Thursday, June 6, 2013

Brad Warner's book

When the blind email arrived and asked me if I would like a review copy of Brad Warner's 189-page book "There is No God: And He is Always With You," I made a mistake and said yes. Reading books about spiritual endeavor has dropped off the edge of my flat earth: I view the exercise as being akin to swallowing castor oil: If it's so damned healthy, you go ahead and do it!

Brad Warner
I said yes because I admire Brad's willingness to speak aloud of the heart-felt stuff that other instructors, Zen or otherwise, tend to gloss over with sweet-sounding, 'authentic' bitch-slaps ... "that's just ego" or "let go of your expectations" or "just be compassionate" or "just let Jesus in." All of them may be true enough, but such nostrums fail to address the very real to'ing-and-fro'ing of the human heart.

Right, wrong or indifferent, Brad dives in and wonders aloud (metaphorically speaking) whether picking your nose will consign you to hell. His latest book is published on a North American continent that is laced, lashed and sometimes blessed by Christianity and thus, for any spiritually-inclined person -- even, or perhaps especially, for a Zen Buddhist -- there is the question of "God."

Like it or lump it, human beings do think about "God," and so I have warm feelings for a Zen student who will display some honesty and take the issue by the horns ... in all its messy, human glory. Brad's writing style is always pretty clear and sometimes humorous. It's human and humane. I think his book might be a good one for the Zen student who is burdened by the rote bitch-slaps of tradition or for the Christian whose own wider and wilder heart and mind are not at ease with facile and approved nostrums.

Zen is alive; Christianity is alive; toothpaste is alive; God is alive ... and alive does not mean bitch-slap dead.

So what about God? Maybe a time comes when the Zen student or the Christian decides that it's time to get serious, time to stop taking someone else's word for it, time to put God on the front burner and take a look. And it is in this context that I think Brad's book might act as a friend or catalyst. Brad's style and presentation are not pushy (there is the "we" word that cushions the blow and often makes me want to ralph) but the substance may help others to push themselves, to dig in and really take a look.

Here is a passage I liked:
The word God, on the other hand, is much more immediate and richer. Rather than asking you to ponder its meaning, the word God just punches you in the face, after which you have to deal with how to respond. It has all kinds of messy layers of meaning and connotation. It sparks emotions and tangents.  Sometimes it makes people feel settled and happy. Sometimes it makes them angry. Or it makes the confused. Or it makes them frustrated. Or all of the above at the same time. It is a dangerous word.
Dangerous -- perhaps the only meaningful word in any spiritual lexicon. What is not dangerous in spiritual life is likely to be bullshit. Of course, such an observation in itself may be too dangerous to make ... that's why I am glad that Brad made it.

I really don't know if "There is No God: And He is Always With You" is a good book, a stunning book, an irreplaceable book, an insightful book or is worthy of any of the other adjectives critics muster and apply. As a fellow Zennie, I hope all of Brad's promotions on behalf of the book and on behalf of the Zen centers he wants to open come to some benevolent end.

I think his book is as good as the man or woman who reads it ... and I hope they are many.


  1. After reading Red Pine's new translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, I will never read another book about spiritual endeavor again, nor will I ever want to hear another Dharma talk, let alone take on another teacher.

    It had the effect of trivializing every thing I've ever read or heard about Zen. I can see why
    Bodhidharma is supposed to have said everything you need to know about Zen is contained in it.

  2. Taste is taste and need is need. Didn't I hear someone mention that the Dharma has 84,000 (infinite) gates?