BOOK REVIEW/SUMMER READING Brad Warner – The Other Side of Nothing : The Zen Ethics of Time, Space and Being

NOTE: This blog entry is aimed more at teachers than students, as its purpose is to introduce a number of fairly recent texts that overlap with the territory of Religious Studies and Philosophy. Pretty much all the titles referenced here come highly recommended, including Brad Warner’s other publications, and especially Megan Phelps-Roper’s book Unfollow : A Journey from Hatred to Hope (which is briefly quoted from below). Phelps-Roper also deserves credit for coining the term ‘epistemic humility’.

For anyone specifically tasked with teaching the Heart Sutra, both Alex Kerr and Karl Brunnhölzl’s studies are the best that I have encountered.

In what follows, some attempt has been made to unpack Buddhist terminology for those who are unfamiliar with it through the use of explanatory links. The same goes for references to other schools of philosophy, concepts and individuals of significance.

Typically, A Level courses on ethics tend to focus on how Western normative theories work both in principle and in practice. For example, students may learn about utilitarian and Kantian perspectives on sex, or how modern virtue ethicists approach an issue like climate change. In this respect, Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism tend to get get a raw deal in this type of course, as they are infrequently included in the mix. And yet there is a distinctive feature of both these faiths that has important implications for morality. Arguably, both are founded on non-dual awareness, a form of mystical experience that is conveyed rather amusingly through this joke:

The Dalai Lama walks into a Pizza shop, gives the waiter £10 and says, “Can you make me one with everything?

Five minutes after eating and finishing his pizza, he asks the waiter, “Dude, where’s my change?”

The waiter says, “Change must come from within”*

In the first line, the highlighted phrase is about more than just slapping every ingredient on top of a pizza base. In a mystical context, it is the person eating the pizza who has an experience of non-separation, of becoming ‘one with everything’. Usually, if it happens at all, this is a product of years of regular and frequently intense meditative practice. For example, in his very first book Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality, Warner describes his own experience of non-duality (presented here in a slightly abbreviated form):

The universe was me and I was it. I looked up at the sky and that experience was exactly like looking at a mirror. You know the feeling of recognition you get when you look in a mirror? “That’s me” you think to yourself, “My hair needs to be combed and, hey, there’s a pimple on my nose!” Well I got that same feeling no matter where I lookedThere was no doubt that this state was ‘true’. It was far more true than the state I considered to be normal up until then. I had no need to confirm it with anyoneYou know those morons that rammed those planes into the World Trade Center? That was me. The people that died in the collapse?  Me again. Every single person who ever paid money for a Pet Rock? Me….. And it’s you, too. Was this the same state that Gautama Buddha experienced that early December morning 2,500 years ago. Yes it was. It is. Absolutely.

Those closing sentences are especially striking because according to the Buddhacarita or ‘Acts of the Buddha’, a Sanskrit biographical poem authored in the 2nd Century AD, on the night of his enlightenment “from the summit of the world downwards” the Buddha “could detect no self anywhere.” Dwelling on this new found state for a further seven days, he then “finally convinced himself of the lack of self in all that is”.

The poem was authored many centuries after the historical Buddha is thought to have lived, but in this instance the quoted passages seem congruent with his famously distinctive teaching of anatta. According to this teaching, as observable reality is characterised by impermanence, there is no such thing as either an individual soul or a Universal Self, as was asserted in contemporary Hindu texts, which additionally declared the unity of that soul (atman) with Brahman, an unchanging ultimate Self that is identical with and underpins the universe. So what is unusual about Warner’s account of his own glimpse of enlightenment is that it seems to resemble this equation of atman with Brahman more than it does Siddhartha Gautama’s nirvana.

However, I am purposely dwelling on Warner’s experience of gnosis not to cast aspersions on it, but to point out that twenty years later, in this latest book of his, we find out more about why he may have described it the way he did. This is because, in the course of developing his exploration of the ethical implications of non-duality, he frequently draws on the monistic Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, specifically the writings of Nisargadatta Maharaj, when doing so.

So what follows from seeing ourselves as some kind of Big Self when it comes to morality?

Certainly an arresting opening sentence (‘You are not reading this book’), and a deceptively flippant summation of mystical ethics at the beginning of the first chapter (‘You are the universe, but you keep punching yourself in the face. So stop doing that. The End.’).

