Jul 2012 31

by Brad Warner

Last week I saw the movie Kumare. It’s a tremendously important film that I really hope gets a lot of notice. But it’s a movie that will be widely misunderstood. Take, for example, the review in the June 29th issue of Entertainment Weekly. They say:

American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi adopted the singsong Indian accent of his elders, grew his hair long, posed as a guru, and found followers in Phoenix. And while he was at it, he kept cameras rolling to make this dubious Borat-esque documentary. Gandhi tries to dodge criticism of his mocking scam by rationalizing that even a phony wise man can offer real solace. Besides, he says, he learned something about sincerity — not to mention the value of film festivals as fertile ground for publicity stunts.

Now, I like Entertainment Weekly. I’m even a subscriber. But I’m not at all surprised that they were unable to grasp the point of this movie. As they say, this is a movie about a guy of Indian descent who posed as a guru and filmed it. But what Vikram Gandhi did was not in any way a “mocking scam” nor is this film at all “Borat-esque.” As Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen played his character and the reactions it got for laughs. And while there are plenty of funny moments in Kumare, Vikram is dealing with a much more serious and important subject. But it’s a subject that I doubt the writers at Entertainment Weekly have much close contact with and so perhaps I can forgive them for completely missing the point.

As I’ve often written in this blog and in my books, I am highly uncomfortable in my Buddhist robes. Even though I am entitled to wear the golden colored sash (called an o-kesa) of a so-called “Zen Master,” I rarely take the damned thing out of the box it lives in, in the bottom of my closet. This is because as soon as you put something like that on a certain segment of the people you meet start reacting to you in ways that I find highly bizarre and off-putting.

Uniforms are powerful and significant. This is why the police, our “boys in blue,” dress in special clothes. It’s why the President of the United States always has a red tie. It’s why priests of all religions dress up in funny outfits. People really respond to that stuff.

Vikram had a serious interest in why certain well-heeled middle-class Americans are so easily drawn to pretty much anyone with a funny accent who puts on a set of robes. His first idea was to make a documentary film about actual gurus. But what he found disgusted and deeply disturbed him. He uses a few of the interviews he conducted for this unfinished project in the early part of the movie. And some of them are really chilling.

The one that bugged me most was Bhagavan Das who says, “If I was a twenty year old girl, I would love hanging out with me. What could be more fabulous than having sex with a really spiritual mystical person?” Vkram cuts this together with shots of a slightly spaced out but very attractive young blonde who says of Bhagavan Das, “He’s the new teacher of this age, of this world. He’s someone who has the answer, I believe.” Yep. And the answer is in his pants.

Bhagavan Das, in case you were wondering, is an old teacher of Ram Dass, the guy who wrote Be Here Now, and has been milking his association with Ram Dass for the past forty years (he even titled his own book It’s Here Now (Are You?)). He was a hippie who went to India and became a yogi then made a lot of famous friends including Jimi Hendrix. Which is fine. But I saw him in that video and it’s hard to imagine sex with a dude that hairy would be all that fabulous for a twenty-year old girl.

I don’t want to draw this into yet another of my rants about the matter of spiritual teachers who sleep with their students. I wrote two books that go deeply into that subject. But it’s just one of the things that drove Vkram to undertake the important social experiment he documents in this film.

By putting on some orange robes and imitating his grandmother’s Indian accent and mannerisms, Vkram discovered that there are people out there who are willing to believe just about any damned thing as long as it’s spoken by someone who appears to represent some kind of mystical spiritual tradition from the mysterious East. He has them doing air guitar moves and getting little penises drawn on their foreheads. Not only that, he tells them straight up that the thing he’s drawing on their foreheads is a dick and they still let him do it.

These are not dumb people either. They are intelligent, educated and sincere. Nor does Vkram try to make them look like fools. Over and over again he takes pains to point out that pretty much anyone could potentially fall for this kind of thing if they were seeking “The Answer” outside of themselves.

But as the guru Sri Kumare, Vkram has a message. And his message is that the answer is always within each of us. That we do not need to seek it in someone else. He intends to prove that by first luring his followers in with the scam of the guru Sri Kumare and then revealing to them that he’s really just a guy from New Jersey. I won’t give away the ending. But suffice it to say, it’s pretty intense.

