Los Angeles gets a lot of grief for being home to an inordinate number of celebretards, pseudo-celebretards, star fuckers, and vain VIPs. Although the city is thusly stereotyped, it’s also home to a thriving population of unique and noteworthy people whose pursuits add diversity and depth to a seemingly shallow pool. Each week, LA’s Better Half will profile one distinctive Angeleno doing something remarkable and original. This week: Meet Brad Warner, LA’s Book-Writing, Film-Making, Bass-Playing, Zazen-Teaching, Punk Rock Zen Buddhist Monk.
If ever I’ve met an Angeleno who marches to the beat of his own drum, it’s Brad Warner. I first encountered Brad when I was working as Managing Editor for SuicideGirls, and looking for someone to write a weekly column on spirituality. I think I Googled “Punk Rock Spirituality,” and pretty much immediately discovered Brad’s blog, Hardcore Zen, and his webpage, Sit Down and Shut Up. At that point, he’d already published his first book, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality. It seemed like a slam dunk, so I emailed him, and we began to correspond about the possibility of his writing for SG. Eventually we were able to make it happen, and he’s been writing his column, “Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen” on SG since last December. In the eight months that I’ve worked with and gotten to know Brad, he’s published his second book, Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, which makes relatable one of the great works of Zen literature, the Shobogenzo, by thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen.
Brad also produced and directed a documentary film called Cleveland’s Screaming, about the hardcore punk scene in Akron & Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1980’s. He played bass in the Akron, Ohio punk band ODFx (Zero Defects). From his blog about the movie:
There are plenty of punk rock docs these days. But they all focus on the nationally and internationally known bands. But punk rock was never about big, famous bands signed to major labels — or even major independents. So, as good as some of those docs are, in a very real sense they are missing the point.
Punk was a grass roots movement that took place in a large number of places simultaneously. And though there was an overall unity to the movement, each local scene had its own unique flavor. In those pre-internet days, communication was not nearly as swift or as thorough as it is today. So one city’s interpretation of what it meeant to be punk was often vastly different from another’s.
A few punk superstars emerged from the Akron and Cleveland scenes — Devo, the Dead Boys, Chrissie Hynde, Pere Ubu. But by the time hardcore emerged in the early 80’s, the media spotlight was no longer focused on Northeast Ohio. The scene that developed there was totally unique. And yet it was very much like other hardcore scenes across the country and around the world.
In the documentary “Cleveland’s Screaming,” you’ll get an intimate look at the NE Ohio scene.
The film is premiering at the Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, July 25.
It’s fair to say that Brad’s involvement in the hardcore punk rock scene of the early 80’s was a stepping stone on his path to Zen Buddhism, but it wasn’t the first. Growing up, Brad spent part of his childhood in Kenya, where he discovered and became interested in Indian culture and religions. Later, as a college student at Kent State, he took a class on Zen Buddhism taught by Tim McCarthy. That started him studying Buddhism and doing Zazen meditation.
In 1991, Brad took a job teaching English in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET).
“They hire warm, moving bodies to go and pretend to teach English,” he says, and explains that he taught for a year before looking for something more interesting. A longtime fan of Japanese monster movies, Brad decided to see if he could get a job with one of the companies that produced them. He read a book by Noboru Tsuburaya, the chairman of Tsuburaya Productions, which was responsible for the creation of one of his favorite characters: Ultraman.
The book revealed Tsuburaya’s desire and efforts to expand his company’s international sales and divisions, so Brad wrote a letter of inquiry. As it happened, an American guy who had been working for them had recently quit. Tsuburaya was trying to decide whether or not to replace him when Brad’s letter arrived. It wasn’t long before he was hired and made the move from Toyama Prefecture to Tokyo, where he lived for the next 11 years.
In Tokyo, Brad met and began studying and practicing zazen with Gudo Wafu Nishijima of the Soto Sect. Eventually, Nishijima ordained Brad as a monk and made him his “dharma heir,” which shocked Brad, who never set out to become a monk.
When I ask why Nishijimi chose him, Brad says, “I don’t know, that’s a good question. Maybe he thought I was sincere about it and serious about it, because I was, in my own way. And I was kind of happy that somebody noticed that.”
In 2004, Tsuburaya Productions decided they wanted to expand their business by opening an office in Los Angeles. Of course, Brad was the man for the job, but at first he refused to go: He thought they were going to send him out to L.A. without a plan. He jokes that he was right in his premonition, but ultimately he decided to move to Los Angeles, mainly because his mother, living in Texas, was sick at the time. He figured that it would be better to be 2-hours by plane, rather than 12.
He’s been in Los Angeles for a little more than two years, and one of the first things he did upon arrival was establish a weekly zazen practice at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica. Interested parties be warned: Brad does not deal in enlightenment experiences and epiphanies. He describes zazen as “boring,” and finds it amusing that so many people attend his lectures, but so few attend his meditation group. He says that most people want to hear him talk about zazen, but don’t want to do the work.
If you’ve been curious about the “boring” prospects of meditation, Brad is a worthy teacher. His soft-spoken manner can be misleading at first: He’s a brilliant and thoughtful guy who hasn’t gotten caught up in the ego and bullshit of so many other “spiritual leaders.” In fact, Brad will explain to you why Buddhism and zazen aren’t “spiritual” practices at all.
His time in Los Angeles has left him conflicted, this far. He still longs to return to Japan, but can’t really come up with a legitimate reason to do so. He’s still employed by Tsuburaya Productions as their Los Angeles liason, and muses that his zen teaching is more relevant here in the U.S.
He jokingly complains about the weather in Los Angeles.
“It’s too fucking sunny. When you grow up in Ohio, you always feel like you’d like to come to a place where the sun shines instead of being overcast all the time, but it screws me up. Ever since I was a kid, it was like, ‘It’s a sunny day, I better go outside.’ Now I feel that every damn day. I don’t know how to be inside when the weather is like this.”
He admits, though, that there are benefits to the endless sun: “Recently a member of the group suggested going for a swim after zazen, so we all got swimsuits at a thrift store and went swimming.”
There are other things he appreciates about the city, such as the plethora of vegetarian and vegan dining options like one of his favorites: Green Leaves, in Los Feliz. He loves Amoeba and Rockaway Records, but laments the fact that so many other independent record shops closed in the past few years.
When I ask how living in Los Angeles has changed him, for better or for worse, he says, “I speak English more.”
That’s Brad, for you. Seemingly simple, but completely undefinable; Defying categorization, but totally relatable.
Here are a few ways you can get to know the different sides of Brad Warner:
1. Pick up a copy of Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality and/or Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye.
2. Check out the premiere of his film, Cleveland’s Screaming at the Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, July 25.
3. Drop in for his zazen group on Saturday mornings in Santa Monica.
Tell him blogging.la sent ya.
Know an interesting Angeleno who deserves to be profiled in LA’s Better Half? Let us know: [email protected]