Although there probably isn’t much more to it than that, this is Warner’s longest book by quite a stretch. Many chapters are devoted to explaining what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path (especially stages three to five, which are directly concerned with sila or ‘right conduct’), as well as what are referred to in Zen Buddhism as the ‘Universal Precepts’ and the ‘Ten Grave Precepts’. These all receive an extensive treatment, one that is a useful supplement to more formal, academic introductions to Buddhist ethics by authors like Peter Harvey and Damien Keown. However, and somewhat surprisingly, there is no mention at all of the important later Buddhist notion of upaya kausalya, or ‘skilful means’.

In Mahayana Buddhism (an umbrella term for forms of Buddhism that include Zen), this is a notion that applies especially to advanced and enlightened teachers, who by dint of their unusual level of insight or prajna, and motivated by karuna or compassion for suffering beings, are permitted to break an ethical precept provided that in doing so they are aiding the spiritual development of their students. In other words, upaya functions rather as a License to Kill does for 007, a character who is meant to know what they doing if circumstances dictate that they resort to this drastic step.

In theory, an advanced bodhisattva (someone who is well on the way to full awakening), Buddha, guru, Zen roshi (teacher/master) or whatever, will therefore only ever act in a manner which is appropriate in terms of upaya because they can always tell, through a combination of intuitive wisdom and compassion, what is best for their students.

Except that things do not always seem to quite work out that way. For example, in one Mahayana text (actually called the Skilful Means Scripture), the Buddha as an aspiring bodhisattva sleeps with a woman who is threatening to commit suicide out of love for him, in clear violation of his own precept about sexual conduct. More recently, as Buddhism has taken root in the West, prominent Buddhist teachers from a variety of traditions have been implicated in #MeToo type sex scandals. One particularly notorious example was that of Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan guru. Trungpa was undoubtedly charismatic and formidable, but also well-known as a reckless drunk who ate and drank what he liked, smoked, ingested psychedelics, and apparently enjoyed sexual relationships with his followers. Can his behaviour be seen as a particularly dramatic form of upaya? Certainly and perhaps surprisingly, many of those close to Trungpa interpreted his actions this way, though others did not.

Commenting on this controversial issue, in this instance on the modern Hindu guru Osho Rajneesh, in their study The Way of the Heart: The Rajneesh Movement, Paul Heelas and Judith Thompson had this to say about spiritual masters (and their comments apply across the spectrum of world faiths when it comes to those who have abused their authority):

“[They] cannot be assessed as one might assess the record of an academic or a politician. They are working in ways which transcend our normal manner of making sense of and evaluating people. To assess them in terms of everyday values is to miss the point that, if they are authentic, their actions belong to another order of reality. To say, for example, that Jesus cannot be the Son of God because he allowed himself to be crucified is to ignore the possibility that the crucifixion illustrates the mysterious workings of the divine.”

Fair enough. But this means that nothing can ever decisively count against an enlightened being when it comes to their behaviour. It effectively renders them immune from criticism. A further implication of this idea is that – according to Warner – they (or in this instance Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen) want us “to [also] be able to see things from the point of view that transcends the category of right and wrong.” As Warner himself admits, “this can be a dangerous idea in the wrong hands” and he cites Charles Manson as a notorious example of someone who believed this.

Warner is therefore very much aware of this issue, and he has commented on it at length in a number of blog entries, as well as in one of his previous books, where he observes that one move open to a guru is to “be completely open about these weird activities. explaining to his followers that shagging his students or stockpiling guns or taking copious amounts of cocaine or whatever he’s doing is a special manifestation of his deep wisdom, or some such thing.” Alternatively, he suggests that some errant behaviour is a consequence of a teacher pushing back against the unrealistic expectations of their students, who may perceive them as spiritually infallible. Such behaviour can certainly be deliberate and exploitative, but also an indication that the teacher might be unable to cope with the pressures of leadership. Most memorably, he includes himself in his own analysis, admitting that “I drank alcohol, looked at naked titties, and smoked pot on the Fourth of July 2007.” Warner’s point here is to emphasise that an experience of awakening or insight into the nature of reality does not necessarily bring about a thorough and lasting moral transformation in a given individual. In effect, he is suggesting that there are no ‘perfect masters’, a point that would, of course, also be applicable if a teacher was female.

