sex, sin and zen – book review

Written by arno kroner on . Posted in book review, zen

I don’t read many buddhist books, I don’t read many buddhist blogs either. I did read Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen a long time ago and I enjoyed it for it’s freshness and different approach. I bought his latest book, Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, as a iPhone Kindle book for $7.99 after browsing through it on the shelf at a bookstore. Usually on my iPhone I read books that I don’t really care about, something I can read when I’m standing in line somewhere. At the end of the day I truly enjoyed this one again.

Brad Warner adopts a fresh and casual tone, he is a master at using the modern Western culture and language to translate old concepts or sometimes show why they should be adapted. There’s humor, he also doesn’t take himself seriously and he’s a daring explorer of cultures. All this indicates that he probably is a good natural dharma teacher.

Although there are many juicy bits (BDSM, abortion, masturbation, porn, prostitution) somehow it ends up not being a book about sex, it’s just writing about american zen and the facets zen has today in this country, on its own and in contrast or harmony with the heavy Christian luggage the culture is still carrying. Mr Warner uses sex as a vehicle to expose more general buddhist concepts and how they apply to modern practice in this society. Quite softly he ends the book with a How To Do Zazen chapter, I thought that was touching.

There’s nothing to learn from his book and that is a good thing. There’s nothing to learn from zen anyway. Something the writer actually emphasizes often: you’re on your own, with sex or other aspects of life experience. If you are a buddhist practioner follow the precepts according to your life situation and appreciate your life and the lives of others. He uses sex as a vehicle to talk about zen in general or that’s how I read it. In this book sex is the excuse – to attract and sell perhaps – not saying this in a derogatory way, if Brad Warner can attract people to dharma practice that’s good for them and good for him too. The cover is quite pop. Does Brad Warner try to be the trendy zen teacher? The Silverlake cool dude who you can go sit with? Maybe, again I think that’s a good thing. It demystifies what is often kept pretty obscure in zen communities.

Another positive facet of this book is the clarification it brings about what sex is for buddhists, especially in a culture that can view buddhism as austere or a joy-killer. As he should Mr Warner puts sex in historical and cultural perspective and include witness accounts of modern day practitioners. The structure of the book too is interesting, alternating more conceptual chapters with more practical ones, in particular the ones that include testimonies (there’s an abortion account from a practitioner that will leave you silent and on your knees for a moment). Also, because it has been such a subject of controversy, he approaches the relationship between student and teacher (well in particular when those have sex together). There have been many stories of that. He takes a hard and true look at zen communities today and there’s truth in what he says. I had a good laugh when he mentions that Ösel Tendzin was called asshole tension by his teacher. I think the Ösel Tendzin story is the most appalling of all, but then what do we know…

A couple of passages are frankly a little too long (like the one with famous porn star Nina Hartley – I never watched porn so I don’t even know who she is) but overall he delivers an entertaining read. While reading I often thought that Brad Warner should be a zen talk show host. He has appeal even if the depth is not much there (But is there really a need for depth when everything is already here?) I guess one could call it zentertainment. I was very zentertained reading Sex, Sin and Zen. Thank you Mr Warner.