Book Review: Don't Be a Jerk

Brad Warner's Radical but Reverent Paraphrasing of Dogen's Shobogenzo

Brad Warner
Brad Warner.

"The Buddhist precepts have one very simple message," Brad Warner writes. "Don't be a jerk. That's pretty much all there is to it."

What? some may sputter. There's more to keeping the Precepts than that! Warner doesn't know what he's talking about! 

Others of you might be thinking, Cool. That's not so hard. No messy rules.  

But what is it to not be a jerk? 

The advice to not be a jerk is from Brad Warner's new book, titled Don't Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan's Greatest Zen Master -- A Radical but Reverent Paraphrasing of Dogen's Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (New World Library, 2016). And once you slog through that title, maybe some explanation is in order.

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), also called Dogen Kigen or Dogen Zenji, was the Japanese Buddhist monk who established Soto Zen in Japan. He is also known for the collection of his writing called Shobogenzo -- "Treasury of the True Dharma Eye." Japanese Soto Zen is very much Dogen's school, and Soto Zen students (like me) spend a lot of time with the old guy, so to speak.  

Dogen's writing is both beautiful and frustrating. It illuminates and confuses at once. Dogen's genius was that he used language to express the dharma directly and non-conceptually, but for those still stuck in conceptual thinking he gives you nothing for your concept-forming mind to hang on to. Whenever he does say something that your thought processes can grasp, he'll snatch it away a couple of paragraphs later. To read Dogen can be more like contemplating a mandala than reading for comprehension. He's a challenge.

Brad Warner is an American Zen monk, filmmaker, former Japanese monster movie marketer, punk bassist, and popular blogger. He is the author of There Is No God and He Is Always With You: A Search for God in Odd Places (New World Library, 2013).

Warner is also a dharma heir of the Japanese Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima (1919-2014). Nishijima Roshi is especially remembered as a translator of Dogen. Working with his student and dharma heir Mike Chodo Cross, he published one of the three complete English translations of the 95-Fascicle Shobogenzo. And for Soto Zennies, this is a big deal. Warner studied Shobogenzo with Nishijima for "around two decades," he writes in the Introduction.

Not Doing Jerk-Like Things

In Don't Be a Jerk, Warner takes several of Dogen's best-known texts and paraphrases them into modern American vernacular, then adds his own commentaries. Some Dogen lovers may hate this, but I confess I got a kick out of it. And I think a lot of people may find it helpful. It's not exactly Dogen for Dummies, but more like Dogen With Less Frustration.

For example, "Don't Be a Jerk" is Warner's rendering of Dogen's Shoaku Makusa, "Not Doing Wrong." Here's a passage from the Shasta Abbey translation:

"In the above quotation the term 'evils' refers to [what is called] morally evil among the categories of morally good, morally evil, and morally undefined. Its moral nature, however, is uncreated. The natures of morally good and morally undefined likewise are uncreated. They are untainted, they are the real aspects, which is to say that these three categories of moral nature encompass manifold varieties of dharmas." 

Here is Warner's paraphrase:

"Among rightness, wrongness, and it-doesn't-matter-ness, there is wrongness. Wrongness is what happens at the very moment you do something wrong. It's not an abstraction that sits around waiting to be done. It's the same with rightness and it-doesn't-matter-ness."

Do those two passages say the same thing? This slacker Zen student says they do. Now, was that so hard?

This passage also shows us how Warner's approach to Dogen is very much rooted in practice and in experience, rather than in doctrine and theory. Much of what he says will "work" better for those of you with some practice-experience, I suspect. 

The part about wrongness not being an abstraction that sits around waiting to be done is a great point that I've made myself (see Evil in Buddhism). We tend to think of evil as a "thing" that has its own self-existence. Even if we don't believe in Satan or another devil spreading evil about in the world, a lot of us imagine that evil has some kind of essence and lurks about, infecting people into being bad. Or we think of evil as a quality some people or groups possess and others (like us) don't. 

But, Warner says, "Dogen takes an entirely different approach. He says that there is no evil or good as absolutes or as personified supernatural beings. There is only action. Sometimes you do the right thing, and sometimes you act like a jerk."

Why is this important? If we know that no one is good or evil, including ourselves; and if we know that evil has no existence except in volitional action, how does that change how we relate to evil? Seems to me it takes away all of our excuses. We can' tell ourselves that it's okay if we're jerks sometimes because we're basically good people.

And if we are really working with the precept of don't be a jerk, honestly and intimately, and not just telling ourselves that he's got it coming, or I'm entitled, or whatever our excuse is, then we start to see immediately when we're being jerks. There's no space between the action and the effect. 