Overall, it is therefore a bit of a shame that Warner does not revisit this issue in The Other Side of Nothing, as it would have been interesting to read about his views on upaya and his thoughts on the limits of the latitude that should be extended to gurus and roshis in their attempts to enlighten their students. The famous stories of Nansen and the Cat, and Gutei’s Finger spring to mind specifically in relation to Zen, though Warner has previously stated (in his book Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen) that these jarring stories should not be taken literally.

Moving on, when stating his convictions about moral decision making, Warner asserts that “we have an intuitive awareness of what the correct thing to do is, here and now. Before we are even conscious of the right decision, the right decision has already appeared in our minds. This is something [that has] been backed up lately by studies in human psychology.” He goes on to state that lots of zazen practice has confirmed this view of his, and claims that “I always know the right thing to do. I’m just very good at shouting over my intuitive sense. The quieter I get, the easier it is to perceive the quiet intuitive sense and the easier it is to do what really needs to get done. When we maintain right view [the first stage or attribute of the Theravada Noble Eightfold Path], the ideas that drive us to do unethical things are undone. We no longer believe ourselves to be separate from others, and therefore we no longer see any valid reason to harm anyone else.

One of the studies that Warner is alluding to here is almost certainly the famous experiment conducted by the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, who discovered that the relevant parts of our brain become active half a second before any conscious decision is made . This is known as the half-second delay, and suggests that our choices are determined by unconscious brain activity. Additionally, research carried out by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has confirmed that the moral, political and aesthetic judgements we make are, indeed, often instantaneous and intuitive, while the justifications that we offer for them are retrospective. However, this is not necessarily good news for Warner, as these intuitions are understood to be a product of evolutionary psychology, an artefact of tribalistic living, and therefore not always reliable. A product of millennia of trial and error, some of our intuitive responses have withstood the test of time and still hold true. However, others are questionable. For example, groups that had taboos against non-reproductive sexual acts like masturbation, oral sex and homosexual relationships could have benefited in terms of natural selection, as they may have enjoyed higher fertility rates and faster growth than other groups. However, nowadays these taboos appear outdated and morally indefensible.

The psychological studies that Warner probably has in mind are also not the only game in town. Other psychologists who have investigated intuitions have found that they vary according to both socioeconomic status and ethnic background. Indeed, Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion paints a picture of a world in which political and religious divisions largely come about as a result of clashes of intuitions, with right-wing populists, demagogues and media enjoying a particular knack for appealing to a specific subset of evolutionarily ingrained, pre-rational intuitions about justice and fairness that are both a psychic remnant of tribalistic living and sometimes spectacularly inappropriate for a modern, globalized world. Such a degree of variability may therefore pose problems for Warner’s view of intuition if he additionally thinks that what we know to be true in any given situation should be the same for each and every one of us, as it arises out of the same apprehension of non-separateness. On the other hand, perhaps the intuitions that Warner is referring to, which are a product of non-dual perception, come into play at a deeper level that can only be accessed through zazen.

In a recent publication Identity, the US political scientist Francis Fukuyama has observed that one reason for the currently fissiparous state of the world is the foregrounding of identity politics in political debate. According to Fukuyama, ‘The left has focused less on broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized – blacks, immigrants, women, Hispanics, the LGBT community, refugees and the like’. In doing so, they have left themselves open to accusations of ‘wokeness’ where this emphasis is deemed to have gone too far. On the other hand, ‘The right meanwhile, is redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion’. If Fukuyama’s analysis is correct, and if these divisions originate in any way from gut feelings that are past their sell-by-date, then perhaps what is required right now is precisely what Warner is describing, namely, an outlook based less on congealed notions of identity and more on a selfless vision that is all-inclusive.

Lastly, and as an aside, it is briefly worth noting that there are Western philosophers who have also favoured the view that morality is intuitive. For example, GE Moore (writing long before the psychological studies previously mentioned) argued that there were objective moral truths that exist independently of human beings. However, these truths can only be known intuitively, the reason for this being that we are all, he felt, naturally equipped to recognise goodness whenever we encounter it.

The Black Knight scene from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail is wonderfully illustrative of recklessness as a vice of excess in Aristotelian ethics.

