Brad Warner's DC Detour

Yinong Chong, April 2009

Sunday morning at 10am: Brad Warner, Zen author and modern day wandering monk, thought that time was too brutal for anybody, let alone for a Zen lecture. But at TCCII, we are used to 9am Tai Chi drills on the weekend, right? Plus we could always count on a good showing from our Chinese friends at the Tea 4 Soul book club, as they have always been diligent in making themselves a presentable audience.  So I felt relatively assured it would be all “good”.

Sure enough, people started streaming in after 9:30, some with Brad’s books in their hands. Apart from a good dozen Chinese folks, the rest looked a bit different from our usual crowd. One hard-to-miss distinction was the dress codes – I have never seen such striking designs on T-shirts or hairstyles before; neither have I seen such massively impressive tattoos on display. By 10am, the Social Hall was filled with about 50 people, and I had to openly admit that Brad’s punk rock fans had definitely “crashed the party” – even though we did not even get to publicize the event outside TCCII and Tea 4 Soul club.

But the audience mixed and mingled very well from the beginning to the end: they were very attentive during the lecture, and shared many good laughs; and boy, even their questions were highly concentrated on Zazen meditation. My Chinese friends, not only got a glimpse of unconventional looking Zen Buddhists, but also asked some pointed and thoughtful questions.  A bit to my surprise though, I didn’t hear any typical “fan” questions direct at Brad’s personal life. Its even more surprising given the fact that Brad had a fairly bumpy journey in the past year, filled with major life events and juicy stories all of which vividly captured in his new book: Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate (which he supposed to promote on his book tour). But no, he spent most time answering questions on Zazen techniques!

Even with his half-robe on (underneath the robe were his signature rock and roll T-shirt and baggy jeans), Brad still appeared to be very unassuming on stage, quietly offering his takings on the Zen. It’s a bit of a contrast to his style in the books, in which he seemed to have no tolerance for any bullshit, and fully capable of shredding any hypocrisy to pieces with his sharp wits. When TCCII director, Shawn Cartwright, told me he invited Brad to give a lecture, I was a bit concerned whether our crowd could get beyond his faade, and see the Buddhist nature inside him. But now I could sense the audience was drawn in by his non-forceful, easy-going manner. I could also sense quite a few people in the audience genuinely liked Brad and his books, probably exactly because of  how he relates to his readers through real life stories – he is a terrific story-teller. After the lecture, many of us got Brad signed his books with a bonus illustration of some kind of dinosaur. He even gave me a few extras dinosaur pictures for my son.

After the lecture, Brad joined us for lunch and brought three of his musician friends. They had some of the most striking T-shirts, hairstyles and tattoos. Honestly, it was hard for me not to stare at those unique designs and decorations now we were closely facing each other. I got a good surprise when I found out that the tattoos covering one guy’s whole arm actually portrayed Hui Neng, the 6th patriarch of Chinese Zen Buddhism. All these friends have been into Zen meditation for some time now – and they have the tattoos to prove it!

One of his friends was Randy, a world-famous heavy metal star, who has supposedly graced every heavy-metal magazine. Randy probably would have been mobbed by his fans on any other occasions, but now had to tolerate us asking for his name. When I sheepishly admitted that I never listened to any heavy metal, Randy actually accepted that with a very understanding smile. During the conversation, he said that if he had not been doing Zazen, he probably would have been dead by now.

If I were still living in China, you would have to torture me to believe that heavy metal rock stars would have anything do with Buddhism. But it looked like the seed of Buddhism in Randy has taken root. I couldn’t help but think that Brad might have something do with bringing Buddhism to a most unlikely group. It might take someone like Brad to reach an entirely new section of the population who probably would not have touched any of the traditional books on Buddhism.  It is exactly Brad being Brad that allowed him to connect with people in a very special and profound way, opening a new window through which to see the world.

We wish Brad  a much smoother journey after his experience of being “wrapped in Karma and dipped in chocolate,” All of his human experiences (including sufferings and fallacies) have made him “one of us”, rather than some rarified Zen master whose portrait could be put on an altar or hung on a wall. Not only would Brad not look the part, he would probably voluntarily walk off because it is boring hanging up there!

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