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Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen

Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen

by Brad Warner

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The night Brad Warner learns that his childhood friend Marky has died, Warner is about to speak to a group of Zen students in Hamburg, Germany. It’s the last thing he feels like doing. What he wants to do instead is tell his friend everything he never said, to explain Zen and what he does for a living and why he spends his time “Sitting. Sitting. Sitting. Meditating my life away as it all passes by. Lighting candles and incense. Bowing to nothing.” So, as he continues his teaching tour through Europe, he writes to his friend all the things he wishes he had said. Simply and humorously, he reflects on why Zen provided him a lifeline in a difficult world. He explores grief, attachment, and the afterlife. He writes to Marky, “I’m not all that interested in Buddhism. I’m much more interested in what is true,” and then proceeds to poke and prod at that truth. The result for readers is a singular and winning meditation on Zen — and a unique tribute to both a life lost and the one Warner has found.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608686025
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 10/08/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 920,660
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Brad Warner, a Soto Zen priest, is also a punk bassist, film-maker, and blogger. He is the founding teacher of the Angel City Zen Center in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

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Dear Marky,

You're dead now, so I don't know if you'll get this letter.

I've just arrived in Hamburg, Germany, after bouncing around for five hours in the backseat of a Morris Mini up the autobahn from Bonn, where I was speaking to some nerds about Zen. That's what I do for a living. But you know that. Or you knew that before you died. Do you know anything anymore?

I'm sitting in a place called Pizza Pazza at the corner of Julius-strasse and Schulterblatt, a couple of blocks from the place where I'm staying while I'm in Hamburg. The stocky Mediterranean-looking guy behind the counter was surly but figured out what I meant when I said, "Ein slice of funghi, bitte."

Just before I got to the counter, the guy in front of me was arguing with him about something. The guy grabbed a bunch of old magazines from the counter, slammed a coin down, and stalked out. The surly pizza man yelled after him, holding up the coin. The guy with the magazines was gone. The counter guy rolled his eyes and slid my slice into the oven.

The cobblestone streets outside are slick from the all-day clammy drizzle. Next door is the Rote Flora, a theater that first opened in 1888 and has been squatted since 1989. Now it mainly hosts punk-rock shows. It's huge and ancient, all covered with graffiti and old band flyers. You'd have liked it. The few people in Pizza Pazza look like they might have been at some show there earlier tonight. There's a hipster couple in one corner and a pair of blonde girls behind me talking intently in German about something apparently very important.

It's 9:40 PM, but somehow it feels like the middle of the night. Maybe that's because I just got the news that you died last night ... or this morning ... or sometime in the very recent past. I've traveled internationally since I was seven years old, and I can still never work out the time zones. Suffice it to say, dead is dead, no matter what time it happened.

Cancer. Age forty-eight. Jesus.

I'm in Hamburg to talk more about Zen to some other people tomorrow night. Maybe I'll get it together by then. But right now I don't want to talk about fucking Zen.

I want to be in Aberdeen, Washington, getting high with you, Marky, on the custom-grown weed your neighbor provided to help with your pain, like we did just a month or so ago when you were still alive. Watching stupid videos. I want to be back in Akron at the Clubhouse twenty-some years ago sitting on the bed with you and Lydia the Tattooed Lady eating Rasicci's Pizza, planning world conquest. Oh, the things we were gonna do.

When I arrived in Hamburg maybe an hour ago, I switched on my laptop and an email popped up from Lydia. She said you'd died a few hours earlier. I don't know what time it was back in the States, but Lydia was still up. We reminisced about the days you and I and she all lived in the Clubhouse — that dump in Akron where both our bands practiced. I think we both cried. Maybe that'll make you happy to hear. Everybody wants to imagine that people will cry after they die, right?

I'm staying in the apartment of a woman named Johanna who runs a tiny little Zen center out of her tiny little apartment. She made one of its two rooms into a zendo, which is what we Zen nerds call our meditation spaces, and that's where I'm going to be sleeping. If I can sleep tonight.

