Recently Read: Don’t be a Jerk
I just finished reading Brad Warner’s latest book Don’t be a Jerk and Other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master and have to say that I quite enjoyed it.
I must begin by admitting that I’m not a Zen student, so I come at this with a particular lens that may differ from someone who’s really a hardcore (or softcore) Zen student.
This book is Warner’s attempt to explain Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō – a collection of talks and writings that covers everything from feminism, the cleaning and maintenance of Zen robes, to the Heart Sutra and how to clean your butt. Yes. Really. It’s all in here! Warner is looking to paraphrase Dōgen’s book and provide his own interpretation, thus adding his name to the list of all of those who also have provided their take on what Dōgen was putting out there. It is a text that Warner has studied and practiced for many years and he believes is one that is essential for us to investigate today. His wish to make Dōgen (and all of the Dharma for that matter) accessible is what makes him such a vital teacher and author for our times. I’m of the mindset that by modernizing the teachings and putting them in an authentic voice, without distorting the message is only going to help to continue the Dharma and help it grow beyond it’s appeal to the Boomer generation.
Much like living off of a diet of McDonald’s burgers, you need to also go to the salad bar – so I’d suggest (as Warner too mentions in the book), that it’s also a great idea to consult other works for a balanced diet. I really appreciated the level of care that Warner has taken in offering up additional books for the reader to check out – both other interpretations of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, as well as Buddhist books in general.
One chapter of Don’t be a Jerk sets out to describe the landscape and presents details on all others who have bravely ventured into digging into Dōgen’s work before he did. Warner is to be credited for his attempt to distill much of it as well as he has. In several cases, Warner is put in the role of untangling what Dōgen said. Whether this is due to translation issues, making the texts relatable to a modern audience or differences of opinion with others who have interpreted this work – it’s apparent that the Shōbōgenzō is a book that could warrant a series of books dedicated exclusively to segments of it.
So yeah. This book is typical Brad Warner. It’s funny. It’s quirky. There are quite a few “Dad jokes” and funny quips in this book – so many that you can almost hear a sad trombone or rim shot play along after each one. The book is light and breezy, yet meaty and philosophical. A good balance has been achieved and Warner admits upfront that there are several chapters where “shit starts to get real” and the subject matter gets deep. He is relatable and in turn, makes the teachings relatable. One leaves after reading this book feeling like they hung out with a friend as opposed to having been knocked about the head by an egg-headed, ego-puffed know-it-all. Throughout the book, Warner offers many personal anecdotes on his practice, study and experiences and then provides advice given what he’s been privy to.
I also appreciate Warner’s use of pop-culture in his books. Namedropping everything from Robyn Hitchcock, Oasis, Howard the Duck, I Heart Huckabees, he seeks to meld the Dharma with modern times and sees the Dharma in everything from MAD magazine and 70’s Saturday morning cartoons to psychedelic rock and monster movies.
As a non-Zen student, I appreciated this book for what it added to my understanding of Buddhism. Many of Dōgen’s teachings in his book, Shōbōgenzō transcend labeling and much of it reads as a “How To” guide for Buddhists of all stripes. There’s something for everyone in here folks! Be warned though, some of it gets a bit heady and in those areas, Warner too admits that the section in question may warrant a re-read and additional investigation on the part of the reader.
With deep thoughts on how to sit and suggestions for practice, a dive into both the Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, the concept of no-self, koans, reincarnation, feminism, ethics and morality and transmission and lineage, Warner covers A LOT of ground.
If you’re looking for an easy-to-read (or at least easier to read) book on Dōgen, then I wholeheartedly recommend Brad Warner’s Don’t be a Jerk. If you’re a long-time Brad Warner fan, you’ll certainly want to pick this one up. If you’re new to Zen or have an interest in discovering Dōgen, then this is a great book to get started with on your journey.