However, if we are in the business of making East/West ethical comparisons, Buddhism seems more closely akin to the normative theory of Aristotle, one which is based on character development and the cultivation of admirable virtues. For Aristotle, in our ethical decision-making we should aim for a middle way between extremes of excess and deficiency. For example, if courage is a character trait that we wish to develop, then cowardice is something that we need to avoid as it is a vice of deficiency. On the other hand, what we might call recklessness or rashness is a vice of excess. It would be foolhardy, for instance, for us to blunder into a fight that we have no chance of winning. So the virtue of courage lies at the mean or middle between these vices. In this way, we can see that virtues are desire-regulating character traits that fall at some mid-point between extremes. Similarly, Buddhism also presents itself as a middle path between asceticism and hedonism, and is all about acquiring virtues like wisdom and compassion. It also seeks to regulate desire or tanha.

One of the best parts of Warner’s book looks at what all this might entail in terms of action, what we then actually end up doing, and once again he builds on a point that he first brought up in a passage that appears towards the end of the wonderfully titled chapter ‘No Sex With Cantaloupes’ from Hardcore Zen:

“In the movie Stardust Memories, Woody Allen meets some aliens and starts asking them all the Big Questions About Life. They tell him, “You’re asking all the wrong questions. If you want to make the world a better place, tell funnier jokes.”

This time around, Warner’s advice is to “make a little difference”. Often we can feel overwhelmed and demoralized by the problems of the world, so much so that we adopt a passive stance in relation to them. But over and above encouraging us to simply “refrain from doing what is wrong”, Warner recommends that we should also remain vigilant and look to be positive and helpful whenever an opportunity arises:

“You can’t make fix the economy, heal the natural environment, undo centuries of human abuse and neglect….But you can make a little difference. So make a little difference!

This may seem like a banal and rather obvious suggestion. And who knows? Maybe some terrorists and autocratic politicians are also motivated by the thought that they can make a small difference. But Warner’s proposal also happens to be entirely in conformity with the thinking of one of the world’s most prominent ethicists, Peter Singer, as described in his book The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, as well as that of the Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard in his magisterial, multi-disciplinary study Altruism: The Science and Psychology of Kindness. So here are their respective Ted Talks:

Another strength of Warner’s book is the persuasive critique that he offers of what might be called secular mindfulness. The gist of what he says is this:

1. There is now a mindfulness industry.

2. Those who are trained in it may lack the experience that those more closely aligned with Buddhism have, simply because of the amount of meditation that the latter have done.

3. Mindfulness is not always a safe practice, though usually it will just make you feel bored a lot of the time..

4. Eventually, it will confront you with your own ‘inner demons’, induce a ‘dark night of the soul’ and so on.

5. This is why secularising Buddhism, cutting it off from its religious roots, is a bad idea, as in doing so links are severed with a 2,500 year old tradition specifically devoted to dealing with disquieting meditative states. Having a teacher with decades of experience who is firmly embedded within this tradition means that they are much better equipped to help when when the pot of the unconscious is stirred. The scriptures are also there to help someone navigate this inner territory.

Warner’s views on mindfulness are particularly relevant right now, especially when it comes to UK schools, where the technique has been introduced to address the stress, anxiety and mental health issues that are becoming increasingly prevalent among teenagers. Often meditation practices are being taught by teachers who have received little formal training themselves in these practices, and in some instances, it would seem that pupils are simply directed to apps that describe these methods and then left to get on with them.

All this is worrying, as doing mindfulness in schools, particularly in deprived areas, with children who may be experiencing abusive or other forms of dysfunctional behaviour at home, could be seen as inappropriate, irresponsible and short sighted. Fortunately, one recent study suggests that a lot of pupils simply get bored when they give it a try, and therefore do not continue with the practice at home, thus confirming point 3 above. It is also unlikely that meditating for a few minutes every day is likely to induce a psychotic breakdown in an already vulnerable student. But it is not possible to be certain of this, and so Warner is surely correct to counsel caution in this respect, as the following extract from one of his blog entries also affirms:

Many years ago, a friend’s conservative Christian mother feared that meditation might open me up to demonic possession. I made fun of this idea in one of my books, saying that Zen retreats were often so boring that I wished I’d get possessed by demons, just to break up the tedium.

