Saturday, 27 September 2008

Is there a place for verbal abuse in Buddhism?

Zen author Brad Warner is as well-known for his colourful insults as he is for his teaching of Zen. His writing is funny, entertaining and often insightful, but his interpretation of what constitutes true Buddhism is narrow and exclusive, rejecting the vast majority of what goes by the name of Buddhism in the West and in Asia. Those who teach some version of Buddhism that he regards as 'phoney' are subjected to all sorts of insults and mockery. His latest volley of attacks on Genpo Roshi for example mock his Big Heart Circle retreats as Big Fart™ Circle. In the past he has publicly referred to other Buddhist teachers as 'butt-buddies' and a student who left a retreat early as an 'asswipe'.

The lineage I practice with (Deshimaru Soto Zen) is closely related to Brad's and I've never seen this sort of behaviour or attitude anywhere else. People can be quite direct sometimes and they tend not to put on pretenses, but I've not seen anyone act or encourage others to act in this way. The attitude I'm familiar with is non-dogmatic and inclusive with emphasis on open-minded, open-hearted, non-judgemental observation and responsible behaviour.

Zen monks don't observe the full Vinaya precepts, they keep to a much smaller set of ten precepts. The sixth precept is generally translated as 'Do not criticise others'. Brad Warner will have made a solemn vow to keep this precept. Interpretation of precepts vary from teacher to teacher, but the explanation I was given would certainly have excluded Brad's behaviour. According to Brad it only means that you shouldn't criticise others behind their backs or criticise them for not following the precepts. In response to criticism, Brad said:

...the precepts are only to be used as a guide to gauge our own behavior — not the behavior of others. I said this before but I cannot stress it enough. When the precepts are used to judge the behavior of others we're back into the same sick game every religion plays where we are the morally righteous and the unbelievers should change their ways. Buddhists must never be like that.
....It's also absolutely un-Buddhist to point at another person and say that person is breaking the precepts. You cannot know what the precepts are to someone else. Trying to insist that others live up to your interpretation of the precepts is a recipe for misery anyway.
This rings true, but surely it's also absolutely un-Buddhist to mock and slander other people too? The precept is to encourage us to be non-judgemental not used as a shield to protect us from people who are accusing us as being judgemental. This sort of thing becomes a vicious circle. The best thing is to avoid slandering people in the first place.

I think that constructive, open-minded criticism can be healthy in that it exposes our views to the experiences, and analysis of others. However, criticism that is attached, and narrow-minded can be like an intoxicant that increases egotism, intellectual vanity and hostility, all of which are forms of clinging and delusion. Also, not criticising others is a good 'house rule' for maintaining social harmony in the place of practice, which itself helps with the practice.

The justifications that Brad Warner gives for acting in the way that he does is that he is exposing false teachings and that this is how he really feels and that to act differently is 'phoney' and that being phoney is the same as being a hypocritical charlatan or that being phoney leads to repression and passive-aggressive behaviour. This isn't Buddhism as taught either by Buddha or Dogen. This sort of argument can be used to justify pretty much anything. There's no support for the idea that not acting out all our anti-social impulses ie. acting as a socialised human being leads to greater harm later on. He is placing 'authenticity' ie. his attachment to 'punk' credibility above any harm he does other people. Unsurpisingly his blog comments section is full of conflict - with people challenging Brad's controversial teaching and others attacking those who criticise him.

Some of his defenders argue that Dogen himself criticised others quite heavily, comparing practictioners of Nembutsu (chanting the name of Amida Buddha for salvation ie Pure Land Buddhists) to 'croaking frogs'. Well, firstly Brad isn't Dogen - he doesn't have the understanding of Dogen to be able to arbitrate what does and doesn't constitute 'True Buddhism'. Secondly, while Genpo Roshi does advocate a controversial new method he isn't suggesting we chant for enlightenment. Third Dogen's criticisms, even in the context of the religious conflict and competition of Japanese Buddhism are significantly milder and more reasonable than Brad's.

The Zen way is neither amoral nihilism nor is it repression. It means at least trying to live according to the precepts and taking the Bodhisattva vows sincerely. Things like selfishness, vanity and arrogance are not rationalised as 'authentic' they are faced as part of our practice. How do these delusions arise? And why do we cling to them? By releasing the tight grip of the personal mind we can naturally understand other people better and treat them with kindness.


  1. I'm glad someone is saying it but I doubt Brad is listening.

  2. There is a danger of getting entangled in being judgemental myself by talking about this. But there are occasional times when it's necessary to speak out.

