book review

Book Review - Published in Pushpam 3, 2017

Don't Be A Jerk, And Other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan's Greatest Zen Master
Brad Warner

Brad Warner is known for popularising Zen Buddhism through his intriguingly titled books, the first being a bestseller, Hardcore Zen. In many ways, Don't Be a Jerk can be seen as a gateway into Dōgen.
Brad Warner's background is eclectic: an ordained Soto Zen priest and scholar, he began sitting zazen at the age of eighteen and lived in Japan for eleven years. He is also known as the bass guitar player for the hardcore punk band Zero Defex, he is an established blogger, actor, producer, filmmaker, and worked for the firm that made Godzilla movies. A thriving CV.

His book titles give away a lot about his style – the provocative choice of words, Sex and Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up, Zen Wrapped in Karma, Dipped in Chocolate to name but a few, sum up Warner's iconoclastic, punk approach, whilst at the same time embracing classic Zen teachings with integrity and making core teachings accessible to all. In fact, many practitioners in the West found their way to Zen through these books.
Don't Be a Jerk is a radical take on one of the great Zen Buddhist classic texts – the Shōbōgenzō, by Dōgen. Taking on a notoriously dense book to read, Warner attempts to bring those principles into modern life by paraphrasing key (and obscure) concepts so they can be grasped clearly.
Through the twenty six chapters, Warner provides his interpretations of the twenty fascicles of the Shōbōgenzō, in a contemporary and practical manner. Using a humourous translation of the original titles, he strives to maintain the essence of their meaning without oversimplifying the original text. As a scholar, Zen is what he excels in studying and as a popular writer, his entertaining style brings sense to these complex texts.
Each of the twenty-six chapters relates to a theme addressed by Dōgen. Through his analysis of several translations, using the original words of Dōgen, and his own commentary, he offers insights into how we may be able to find meaning for ourselves through practice. Although the method followed in zazen simply involves sitting face to a blank wall (with open eyes), ultimately the 'result' is similar to other practices. “Zazen is the peaceful and joyful gate to the dharma... If you do it this way you'll be like a geek at a comic book convention or like Luke Skywalker when he hit the thermal exhaust port”.

However, Warner reminds us that Zen is not just a spiritual practice. Zen may appear to be mostly mental, but ultimately, it also involves physical training. Dōgen refers to it as the “vigorous road of getting the body out”. Perhaps far less vigorous that yoga asana practice that 'boils the blood' and heats up the body through Tapas, Zen nevertheless uses some physical techniques to maintain a healthy body. The one and only posture prescribed however, is padmasana. When Brad Warner teaches zazen, he often tells people “that it's kind of like a yoga class where there is only one posture and you hold it for a very long time”.

The simplicity of zazen is appealing, and besides the key feature of padmasana as the ultimate sitting posture, the main spiritual questions are universal– how does one try to lead a better life, or strive to be a better person, to improve and accept life as it is and be present for it? His work addresses the heart of the question of spiritual life.

Warner rounds off his interpretation of Zen in a manner that transcends most spiritual boundaries. “To me Zen is a communal practice of individual deep inquiry.” That sense of community is powerful.

In his characteristically thought provoking manner, Brad Warner dedicates a whole chapter to “Zen and the art of wiping your butt”. Dōgen spent lengthy amounts of time explaining how monks should maintain proper hygiene and follow specific methods of toilet training. Of course, the intention relates to the dharma practices of cleaning the body as well as cleaning the mind. Like the observance of Saucha – the first Niyama in Patanjali's Eight Limbs-  Zen rules carefully set out the ways one should pursue cleanliness in order to maintain a successful practice.
And yet, we don't try to impose what we find on others. “We regard every person's unique experience of themselves to be fully and equally valid.” In the same way as we get on the mat and acknowledge other practitioners' presence, there is a space where “we have to be quiet and respectful to each other so everyone involved can get on with the business of studying themselves.”

So to put it very simply, one of the conclusions of this book – and Brad Warner's take on Buddhist precepts- is simply to not be a jerk...
Through his paraphrasing of Dōgen's thorough explanation of ethical actions, he concludes that the principle is essentially just doing “what's right and not doing what's not right”. For instance, Brad's translation of one of Dōgen's key phrase: “Even if evils completely filled however many worlds or completely swallowed however many dharmas, there is liberation in not doing” is translated as: “Even if the whole universe is nothing but a bunch of jerks doing all kinds of jerk type things, there is still liberation in simply not being a jerk.”

Most of us know that certain actions – aka 'jerk-type actions'- may lead to the suffering of others, while doing the right thing will lead to a more genuine source of happiness. If your actions determine who you are, and you are able to realise what your negative urges really are – you are less likely to act upon them. Doing the right thing becomes more appealing.

Brad Warner's interpretation of Dōgen's teachings is essentially a reminder of how to realise, express and live our lives. Despite the abstract aspect of Zen Buddhism, the advice is practical, universal and timeless. And if anything at all, owning a copy of Don't Be a Jerk will work a useful conversation starter.

Warner, Brad (2016). Don't be a jerk and other practical advice from Dogen, Japan's greatest Zen master. Novato, CA: New World Library.