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How ‘Bout Some Hardcore

August 4, 2006

The most recent book to “change my life” (though that phrase bothers me because the most important changes in life tend to come gradually) has been Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen. After having studied Buddhism informally for a number of years, this book finally crystalized my own feelings about the essence of Buddhism and its relevence to everyday life. Warner follows the Soto school of Zen, a sect started by Dogen Zenji back in the 13th century who brought Chinese Caodong Zen to Japan. What makes Soto Zen different from other schools of zen, like Rinzai, is that it doesn’t believe in “enlightenment” in the sense that most people associate with Buddhism. Rather, it says that the ultimate reality is you. It’s your life right now, at this moment. The only thing that is real is this exact moment and the best thing you can do is “right action” with regards to this very moment.

Its meditation is also different from many other forms of Buddhism in that there are no mantras involved, no focusing on koans, no trying to think of nothing (have you ever tried that?). Rather, it encourages what’s called shikantaza, which translates basically to “just sitting.” Zazen (sitting meditation) involves sitting on a cushion with your back straight, staring at a wall. And that’s it. You don’t try to block thoughts… you acknowledge them with a quiet mind and make yourself very aware that they’re there. With this comes the notion that thoughts are just thoughts, which is kind of an odd concept I’m just trying to grasp. Warner describes it well in an NPR interview he did a few years ago where he says when he gets annoyed, he can acknowledge that he’s annoyed and realize the annoyance is just another thought, which makes it easier to move past.

What’s great about Hardcore Zen is the way it minimizes the importance of ceremony and formalism… it’s not trying to sell dogma, it’s not trying to push a series of self-help books, it’s just one guy describing how he went from being a bassist in punk bands to working in Japan on monster movies to being a zen master. He’s not afraid to call people out for claiming they’re enlightened when they’re just using it as a marketing gimmick (he calls them “pussies”) and at the same time can take the most subtle corners of Zen philosophy and make it seem like common sense. Which it is.

I’ve started sitting zazen occasionally, though not as frequently as I’d like to. But one thing I noticed is that I tense up my muscles a lot, in particular my shoulders. So every time I was sitting and I felt myself tense, I’d let my shoulders drop and breath slightly deeper. Sometimes it would happen again 30 seconds later, so I’d do the same thing. After only a few sitting sessions, I found it easier to just sit and not tense up when thoughts would come to me. A cool side effect is that In Real Life, I notice that in a lot of situations where I’d be tense with my shoulders drawn up, I’m actually more relaxed and my shoulders and neck are in fully relaxed mode. Good stuff.

So, I guess one could say that Hardcore Zen has changed my life, though it’s only changed ever so slightly. I do sense, though, these are the types of changes that actually mean something and I look forward to learning more and focusing more on the right action for the moment.

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