    If there was teacher who was sexually abusing others I'd criticise them. I would'd be silenced by authority or rationalisations as to why it was OK. This is not so bad, but it is a form of verbal abuse.

  3. excellent topic. I think in this world we live in, standing our ground and speaking out when we see blatant harm done to others is being mindful.

  4. Brad Warner is the reason I found Buddhism, because he appeals to a market that Richard Gere doesn't. I for one, think that he's helping Buddhism in a positive way. Besides: read his books, he's simply criticizing what he thinks is wrong, no more than you're doing right now. Take it with a grain of salt

  5. "No more than you're doing now."

    Except none of us are attacking people with vulgarity, especially teachers of the Dharma.

    Brad could "keep it real" and still be respectful towards others in speech and action. You don't have to call someone an "asswipe" to make it clear that you disagree with them, especially when they are a teacher with decades of experience. Brad excuses what he does by stating that since he disagrees with the stance of another Dharma teacher, they aren't really Dharma teachers so the precepts don't apply. That's a load of crap.

  6. "a load of crap"?

    It just sounds a lot to me like our definitions of vulgar are different.

    My point was that vulgarity or not, you're still attacking another teacher's message, and isn't that exactly what you accuse him of doing as well?

  7. Bradley,

    You (and others) miss the point that Brad is an ORDAINED teacher of Zen who has taken certain precepts during his ordination. He chooses to creatively (not) follow them.

    I am NOT an ordained zen teacher. I can say the word "crap". In any case, it doesn't matter because I didn't say "Brad is crap," which would be an actual analogy. What I said is the idea that the precepts don't apply to teachers you disagree with is a load of crap. That's applicable to the IDEA, not to the PERSON.

    Got it?

  8. To use simpler terms, if you can't follow your vows, you should give them back, as is traditionally done, not just continue to break them.

    If and when I take on those precepts, I will do my best to observe them and the struggles that go with doing so.

    Brad seems more interested in behaving as he wishes and then justifying his behavior by stating that others can't criticize his failure to follow the precepts because he says that they can't.

  9. So can you give me an example of all of the vows you must align with to formally teach Zen Buddhism? I'm aware of the common eight-fold path, but what is different for a Zen teacher?

    And I appreciate your comments on that matter, thank you.

  10. Brad is a member of the Dogen Sangha. His teacher is a super reform Zen roshi, Gudo Wafu Nishijima. Nishijima has written many articles on Zen. One of these is on the precepts. These precepts are taken on, as his article discusses, when one goes through Jukai. I know of some schools that only do the five pancasila precepts when they go through Jukai, along with taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

    One goes through Jukai to take refuge and become a committed Buddhist within a number of the Japanese traditions (such as Soto and Rinzai Zen). This is done by those on the path to eventual ordination within Zen, so Brad had to do this.

    Additionally, when one goes through tokkudo and is formally ordained, the 16 Great Bodhisattva Precepts are taken as part of the ordination platform (if they haven't all been taken already). These are, generally (with some quibbling on translation):

    The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts:

    The Three Treasures
    1. I take refuge in Buddha.
    2. I take refuge in Dharma.
    3. I take refuge in Sangha.

    The Three Pure Precepts
    1. I vow to avoid evil.
    2. I vow to practice good.
    3. I vow to save all beings.

    The Ten Grave Precepts
    1. Recognizing I am not separate from all that is, I vow to take up the way of not killing,
    2. Being satisfied with what I have, I vow to take up the way of not stealing.
    3. Treating all beings with respect and dignity, I vow to take up the way of not misusing sex.
    4. Listening and speaking from the heart, I vow to take up the way of not speaking falsely.
    5. Cultivating a mind that sees clearly, I vow to take up the way of not giving or taking drugs.
    6. Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to offer, I vow to take up the way of not discussing the faults of others.
    7. Speaking what I perceive to be the truth without guilt or blame, I vow to take up the way of not praising myself while abusing others.
    8. Being grateful for the gifts of this life, I vow to take up the way of not sparing the Dharma assets.
    9. Transforming suffering into wisdom, I vow to take up the way of not indulging in anger.
    10. Honoring my life as an instrument of the Great Way, I vow to take the way of not defaming the Three Treasures.

