A-HA! An evening with a Zen Master.
Yoga Manchester Weird Weekend – Part 1 – An evening with a Zen Master
Manchester’s chief yogi Matt Ryan sends me a text at 8am on a Thursday morning asking if Brad Warner can stay at my house for a couple of hours that evening. ”Erm, what? Ok… ”. It was hard to believe and a bit of a surreal experience. For those who don’t know Brad Warner is a Zen Priest and all round cool guy. Punk Rock Bass player, Monster movie fanatic and author of Hardcore Zen. He was on the last leg of his European tour hosting Zen retreats and meditation workshops while promoting his latest book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master. I have been a fan of Brad Warner for several years, read all of his books and have mad respect for the guy. The person Brad was staying with is out and Matt is busy teaching, and Brad can’t be wandering the streets of Chorlton on his own now can he? Suddenly this world famous Zen priest is coming to my house for tea. Tonight!
Matt asked me to write a blog about it. But fair warning, I am no Louis Theroux, unfortunately.
It sounded like the set up to a sit-com. Like an episode of Father Ted (second best priest). Bishop Brennan was coming round and I have to hide all the rabbits. Thankfully I didn’t have to kick Brad up the arse for a bet. Though it was probably more like that episode of I’m Alan Partridge, where Alan ends up captive in the home of a deranged superfan!
I felt an enormous responsibility. I am the most socially awkward person there is. Basically I am anxious enough around people I know, let alone famous strangers I admire. It had been a bit of a crap week as well, you know. Just a bit miserable. I’m currently working at the Yoga Manchester 200 hour teacher training and had been feeling a bit stressed. A chance to meet a personal hero and have tea with a Zen master sounded like just what the doctor ordered.
Matt dropped Brad off and waved goodbye. Brad said “See you next fall!”. As I am sure scenes from Stephen King’s Misery flashed through his head and his ankles started to hurt, I said “I promise not to kidnap you”. Then I put the kettle on. Potential Kidnapper I may or may not be, but a monster I am not.
He noticed my Rush t-shirt and my girlfriend’s Rush tattoos and we started talking about our favourite Rush albums. Traditionally, punk rocker and prog rockers are two different beasts. It was a test and he passed!
After scanning my bookshelf and checking out the old sci-fi novels (ignoring the collection of his own books that were definitely not put there to impress him), THE Brad Warner was sat on my couch drinking peppermint tea. He was tired and confessed to falling asleep during an afternoon trip to the cinema. Brad Warner does not recommend Blade Runner 2049, I bring that to you as a world exclusive.
We got talking about Blade Runner, the book and the original film. While Brad scanned my living room and my film collection, we got talking about my Doctor Who action figures and more old sci-fi/horror films. We discussed the ace special effects in old films like Star Wars, The Blob, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. We sat complaining about how CGI looks rubbish and old practical effects are the best. Like a pair of hipsters. Not surprising considering Brad used to work in Japan making old Power Rangers-style TV shows and Godzilla-esque monster movies. Special effects are like his specialist subject, next to Buddhism obviously. It was cool to find common ground and just talk rubbish about nerdy stuff. He recounted a story of how he saw the original Star Wars as a kid at a test screening while it was completely unknown, months before it came out. He was saying how he was blown away by it and raving about it at school to one of his friends. This guy was not interested because Brad is into all ‘weird’ stuff. Later when Star Wars was released this guy was all over it like everyone else. “What a phony! I lost respect for that guy”, Brad said. “We are still friends on Facebook though. He was an asshole”. I laughed at the idea of this Zen priest who is still Facebook friends with someone from highschool, but remembers that disagreement they had about Star Wars 40 years ago. Maybe not the most Zen thing ever but funny all the same.
Brad became excited when he saw the cat’s food bowl in the kitchen. Like, really excited! Brad Warner is a cat person. Another world exclusive. My girlfriend summoned the cat from outside. Little Loki, all black, queen of the castle came strolling in to see who was trespassing in her living room. She took a shine to Brad as he engaged her in combat. Loki loves a bit of a wrestle and relished the appearance of a new challenger, settling in for strokes and fusses afterwards. It was cute because Loki is a beast and is wary of strangers. Is the power to commune with animals a Buddhist thing? I dunno. Maybe just with cats. Cats are pretty Zen about things aren’t they. Maybe cats are like Klingons and respect a true warrior. Brad had the Loki seal of approval.
I could tell Brad had been eyeing up my bass guitar since he came in and asked if he could have a go on it. He had been on tour for weeks doing meditation workshops and silent retreats and he really missed playing. I gave him my guitar and we talked about bass. He noodled around on it trying to remember basslines from his band Zero Defex. Slapping out some funky licks and even chugging out the riff to Working Man by Rush. He really seemed to chill out a bit more with a guitar in his hands.
