dharma punx

With a rebel “om”

Hannah Guzik: Those who stumble into ZanZilla yoga studio Tuesday night might think a punk rock concert’s about to start. But instead of head-banging to music, the tattooed will sit and quietly meditate.

They’re dharma punx, and they’re making meditation hip for Generation X.

“Unlike most Buddhist groups, where you’re likely to see gray hair and some kind of Indian costume, at these meditations you’re much more likely to see tattoos, piercings, shaved heads and dyed hair,” said Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx: A Memoir. “It’s definitely a modern American youth movement.”

Levine, who started the movement when his…

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“Sex, Sin and Zen,” by Brad Warner

“Sex, Sin and Zen,” by Brad Warner

Zen teacher and writer Brad Warner tells a story about the origins of this book. When Warner was visiting Montreal to deliver a talk on Zen, a rather eccentric member of the audience asked him: “Are Buddhists allowed to jack off?” He swiftly gave the short answer: “They’re encouraged to.”

The book “Sex, Sin and Zen” could be seen as the long answer to the same question. Or rather, to all the questions about Buddhism and its attitudes toward sex – if indeed such specific Buddhist attitudes exist.

Brad Warner has acquired a certain reputation as the “punk Buddhist” – a rock bass player turned Zen Buddhist and teacher – who sometimes writes about Zen-related topics on the punk/goth themed softcore porn site Suicide Girls (you know, naked girls with tattoos and piercings). If this makes him sound like some superficial self-styled “bad boy” of Zen, think again. Reading this book I was reassured that not only does Warner know his way around Buddhism – he also writes about it as plainly and intelligibly as any author I’ve read.

Title: Sex, Sin and Zen
Author: Brad Warner
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-57731-910-8
Available from: New World Library, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Not only that, but the book is a fun read – although it definitely helps if you enjoy silly double entendres and hard rock references. So if you don’t get why a mention of the Buddhist state of Nirvana obviously leads to praise for the rock band Them Crooked Vultures you may need to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine.

Warner spends a lot of time delightfully debunking popular misconceptions about Buddhism, giving his personal (and very thoughtful) takes on concepts such as “suffering” and “non-attachment”. And while he’s at it, he pokes fun at other pet peeves such as touchy-feely new age-ism, mindfulness and guided meditation. And while I may not agree with all his conclusions, at least his arguments are provocative enough to make you reconsider your own positions once more.

As for the sex part, first of all he clarifies that there is no concept of “sin” in Buddhism, focusing instead on the precept against “misuse of sexuality” – while making it very clear that there is no common consensus on what this means. Warner instead refers to historical evidence – what little there actually is – and carefully considers possible interpretations: Is celibacy helpful? Is sex a distraction – or do strict rules against sex do more harm than good? In other words, what kind of sexual practices are compatible with a Buddhist lifestyle?

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Sadly, this is where the book goes slightly astray. Warner doesn’t deny that he enjoys sex – a lot – to the extent that I suspect he wrote this book to come to terms with his own sex drive. But he also reveals a surprisingly prudish streak, leading him to issue strange and rather unfounded warnings against certain sexual practices – like polyamory and BDSM.

Luckily, though, porn star, sex therapist and Zen Buddhist Nina Hartley comes to the rescue – as Warner quotes extensively from an interview he did with her. And not only does Ms. Hartley offer some sharp insights of her own – Mr. Warner also happily allows her to relate her own positive experiences of a polyamorous BDSM relationship.

While the book is largely undogmatic (some practising Buddhists may find it positively anti-dogmatic), Warner’s American Zen background shines through occasionally. To a Scandinavian, not-particularly-Buddhist, sometimes-meditator such as this reviewer, the stories of sanghas and zazen are merely interesting – though slightly alien. But Warner’s attitude towards authority is a bit baffling. One minute he praises the anti-authoritarian stance of Zen – while the next he’s asking his Roshi for advice – and accepting it at face value. Warner (who’s clearly more of a Zen master than a logic major) even defends a rather anti-gay statement from said roshi with the weakest defence I ever read: “But he only said this because I asked him.”

(Mind you, I’m not poking fun at Warner’s roshi – he likes the Suicide Girls website, so he can’t be all bad)

So no, I don’t agree with everything said in this book – but frankly, I don’t think Brad Warner would want his readers to simply agree. The point is rather to throw some ideas around, voice his own arguments and leave it to you to make up your own mind.

Most of the time the book made me both laugh (well, snicker or groan, mostly) as well as think. There were times when I’d wish Warner had hired Nina Hartley to write it instead – she comes across as that eloquent. But most of all it made me wish that I could have the author over for a chat. And surely, that should be a recommendation in itself?

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Tense teens, adults flock to meditation

Religion News Blog: On a typical school day, Camilla Danpour rises at 5 a.m., turns on soothing music and perches on the edge of her bed.

For five minutes, an eternity to some teens, she sits in a trancelike state, staring dead-ahead at a digital clock.

And she does nothing.

At least that’s how it appears from the outside. Truth is, there’s a lot bouncing around on the inside. And the Walnut Creek teen runs a mental squeegee over those thoughts, meditating to wipe away life’s pressures.

