Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Juggling
Sep 2011 29

Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Juggling

Posted In Blog,Relationships,Society

by Brad Warner

A guy named Brian who posts on my blog (hardcorezen.blogspot.com) asked:

“I’m wondering how you feel about stories of Zen masters who endured what would normally be insane levels of pain through the discipline of zazen? No doubt some of the stories are fanciful, but we have on video the monk who set himself on fire and didn’t flinch until he was dead.

“Do you think you could do that after so many years of sitting or is something missing? Or is that really not the point of zazen, just a type of parlor trick that’s cool to know can be done but isn’t the primary purpose of meditation?”

Around the same time I got a message from one of my Facebook friends mentioning this video by Ken Wilber:

In case you can’t view it, this is a video of the uber-spiritual wonderman Ken Wilber hooking himself up to a machine that supposedly demonstrates how he can voluntarily stop his brainwaves.

This stuff kind of reminds me of juggling.

When I lived in Santa Monica, I used to walk down to Venice Beach on weekends. There would always be lots of talented people on the boardwalk doing various tricks for chump change from tourists. One of these guys was a juggler. He was absolutely amazing. He had this trick where he’d climb up on a balance board on top of a top of a rickety wooden ladder and juggle like five butcher’s knives, all while making clever jokes at his own expense. It was astounding. Take a look:

Like most people on the boardwalk, I’d watch his act, be amazed and then put a dollar or two in the bucket he passed around at the end. I was a local, and hence a cheapskate. Maybe the tourists slipped him fives and tens. Or maybe some of them were cheaper than me and just threw in quarters.

I’ve done twenty plus years of daily zazen meditation, plus more intensive retreats than I care to remember. Having been through some interesting scenes during practice I can understand how one could use meditation practice to learn to do some pretty impressive tricks. I personally could not sit still while I was on fire and I doubt I could wire myself up to an EEG and make the indicators do whatever I wanted. But I can see clearly how that could be done.

Let me try to explain what I mean by saying I can “see clearly.” It’s like if you learned to juggle three tennis balls. Having done that, you’d be able to understand clearly how you might eventually be able to sit on a balance board on top of a rickety ladder and juggle knives. I’m not talking here about comprehending something intellectually as a concept. Anyone can do that. You’d have to at least accomplish three tennis balls at once before you could truly get a handle on how juggling knives isn’t as superhuman as it seems to people like me who can’t even juggle one tennis ball. There’s a kind of body/mind comprehension that goes beyond just getting something as an idea.

Having understood how you might one day be able to juggle knives on a balance board, you’d have to ask yourself if it was worth it. It would take years of tremendous dedication to accomplish such a trick and you’d have to forgo a lot of other things in life just to devote yourself to the task. So you’d either have to really, really, really, really want to juggle knives. Or else you’d have to have some other motive, like believing that if you could juggle knives on a balance board you might be able to join Cirque du Soleil and make a living at it. Either way, you’d need some kind of motivation.

The problem I have with Ken Wilber, as well as others like him, is all about motivation. Ken Wilber seems to imply that his accomplishments indicate that his meditation is somehow qualitatively better than other peoples’ and that without such accomplishments “something is missing” as Brian my commenter asked. While I admit these accomplishments do indicate a commitment to something, I’m not sure it’s something I’m interested in committing to.

To me, Wilber’s goal in meditation appears to be to get more advanced at it than anyone else in the world and to be known for having done so. It’s very competitive. This assumption appears to be borne out by the comment I received when I said that I thought Wilber’s trick with the brainwave machine looked phony.

“Brad, just because you can’t do it doesn’t mean it’s fake,” said the commenter. True enough. Maybe he actually is going into Nirvikalpa Samadhi, whatever the blazes that is. It might not be a fake. But it’s the “just because you can’t do it” part that’s telling.

Wilber may say he doesn’t intend people to take it this way. But that would be disingenuous. He knows full well people are going to take it this way. The message my commenter got is, “Ken Wilber is a better meditator than Brad Warner.” It’s the kind of message I’m sure most people take away from Wilber’s various demonstrations of power.

If meditation is a competition, I don’t want to play that game. But it’s not. So I meditate.

In the case of those Vietnamese monks who burned themselves, they appear to me to be deeply confused people. When I see that damned video I just get incredibly angry and sad. What a fucking waste. What they did amounted to the most macho display of macho-ism ever. What could be more macho than burning yourself alive and not flinching? The fact that you actually had to die to prove how macho you were just makes you that much more macho.

If what they did had actually made any difference in the war, maybe I’d think differently. Sadly, I don’t think their tragic wasteful ugly deaths did anything to stop the war in Vietnam. They could have done a lot more by staying alive and working for peace.

I’ve seen enough in my own personal practice to be quite convinced that I could do a lot of impressive things with this practice if I wanted to direct my efforts that way. But why would I do so? I can’t think of any compelling reason to pursue such things. It would take a lot of hard, hard effort. It doesn’t seem worthwhile to me at all. I’m not interested in being macho. I don’t need to display my meditative achievements to the world.

