Punk monk compares music culture with Zen Buddhism

Who knew Buddhism was so punk?

Ex-bassist of the ’80s hardcore punk band Zero Defex Brad Warner writes of his journey from clueless college student to ordained Buddhist priest in Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality. Warner explains the basics of Zen Buddhism along the way by drawing parallels to punk music and culture and his fascination with bad Japanese monster films.

Some fundamentals of Buddhism and punk are not so different:

The last thing Buddha told his followers before he died was this: “Question authority.” Actually, if you look it up, you might see his last words translated as, ‘Be ye lamps unto yourselves.’ … But the point is, a lamp is something you use to guide yourself in the dark. “Be lamps unto yourselves” means be your own master, be your own lamp. Don’t believe something because your hero, your teacher, or even Buddha himself said it. Look for yourself. See for yourself, with your own eyes. “Be lamps unto yourselves.” It’s another way of saying, “Question authority.”

Even though the book is largely based on Warner’s life and experiences, he manages to write without the pretentious aura other books with trickling rivers and stones perfectly placed in the sand on their covers seem to radiate from the shelf. His explanations are always simple to understand (especially for punk fans) but never dumbed-down.

The first noble truth, suffering, represents idealism. When you look at things from an idealistic viewpoint everything sucks, as the Descendents said in the song called “Everything Sucks” (sic) (from the album Everything Sucks). Nothing can possibly live up to the ideals and fantasies you’ve created. So we suffer because things are not the way they ought to be. Rather than face what really is, we prefer to retreat and compare what we’re living through  with the way we think it oughta be. Suffering comes from the comparison between the two.

It’s too bad these references are too few and far between to justify “Punk Rock” in the title. Omitting the spirituality of Bad Brains’ songs about Jah and Positive Mental Attitude and dedicating only one measly paragraph to Ian MacKaye‘s straight edge movement (yet several pages on his bad trip) were missed opportunities. He has several other books out covering similar subjects, and it’s possible he spread them out. Although this much closer to an introduction to Zen Buddhism than a complete guide—and Warner will be the first to tell you that—there is no mention of compassion, which is the trait I admired most of the Tibetan monks I encountered.

Brad Warner

Warner does an excellent job of keeping himself in check and reminding readers to question everything, especially what he writes. Hardcore Zen is best for open-minded readers interested in extracting lessons but not expecting a profound “enlightenment” upon closing the cover. If nothing else, read Hardcore Zen as a reminder to question everything, seek the truth, live for the present, do good and remember your morals.

Hardcore Zen is available in paperback and on Kindle.

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