I wish to thank Alan Crawford for this report of Brad Warner's Retreat in Glastonbury in October 2016 that was organised by Nicky Ashwood. Brad also travelled further west but his day retreat was controversially rejected by an established Buddhist Centre in Totnes. We eventually ran it in a church hall! Brad's teaching and the Dokusan he offered was warmly welcomed by all present.
I was very touched by Alan's determination and enthusuiasm to be at Brads retreat. His opening lines reveal this. Where there is a will there is a way!!!!Editor.
The Long Journey South
I set off at 4.45 am on a Sunday morning to make my way down to Glastonbury from Liverpool for the one day retreat. This would be my only retreat this year with being a new dad, so even though it was only one day, I was looking forward to the opportunity for a period of intensive practice. Plus, Brad is the first 'celebrity' Buddhist teacher I have gone to see, so there is a degree of excitement and anticipation. Which is ironic really as I'm probably known to my friends as somebody who might pontificate about the vacuous nature of celebrity culture! (note to self: I should really stop pontificating, it's not attractive). So on the drive down, I wondered what is it about Brad Warner that makes me want to drive 3 and half hours to mostly sit in silence in the same room as him, hear him speak briefly and answer a few questions?I remember first hearing about Brad in an article in which he was compared to Noah Levine, another 'Punk' Buddhist (or Dharma Punk, as Noah prefers). I'd read Noah's books and had been impressed by his stance that Buddhism was inherently counter-cultural, a radical rebellion against greed, anger and ignorance. I loved the fact that I was getting my Dharma-fix from a big, tattooed bloke in a band T-shirt (though Punk was never really my thing, I'm more of a psychedelic rock, prog and metal guy). I identified with Noah as an alternative-looking person in recovery who found in Buddhism a response not just to addictive craving, but also to the big questions about life and what it's all about - how should we live in a way that allows us to be at peace? How do we appreciate our lives and connect with others? But Noah's teaching, rooted in the Theravadan tradition, felt formulaic and a bit religious to my Zen eyes and ears (is it just me, or do Theravadans and Tibetans really love lists and stages?). I had been practicing Zen for a short while by this point, attracted by its stripped back, back-to-basics approach, as well as its ability to straddle both the mundane and the mysterious in a way that embraces paradoxes and refuses to allow you anything in which to 'believe', any solid ground on which to stand. So Brad had an instant appeal, could I have really found a Zen Noah Levine?I went out and read Brad's books and was attracted to his direct, irreverent, no-nonsense approach and 'punk' aesthetic. I've always had an attraction to the unorthodox and rebellious, so a Zen teacher with a potty mouth who plays in a rock band had an instant allure. Brad struck me as somebody who is who he is, unapologetically so, which is something I respect and aspire to. He seems very authentic in his unorthodoxy. Except that when you read his books, the unorthodoxy is something of a misnomer. His interpretation of Zen is actually pretty standard, traditional stuff, it is more his delivery and style that make him anomalous to the Buddhist stereotype. I think his anti-bullshit approach, whilst genuine, is also a deliberate way (skilful means?) in which to counter the fluffiness and 'niceness' that often surrounds contemporary approaches to spirituality. Brad adopts a refreshingly frank, confessional approach to honesty and self-disclosure that I really connect with and find very endearing. His candid disclosures about his own imperfections illustrate his message that he isn't special (none of us are actually, even me - my mum lied to me for 18 years!), and that just because he is a 'Zen Master' (he uses the term ironically), who has happened to have had an awakening experience, received some teachings and practicing this stuff for a while, doesn't make him special, extra-ordinary or a spiritual superhero of some sort. However, despite making it clear he is nothing special, Brad writes elsewhere about there being no other teacher in North America teaching the way he does and that his voice is vital and unique (I'm paraphrasing, but I think that was the gist of what he said). So is this ego, or just another one of those Zen paradoxes; can Brad be both nothing special, and at the same time a solitary, unique voice? I guess that's what I drove 3 and a half hours to find out.The drive in to Glastonbury was beautiful in the early morning light as I drove through picturesque villages that were quintessentially English, with farmers' fields, stone cottages with thatched rooves, traditional red post boxes and village pubs. This must be exactly how an American like Brad might picture England