November 17, 2007 in Features

Zen, American style

Eric Talmadge Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Brad Warner, left, conducts a Zen ceremony for practitioner Ren Kuroda at Tokei-in, a Buddhist temple in Shizuoka, west of Tokyo Sept. 24. Warner, based in Los Angeles, wears the typical priestly robes but isn’t your typical Zen master.Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

SHIZUOKA, Japan – As he leads his followers through a ritual at a centuries-old temple deep in the mountains of central Japan, Brad Warner wears the flowing black robes and brown bib that identify him as a Buddhist priest.

But Warner isn’t your typical Zen master.

He doesn’t have a shaved head. Under his robes he wears baggy jeans and a “Kiss Army” T-shirt.

He doesn’t have the ceremony memorized – he has to read instructions off a piece of paper to help him get through it. And, unlike just about all of his Japanese counterparts, Warner doesn’t do funerals.

“There are already enough people in that business,” he says.

Warner, an Ohio native based in Los Angeles, is one of an eclectic breed of American priests who are finding a new take on the venerable Buddhist tradition of Zen, which not only has a deeply cherished history in Japan, but has taken root abroad.

A punk rock bassist, Warner came into contact with Zen while a student at Kent State University. A stint in Japan to work teaching English, and then on the set of a “Godzilla”-like TV show, led to a meeting with the Japanese Zen priest who was to later become his teacher and mentor.

Warner ended up staying for 11 years, and receiving “Dharma transmission” – the Buddhist equivalent of ordainment.

“If I hadn’t been asked by my teacher, I probably would never had done it,” he says. “It’s not something that I wanted to do before I die.”

But it has become a way of life.

Along with his day job, for the same Japanese production company, Warner runs a meditation center in Santa Monica, Calif., joins in annual retreats here in the hills near Mount Fuji and has written two popular books: “Hardcore Zen” and “Sit Down and Shut Up.”

The books, about his experiences with punk rock, monster movies and Zen, have sold well and a third is on the way. But getting people to actually come for his sittings is another story altogether, Warner says.

“Many people are interested in reading about it, but not in actually practicing it,” he says.

In Japan, where Buddhism is the main religion along with the native animistic faith of Shinto, priests are part of a deeply traditional clergy, replete with colorful robes, golden slippers, elaborate rites and a wealth of chants and sutras. One of the main duties of Buddhist priests in Japan today is performing funerals.

Warner sees himself more as a follower of the earlier Zen priests, who tried to remove much of the pomp that had accumulated over the years and restore the focus on simplicity and meditation.

Unlike their Japanese counterparts, American Zen teachers are all over the Internet, advertising their meetings, writing blogs and loudly debating everything from the war in Iraq to the involvement of Buddhist monks in the recent unrest in Myanmar.

Warner’s own brand of Zen is a stripped-down, almost secular version of Buddhism that de-emphasizes almost all things religious.

Gods, demons and hells, which are commonly referred to in many other Buddhist sects, are looked at not as real or other-dimensional, but merely as “mental states.”

His message, however, is traditional: Just sit. The rigorous practice of zazen, sitting meditation, is at the heart of Zen teachings.

Participants in a four-day retreat Warner recently led at the Tokei-in Temple, about an hour’s bullet train ride from Tokyo, were expected to wake at 4:30 a.m., meditate from 5 to 5:45, take breakfast, do light work around the temple, meditate again from 10 to 11:10, have lunch, then meditate again in the afternoon and evening.

Another optional meditation sitting was thrown in on the third day for those who wanted it.

While meditating, practitioners are expected to fold their legs and remain still while sitting on a hard, round mat and facing a wall. The meditation begins, and ends, with the ringing of a bell.

“You try to just sit,” Warner says. “Let the mind just shut off.”

That’s easier said than done.

Research indicates that people, on average, have somewhere around 20,000 thoughts a day, and for most the internal monologue is constant.

But with training, you can quiet it down.

“I’m reminded of software that says you must close down all other programs before downloading,” says Robert Gumley, a former Australian diplomat who joined in the retreat. “It’s a lot like that.”

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