Brad Warner is known around the Buddhist world as the proprietor of the rollicking blog Hardcore Zen (hardcorezen.blogspot.com), and a contributor to the alternative adult site Suicide Girls (suicidegirls.com), as well as the author of irreverent and very personal books about Zen practice, most recently Sex, Sin, and Zen.  Warner was introduced to Zen Buddhism in the early 1980s at Kent State University in a noncredit course offered at the school’s Experimental College. In 1993 he moved to Japan and worked for several years at Tsuburaya Productions, a studio that produced monster movies. In Japan, Warner met Gudo Nishijima Roshi, who gave him dharma transmission in 1999. While studying under Nishijima Roshi, Warner began his blog and published his first book, Hardcore Zen. On his return to the United States in 2004, he started a sitting group at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, California. Since then, Warner has relocated to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, but he is a frequent guest speaker and teacher at dharma centers around the world. He’s also a bassist for the punk rock band 0DFx and appears in the independent film Shoplifting from American Apparel, produced by Sangha Films. Tricycle’s Philip Ryan got a taste of Warner’s maverick approach to Buddhism when they spoke in July 2011. Whether you agree with Warner or disagree with him or just can’t figure him out, you can rely on him to call things as he sees them. And can’t we all use more of that? You talk about being a Zen teacher, not as a profession, but as someone with experience who tells you what they know. Well, yeah. It’s pretentious to start likening it to art, but if somebody has been painting for 50 years, and they understand a thing or two about how to make a picture look a certain way, they can convey that to you, and you can absorb that and use it. But the picture that you draw is going to be different, because you’re a different person. So if somebody who’s had experience with meditation can convey her or his experience, maybe you can use that as a guide for yourself. But the idea of a profession— for one thing, you’re getting involved in money, which I think is a whole huge topic.  At the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, you had people coming regularly, but while lots of people showed up for talks, not as many people showed up for actual sitting. Yeah. The Hill Street Center was not my center. It still exists, and there’s a guy—I didn’t give any transmission or anything, but this guy John Graves is out there running the same Zen class that I used to run. I suppose “the same” is a weird phrase to use, but anyway, same time, same day.  I was doing these classes every Saturday. And really, ten people was a big day for us there. Usually five to seven people would show up on a Saturday to do zazen, and it let me know what the actual capacity for real Zen practice, as opposed to the desire to read about Zen practice, was. When Hardcore Zen came out, I was living in Japan. The book had been out maybe two years before I moved back to the U.S. and started giving talks and lectures and things. I was naive at first, but I quickly realized that most of the people I was talking to were never going to do Zen practice. Essentially, when I’m giving a lecture, I just view it as entertainment for the audience. I try to put on a show that will have something of value within it, rather than seeing the audience as potential practitioners, because most of them, realistically, are not.  But if it’s a situation where people are actually really practicing, and the format is that these people are practicing zazen with me, that’s where I feel like real Zen teaching can happen. As far as Zen centers are concerned, I look at the audience, and most of the time I’m invited to speak at a Zen center—I can’t tell you how many times they’ll tell me, and I think this is why I get invited often, is that, wow, we have three times as many people here this morning as we’ve ever had. Which, on the one hand, is sort of gratifying to hear, but on the other hand, it lets me know that about a third of the audience is really genuinely interested in practice, and two-thirds of the audience is there for the show. How did you go from being a student in Japan to a teacher in America? I never had an ambition to become a Zen teacher. It was Nishijima Roshi who really wanted me to do that and kind of forced the situation by asking me to do certain things. He kept giving over certain of his teaching responsibilities to me, until I basically had all of his teaching responsibilities, and that’s how I became a Zen teacher, and that was in Japan, but I was mostly speaking to non-Japanese. There were a couple of Japanese people who would show up to these lectures, but it was almost entirely foreigners, and not necessarily Americans. So then, going back to America in 2004, I had the book out by then, and people were asking for it. I didn’t really intend the book as a way to launch a career as a Zen teacher in America, but that’s what happened. I don’t know what I intended the book for.  And how did the Hardcore Zen blog begin? You know, I was actually asking myself that very question, because I honestly don’t remember. I was writing these science fiction novels, and I put up a web page based on one of the science fiction novels that I’d written as a way to get some interest in that novel. And the web page had been up for about a year, and I hadn’t managed to get the novel published, and I wanted to do something else. And I just took it down one day and started putting up little articles that I would write about Zen practice; I don’t remember what motivated me to even do that. I do remember that it was 2001, because I put a couple of pieces up and then all of a sudden, September 11 happened. The third thing I put up had to be about September 11, because there was nothing else you could really write about. What I said then bothered a good friend of mine a lot, because I laid the blame for September 11 on religion, not on any specific religion, but on the whole idea of religion, the idea of escaping from this life into something better. So that was my first big negative thing I had to deal with on the blog, and there was lots more to come. I didn’t even learn the word blog until I had done this thing for about a year.  Your blog is one of the most vibrant, active Buddhist blogs anywhere. You get a lot of comments and maybe you’re ambivalent about that, since you’ve turned them off at times. What is your relationship to the people who follow you on the blog? I don’t know who a lot of them are. I went back and forth with the comments section, because it would be great, and then it would quickly turn into something bizarre and off-topic. There would be a lot of fighting and people slandering each other and having these flame wars and things. And I said, What the hell is this? And there were a few people who were sincerely commenting and asking questions. I turned the comments off and then I turned them back on, and—I don’t know, I looked at the section a couple of days ago, and it was really bizarre again. I couldn’t even understand most of what was written on there. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the topic. So my relationship with the blog readers is that I’ve corresponded with a few of those people, and maybe three or four I’ve actually met. Most of them I have no idea about.  I don’t know if people look at the tone of what I write and imagine that I’m writing very casually and off the cuff, but that’s not true. It comes across that way because I’ve created this literary voice that sounds like a guy just typing stuff up and not even reading it before it goes out. But that stuff is mostly really carefully edited, and takes a long time to do. So what people imagine takes a minute and a half actually takes two and a half hours. People get annoyed sometimes because I put up promotional stuff on the blog, like “I’m going to be in Rotterdam on October 9,” or whatever it is, “see you there.” And people say, “Why isn’t he talking about real Zen practice?” I know Zen teachers who will give a dharma talk once a month, and that’s all they’ll do. That’s as much dharma as they’ve got in them, and I think those people are intelligent. There’s only so much that can be said.
Photograph by Susanna Kekkonen