But the fact is, her fears were not without merit. Mindfulness meditation continues to rise in popularity. As it does, more and more people are discovering that this practice that’s promoted as a perfectly safe way to relieve stress can have other, quite different effects. Take, for example, one meditator who reported having, “thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror,” and “(a) vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.” Sounds a little like the kind of thing some might call “demon possession.” It’s not really demon possession — obviously, because there’s no such thing as demon possession. But I can see why people in the past might have described it that way.

Look. I’m a Buddhist who has meditated most of his life. Yet I would not be comfortable with some random elementary school teacher teaching mindfulness meditation to, let’s say, my niece when she was 10 after as little as six days of training. That’s like saying, “Hey! You want to be a psychiatrist? I can teach you how in a week. It’s just talking to people!”

Because it’s easy as pie to teach someone how to meditate. It takes me literally about three minutes to show someone how to do zazen. The follow-up to that, though, takes a lot of skill. After 20 years of working at it I’m finally starting to feel somewhat competent, though I still encounter plenty of incidents where I’m totally out of my depth.

Additionally, it could be argued that mindfulness has been co-opted by neoliberalism (a term which receives a very full and clear explanation in an excellent article by George Monbiot for those who are unfamiliar with it) to alleviate the remorseless stresses that this form of capitalism inevitably inflicts on people, so that they continue to be unquestioning drones who allow this exploitative system to perpetuate itself. See HERE for more on this. It is also not without significance that in his aforementioned book, Matthieu Ricard includes a sustained attack on neoliberalism, as he regards this economic system as being essentially based on a discredited, empirically false view of human nature (essentially the notion that we both are and should be selfish in the way that we go about things), one that suppresses our natural tendency as a species to be altruistic. What is therefore required is arguably not some kind of palliative psychological salve and cheap fix, but rather governmental action that is specifically designed to alleviate the extreme inequalities and poverty that neoliberal economic policies have produced in those societies that have adopted them.

In conclusion, while there are many studies indicating that mindfulness certainly does confer physical and psychological benefits on those who make use of this technique in a sustained manner, there are also hazards that only very highly trained practitioners are qualified to address, which at the very least calls into question its suitability when it comes to schools. Given that, for Marxists, capitalism is inherently exploitative, further analysis of whether the mindfulness industry could be regarded as exploitative would be welcome.

Kathy Sykes, a sceptically inclined British physicist, broadcaster and Professor of Sciences and Society at the University of Bristol once investigated meditation in a BBC documentary and was impressed. Some of the research demonstrating the efficacy of mindfulness is presented in a section that begins at roughly 38 minutes into the programme. Matthieu Ricard also makes a memorable appearance right at the beginning.

As the example of mindfulness indicates, this is a book that is about far more than just Buddhist ethics. It is also quite comprehensive in its treatment of what those in the philosophy trade might call the metaphysical underpinnings of non-dualism (though Warner and other Zen teachers would probably insist that what is being considered is essentially experiential – how the universe looks to someone who has been afforded a glimpse of non-dual reality). Some of these underpinnings (or insights) are intrinsically paradoxical and counter-intuitive. ‘You are not reading this book’ is certainly one claim that falls into this category, as surely an ontologically prior self would be required to make this observation, though in this instance it is the mirror-like, unlimited Big Self that is presumably reflecting this truth. Throughout the book, though particularly towards the end of it, Warner is at pains to delve into and explain these paradoxes as best he can, often amusingly prefacing what he says with the recurring catchphrase ‘I’m not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens’, as a means of encapsulating the manner in which Zen teachers go about this. The highlights here include a commentary on Dogen’s enigmatic pronouncements on the nature of time and space, and a look at the somewhat startling notions that “when we are born and when we die, the universe is born and dies with us”, and that we do not begin and end at the borders of our individual bodies, or in other words, the world is not outside of us.

Two other aspects of this estimable book are also worth mentioning. First of all, a welcome emphasis on epistemic humility is one of its laudable attributes, with Warner remarking at one point that, ‘I’m never sure that I’m right and someone else is wrong, for example. I might be right from one point of view, while the other person is right from another. Knowing this, and never believing I am entirely in the right, helps me to act more ethically.”