The thing is, though, as Entertainment Weekly failed to understand in spite of saying it in their review, “even a phony wise man can offer real solace.” Sri Kumare, phony as he is, ends up doing his followers some actual good. That’s because Vikram, the man inside the Sri Kumare guise, is at heart a good guy who truly does want to help — even if that wasn’t what he initially set out to do. He’s not trying to scam these people. He’s trying to make a very important point. Sure he’s also trying to get a hit movie out of it. And I really hope his movie is a hit because a lot of people need to see this film.

It’s going to upset a certain segment of the audience who will see themselves in Sri Kumare’s followers and feel that they’re being played for fools. And you know what? It ought to upset them. That is precisely the point. But this is going to make it tough for Vkram to get the film seen by the people who most need to see it. It would be sad if the only people who get into the film are those who see Sri Kumare’s followers as a bunch of idiots and who mistakenly believe they’re above all that.

As for me, who very definitely is one of the people who needed to see this movie, it’s got me thinking again about the whole matter of spiritual uniforms and the role of the teacher in the spiritual quest. It’s true that the answer is within each and every one of us. But it’s also true that most of us need someone else to help us see that. The film Kumare demonstrates this in a very concrete — and highly entertaining — way.

The question it raises for me is this; Does it really even matter if the teacher has any sort of grounding? Can anyone at all put on some robes and, if he or she is at least a decent person, act as a guide for others? Why should I insist that anyone I would pass my lineage on to be extremely balanced before I give them the paperwork that lets them wear one of those silly golden colored sashes? My tentative answer is, on the one hand pretty much anyone who is even just a bit balanced can help others find balance. But such a person could only help their followers to a limited degree.

Also, as Vikram in the guise of the guru Kumare discovered, putting on those robe can make you act differently. When people start to trust in you, as they trusted in the phony Sri Kumare, any decent person will feel the need to try and be worthy of that trust. This may be why Dogen extolled the virtues of wearing the o-kesa, calling it “the great robe of liberation.”

But those robes can also be a dangerous weapon. Putting on the robe may make a decent person inclined to act more decently. But a less decent person can use its mojo to get all kinds of things like money and sex and power. The movie Kumare only hints at the extent to which one can abuse such power. But the real world provides plenty of examples.

Yeah. I’m talking to you, Bhagavan Das.


Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see. You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!



by Brad Warner

I was planning to write a different article today but then I heard the news about the shooting at the screening of the new Batman movie in Colorado. If you haven’t heard about that, click on the highlighted words in the previous sentence and read the CNN article.

Addressing the incident in Colorado, President Obama said:

“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”

True that. You do not even want to get me started on the matter of the Second Amendment and gun control. That debate was over and settled for me on the night of December 8, 1980 when John Lennon was murdered by a maniac with a legally acquired gun. There is no further need to discuss the matter. You will not change my mind on this issue. So please do not bother trying.

But facts are facts. People in the United States of America are allowed to have guns. I am not complacent on this issue and I will continue to do everything I can to change this fact for as long as I’m alive. Nonetheless this is the situation. I’m an American and I like living in this country. So I have to do what I can to make it better.

To me, this most recent tragedy is part of a much larger problem, which most people barely seem able to grasp. As technology advances, more and more people will continue to have access to greater and greater destructive power. The attacks on New York and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001 are the best example of this. Up until then, such an attack could only have been carried out by one of those very large, highly organized units of humanity we call a nation.

Nations have banded together to commit horrific atrocities in the past. This is certainly true. But it’s very hard to get that many people to participate in something really awful. Hitler, to take the most obvious example, really had to work at it. If he’d been able to get the holocaust or the blitzkrieg attacks on London going with just the first fifty guys who showed up at one of his beer hall gigs in Munich I’m sure he would have. But he couldn’t. He had to get thousands of people to support him. The difference between then and now is that now you can get something really horrific going with just a handful of people. Or even just one. The technology has progressed and will continue to progress along those lines.

In Japan (where I lived for eleven years), as in most of the civilized world, not just any lunatic can go buy a stash of guns the way they can here in America. This doesn’t mean there are no homicidal crazies in Japan. It just means they have to use more primitive technology. When I was over there a guy went into an elementary school in Osaka armed with a great big knife and killed eight children. I’m sure he would have used a gun and killed more if he could have gotten one. But he couldn’t.

