“Don’t Be A Jerk,” by Brad Warner

Don't Be A Jerk, by Brad Warner
Available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Barnes & Noble, and independent local bookstores.
“Don’t Be A Jerk” is a kind of summary-plus-commentary on the 13th century Japanese Zen teacher Dõgen’s Shōbōgenzō, or “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” If that statement has you yawning, then let me add that it’s written by Brad Warner, who is a witty, engaging, and quirky author. “Don’t Be A Jerk” is stimulating, informative, and entertaining.

But let’s start with why this book is necessary.

First, Dõgen is a spiritual/philosophical genius. Just recently, on National Public Radio’s website, Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science,” described Dōgen as “the greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of,” and argued that he should be ranked in the pantheon alongside Heidegger and Husserl. But you may have come across his name before without realizing it, since there was a character named after him on the cult TV show “Lost.”

Second, Dõgen’s masterwork, the aforementioned Shōbōgenzō, is humungous, often difficult to translate, and sometimes difficult to read. This is one of the reasons why I’ve only ever dipped into it, despite finding it fascinating.

Brad Warner’s task has been to make the Shōbōgenzō more accessible, by condensing and paraphrasing its teachings in a more easily digested form, along the lines of Mark Russell’s “God Is Disappointed In You,” which is a summary of the Bible.

Brad Warner strikes me as a good person to undertake this task. He loves the Shōbōgenzō and has been steeped in it, both as a text and as a guide to his own spiritual practice, for decades. He has a good sense of what people need to know in terms of practice. For the most part he writes well, and always entertainingly. The very title, with its colorful use of the word “jerk,” gives a sense of his playfulness. There are also plenty of pop-culture references to Twinkies, Star Wars, Dustin Hoffman, etc. Dōgen’s insulting terms for people with inferior spiritual understanding are rendered as dimwits, jackasses, dumb-bums, bullshitters, etc. This makes “Don’t Be A Jerk” a fun read.

As far as I can tell (not being well-versed in Dōgen’s writing), Warner has done a good job. He provides context for Dōgen’s teachings in the introductory parts of the chapters, and in the chapter conclusions he presents his own understanding of them. He often shows us what actually Dōgen said (or what various people think he said — sometimes he’s hard to fathom him) so that you know what the 13th century Japanese original of “beer and doritos” is, for example. Many times he gives the Japanese characters, and a word-by-word translation.

Often Warner gives little biographical accounts of his own history with the text. So you learn a bit about the author, and various scholars and practitioners he’s encountered over the years. There’s also some history given of the text — not just how Dōgen came to write it, but how it’s been regarded in Japan (at one time it was banned!) and how it’s come to be translated into English.

I learned a lot about Dōgen’s teachings from “Don’t Be A Jerk.” The Dharmic content is very varied because Dōgen’s writings are varied. He wrote the 95 chapters of the Shōbōgenzō over a long period of time, and for differing audiences. Sometimes he deals with the minutiae of monastic behavior, so that there’s a chapter on “Zen and the Art of Wiping Your Butt” (literally this is about going to the toilet as a spiritual practice) and another on monastic rules. Sometimes he deals with social issues like women’s equality (“Was Dōgen the First Buddhist Feminist”). And many of the chapters, of course, deal with deep spiritual issues, like how you’re already enlightened but aren’t really, and how time and existence are inseparable.

You’ll probably have picked up that I’m a fan of this book. It’s spiritually and philosophically interesting to read, and it’s also fun. Many people might well read it, and then go off and try their hand at understanding the Shõbogenzo. Others may think, “OK, I know a bit about Dōgen now,” and that’s fine too.

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