Friday, August 19, 2011

Brad Warner's "Sex, Sin and Zen" A kind of review...

Brad Warner’s fourth book, Sex, Sin and Zen is thankfully a hell of a lot better than his last! It may not be as good as his first two, but it does offer plenty to think about. There is one trait that runs through his books that I do have an issue with, however. Though he will at times remind his readers that he is not speaking for all of Buddhism (in fact, he doesn’t speak for all of Zen!), he still falls into many generalizations and does indeed say things like “Buddhists believe….” when the truth is that "most" or "some" modifying what comes after would help the accuracy of what follows! Additionally, when he speaks for Buddhism, he all too often whitewashes the tradition or out and out offers wrong or misleading information.

Some examples:

1. Like many Zen teachers, he likes to talk up zazen as something ‘special’ or ‘unique,’ and perhaps not even ‘meditation.’ For instance, he says that most meditation is an attempt to “empty the mind” or “develop concentration,” while zazen has no goal and is not about concentration nor emptying the mind. While that is correct in how it is often taught and practiced nowadays, all one need do is read some of the old Chinese texts to see that they speak endlessly about “stopping the mind stream” and about developing various samadhis (which are nothing if not deep states of concentration!).
2. In response to the question: “Are Buddhists allowed to jack off?” he responds, “They’re encouraged to!” I’d LOVE to see him find a sutra where someone is encouraged to masturbate! Now, I want to be clear, I wholeheartedly endorse masturbation as a healthy and natural expression of sexuality. However, the Buddhist tradition generally sees it as unskillful (not sinful or evil) because of its sensual nature which it sees as tending to increase desire and craving.
3. He really blows it when he says “In Western culture we’ve been steeped in the religious view that sex itself is a sin. Whether it’s… within the bounds of holy matrimony or outside it…the act of sex itself is seen as a sinful activity.” This is plain bullshit wrong! First of all, in Judaism, sexual activity between married partners is a mitzvah (both a duty and a blessing) and in fact, the husband is required to make sure the wife is ‘pleasured.’ And even in Christianity, the whole point of it being called “holy” matrimony is that marriage is a sacrament, making married sex truly holy and sacred!
4. He repeatedly falls into the Zen error of speaking of some kind of “underlying reality” behind or grounding the subjective and objective aspects of experience. This monistic dhatuvada view is more Vedantic than Buddhistic, though it is an error that many in Eastern and Northern Buddhism fall into.
5. It’s become kind of “avant-garde” to criticize mindfulness and while there is some justification in the criticism of the “mindfulness industry” as it is now taking shape, there’s a lot of inconsistency and hypocrisy in the criticism. Brad says: “When you say, ‘I am mindful of (fill in the blank),’ you are already creating separation between you and your activities…This is the kind of separation we’re trying to uproot through our Zen practice.” Yet, only two pages earlier he writes, speaking of habits and attachments: “But once you become aware of them you find that you always have a clear choice whether or not to respond habitually…. If you can recognize your attachments, that in itself is very good…It’s useful to see your attachments for what they are, just thoughts inside your head.” Well, well, well. This is exactly the Third Foundation of Mindfulness! How would one become ‘aware’ of attachments and see them as mental formations without mindfulness?! Mindfulness is more than “paying attention,” which is what he seems to think it is, and because of his misunderstanding of sati, he argues that mindful sex would only bring about that ‘separation’ he seems to think mindfulness always implies.
6. His attachment to view leads him to say: “I’m not a fan of guided meditation. Meditation should never be guided.” Aside from the fact that guided meditation has its place and many have found it helpful, he can have his opinion, but he seems to go further in that absolutist condemnation.
7. He seems confused as to whether he really thinks Buddhism is a religion or not. He argues that it isn’t, that it isn’t even “spiritual,” but doesn’t explain how he can think of himself as a “monk,” or that Buddhism has its “clergy.” It may or may not have been a “religion” at the time of the Buddha and for those first few centuries, but it most certainly became one! Now, one can argue that they think that was an error, and many do as in the Secular Buddhism movement, but address the issue with more clarity next time, please!
8. He writes: “the powerful patricarchal religions of the modern world have mostly treated women like shit. Except for Buddhism.” I used to have such an idealized view until I actually met and practiced with Asian women! There are many books, written by women practitioners and academics that offer a more accurate portrayal of the lived actuality. A recent survey said that women fare best in Korea out of all the Asian Buddhist countries, where women have about 80 -85% parity with men! So, the BEST situation has women at 85% parity, and it goes down to less than 25% in other countries. This is a terrible historical situation, that thankfully, modern Western values are being brought to bear upon.
9. His weakest moment is in his handling of “right livelihood.” First, he snidely says that American Buddhists put more thought into other people’s livelihood and whether it is ‘right’ or not than into their own. This is just an example of loose talk, as I know people who, unfortunately, torment themselves with questions about their livelihood! But, he misses the boat right from the start on this topic when he says that the Buddha never offered any list of jobs or occupations that were disapproved of by him. Well, dear sir, what do we make of the following then:

"A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison." — AN 5.177

Again, I actually really liked this book. I just have my own issues with Brad’s often all-too-loose scattershot teaching. And yet, this is all along with some really wonderful points, and even tender, thoughtful and compassionate ones at that! I went into this book with some trepidation – after the crapola he churned out in his third book – but I have to say I’d recommend this book to anyone curious enough about one Buddhist’s take on Sexuality.