Which is not me saying I’m better than those guys because I don’t want these things. It’s just a fact. I don’t have the desire. Being better has nothing to do with it. You can put in all that effort and still end up as confused as anyone else. It looks like a big waste of time to me and I don’t have time to waste.

There is a certain class of people who enjoy bragging about their supposed spiritual accomplishments. They’ve been around for a long time. But the truth is most of us who meditate don’t learn to do tricks. And if we do, we generally keep it to ourselves.

Dogen, the 12th century monk who founded the sect of Buddhism in which I practice (and who was also the loose basis for a character on the TV show LOST), tells a story about people who brag about their spiritual accomplishments:

At that time a certain Sanzo from India arrives in the Chinese capital, saying, “I have attained the eye that intuits the minds of others” [This is supposedly one of the powers of a Buddha]. The emperor decrees that the National Master [his personal Zen teacher] should examine him. As soon as Sanzo meets the master he prostrates himself at once and stands to the master’s right. The master says, “Have you got the power to know others’ minds?”

Sanzo answers, “I would not be so bold [as to say so].”

The master says, “Tell me where this old monk is just now.”

Sanzo says, “Master, you are the teacher of the whole country. Why have you gone to the West River to watch a boat race?”

The master asks a second time, “Tell me where the old monk is just now.”

Sanzo says, “Master, you are the teacher of the whole country. Why are you on Tianjian Bridge watching someone play with a monkey?”

The master asks a third time, “Tell me where the old monk is just now.”

Sanzo takes a good while but he does not know where the master has been. The master scolds him, saying, “You ghost of a wild fox, where is your power to know others’ minds?”

Sanzo has no answer.

Most people interpret this story as saying that the master imagined watching a boat race and Sanzo guessed it, then the master imagined watching a monkey and Sanzo guessed it, then the master put himself in some kind of formless Samadhi (perhaps like the one Ken Wilber supposedly enters in the video) and Sanzo couldn’t see it because he wasn’t as advanced as the master. The master wins and Sanzo loses. One traditional interpretation Dogen sites says, “The first two times the master’s mind is concerned with external circumstances; then he enters the samadhi of receiving and using the self, and so Sanzo does not see him.”

But Dogen begs to differ. It isn’t about what sort of mental states the master enters. And it has nothing at all to do with winning and losing. First off, Dogen points out that the National Master never actually says Sanzo got it right the first two times. Then he goes a little deeper.

Dogen says, “The National Master’s words ‘Where is the old monk just now?’ are as if to ask ‘What is the old monk?’ ‘Where is the old monk just now?’ asks ‘Just now is what kind of moment?’ To ask ‘where is (the old monk)’ asserts that ‘This place is where something ineffable exists.’”

In other words the master is not asking Sanzo to read his mind. He is asking Sanzo to tell him where the real person who stands in front of him in this concrete reality (i.e. the National Master) is right now. He wants Sanzo to tell him what this real world is. He wants to help Sanzo see what is actual.

Sanzo has only succeeded in demonstrating a parlor trick — if, indeed, he has even demonstrated that much. He never gives any indication that he really understands the fundamental nature of reality.

It annoys me to see someone like Ken Wilber who does tricks — ones that nobody can ever even verify he’s accomplished, by the way — make tons more money than that street juggler down on Venice Beach who does something far cooler. I guess people are impressed by imaginary stuff.

I don’t see any great value in most of what passes for “altered states of consciousness.” Every possible state of altered consciousness is contained within this state of consciousness you possess right at this very moment.

It’s true we are evolutionarily developed to filter consciousness in a particular way. And most of us assume that this particular way is the only way available. There are methods by which you can learn to filter your consciousness in different ways. And perhaps there is some minor value in knowing that there are other ways of filtering things. But it’s just another sort of filter. It’s the difference between looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and looking at the world through green-tinted glasses. You’re not getting the true picture either way.

So maybe Ken Wilber really can trance out on Delta waves. I’m more impressed with the guy who can juggle butcher’s knives on a balance board. Look at both videos. Honestly, which one is more impressive to you?

***

Brad is on tour right now and may be in your area. To see where Brad will be speaking next take a look here.

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!

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Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Meditation, Depression and the Sense of Self
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: How To Make A Zen Monster
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Living Simply
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2 comments
Brad Warner
Brad Warner

You never saw LOST? It started off good, but got so boring as it went on. Anyway, they named many of the characters after famous philosophers. There was a Locke, there was a Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and there was a character named Dogen.

Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson

Nice article. I missed the initial FB dialogue, but generally I agree with your take on Wilber's approach to spiritual practice. He treats it like an athlete might treat a sport. If you've ever read some of Wilber's books, you'll notice he treats the study of consciousness very mechanically, as if it were an engine with a blue print. Not my cup of tea.

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