Dec 2010 06

by Brad Warner

I first got interested in spiritual practice when I was a teenager and my parents sat me down and told me about the horrible disease that runs in our family. It was, at the time, killing two of my aunts. This disease, they told me, usually begins to manifest when a person gets to be in his mid-thirties. The symptoms get progressively worse and after a while you lose your ability to physically function, your brain deteriorates, you go crazy and then you die.

As if my life weren’t already shitty enough, being an uncoordinated nerd who couldn’t play sports, was shy around girls, and had zits and braces. Now I was going to die a horrendous death before I had time enough to get over this stuff.

Wonderful. Just super.

I became obsessed at that time with figuring out what life was before it got taken away. The first place I turned to was religion. Being that I was in rural Ohio, religion meant the Christian church. And not just any kind of Christianity. No sirree, Bob. The kind of Christianity I was exposed to in Ohio was among the most conservative, Bible-thumping, evolution-denying, fear-mongering Christianity the world has yet produced.

Those guys were just as obsessed with death as I was, though. So at least we had that in common. Their idea was that we only get a few decades of life on Earth after which we die and then there’s an afterlife, and the afterlife goes on forever. Quite logically, then, we should be far more concerned with the eternal afterlife than with the temporary condition we were living in now.

They said that this life was a testing ground that would decide where we would spend eternity. If we made the correct decisions in this life, we would be rewarded with eternal life in Paradise. If we made the incorrect decisions, we would spend eternity in torment. There were only two possible outcomes. What’s more, God decided our fate by tallying up all the right things and wrong things we did in life. A single act of right or wrong could tip the balance. And God’s mind was mysterious, so you could never be quite sure if any given act was right by him or wrong. So I was supposed to walk on eggs and live a bland, boring, restricted, white bread and mayonnaise life now in the hopes of a really super terrific future in the afterlife that would last forever.

[Bow Suicide “Living Simply” in Against The Grain]

Or maybe it wasn’t like that. Many of the preachers I listened to argued that it didn’t matter at all what works we did. What actually mattered was what we believed in our hearts. A true believer could get away with all kinds of stuff whereas an unbeliever could do all the good he could manage and still get sent to Hell for not believing. Mother Theresa and Gandhi, I was told, were on their way to eternal damnation for believing in the wrong things.

I had a lot of difficulty swallowing this stuff. But the biggest problem for me with all of this was that in order for it to work there had to be an afterlife. Yet there wasn’t any compelling evidence for an afterlife. I watched all those stupid movies about people’s near-death experiences when they went through that tunnel with the light at the end and all that stuff. But I couldn’t really believe in them. I read a bunch of books about out-of-body travel and reincarnation, but nothing in them was very convincing.

What I did know was that I was alive now. This I could confirm. In fact I toyed with denying that I was alive now, but that didn’t work. This life is undeniably real. So I threw away any interest I might have had in what happens after you die and concentrated on what I could do to make this life better.

It seems like most people when they search for a way to make this life better turn to the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. Drugs, sex, money, material goods… these things seem to be the way to Earthly happiness without regard to any belief in life after death.

This didn’t work for me either, for much the same reason as the whole afterlife deal didn’t work for me. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that money, power, sex and all that really lead to happiness. Seriously. Think about it for a second.

I was already well aware of the excessive lives of people like Elvis Presley or Howard Hughes, who had all they could possibly want and were still miserable. Later on there was Kurt Cobain who did exactly what I’d been hoping I could do, parlay a shitty-paying career as an indie rocker into superstardom. What did it get him? Sure, some rich people looked like they were having a good time. But there was no more reason to believe that was actually true than there was to believe those people who claimed to have seen a white light when they almost died in a car crash weren’t just hallucinating.

Then I started working in the movie industry, where I routinely associated with famous and powerful people who were absolutely loaded with cash and had access to as much sex as they could possibly manage. Yet I could see clearly that they were just as unhappy as anyone else. I was working for a while with this guy who was a big deal in the Hollywood scene, a tanned and toned mover and shaker who wheeled and dealed with mountains of cash and crazy amounts of power and influence. I was a little pipsqueak who’d just entered the business. Yet I watched in a kind of stupefied awe as he made tremendous efforts to impress me with all this. I had believed that one acquired money and power in order to become secure and contented. Yet here he was with all kinds of money and power, and he was more insecure and discontented than me.