I thought (although Brad has also been to Manchester which would certainly serve as a contrast to Somerset's green and pleasant land!). Glastonbury itself is a place of myth and legend, associated with the Holy Grail, King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake. It is known for the crossing of leylines that purportedly create powerful energetic fields that result in feelings of peace, balance and spiritual connection. It is a site of spiritual pilgrimage for neo-pagans and new-age hippies... Eckhart Tolle even lived here in the 1980s! And of course, it lends its name to the huge counter-culture festival that takes place a few miles away. The venue itself was on the high street, nestled amongst alternative, new-age shops and cafes. Built of stone and rubble (including some from the ancient Abbey ruins), complete with Gargoyles and adorned with photographic prints of early Glastonbury festivals. Brad remarked that he'd never seen a more psychedelic backdrop to an altar (a large, colourfully trippy mandala), nor had he sat Zazen in a room with photos on the wall of naked dancing hippies!On arriving I was thrown a little by the subtle and not so subtle differences with my home Sangha back in Liverpool (Stonewater Zen). Here we sat facing the wall in traditional Soto style, rather than inwards as I'm used to, did our full bows facing towards the altar (rather than inwards), Kinhin (walking meditation) took place around your own row of Zafus/Zabutons rather than around the perimeter of the Zendo, and other little differences in form and the chanting of the sutras threw me and unsettled me a little (the Heart Sutra was a completely different translation to that I'm accustomed to and was chanted with a very different rhythm). It was familiar yet strangely alien to me, making me feel like a newbie all over again. I suppose Zen isn't quite like the Catholic faith I grew up with in which no matter which church you attended, the prayers, hymns and readings had a reassuring predictability. Perhaps there was a teaching in embracing uncertainty and 'beginner's mind' in there somewhere...Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the building, or the leylines and earth energies at work, but during Zazen, despite the early start and long drive, I had nice periods of clarity and focus. I took the opportunity to have Dokusan (individual interview) with Brad. This took place in the kitchen/dining area of the venue, which was a bit unusual and, along with Brad's grungy casual clothes, gave the interview a very informal feel, more like you were sitting down to have a cup of tea with a mate rather than discuss the great matter of life and death with an ordained Zen Priest (not that the two are mutually exclusive, in fact the only thing better than discussing the great matter of life and death is to do so over a nice cup of tea, but I digress...). I didn't really know what to say to Brad, but didn't want to pass up the opportunity to meet with him on an individual basis, so I went with the first thing that came to mind and asked him about realness and authenticity. A friend of mine had posted an article online a day or two earlier which dismissed the 'cult of realness' in favour of surrendering to escapism and fantasy. An intention to be real and authentic is one of my core values, and a key motivation for my Zen practice, so with this being fresh in my mind, and Brad epitomising 'realness' to me, I decided to ask him about this. He spoke about experiencing what is rather than perceiving life through our own filter (beliefs, assumptions, concepts, likes / dislikes), or at least being aware of our filter and the ways it influences our perception. This allows us to perceive things in a fresh way and respond accordingly. The conversation moved on with Brad asking me how long had I been practicing, which Sangha I practiced with etc. I wish I'd asked him to say something about how we manifest that realness, or live in an authentic way, but Zen interviews are traditionally quite short, plus Brad had lots of other people to see so I returned to my cushion to continue to sit. I would have loved more time with Brad, but I always feel this way with Sensei too (David Keizan Shoji Scott), that I'd love to sit, talk and pick his brains for an hour rather than the 5 minutes that is customary. I remember noting that Brad, like Sensei, seemed both very spiritual and very ordinary at the same time, very present and engaged, very together (although I'm sure both of them would dispute that!). Also like Sensei, Brad seems and looks much younger than his years. I find it hard to believe that Brad is 51 years old. In appearance, mannerisms and speech he seems much more like a man in his 30s. Perhaps this Zen stuff really is good for you! Back on my cushion, I returned to my ley-line induced clarity, this time periodically disturbed by a runny nose (all those bloody farmers' fields and pesky southern pollen...).Brad spoke twice, once in the morning and