After I got the news of your death, I excused myself and went out to wander the streets of the city. I do that a lot when I'm on these European tours, drifting alone through strange cities, poking through dusty old record shops, when I can find them. You spent a lot of time in record stores too when you were alive. The record shops were all closed by the time I got to Hamburg, but I didn't know what else to do. Johanna and her roommate Julia were nice people, but I needed to be by myself.

You're not even the first person I know who died while I was on this tour. The day I arrived in Stockholm, the first stop on this tour, I got a call from my friend Melissa, who told me her brother Jeremy had passed away suddenly a few nights before. He was thirty-six. At least you lived a few years longer than him. Which is something, I guess.

What am I doing with my life? That's what I'm thinking as I sit here with my slice of pizza getting cold while I write this letter you'll never get. I'm supposed to be some kind of spiritual master. I write books about it, for God's sake!

People ask me questions all the time as if I have The Answer for them. I have no answer. I have thirty-odd years of looking at my own soul and finding there was nothing there to look at after all. I took a vow to save all beings. I couldn't even save you from being eaten alive by your own guts. And I never told you any of this. Until now, anyway. Now that it's too late to tell you anything.

Where are we going? Where do we come from? Why are we here? Does anybody care? I mean, do they? Honestly?

I guess your being dead is making me cynical right now. Not that I blame you for that. I've always had a cynical side. I'm skeptical of everything — including myself. Hell, I'm the last person I'd ever believe about anything!

What most people call "spirituality" is bullshit. And yet I have dedicated my life to something most people call "spiritual practice." Sometimes I wonder why I even do this. But other times I know exactly why.

Still, here I sit in a pizza shop in Hamburg, staring out the window through the drizzle sliding down the glass, making all the golden browns and reds and grays of this dirty city into a kind of abstract art piece, wondering how my friend died without my ever saying anything useful to him.

My old Zen teacher, who is also dead now, once told his student Jürgen Seggelke, "Every action you take in your life is carved into the universe."

My pizza. Carved into the universe.

Does anybody care? We careen into each other like bumper cars. We plow through fast-food suppers that were once cows living in mounds of shit before being dragged off to slaughterhouses, trusting their captors. Then we act as if it's all gonna last forever as we watch the next episode of Duck-fucking-Dynasty.

Slam! Bam! Crash! After a while we're just meandering into stores, shell-shocked at how it all passed us by, trying to find a bucket to barf in. Wondering where everything we understood went. Why are the children we raised on a steady diet of plastic garbage so resentful? Why does their music suck? Why doesn't anyone listen to me when I rage at the darkness that is another chain restaurant replacing the park where I first put my fingers inside someone and heard her whisper, "Oh God, please, yes"?

Why am I doing this at all? Riding foreign trains to places I can't even pronounce. Trying to figure out if the stuff in the fridge of the apartment someone let me stay in is hot sauce or toothpaste or some kind of butt ointment. At my level, I can't afford hotels. I ain't no Deepak Chopra! It's like those punk-rock tours our bands used to do.

Sitting. Sitting. Sitting. Meditating my life away as it all passes by. Lighting incense and candles. Bowing to nothing. Chanting the same stupid shit that they've chanted since forever ago because maybe this time it will work. That's how it feels tonight, anyway. I know there's more to it than that, but right now I just can't see it.

We're like icebergs, I told the folks at that Zen center in Bonn. What we know is only the little bit that shows above the water. The rest of us goes on forever below, unseen, unknowable. We can't understand it. We can only try to accord with it. Or we can pretend it doesn't exist and bang into all the other icebergs. They call that "winning."

You can make a statue of your little God and pray to it to spare you from the fate it has already decided for you. You can even ask it for money and sex and power and fame if you want.

When I walk into the meditation centers I speak at all over Europe and America, everyone looks at me. He wrote that book! Ugh. I mean, it's nice to be recognized, I guess. But usually it just makes me want to run away somewhere and hide.

Don't stare at me with those "There he is!" eyes, I'm thinking. I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

You have made this world, I tell them. It's yours. All of it. And yet you're asking me to show you the way? What am I going to teach you? What you really need to know isn't something that I or anyone else can ever teach you.