I’d already been doing the Zen thing for a while by then. But it was at that moment that I think I really became committed to it. Zen practice was all about this life and how to make it better. It didn’t offer any magic solutions, which was appealing because I didn’t believe in those. It never got into questions of the afterlife, which was great because I didn’t believe in that either.

Zen demanded a moderate degree of austerity, but not because you were trading austerity today for a future of wonders in Paradise. It recommended a certain degree of austerity because it said that chasing after money, fame, sex, material goods and power just added unnecessary stress to your life that would not be rewarded even if you got those things. I knew this was true. I could see it for myself.

Living simply is one of the cornerstones of lots of religions. But it seemed to me that for most religions I encountered, you lived simply in this life because it insured you a good time after you died. Catholicism seemed to preach that. And even the Hare Krishnas, as examples of so-called “Eastern spirituality,” appeared to me to be all about forgoing pleasure in this life in order to have a chance at reincarnating somewhere cooler.

The Zen approach to simple living was different. I could see for myself the kind of stress and hassles involved in trying to acquire those things that materialistic people claimed would make life better. That Hollywood business tycoon I was associated with was so driven for success that it affected every waking moment of his life and every association he had with anyone he encountered. The fact that he would waste any energy and effort at all, let alone a lot of energy and effort, on trying to impress someone who mattered as little as me told me everything I needed to know about that.

So how simply do we need to live? It depends on how happy you want to be. Traditionally, Zen monks gave up everything except what they needed to survive. The ideal was to have one bowl and one robe. You lived off the charity of others and slept wherever you could manage to sleep.

In the India of 2500 years ago this worked pretty well. There was an established tradition of giving to begging monks and there were communities of spiritual seekers who looked after each other. In Western societies today this system doesn’t work the same way. There is no tradition of giving to begging monks. And communities of spiritual seekers are forced to play the capitalist game to such an extent that they can quickly lose focus and almost always end up as either corporations or cults.

So what do you do? I have not reached any definite conclusions on this. I doubt I ever will. But that’s OK because definite conclusions aren’t the Zen way either. For now, I live pretty simply and unambitiously. To the extent that I have ambitions and desires to live better than I do — and I do have such ambitions, everyone does — I suffer. By this I mean that if I compare my life now to what it should be or what it could be or what it ought to be, inevitably the life I’m living at this moment pales by comparison.

But what am I actually comparing my life to when I do that? I’m comparing real life to something imaginary. Either I’m comparing it to the vague idea of what my life should be, or I’m comparing it to my imaginary construct of what other people’s lives are like. But even if I choose a real person’s life for comparison, I’m not that person. I don’t know what his life is actually like.

I might desire a big apartment of my own in Manhattan with a nice view of the skyline instead of the one I now share with two roommates in the least trendy part of Brooklyn with a view of the Phat Albert Warehouse. But in order to afford such a place I’d have to work very hard and be extremely driven. And, honestly, I don’t want to work that hard. It’s too much stress. If I want to see the Manhattan skyline, I can go see it. It’s just a $2.25 subway ride to Times Square. Things are pretty good.

It’s not necessary to have a lot of what the world calls “success.” The more stuff you own, the more responsibilities you take upon yourself. It’s also not necessary to give up everything and live with one bowl and one robe. You can find a middle ground between austerity and affluence that’s pretty good.

When you seek abundance and success outside of what you already have you just make yourself miserable. It’s quite all right to try to improve your situation. I am always trying to improve my situation. But I’ve found that it pays to be careful what you believe about the ways others might characterize the way you live. What society tells you about what’s best is a collective illusion. Just because most people believe something doesn’t make that thing true. In the past most people believed the world was flat too.

Living simply means making the life you have into the life you want to have. It means seeing the ways in which the life you’re living now is exactly what you want, or at least exactly what you need. No one can tell you whether you’re right or wrong in this. It’s up to you to form your own opinions about your life.


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 blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

Buy the new CD by his band Zero Defex at CD Baby now!


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