again towards the end of the day, which was great, I felt like I was getting more Brad for my buck. He spoke in a very down-to-earth, genuine and matter of fact way, stating that he saw his talk as a way of stimulating discussion amongst us. My first impressions were that Brad didn't actually seem that controversial at all, just grounded and contemporary. The occasional swear word, but no more than Tenshin Roshi (Charles Tenshin Fletcher). Perhaps he has softened since his first couple of books, or perhaps I'm just desensitised to controversy! I think I am probably in a different place in my understanding of Zen than I was (I felt quite challenged when I first read Brad's stuff years ago, like I had when I read "Spiritual Materialism" by Chögyam Trungpa). Brad spoke first about the role of the teacher in Zen, taking exception with something another teacher had said about it being to "guide the student towards awakening". This, Brad felt, gives too much of a student's power and autonomy away to the teacher, in turn giving the teacher too much responsibility, authority and status. Brad said that if we simplify things and talk about Zen as 'working on yourself', the teacher is simply somebody who has been working on him or herself for a little longer and has experienced many of the common pitfalls. Through sitting together, and through his (or her) talks and interviews, the teacher's experience can be of benefit to others, helping to keep the Sangha moving in the right direction, that is towards the Dharma (although Brad isn't keen on the word, preferring 'the truth' or 'reality'). He spoke about his resistance at taking responsibility for students, or taking their power away from them in any way, and the ways in which he ensures that he keeps giving it back to them. Your (and my) practice is our life and each of us is responsible for our life, all the teacher can do is help us to navigate the pitfalls whilst moving in the direction of the truth.Guiding the student towards awakening also implies the false promise of an end result, the goal of awakening. Brad spoke about the mistaken idea of awakening or enlightenment being some kind of goal to work towards or attain, a finish line. He asked, "OK, so you wake up, but then what? Isn't that just the start?" Brad said that once you wake up, it's just the beginning, part of a shifting, evolving process that continuously unfolds. "What the hell is this 'awakening' anyway?", Brad asked at one point...In his second talk, during the question and answer session, I told Brad that during the lunch break I had met a lady in one of the new-age spiritual shops that not only knew exactly what awakening was, but that she sold an 'awakening' spray, and therefore must have distilled the essence of awakening in to a pleasant-smelling spray! There were no instruction on the bottle so I can only imagine that this spray makes the work of a Bodhisattva much easier, perhaps one can simply skip down the high street, a spray in each hand, bestowing awakening upon unsuspecting passers-by, leaving a trail of lotus-flower-scented, crystal-infused fairy dust in your wake. The stuff was £12.99 for a small bottle, a bit of a rip off considering Dogen says we are already awake anyhow and that if we just sit down and shut up (see what I did there) then we can see it and live it. In case you were wondering, I didn't buy the awakening spray, although I did find some lovely Japanese Incense!Walking down the high street in Glastonbury, with its healing crystals, aura alignments and tarot cards provided an interesting contrast to Brad's grounded-ness and realness. Don't get me wrong, part of me loves all that new-age, hippie stuff. On a superficial level, I love the way those shops smell, and I enjoy the visual stimulus of the various colours, Indian patterns, crystals and carved masks and statues. But more than that, new-age spirituality gave me something 'positive' to hang on to when I was coming out of a difficult period of my life, and it was my gateway in to meditation... but it's not really real life is it? It's just another fantasy, a form of spiritual escapism. Zen is more about becoming intimate with your life, embracing and appreciating your moment-by-moment experience, whatever it contains. The awakening spray seemed to illustrate ironically the common misconceptions about what it is to be awakened and live an awakened life. Brad spoke about how, unlike some forms of new-age spirituality (or other traditional religions for that matter), Zen requires equal amounts of doubt and faith. It is neither wholly spiritual nor wholly materialistic, adopting a middle way that embraces both the relative and absolute. Zen is therefore well suited to those of an open-minded but slightly sceptical disposition.I was interested in Brad's description of Zen practice as "working on yourself". He developed this point by referring to Dogen's most celebrated quotation: "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by all things." Brad