Staring into the darkness of your own mind, what do you see? Are you afraid to look? Of course you are. I sure am. Every single time. And I've been doing it for decades.

Hell. I'm with you! Watching Duck Dynasty is a lot easier. There's a mountain of porn I could find on the phone in my pocket. There are things to buy on eBay. Why look into myself?

Carved into the universe. We don't admit it, but we are. I don't admit it, but I am.

We enhance our fairy tales about the hereafter with rituals and beautiful buildings and supposedly wise elders who can convince grown-ups to believe ancient lies. In some places there are punishments so that even those who cannot make themselves believe in those fairy tales will be afraid to say so.

Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to know the truth of this place where I found myself. This planet. This plane of existence. Whatever you want to call it. This reality.

You and I grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio. I was lucky enough to get out of that place for a good chunk of years when I was a kid. My dad worked at Firestone, like pretty much everybody in town's dad did in those days. They all worked for one of the tire companies or one of the companies that served the tire companies. At least before the tire companies all fled the country and left a giant gaping rust hole behind in northeast Ohio.

Firestone asked my dad if he'd go work in Nairobi, Kenya. He asked my mom. She said moving to Africa sounded like fun to her — even though I was seven and my sister was five at the time. That sounds like madness to me now.

After four years in Nairobi we came back to Wadsworth, and my questions had gotten even more intense. Churches were supposedly the places where you could find answers to those kinds of questions. So I went and sat in a few to hear what they had to say.

But all I got from the churches in Wadsworth were stories I couldn't believe, even when I tried to. I honestly made my best efforts to get my head around the idea of Jesus Christ coming to Earth to take on the sins of the world and then atone for them by sacrificing himself. But it made no sense. Couldn't an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God come up with a better solution than that? Shit. Even I could come up with a better solution!

I looked into other religions too. But their stories weren't any better.

Plus, those religions all insisted that you had to believe their stories, or God wouldn't accept you. I remember thinking, Why would the creator of the entire universe, a being so infinite and powerful that he could see what was going on in a galaxy twelve-thousand light-years from Earth the same way I can examine a booger I just dug out of my nose, why would it bug him that I didn't believe in him when he didn't even have the decency to show himself?

Through sheer dumb luck I happened to encounter Zen Buddhism when I was a teenager. I didn't go looking for it. It was just there at exactly the time I needed it to be.

I don't believe in Buddhism either, by the way. It's not like I heard their fairy tales and figured they were better than anybody else's stories. The Buddhists have fairy tales too. The difference is that nobody cares if you believe them. They don't care whether you believe their stories because the very idea of a you who can believe in stories is something they also call into question.

Even so, I'm not all that interested in Buddhism. I'm much more interested in what is true. What I like about Buddhism is that the Buddhists are also interested in what is true. At least, most of them are.

I'm not sure if Zen Buddhism would have helped you or not, Marky. I never tried to sell it to you. You knew I was into it, but you never asked.

I never liked people who tried to sell me their religions. I know you didn't either, so I wasn't gonna do that to you. No one ever tried to sell me Zen Buddhism. If they had, I would have regarded them as people who were too insecure to believe in something unless a bunch of other people believed it too. I have no time for that.

But nowadays I'm a minor spiritual celebrity. I'm not as big as Deepak, but I'm big enough to make a living at it. Which was always a source of embarrassment whenever I interacted with you and still embarrasses me when I'm around friends who, like you, knew me long before I started doing what I do now.

I see spiritual celebrities as charlatans, as people who make their living selling empty promises that they themselves don't even believe. I swear that's not what I do. But I don't have anything against anyone who assumes the worst about me in that regard. Because that's probably what I'd assume about me if I wasn't me.

Spiritual celebs play the same stupid games as regular celebs. They, or maybe I should say we, validate each other the same way cheap nightclub singers do when they get on TV talk shows.