Just by chance, before turning to The Other Side of Nothing, this reviewer had just finished reading Megan Phelps-Roper’s extraordinary account of her upbringing in the Westboro Baptist Church, a memoir that included a similarly perceptive observation:

‘Doubt causes us to hold a strong position a bit more loosely, such that an acknowledgement of ignorance or error doesn’t crush our sense of self or leave us totally unmoored if our position proves untenable. Certainty is the opposite: it hampers enquiry and hinders growth. It teaches us to ignore evidence that contradicts our ideas, and encourages us to defend our position at all costs, even as it reveals itself as indefensible. Certainty sees compromise as weak, hypocritical, evil, suppressing empathy and allowing us to justify inflicting horrible pain on others.’

The ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, whose writings have exerted a considerable influence on Chinese Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, also declared that “The torch of chaos and doubt” is “what the sage steers by.”

When one thinks of the gratuitous harms inflicted on others by those who are utterly in thrall to some kind of perverse ideology (ISIS and Vladimir Putin serve as the most recent examples), then surely the above triumvirate of authors are correct when they suggest that we should be more willing to question even some of our most deeply held beliefs.

Secondly, although much space is devoted to an elucidation of Gudo Nishijima (Warner’s own teacher), and Dogen’s views on Buddhist ethics and metaphysics, a comment made by Warner about the Heart Sutra also resonated with this particular reader. For those unfamiliar with this scripture, it is a mere 56 lines long (in one English translation), and is regarded as containing the undiluted essence of all Buddhist wisdom. Indeed, as the Japanologist Alex Kerr states in the preface to his delightfully engaging book on the text, it is “one of the most thought-provoking and emotionally intense works produced by humankind. Measured by its influence across Asia since the seventh century – from Japan, Korea and China, to India, Mongolia, Tibet and Vietnam, no other work comes close to the popularity of the Heart Sutra.” The renowned and formidable French author Marguerite Yourcenar was, according to Kerr, so profoundly affected by the philosophy of evanescence, of ‘emptiness’ or ‘sunyata’ that is expressed in the scripture, that she apparently held fast to a fan inscribed with the Chinese text as she lay on her death bed. And yet – Yourcenar and select others aside – the Sutra still remains relatively unknown in the West (though it is a requirement of the present OCR and Eduqas A Level Religious Studies syllabuses that it is studied).

Many years ago, A Level teachers were only directed to formal academic books authored by renowned scholars like Edward Conze in order to figure the Heart Sutra out. What we perhaps therefore missed out on was the view from the inside, in other words, a perspective on the text that can only be proffered by those who have actually been afforded a glimpse of what sunyata or emptiness actually is (as the term also serves as a descriptor of ultimate reality itself), though perhaps some caution is to be advised, as there is a story that when the Buddha gave his first dis­course on sunyata, some advanced meditators allegedly had heart attacks and died from the impact of the teaching. In sitting meditation these meditators had experienced something known as ‘absorption in space’, but were still dwelling on that space. Inasmuch as they remained fixated on something, there was still an experience and an experiencer, so their experience of non-duality was not total. Contrastingly, the apprehension of sunyata it is claimed, involves not being preoccupied with anything, not distinguishing between this and that, being suspended nowhere.

As a consequence of focusing exclusively on scholarly works, schoolteachers like myself may therefore not have appreciated just how subversive the Heart Sutra actually is, and consequently failed to adequately convey its iconoclastic message to our students. Just to give an impression of the radicalism of the Heart Sutra, here is an extract from it:

‘In emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to: No mind-consciousness element; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment.’

Without going into detail, what this passage is effectively doing is trashing all Buddhist teachings, including itself and the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) tradition of Buddhism from which the scripture itself emerged, or as Warner puts it, “The Heart Sutra is denying all the foundational aspects of Buddhist philosophy, It’s like finding a secret passage in the Bible that says “no saviour, no resurrection, no heaven, no eternal life” or something like that. It’s taking all the things that everybody thinks they know about Buddhism and saying, “No, it’s not any of that. Sorry.” In his playfully titled book The Heart Attack Sutra, Karl Brunnhölzl echoes this sentiment when he asks, “Is there any other spiritual tradition that says, “Everything that we teach, just forget about it”?