Our continuing greater access to advanced technology is the factor that makes fundamental human change extremely urgent right now. In the past we could get away with a lot of shit because we didn’t have access to such tremendous destructive power. We couldn’t do that much damage to each other, to our planet and so forth. Now we can.

We’ve all heard the argument that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Of course the fact is that people with guns can kill people far more effectively than people without guns. But this has been said so often it’s a cliché. Still, even I have to admit that it’s true that if everyone who owned a gun were moral and sane, people could have as many guns as they wanted. Unfortunately not everyone is moral and sane. Nor can we effectively test everyone who tries to buy a gun as to their level of sanity and morality. So we need to control the access to such weapons. Again, this is just a fact, not something I want to debate.

To me, the most urgent issue in the world is not gun control. It’s morality. I’ve always felt this way. It’s one of the most fundamental points in all of Buddhism. People who say that Zen Buddhism has no stance on morality do not understand the very strong stance Zen Buddhism takes on morality. Some of this is the fault of Zen Buddhists who fail to (or are simply unable to) explain our ideas of morality clearly. But it’s also because the Zen take on morality is so very different from what we’ve been used to that it’s hard for people to grasp even when it is explained clearly.

I’ll make what will probably be an inadequate attempt at explaining it here on this little blog. Please forgive me if this just ends up being confusing.

All attempts to regulate morality through rules are doomed to fail. Even the tougher gun control laws that are clearly needed in the United States will ultimately fail. People will still be able to obtain guns if they really try hard. The difference is that they’ll have to try hard and thus may be deterred from doing whatever it is they want to do with their guns because it’s too damned difficult to get them. Yet there will be those few who are determined and those few will be able to do terrible things.

But guns are far from our only problem. Our most basic problem is that we do not know how to behave morally. In part this is because we imagine that morality is based on rules imposed by others. We associate moral behavior with the avoidance of punishment. Religions try make us believe in an imaginary place where even those bad things we’ve done that the law or our parents or whoever have failed to punish will be punished by an imaginary being who sees everything. The law of karma in Buddhism is too often poorly explained as yet another means by which this is supposed to occur. We’ll be punished for our bad behavior, it’s often wrongly said, by a kind of invisible moral force somewhere in the universe.

What’s really going on is that we misunderstand ourselves to be autonomous units who can inflict harm upon other autonomous units without suffering ourselves. But this is like thinking your right hand can stab your left foot and get away with it. Of course in some sense it can. Your right hand will not feel any pain if it does that. But your right hand can only do this if it is able to ignore the fact that it is part of a larger unit that does feel pain when it harms another part of that same larger unit. It’s not that the right hand will die and go to hell and be punished for stabbing your foot. Nor will the bad karma of stabbing your foot find its way back to your hand some time in the future. It all happens instantaneously.

The problem is that we are deeply, deeply steeped in a kind of huge collective delusion. Our mistaken way of understanding things has become so pervasive that we take it to be a fact. Our right hand really does think it’s not connected to our left foot. But it’s really not that hard to understand for ourselves right now that it’s a mistake. It just takes a bit of work to allow ourselves to settle enough that we can start seeing things as they actually are.

I am not trying to suggest that if only that guy in Colorado had meditated a little we wouldn’t have had this tragedy. In fact, there are so many meditation centers in Colorado I would not be surprised to learn that he did meditate. Perhaps even regularly. Meditation is not a magic solution to mental illness. In the short run sometimes meditation can seem to make mental illness worse by bringing it more to the surface.

But I do believe that our society desperately needs to establish a culture of meditation because we need a new basic foundation for moral action. We need a new foundation for moral action because the means for great destruction are now in the hands of far more people than ever had access to them before.

Obama is right. Ultimately, it is about how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.

My heart goes out to all those who have suffered because of this recent tragedy and all of the other tragedies like this that we’ll never hear about.


Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see. You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!



by Brad Warner

This picture (above left) got posted on my Facebook wall last week (why is it called a wall?). Apparently it’s one of those things that’s been making the rounds on the Internets lately judging by the number of comments it had attracted even before it reached me.

I don’t even want to get into the implied racism of choosing to illustrate this idea with a photo of a bucktoothed, bespectacled Asian with his head bowed submissively. Instead I’d like to focus on the caption.

First off, Buddhism is definitely not a religion based on not giving a fuck.

