to revel in it, he starts referring to himself as “Brundlefly”. He understands the two – fly and Brundle – are really one, but language can’t handle that concept. Same deal here. It’s not “you” and “the universe”. It’s “universeyou”.

How good is THAT? He also compares his zen master to GG Allin, and talks about the innate zen-ness of Gene Simmons.

I have never really spent much time looking into Buddhism or zen but I guess what I’ve come across, I’ve liked. Once or twice when I’ve done yoga I’ve also done a meditation sessions but I can’t say I ever particularly loved or hated it. But at least in terms of my life philosophy there were several sections of this book where I was like ‘YES! That is EXACTLY what I think’. For example:

The restrictions that we place upon ourselves are the price we pay for having a civilization. There is no other way for civilization to exist. Yet we’ve reached a point in our own society where we can start to understand this phenomena for what it is. Far from being the dangerous loosening of morals so many warn us about, this kind of thing is actually human society’s awakening to a sense of real morality, a morality that is much more powerful than any which could be maintained through the fear of a God whose existence most of us question. 

I have always found it infuriating that religious people often believe that there is no morality without religion. INFURIATING.

Also, this:

Recognizing your suppressed desires certainly does not mean you have to act on them. But you have to know they’re there. Pretending only abnormal people have certain desires is extremely unhealthy and extremely dangerous. 

Here’s why: A person discovers he has a desire that society likes to pretend exists only in truly sick and demented people. He comes to believe this desire is unique to him or at least to a very select and special group of people to which he belongs. He has every reason to believe this because society as a whole, made up as it is of people who cannot face up to the very existence of their own worst desires, tells him over and over that this is the case. Our unbalanced friend begins to think that he must act upon this unique desire in order to express his own unique, “true” self. We all believe the urges that appear in our minds are somehow our “true” personality, our “real” self, and must therefore be satisfied in order for us to be really happy. Our crazy friend remains blissfully unaware, as society remains steadfastly in denial, that such desires are anything but unique. They are universal.

Every one of us is Charles Manson, Sddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. 

Now this resonated hard. I remember being 12, 13 and hearing Marilyn Manson talk about this for the first time. All of the members of Marilyn Manson had names that combine serial killers and glamorous celebrities. Twiggy Ramirez, Olivia Newton Bundy (hahahaha!). The idea being – we all have potential for both in us. There is no such thing as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ people. And that society celebrates, or at least glamorises both. Both good and bad, they are celebrities. That’s my take on it anyway.

I like this way of thinking because I also think it can lead to more empathy. There are no ‘monsters’ and there are no people who are inherently evil. There are people who have experience certain circumstances which have allowed their ‘dark side’ to be prominent.

There were moments in the last year where I felt I was face to face with pure evil, and that was a really terrifying feeling. I started to believe there was such a thing as hell, but that it was on earth and that it was dark and evil and destructive and painful for no reason at all. But I think with time I’ve tried my best to see that the ‘evil’ behaviour that I perceived came from fear, or insecurity, or something I can’t even understand and probably never will. I’m still trying to believe that.

So,  Warner is really really against drugs, and alcohol, and spends some time – not too much – addressing other Buddhist figures that he is not crazy about. Although the anti-drug thing is a little too over-the-top I do like that he is sceptical about pretty much everything. It makes me a little more willing to listen to him. He goes to great lengths to separate himself from the patchouli-wearing nirvana-promising snake oil salesmen that cluster on the outer edges of Buddhism or any religion and it works. He really does come across as an everyday punk dude that happens to love monster movies and zen. It makes for a refreshing read. He can be a bit gross and infantile for my tastes at times, but he speaks my language.

For now I think I will continue to seek my stillness in running and loud rock gigs, but Warner does provide a brief zazen ‘how-to’ towards the end of the book (plot spoiler – it’s just sitting still).

Maybe I’ll try it some time, maybe you should too.

*emoji mine






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