spoke about how, whether it is our intention or not, when we sit still without external distractions in Zazen, we are forced to study the self as we sit with what comes up for us – our thoughts, feelings, habitual patterns. Ultimately, for many people who practice consistently over time, the boundaries of this 'self' become blurred or fuzzy, and then perhaps the boundaries of this 'self' begin to expand as the "layers of non-reality fall apart". In this way, our habitual self-referencing can fall away and we can experience what is, just breathing, just seeing, just feeling, just smelling – this is forgetting the self and being awakened by all things.Asked to say more about this self, Brad stated that it develops due to a necessity to interact and engage in the world, that it consists of our tendencies and proclivities, likes and dislikes, habitual patterns and the labels and identities that we claim for ourselves. The Zen position is not, he stated, that this self does not exist as it clearly does from an experiential perspective, but that it does not exist in the way that we think it does. That it is fluid, impermanent and in a constant state of flux. Zen is not about obliterating or getting rid of this self, rather, Zen practice can allow us to hold less tightly on to our sense of self, and ultimately allow the boundaries of the self to expand. The Buddha found that when this happens, we suffer less and our life flows more easily.Brad was also asked to say something about the secular Buddhist movement and the popularity of mindfulness. As a Counsellor and Therapist whose practice is influenced by mindfulness, I was keen to hear Brad's perspective. Though he has written articles highly critical of Mindfulness, his response on this occasion was quite nuanced. He stated that he has no problem with mindfulness per se, that it can be helpful for those suffering with anxiety or depression and that, if it helps those people, he is happy that it is available to them. However, he noted that it is just one aspect of Buddha's teaching and that taking mindfulness in isolation, divorced from ethics and the more spiritual or mystical parts of the Buddha's teachings could be problematic. Brad spoke about how, for many people, one of the first things they notice with regular meditation practice is that it helps them with their stress and they stop "freaking the fuck out", but then what? As meditation practice deepens, the initial period of stabilisation gives way to experiences that, for many, can be unsettling; difficult thoughts and feelings can emerge, the way we perceive things and relate to them can change. If they stick at it long enough, they may even experience the boundaries of their 'self' beginning to expand (and might freak the fuck out all over again!). Brad wondered if those who learn mindfulness were given the support they needed to process these experiences. He was concerned about the level of training many mindfulness teachers receive, and whether they have an ongoing personal practice that allows them to support their students in the same way a Zen teacher does?The latter part of the second talk and discussion was led by questions and focused on ethics; starting on how the absence of ethics in many mindfulness courses creates problems, moving on to how to approach the precepts and finally how to respond to the social and environmental challenges that we face, including an exploration of engaged Buddhism and what Brad called micro-social change, that is, starting with you and your little corner of the world, being the change as Ghandi put it. It felt quite fitting to end on this point before the final period of Zazen, like we'd covered the full spectrum of Buddhist practice – from working on ourselves to how we can be of service in the world, from awakening to compassionate action, from studying the self to forgetting the self. Not bad for 8 hours in a dusty hall in Glastonbury, and well worth the drive down south.Driving back through the scenic surroundings I reflected on my experience of the day. Brad was certainly the real deal, but I think I knew that already. What I really discovered was that he was in fact both nothing special and at the same time a very unique and contemporary voice in western Buddhism. After a day of Zazen this paradox doesn't seem as difficult to reconcile. I was also struck by how much he reminded me of Sensei. I had expected a very different experience of a Zen teacher, an interesting contrast. Yet what I found, beyond the superficial differences in accent, the occasional swear word and a different set of cultural references was essentially the same thing – a human being, a very real, authentic human being who has been doing this stuff for a lot longer than me and is compassionate enough to let me and others tag along, helping us to navigate the main pitfalls and keeping us pointing in the direction of reality."with warm wishes,
Alan Kaishin Crawford
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