Someone posted a comment on this photo correcting it to “doctrine based on not giving a fuck” and someone else said, “Not a religion idiot.” But the problem isn’t whether or not Buddhism is a religion. That really depends on how you define the word religion. No, the issue here is about whether or not Buddhism is about not giving a fuck.

I’ve been doing some soul (or lack of soul) searching to try to figure out how exactly it got to the point where so many people imagine that Buddhism is about not giving a fuck. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

For one thing, Buddhism actually doesn’t give a fuck about a lot of the things that are considered by most religions to be extremely important. For instance, in Buddhism it doesn’t matter what you believe. I have to qualify this, though. Because there are Buddhists out there who do think it matters very much what you believe. Stephen Batchelor writes about his struggles with these kinds of Buddhists in his book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Batchelor was once part of a Tibetan-based Buddhist organization who cared very much about what he believed. Indeed, I was called an anti-Buddhist by some who thought that my non-belief in what they called “literal rebirth” made me a heretic. But those Buddhists were confused and wrong.

Buddhism is not a belief system. It has a cosmology attached to it. But it’s not crucial to the practice that you believe any of that stuff. Gautama Buddha was concerned with relieving human suffering. He didn’t see any reason to think that belief played any great part in dealing with the pain he saw as inherent to existence.

Nishijima Roshi likes to say, “The only thing I believe in is reality.” That kind of belief is important to Buddhism. But that’s not what most religions mean when they talk about belief. Those other religions (or doctrines or whatever) want you to believe in things that you can’t verify for yourself. Deepak Chopra articulated this recently in one of his Twitter postings. It said, “Only the invisible is truly real.” That’s the complete opposite of Buddhist belief. We believe in reality, not in invisible stuff whose existence is found only in ancient books.

Buddhism also does not give a fuck about worship. There are no gods up there in the sky who demand compliments and gifts. We do sometimes bow down in front of statues. But we don’t do this because we believe the statue craves our praise. We bow to something higher within ourselves that the statue represents.

Buddhists also don’t give a fuck about certain behavioral issues other religions think of as terribly important. For example, I don’t know of any Buddhist organizations who oppose gay marriage. The Dalai Lama famously said that he thought homosexuality was a violation of the Buddhist principle of not misusing sex (I happen to disagree). But even Mr. Lama said it was not a very great violation and that if people were happy in their homosexual relationships he didn’t see any terrific harm in them. Abortion is not a major issue to any Buddhists that I’m aware of. The teaching of evolution in public schools doesn’t matter much to most Buddhists. In fact, unlike most other religions, Buddhism has no fear at all that science will one day come along and disprove its basic tenets. On the contrary, Buddhism embraces science.

But I’m not sure this is quite what the caption on the photo of that bucktoothed monk was referring to as not giving a fuck. I think whoever made that image may have perceived Buddhism as having a very casual attitude toward pretty much everything in life. He probably perceived Buddhism as a religion that had enshrined the attitudes of stoners like the guys from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as its ideal.

But that’s not really it. Or maybe it is. But it’s not quite the same, I think. I actually like Bill and Ted and have quoted them as people (albeit fictional ones) whose philosophy is worthy of respect. “Be excellent to each other” is a great sentiment. But the real world people upon whom Bill and Ted are modeled are usually people whose system is too full of THC for them to be able to care about much of anything. They’re so unfocused that nothing can possibly matter because they’re too numb to their environment to care much about it.

Buddhism is about being extremely aware of everything that’s going on. By becoming more aware of reality, you also become aware that your own thoughts are not so important. This means that you can have as many fears, worries, neuroses and so forth as you want. You just don’t really care very much about them because, after all, they’re just thoughts.

It seems to me that for most people “giving a fuck” means being intensely wrapped up in your own thoughts. Buddhists don’t learn how not to worry. They learn how not to worry about being worried. It’s not that we don’t care. We care a lot. But we also see what our real role is in the things we care about.

Buddhism is not a philosophy of complacency.

There is a huge difference between accepting things as they are and being complacent or apathetic. I definitely want to change the world. I seek nothing less than to completely overthrow the current society, which is sick and depraved and headed for disaster. I give a huge fuck about that. But I’m not going to do it fast and I’m not going to do it alone. In fact, I will be dead and gone long before things change in the way I know they must.