    Brad's own teacher and master, Nishijima Roshi, writes about the precepts in the article above. When discussing the sixth precept, he states:

    "No.6: Don’t discuss failures of Buddhist priests and laymen. As Buddhists we try our best to live and practice the Buddhist life. In doing so we often make mistakes. This is natural. Our mistakes come directly from our efforts. This may sound strange, but it is the fact in our life. So when we see the mistakes of others we should not be
    critical, for their mistakes are only the product of their efforts in this life. "

    This is Brad's own teacher and the man that ordained him.

  11. I appreciate your explanation.

    So then, what are your feelings on Brad Warner in other respects? Do you think he's positively impacting the field of western Buddhism? The reason I ask, is that Brad Warner started as a jumping-off point for me spiritually. Having someone like that was really nice to relate to, so I'm quick to stand up for what he's said. But I can clearly see his interpretations of the vows he's taken are skewed. Thoughts?

  12. Me?

    I like his books and I actually like a no-nonsense attitudes towards things.

    That being said, for Brad, Zen = Zazen and nothing else. Additionally, anything that isn't Zen isn't really Buddhism, which he has stated many times.

    I find that to be a rather simplistic take on Buddhism. This is all the more true since I'm a Buddhist but not a Zen Buddhist so I'm not really a Buddhist according to Brad. Of course, according to Brad, the Dalai Lama isn't a real Buddhist either since he isn't Zen.

  13. You've given me a new perspective. I thank you for your time and words

  14. Bradley,

    I actually agree with you too. Brad is a really good writer - he makes something difficult, arcane-seeming (and probably unfashionable) seem accessible, interesting and entertaining. For me too, he helped me to get into Zen. I've been following his writing since well before he published his first book. I'm glad Brad is there being Brad. If I met him I'd buy him a drink.

    But that doesn't mean he's above criticism. I think it's healthy to counterbalance his approach.

    Kudos for being open-minded.

  15. Nice post, Justin.
    These days I'm a little anti-institution and relish Brad's humour and stance on some schools of Buddhism and teachers he doesn't care for. The 'asswipe' thing wasn't very kind though, considering if I remember rightly, it just referred to a guy who left his Seshin early.
    Even though I've come to think that his comments so far are mostly fine, I think your criticisms are also fine.
    "It's healthy to counterbalance his approach" - exactly!
    And in a way that's what he's doing with his approach too - counterbalancing all the obsession with enlightenment, spiritual gurus, smugness and phoney Buddhism.

  16. Yes.

    There is a danger though with getting into the whole criticism and judgement game - because you are fixating on concepts, becoming attached to views and projecting your judgements outwards. This is delusional and can be a big obstacle to true practice. Generally it's best I think just to focus on your own practice. I think this is why Brad gets away with so much, but I decided to open my mouth and say something about Brad. But I need to let go of that now.

    A true master perhaps can gently and cooly guide others without becoming opinionated.

  17. We need to have a few Brads around, to make stark, pointed statements and to keep us from being fuddy-duddy self-righteous windbags.

    Frankly, it is particularly necessary for there to be someone of standing to "speak truth to power" in the case of Gempo Roshi Instant Enlightenment seminars.

    Does this mean it would be a good thing if everyone was like Brad? God, no. A light sprinkling of Brads is as much as the earth can handle.

  18. A light sprinkling of Brads is as much as the earth can handle.

    Amen to that! LOL

  19. Tom said: We need to have a few Brads around, to make stark, pointed statements and to keep us from being fuddy-duddy self-righteous windbags.

    And amen to that, too.

  20. So we agree that Brad plays a useful role at times.

    I suppose I'm simply not bothered whether some people's ideas about Buddhism are a bit woolly or 'fuddy-duddy'. My own practice isn't. I just get on with it.

    But I don't see a great benefit in replacing one sort of self-righteous windbag with another.

  21. This is a grey area at best. Find faults is bad. Keeping people away from dangerous charlatans I would say is good and does not violate that precept. Now is Genpo Roshi a dangerous charlatan? Probably not. I would say he's just a charlatan. I would say Scientology, Andrew Cohen, etc would fall into the dangerous charlatan category. So does keeping people away from a charlatan violate the precept? I would say no. Not saying anything would be following the precept literally but not in spirit. But again your view of Genpo will determine how you judge this. If you love, like, or accept Genpo's teaching you will think this is breaking the precept. If you think Genpo is a charlatan you will not.

  22. Sure is a lot of desire in here. Desire to be right. Desire to be angry.

    Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
    Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
    "Come on girl," said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
    Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"
    "I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"

    -101 Zen Stories-

  23. Why are America Zen adherents so obsessed with sorting out who's right and who's wrong, especially in public forums?

    I came to Zen to get away from all this noise.