And this isn't easy, folks. If you practice sincerely and honestly, after awhile you realize that "you" are perpetually being jerked around by cause and effect, likes and dislikes, gratifications and hurts. Liberation from that is, well, liberation. 

More paraphrasing of Dogen's Shoaku Makusa:

"Even if you tell people not to intentionally be a jerk or encourage them to do the right thing, what really matters is not being a jerk in the here and now. This teaching is the same whether you hear it from a good teacher or whether it's being experienced as the ultimate state of realization. ...
"...Even if the whole universe is nothing but a bunch of jerks doing all kinds of jerk-type things, there is still liberation in simply not being a jerk."

In the moment of not being a jerk -- not you following rules or you being nice, but in the moment of a true absence of jerkitude -- there is Buddha

More Dogen

Among the other fascicles receiving the Warner Treatment are the beloved Genjokoan ("Actualizing the Fundamental Point") as well as Bendowa ("The Wholehearted Way"), Fukanzazengi ("Universal Guide for Zazen"), Ikka No Myoju ("One Bright Pearl"), Uji ("Being Time"), and Sansuigyo ("Mountains and Waters Sutra"). These are texts all Soto Zen students run into, usually sooner rather than later. If you haven't practiced in the Soto Zen tradition you might not have heard of them, but I recommend them highly. 

Many of us western zennies were introduced to Dogen through Kazuaki Tanahashi's lyrically beautiful translations, and many of us fell in love with texts like Genjokoan and Sansuigyo even if we didn't entirely understand them. But there can be huge differences from one translation to another, and even the best translations, I am told, fall short.

Native Japanese speakers struggle with Dogen's centuries-old Japanese, and how one "reads" the text can depend as much on one's own understanding of the dharma as on what Dogen expressed in ink on paper all those centuries ago. 

I'm told Dogen was fond of visual puns -- choosing kanji to point to something the written figure looks like rather than what a word usually means. I'm told he sometimes used Chinese ideograms containing puns in Japanese pronunciation. I'm told he was fond of metonymy, as we might say "suit" to mean "business executive," for example. Dogen defies English translation, and literal translations can be utterly nonsensical. The translator must attempt to express what Dogen was saying without straying too far from the original text.

For this reason it's good to compare translations; sometimes when one translation is too opaque, another will be clear. And I appreciate that Warner does this throughout the book. In his commentaries he often pulls out a particular passage and gives us the original Japanese, as well as two or three English translations, to get to the bottom of what Dogen was really saying, as best we can tell.

For example, in the chapter on Genjokoan he takes this line (Tanahashi translation)

"Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread."

... and takes the time to walk us through the Japanese and six English translations to show us how the same line can be expressed in riotously different ways. His own version --

"But although this is true, flowers, though we love them, still die, and weeds, thought we hate them, still grow all over the place."

In this case I don't think the two versions are saying exactly the same thing, and I'm partial to the Tanahashi, but Warner makes a good case that his rendering is closer to what Dogen actually wrote. If you have any Dogen-nerd in you at all, you will probably enjoy this. 

And often, Warner does cut through a lot of unnecessary verbiage. To take another part of Genjokoan as an example, where Nishijima wrote

"Someone who says that because [the air] is ever-present we need not use a fan, or that even when we do not use [a fan] we can still feel the air, does not know ever-presence, and does not know the nature of air."

Warner renders this as:

"Somebody who says air is all over the place so why use a fan doesn't know why people use fans."  

It's not exactly elegant, but it gets the job done.

Dogen and Doritos

For someone already acquainted with Dogen some of the modernisms may be jarring. When we find this in Uji:

"It's sort of like crossing the street on the way to the convenience store to get some chips and brews. The street and the convenience store still exist, but now I'm kicking back in front of the TV with my bag of Doritos and a can of Arrogant Bastard Ale."

... you know you've left the original text pretty far behind. It took me awhile to figure out what was being paraphrased. And it is (Tanahashi translation):

"This is like having crossed over rivers and climbed mountains. Even though the mountains and rivers still exist, I have already passed them and now reside in the jeweled palace and vermilion tower."

If you're inclined to get hung up on what the jeweled palace and vermilion tower represent, maybe Warner's version would be better for you, because I don't think spinning one's wheels over the jeweled palace and vermilion tower helps that much. 

Even so, I suspect some people who are really into Dogen will vigorously object to Warner's approach. And there are occasional places that I think some subtleties are lost. But if you've been trying to "get" Dogen and are beginning to think that quantum physics might be easier, I can recommend Don't Be a Jerk. And perhaps look up the  Nishijima or Tanahashi translations too. It could help.