Brad was telling me about another punk rock Buddhist author (I forget his name, probably for the best as not to call them out). Brad said that one time his own book Hardcore Zen was printed with a picture of this other guy in it. Pretty awkward… “He is more punk looking than me, with the skinhead and everything”, said Brad. Apparently this chap was a hardcore biker and drug addict, who found Buddhism and turned his life around. Which is the typical narrative of the self-help guru that seems kind of cynical these days. Brad was saying that his publisher tried to get him to spin his story in a similar way, to spice it up with tales of addiction and redemption. “But that isn’t my story” said Brad. His is a kind of everyday Buddhism that anyone can relate to, and his whole thing is that he’s a relatable guy. Brad laughed telling me how he was doing a talk/retreat type event and the promoters had done a poster showing Brad on stage bringing the noise with Zero Defex in one picture, and another picture of Brad in robes, saying something like “He went from Punk rocker to Zen priest”. Brad told them “It’s not really like that. I am still in the band. There was no transformation or turning my life around. I do both of those things”. I thought that summed up Brad pretty well.
We chatted some more about music, bands and cats. Brad eventually getting his phone out to show us some of the celebrity animals he likes on instagram. Him and my girlfriend trading recommendations on who to follow for the best animal pictures.
On reflection we didn’t talk about Zen at all really. It was all just normal stuff. Nerdy sci-fi and horror. Cool bands. Quoting episodes of Seinfeld at each other. It was kind of demystifying the Zen Master, I guess. The man, the myth and the legend. Getting past that title of ‘priest’, that Brad frequently tends to renounce.
He ignored my obvious fanboy awkwardness and adoration and just shrugged it off. I expect he is used to it with his students and meeting fans. Really he is just a normal guy. For all his insight, wisdom and knowledge, he is a regular dude and a nerd. You could almost say that he is just a nerd about Buddhism as well.
Weird Weekend – Part 2 – The workshop.
Saturday rolled around for the weekend workshop with Brad Warner at One Yoga in sunny Chorlton (I jest, obviously it was raining…). It was a pretty good turn out. There were about 20 people, and Brad joked that he is never sure if even one person will come and thanked everyone for being there.
We were all gathered round and Brad sat at the front of the room on his little cushion. He was surrounded by books and had a digital recorder by his side. The leader, teacher and scholar. The Zen Master. Except he wasn’t in robes. He was wearing jeans and a Godzilla T-shirt. Yup. Still the same Brad I met on Thursday.
Brad asked everyone around the room what they knew about Zen and why they were here. Everyone had a different story. Some knew about Zen. Some had read other authors, from other disciplines and had come for a different perspective. Others were complete newbies and were dipping their toe in. It was a nice mix of people from different backgrounds. Intellectuals, spiritual types, and just curious dudes off the street. All had come to hear Brad talk about Zen.
It is awesome to listen to Brad speak. Once he gets going he is so enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable. Giving a brief history of Buddhism and Zen mixed with some of his life story. He is a fantastic storyteller and has a way of explaining things in a fun manner. He frequently references pop-culture, like The Simpson’s and Seinfeld. Explaining Buddhist koans with reference to the dimension jumping adventures of Rick and Morty. Relating Buddhist philosophy of ethics and concepts of the self, to a dilemma of Captain Kirk in an episode of Star Trek The Original series. Even comparing himself to Pee Wee Herman; He’s a loner, Dottie. A Rebel. It makes things fun and entertaining.
All the while he exhibits a detailed knowledge of ancient history in India, Japan and China. Quoting texts in Sanskrit, Japanese and English, he explains translations in historical context with his own commentary, which I think really helps make these things applicable to the modern world. Knowing what the words meant in their time and how they apply today. His method of teaching is seamless. It is hard to see where nerdy sci-fi Brad ends and where wise scholarly Zen Master Brad begins. They are one in the same. Brad is a nerd about everything he likes and he really likes Zen Buddhism.
We were instructed in how to sit Zazen and had a couple of practice sessions. The first was for 30 minutes and another 20 minute session at the end. I think one of the things that attracts me to Zen and zazen is it’s accessibility. It requires very little ritual and few props. It is open to anyone. As Brad says “it doesn’t care what you believe”. It is the practice of Just sitting. I think that Brad represents this egalitarian nature of the practice. He opens up the practice, the ideas and philosophy to everyone and presents it in a way that doesn’t scare people off. He is a very wise dude. Down to earth and approachable, but with an amazing knowledge and insight that he can convey in a common sense way and make relevant to modern life.
During the short break Brad came up to me and asked “Is it everything you hoped for?”. I was like “Yeah man, its great”. Was Brad asking for my approval? He was like “I never really know how people will take it”. I said “It is just fun to listen to you geek out about this stuff. It is really interesting!”. He confesses that he doesn’t really plan things too much. But I think it works. I can’t speak for others obviously, but for me it is fun to listen to him ramble and he has a natural way of stringing subjects together.
Brad stuck around for a bit after the event to take photos with people and sign their books. I remembered that I didn’t get him to sign any of my books when he was round my house! D’oh. Oh well. I got to hang out with the guy which was an honour.
It didn’t end there though. Matt invited me and my girlfriend out to dinner with Brad and a few friends afterwards. I awkwardly accepted.
It was a cool end to the week and in a way completed the Brad Warner ‘Weird Weekend’ experience. I got to see him alone in my house like a hostage. I got to see him doing his wise Zen Master thing on the zufu preaching to his pupils. Now I got to break bread with him in a more socialable group setting.
It was a fun evening, talking rubbish, joking around, putting the world to rights with good company and eating a tonne of food. I think we were all way more relaxed by this point and I had a ruddy bloody good end to the week.
Brad was heading back to LA the next day but he seemed to have enjoyed his tour and his visit to Manchester. We loved having you Brad. Be seeing you.