But that’s not enough to make me simply lie back down and say, “fuck it.” I take action. But my action doesn’t seem like much. I meditate every day and I teach others how to meditate. I write. I give lectures. I devote all of my life to making the world better. But I do it in ways that probably seem small and ineffective to those who have a different definition of what “giving a fuck” ought to look like.


Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see. You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!

Jul 2012 11

by Brad Warner

Lots of people think the question “What happens after you die?” is one of the most urgent in all of philosophy. So they invent concepts like rebirth and reincarnation to try to deal with their anxiety over it. But the problem is that the question makes no sense.

The question is based on several assumptions that are not true. It’s based foremost on the idea that there is something called “me” that belongs to us as individuals and that this something is subject to birth and death. Now I could sit here at my laptop and type out a series of logical thoughts to try and lead you to the conclusion that this belief in a personal self isn’t true. But I’m not sure that would be very helpful. If you want that sort of thing there are thousands of other places to find it. Most of these explanations are produced by people who can write better than me, who have more impressive credentials than I do, and who look better in flowing ochre robes than I ever will. So I will leave the explaining to them.

What I can tell you is this. When you learn to see life as it actually is and not through ways that umpteen thousands of years of human thought has conditioned you to look at them, the idea of the existence of a personal self starts to look incredibly absurd. It takes a good deal of time and a considerable degree of effort to do this. It will not happen in a few hours or a few days or even a few years. Remember that you’re trying to cut through perhaps as much as 200,000 years of human conditioning (going by the most reliable scientific estimates of how long our species has been around). This isn’t easy to do. But it’s a lot easier than it ought to be, given how thoroughly we have been conditioned to see life in terms of a personal self.

You don’t die or get reborn because there is no you to die or get reborn in the first place.

You can see this for yourself if you are willing to put in the time and effort to do so. Notice, though, that I am forced to phrase that sentence in tens of “you.” This is how pervasive the concept of a personal self is. There is no way to make a coherent English sentence regarding this subject without having to use the idea of a personal self to put it across. Our thinking is forced by language to flow through certain channels. We are so deeply conditioned to see things in terms of self that we cannot think our way out of it.

The key is to transcend all thought. This may sound like a big deal. But it’s really not. We transcend all thought all the time. There’s an old Zen story about a guy who realizes the essential truth of the universe when he stubs his toe. When you stub your toe really hard, thought disappears completely. At the moment of toe-stubbing, there can be no thought and no personal self. Later on thought can come along and explain what happened in terms of “me” and “my toe.” But that’s just an explanation. That’s not what happened. This sort of thing goes on constantly throughout our lives.

Meditation is just the practice of sitting with what actually is until we learn how not to ignore what actually is.


Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see. You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!

Jul 2012 02

by Brad Warner

A guy named James wrote to me and asked:

“Could you explain rebirth to me like I’m five? I’ve never been able to grasp a knowledge of this.”

I answered him thusly; Rebirth is a myth that some Buddhists believe in. It might be loosely based on fact. But it might just be a fantasy.

I used the word myth to define the Buddhist idea of rebirth. These days a lot of people use the word myth as a synonym for falsehood. But that’s not the proper meaning of the word. A myth is a way of explaining something for which there is no good literal explanation. A myth is not necessarily false. But it doesn’t have to accord with fact.

A myth is not untrue because it fails to accord with fact. It can be true but not in the way scientific explanations or histories are true. A myth can be true without being factual.

But it’s important that we don’t believe in our myths in the same way we believe in science and history. The problem that contemporary Christianity and Islam have is that many of the people who follow those faiths insist that their myths are true in the same way that scientific facts and histories are true.

A lot of Buddhists, particularly but not exclusively in the West, make the same mistake with Buddhist myths. This is especially true when it comes to Buddhist myths about rebirth. We read mythical books, like the Tibetan Book of the Dead for example, and we want to interpret them as being empirically true. But they aren’t.

My personal experience with zazen practice leads me to the conclusion that my previous understanding about what I was and what the world was, was incorrect. Based on some of what I’ve touched firsthand in my real experience, I might be tempted to spin out my own myths about rebirth. But none of those myths would really explain what I’ve seen any better than the myth of Noah’s Ark explains its writer’s understanding of God and the way God rewards virtue. And if you believed my myth about rebirth as a literal truth, you’d be no better off than those people who insist that a long time ago an old man really did put two of every real animal in a real boat and floated on real water for forty real days and forty real nights.


Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see. You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!