Succeeding at that goal can be a killer. Her mind is wired to race through the day.

The lineup starts early and ends late, with a full slate –school, a job, swim practice, the school paper and homework.

Sometimes it’s tough to unplug the brain and surrender to sleep.

To find quiet in a harried world, the Las Lomas High School senior daily observes an early-morning ritual. For five minutes, she visually downloads the clutter from her mind.

Call it meditation. Call it an airing out of the brain. Whatever it is, it works wonders…

“The light (from the digital clock) has this power over me. It just gives me a moment to collect my thoughts, gives me a little bit of sanity before anything else.”

She is not the only one looking inward to cope with the outward. Teens, like the rest of America, are embracing meditation as a way to strip off stress.

The practice has gained endorsement and attention from all kinds of people.

Doctors advise patients to do it. Some corporations suggest workers give it a try. Habitual practitioners swear by it. Baseball players seek it to gain an edge on and off the field. Even lawyers see it as a remedy for burnout.

One group wants to fast-track it into schools, making meditation part of the curriculum.

Once considered hippy-dippy by many, meditation is going mainstream much as yoga did a few years back.

An article extolling its benefits that once might have been relegated to the alternative press recently commanded the cover of Time.

The Bay Area is a magnet for first-timers and devout practitioners of meditation. The area is home to a number of retreat centers, including the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, the San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm near Sausalito and the San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville. Most offer programs for teens.

On Friday, the East Bay contingent of the Transcendental Meditation program, which became popular in the United States in the 1960s, announced it is joining that group’s national effort to bring meditation into schools.

“It works better than anything that’s been tried,” says Valerie Janlois of the TM program in Danville. TM helps teens focus, boosts self-confidence and retention, she said.

The interest is heightened for teens probably because the culture regards it as hip and there are numerous programs available, said Diana Winston, a Spirit Rock instructor and the author of “Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens.”

“There’s an interest, and it’s almost being seen as a market,” the Albany author said.

While that might go counter to Buddhist teaching, it’s not a bad thing, given a culture that bombards teens with material goods that promise to make them happy and beautiful, she said.

“Thank God, it’s not a new pair of jeans.”

Meditation can have both subtle and profound effects on teens. By practicing Buddhist meditation, teens can concentrate better and develop more self-awareness and compassion and kindness for others, she said.

One of her students confronted an eating disorder; another quit smoking marijuana. Sometimes the uninterested learn to love it the most; one reluctant 13-year-old became a nun in Asia when she was 18.

Meditation isn’t the exclusive domain of Eastern theology or, for that matter, religion. Some practitioners don’t follow any particular religion. Others are in mainstream Christianity.

“Meditation has been a part of the Western Catholic church for centuries,” said the Rev. Raymond Bucher, the executive director of San Damiano. The retreat center will host a Christian meditation seminar in December and holds free meditation sessions at 7 p.m. Tuesdays.

Meditation can teach teens much about life because it disregards quick fixes to problems and emotions, said Dr. Peg Grimley, a psychiatrist with the John Muir-Mt. Diablo health system.

“In our culture, if we have a bad feeling we want to get rid of it,” she said. Meditation encourages people to sit with those good and bad thoughts, observe them and then watch them go away.

That can be a powerful tool for teens, she said.

The stickler is making it a habit.

Sophie Simon-Ortiz started practicing three years ago. The Berkeley High School senior said she really loved it, but a chaotic schedule made it less of a priority.

“I’ve been going through a lot more right now, and when I try to meditate recently it’s been a lot harder,” she said.

Galen DeForest attended a Spirit Rock teen retreat in Lafayette this summer and said meditation has always been challenging. He prefers the intense conversations he shared with other teens at the retreat over the 30-minute blocks of seated and walking meditation.

“It’s pretty difficult,” he said. “It’s hard to keep your mind focused, and you have to keep it unfocused at the same time.”

Meditation holds a special significance for some.

Noah Levine says it saved his life. He detailed his spiritual journey from hell and back in the memoir “Dharma Punx.”

The 32-year-old San Francisco resident hit a dead-end in his teens. Bored, angry and strung out on cocaine, heroin, alcohol and pills, he kept landing in Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. He hated life so much he tried to cut his wrists with a comb.

“I committed so many felonies that it was, kind of, get clean or be in prison for the rest of my life,” he said. “Or die. … I was getting locked up every other week.”

Levine started to meditate while in the throes of detox in juvenile hall. He cursed the notion originally, regarding it as nonsense.

Finally, he took a deep breath, then exhaled. That’s all it took. He knew instantly that something profound was happening.

“I knew from that moment on I was committed to doing it for the rest of my life,” he said.

He’s been off drugs and alcohol for 15 years, and now teaches meditation in juvenile halls and the state prison system, hoping it can turn around the lives of others. He attracts a crowd of 60 or more at his weekly Wednesday meditation sitting at the Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco.

He, too, says meditation isn’t easy, even now. It certainly was hard during his first retreat when he was 19.

“I thought: ‘Wow, this is really difficult and I want to leave most of the time.’ But I know this is the only hope for me … to really find what I’m looking for, which is more than ordinary suffering, which is really freedom.”

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