Brad Warner is known around the Buddhist world as the proprietor of the rollicking blog Hardcore Zen (hardcorezen.blogspot.com), and a contributor to the alternative adult site Suicide Girls (suicidegirls.com), as well as the author of irreverent and very personal books about Zen practice, most recently Sex, Sin, and Zen.

Warner was introduced to Zen Buddhism in the early 1980s at Kent State University in a noncredit course offered at the school’s Experimental College. In 1993 he moved to Japan and worked for several years at Tsuburaya Productions, a studio that produced monster movies. In Japan, Warner met Gudo Nishijima Roshi, who gave him dharma transmission in 1999. While studying under Nishijima Roshi, Warner began his blog and published his first book,Hardcore Zen. On his return to the United States in 2004, he started a sitting group at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, California. Since then, Warner has relocated to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, but he is a frequent guest speaker and teacher at dharma centers around the world. He’s also a bassist for the punk rock band 0DFx and appears in the independent film Shoplifting from American Apparel, produced by Sangha Films.

Tricycle’s Philip Ryan got a taste of Warner’s maverick approach to Buddhism when they spoke in July 2011. Whether you agree with Warner or disagree with him or just can’t figure him out, you can rely on him to call things as he sees them. And can’t we all use more of that?

You talk about being a Zen teacher, not as a profession, but as someone with experience who tells you what they know. Well, yeah. It’s pretentious to start likening it to art, but if somebody has been painting for 50 years, and they understand a thing or two about how to make a picture look a certain way, they can convey that to you, and you can absorb that and use it. But the picture that you draw is going to be different, because you’re a different person. So if somebody who’s had experience with meditation can convey her or his experience, maybe you can use that as a guide for yourself. But the idea of a profession— for one thing, you’re getting involved in money, which I think is a whole huge topic.

At the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, you had people coming regularly, but while lots of people showed up for talks, not as many people showed up for actual sitting. Yeah. The Hill Street Center was not my center. It still exists, and there’s a guy—I didn’t give any transmission or anything, but this guy John Graves is out there running the same Zen class that I used to run. I suppose “the same” is a weird phrase to use, but anyway, same time, same day.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.