The night that bestselling author and Zen teacher Brad Warner learned that his childhood friend Marky had died of cancer at the age of forty-eight, Warner had just arrived in Hamburg, Germany, where he was scheduled to give a talk to a group of Zen students. It was the last thing he felt like doing. Instead, Warner was thinking about all the things he had never said to his friend, since topics like spirituality and meditation didn’t exactly fit with the passion for punk rock they had shared since they were young. So, as Warner continued his teaching tour through Europe, he began writing out all the things he wished he had said to Marky before he died.
The ultimate result is the new book Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen. Simply and humorously, Warner reflects on why Zen provided him a lifeline in a difficult world. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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When I was around nineteen years old, I was introduced to the central practice of Zen Buddhism, a style of meditation called zazen. More specifically, I was introduced to a type of zazen called shikantaza, which is a fancy Japanese word meaning “just sitting.”
The just in just sitting is a strong just. It means doing nothing but just fully devoting yourself to the act of sitting rather than the kind of just you use when you say you’re “just sitting around.” In this style of meditation, you are not given any goal to pursue. You’re not trying to gain insights. You’re not trying to become mindful. You’re not trying to make yourself a better person. You’re not trying to have some kind of special experience.
Rather, you are trying to sit very, very still in order to fully experience the simple and real fact of just sitting very, very still.
That sounds easy, right? It did to me, anyway, when I first heard about it. And yet more than three decades later I’m still trying to get it right.
The reason I still do it, even after thirty-odd years of failure, is that it is the only method of engaging with the truth that makes any sense to me. Absent a letter from you postmarked from the Great Beyond or any other convincing evidence of eternal life, I am still far more interested in what this is — this world I am actually living in, this person I actually am. If I want to know what this life I am living right now actually is, then the only way to know that is to sit very quietly and watch it happen.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, zazen is the best and easiest way to do that. Not because it’s extra holy or because it was delivered by an unquestionable divine authority, but because it makes so much more sense than anything else I have ever seen proposed. If there is a way to understand the truth about the life I am living right here and now, then zazen is the most viable candidate, as far as I can see.
I don’t even take it for granted that zazen “works.” And the reason I put “works” in scare quotes is that I want you to notice what that word implies. It implies that zazen will produce results, in this case the result of allowing you to see what life really is. But even that is not what it’s for.
It’s like baseball. The only thing you’re guaranteed when you play baseball is that you’ll be playing baseball. Both teams want to win, and maybe individuals on those teams have specific goals in mind for themselves, such as hitting home runs or whatever. But those things might not happen for those people. The only thing they’re guaranteed is that they’ll play some baseball.
It’s not even a given that winning is the best possible thing to happen. This is probably hard to demonstrate in terms of baseball. But in terms of life, I think any of us can honestly examine our lives and see that lots of things turned out better for us because we did not get what we wanted.
For example, I graduated from a university with a degree in history and a teaching certificate. I went on a number of interviews to get a job as a history teacher in a bunch of high schools in small towns in Ohio. I got turned down every time. It turns out that high schools in Middle America don’t hire history teachers. They hire coaches who can double as history teachers. At every interview I went to I was asked what sport I could coach. When I said I couldn’t coach any sport, I could tell by the reactions I got that the interview was effectively over.
I was deeply disappointed each time I failed to get the job I wanted. But because I didn’t get those jobs, I became desperate enough to go to Japan to teach English there, which in turn led to almost every significant thing I’ve done in my life. I got a cool job at a company that made Japanese monster movies. I met a Zen teacher who insisted on ordaining me, even though I had no interest in being a monk. That experience led to my writing a book, which then blossomed into a career. None of that would ever have happened if I’d gotten what I wanted and had been hired as a history teacher at a high school in Rittman, Ohio, or somewhere like that.
Each time I have some kind of disappointment, I remind myself of that time and of others when not getting what I wanted turned out to be the best thing.
And because I understand this, even though I do still have disappointments, I don’t take my assessment of those disappointments very seriously anymore. When I get disappointed by some circumstance I find myself in I think, Well, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m better off without whatever it was I wanted. Maybe I should be glad I didn’t get it. And even if I don’t exactly feel glad, the knowledge that my own assessment of the situation may be mistaken is of great comfort in those times.
Zazen may disappoint you. It certainly has disappointed me a lot. On the other hand, I can’t think of any other activity I’ve engaged in that so consistently makes me feel better after having done it. Doing laundry and pooping come close. But most things that society holds up as being pleasurable and fun — like having sex, for example, or eating a delicious meal — are far less consistent.
The big hang-up with zazen is that it takes years of practice before most people notice anything like a “result.”
You might ask me if, after thirty-plus years of doing it, zazen has at least given me the answers I sought when I first started doing it. I would certainly ask that of someone like me if I was considering whether or not to devote the necessary time, effort, and energy to a practice that doesn’t even really begin to make sense until you’ve done it for at least five years — and more like ten or twenty in most cases.
I would say that it has. But those answers were not what I expected or what I wanted. In some ways, they were better than what I wanted. In other ways, they were not. I wanted the Big Answer to Everything. That never happened. Even though I did discover partial answers, and even though those partial answers were often astounding in their scope, the really big picture still eludes me and probably always will.
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Brad Warner is the author of Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen and numerous other books, including It Came from Beyond Zen, Don’t Be a Jerk, and Sex, Sin, and Zen. A Soto Zen teacher, he is also a punk bassist, filmmaker, and popular blogger who leads workshops and retreats around the world. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is the founder and lead teacher of the Angel City Zen Center. Visit him online at www.hardcorezen.info.
Excerpted from the book Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen. Copyright © 2019 by Brad Warner.