It's like there's a little Enlightened Beings Club. Here's how it works. Some guy says he's got enlightenment. He has a story to back him up about the wonderful day when he finally understood everything about everything. Another guy, his teacher, certified him as a member of the Enlightened Beings Club. And now he's ready to help you learn to be just like him.

You go to the enlightened guy, and he trains you to imitate the things he says. Or if he's real clever he teaches you how to rephrase his schtick in your own words. If your imitation meets his criteria, he gives you his seal of approval, and off you go. The industry is selfperpetuating. It's in your teacher's best interests to support your claims of enlightenment since you, in turn, are expected to support his. Without such support, the whole thing falls to pieces.

If someone comes along and says, "Ain't no such thang," it threatens the whole system since it is built on extremely shaky ground. Unless people believe in enlightenment, enlightenment cannot exist. The enlightenment they sell is nothing more than the belief in enlightenment.

This is the same deal with religions. Believing in God is not like believing in the existence of Mount St. Helens or something tangible like that. The difference is that you can question the existence of Mount St. Helens all you want, but it doesn't go away. But when someone questions the existence of God, the very existence of God is threatened, because that sort of God is nothing more than the belief in God.

And here's what's even weirder.

It turns out that enlightenment actually is real.

God actually does exist.

I don't know how you feel about my saying that now that you're dead, Marky. But I know that when you were alive you would have rolled your eyes at me. And I would not have blamed you.

There are a lot of things I wish I'd talked to you about. But I didn't. And so I'm writing you this letter. Maybe I'll write you a bunch of letters. There's a lot to say. I don't know if there's an afterlife and you can somehow read these letters, or if there's reincarnation and you're still a baby and can't read them, or if you just stay dead after you die, in which case you'll never even know of their existence. Maybe I'll write about that in another letter.

All I know is that whether or not you can receive what I'm saying doesn't change the fact that there are things I want to say. And so I'm going to say them.

But I'm going to have to say them later because right now there's nobody else in the Pizza Pazza and the surly guy behind the counter is giving me a funny look. So I'd better scarf down my cold pizza and go.

Stay cool down there!




Dear Marky,

It's still drizzling in Hamburg, but the Hamburgers don't seem to mind. That's actually what you call someone from Hamburg in German — a Hamburger. Some folks took me out for ice cream after my talk last night. I got a flavor called engelblau. That means "angel blue," which sounds like it could be the name of a porn-video distributor. It tasted like the blue-moon-flavored ice cream they sold at Bidinger's Ice Cream Stand in Wadsworth.

I'm sad that you're gone. My God, am I sad!

People have some weird ideas about Buddhism. They think that Buddhists spend all their time trying to overcome attachment. They assume this means that we try to be as aloof and uncaring as possible, so that we never have any feelings toward anyone or anything and therefore we don't hurt when someone dies.

That's not what Buddhists mean when they talk about attachment.

The Sanskrit word that gets translated as "attachment" is upadana. It originally meant "fuel." Its use was later extended to mean anything that keeps some process going. Other English translations of upadana include "clinging" and "grasping."


Excerpted from "Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Brad Warner.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Carved into the Universe,
2. Remembering Marky Moon,
3. The Akron Book of the Dead,
4. Wild Beast Jerky,
5. Buddhisms: What They Agree On,
6. Is Zen Buddhism a Religion?,
7. Truth vs. Buddhism,
8. I'm Just a Zen Bozo,
9. Zazen Isn't Just the Name of a Sleeping Tablet You Can Buy at Truck Stops,
10. The Goal of Having No Goals,
11. The Four No-Bull Truths,
12. When You're Dead You've Got No Self,
13. The Center of a Universe with No Center,
14. Intuition,
15. The No-Bull Eightfold Path,
16. Your Karma Ran Over My Dogma,
17. Some Koans You Ought to Know,
18. Emptiness,
19. Are Drugs the Gateway to Zen?,
20. He Wasn't Breathing,
21. What Is Zen and What Is Just Asian Culture,
22. Crazy Wisdom Is Usually More Crazy Than Wise,
23. Escape from the Compound,
24. The Whole Shebang,
25. Marky's Memorial,
About the Author,

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