Being a follower of trends mostly within the Theravada and vipassana scenes, I have never had an opportunity to read Brad Warner’s work. Although I was aware of him as a kind of youthful, funny, irreverent, and popular figure within American Zen circles, I never thought about diving into his now series of books and many articles on his blog. But I am very happy that New World Library contacted me to review Warner’s newest offering, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. I especially wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own because the topic is also not one of my main research interests, but this book is actually about more than sex (even though there is a lot about sex!). Through the lens of sex and sin, Warner is able to explore his ideas of what Buddhism ‘truly is’ and Buddhism’s recent manifestation in America.
Warner’s main point is, being a Christian country, and having Puritanical roots, Americans are prone to equate sex with sin. The book repeats often that Christianity does not have the same ideology as Buddhism, so we should not expect the same kind of morality and tension surrounding sex. This was one of the main reasons he wrote this book: to disentangle Puritanical leanings and expectations of the Buddhist tradition and Buddhist teachers from actual Buddhist practice and teachings. He reminds us that in America, because of the Puritan and Christian roots, we “take for granted that sexual desire is a terrible thing” (73). But Warner points out that other cultures, such as Buddhist ones in Japan, do not view sex and desire this way.
One of the other main points of the book is to talk about the way Buddhism is presented in the West, and again, the framework of sex, is a way to discuss this. Warner writes:
“I’ve long felt that the reason Buddhism has been relegated to the junk heap of hippi-philosophies-that-didn’t-work-in-the-sixties-so-why-both-with-them-now is that its been presented so exceedingly poorly, mainly by people who don’t have a clue what it is anyway. Its not about some kind of mystical serenity available only to those rare beings among us who have freed themselves from their base desires. Buddhism is for everyone. Its for what you are and who you are right now, warts and tattoos and naked pictures saved on your hard drive for those lonely nights and all” (75).
He feels that Buddhism is a kind of art, or attitude that offers a way of approaching life. Warner also explores the nature of American Buddhism and finds that there are two groups: one that actually practices and the other who do not but still insist on what Buddhism is or ought to be. He discusses this in terms of Right Livelihood and the ways both groups try to decide what professions this would include and exclude. Warner finds that most American Buddhists are too rigid and spend useless energy on this. He wants American Buddhists to lighten up and not apply the same Puritanical standards to Buddhism that they do to other religious traditions. He believes that for Buddhism the issue isn’t right livelihood vs. evil livelihood but more like right action or livelihood and not so right action. Its more about how you do your job and actions rather than a disapproved way of living in general.
Therefore, Warner is another teacher, having spent time in Asia, who is critical of Western Buddhist circles. He is mostly critical, as mentioned, about the way it is presented and the impressions people get about Buddhist teachings through this. He writes: “One of the things that often surprise people when they first enter a Buddhist organization, or sangha, is that a lot of the people there often have some really deep and troubling issues. I guess they’ve seen too many bad TV shows and expect everyone who follows the path of Buddhism to be wise, well-adjusted, and happy” (204). Warner critiques what people think Buddhists or people who meditate should be like when he notes that it makes sense for the people with the most suffering, that are actually the least well-adjusted, to do the hard work of meditation practice. Thus Warner discusses the problems in translation of Buddhism to America in poignant ways.
But besides these larger issues of Buddhism in America, Warner, of course, also addresses sex. With topics tackled such as masturbation, pornography, and celibacy, as well as sex and Buddhist concepts like sex and suffering, sex and mindfulness, sex and emptiness, sex and karma, and even sex and Enlightenment, Warner exhausts the various ways to view sex and Zen together. But he doesn’t so much provide definitive answers as a series of interesting discussions around these topics.
No review of a Brad Warner book would be complete without commenting on his writing style. While reading the book it is as if Warner is winking at you. His style of humor is to write a kind of pun or something tongue-in-cheek, and then insert a footnote that reads ‘Heh heh.’ His obvious seeking out of laughter comes across as charming, as does his self-effacing tone. But the most interesting part of this book for me was learning about this teacher and popular figure and his ideas about reframing American perceptions of Buddhism.