Hopefully, some of the readers of this blog whose interest has been piqued by the above will now be inspired to look more deeply into this aspect of Buddhism. Although it is beyond the scope of this review to look at why the Heart Sutra takes this line, The Other Side of Nothing (as well as some of Warner’s other publications) and Brunnhölzl’s commentary certainly do, and so they are recommended for anyone who wishes to gain a better intellectual understanding of emptiness.

In bringing this rather lengthy review to a close, one last point worth discussing is Warner’s use of the term ‘God’. Although Buddhism is, in theory at least, an atheistic faith, he has never fought shy of using the word when he deems it appropriate to do so, and has previously made God the subject of an entire book (see above). On this occasion, as early as the first chapter of The Other Side of Nothing, he forewarns his readers that, “I know that God is a dirty word to some people – including lots of Buddhists. But I’m going to use that dirty word a lot. I apologize.” Of course, the God that Warner is referring to here is very different from the conception maintained in classical theism, where this deity is considered to stand apart from the universe, and is usually thought of as being eternal, omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. By way of contrast, a non-dual God is the universe.

For many, the superabundance of evil in this world, both moral and natural, is one of the reasons why they are atheists, as they cannot believe that an all-powerful, all-loving God would allow evil to exist on such a vast scale. But for Buddhists, this problem of evil never arises. Suffering is a given, an intrinsic and inevitable feature of a world of change (samsara) which offers up no evidence that it is the creation of a God in possession of the aforementioned attributes. This is also a world where things are guaranteed to change in ways that we do not like. Dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactory experience, is therefore something that afflicts all living things, and the whole point of Buddhism is to put a stop to it. According to Theravada Buddhism (the oldest existing school of the faith) once it is experienced, the meditative state of nirvana effectively ends what up to that point had been a perpetual cycle of rebirth in samsara.

Escape From Samsara is not only what Theravada Buddhists aim to achieve, it was also the name given to a popular weekly occasion at the Fridge nightclub in Brixton. London.

However, adherents of the Mahayana, a form of Buddhism that emerged just before the advent of Christianity, and that has become predominant in the countries previously mentioned by Alex Kerr (and which includes Zen), the essential identity of samsara and nirvana is maintained. In other words, the end of suffering results from no longer misperceiving reality as it presents itself to us right here and now.

And so we are back to non-dualism, as the recognition of samsara as nirvana also entails that we are not separate from the reality that we ordinarily regard as being outside of ourselves. So far, so good. But if we essentially are the universe, and that universe should be regarded, according to Warner, as ‘a single, sentient entity’, is the problem of evil avoided? Perhaps not, as even within this monistic framework, it does not seem unreasonable to ask why a sentient universe insists on punching itself in the face (even though we are not meant to), given the gratuitous and seemingly pointless forms of evil that proliferate within it. If God is “playing hide and seek” as part of a “game” (and Warner approvingly cites a lengthy passage from the author and philosopher Alan Watts to this effect), such a game seems to be inherently cruel and impersonal, especially for those who happen to be on the receiving end of some of the worst kinds of suffering that can be visited upon us.

In Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (which has been made into a film twice, both of which are very much worth seeing, especially for anyone teaching or studying John Hick’s replica theory), human beings have discovered a planet, called Solaris, covered by an ocean which moves and seems to be alive and might even have a mind. In other words, it appears to be sentient. The planet also spontaneously generates ‘visitors’, copies of significant others in the lives of the astronauts that come to haunt them on an orbiting space station. However, as the political philosopher and author John Gray has pointed out in a publication that includes a brief commentary on this work, “Solaris views the human world with a serene lack of concern….It shows no sympathy for the anguish of the human simulacra it creates. If they depart or disappear, it will feel no loss.” The same would appear to be true for the Universal Self that gives rise to each of us.

But having said this, one cannot but be impressed by the admirable attitude to personal suffering exhibited by another Zen teacher who comes from the same lineage as Warner, namely, Jundo Cohen. In his book The Zen Master’s Dance, Cohen writes of his feelings following a cancer diagnosis as follows:

I don’t want to pretend that I that I am some kind of hero who is beyond all fear. I’m a complete Zen coward! I believe that some level of fear is hardwired into the deepest part of our brains, and it awakens when we ponder our own sickness and death. But that’s okay because it’s not the end of the story. Another part of me is beyond all fear. I mean that. Part of me is afraid but part of me is not afraid at all. It’s the part of me that is wonderfully beyond ‘me’, beyond all fear of death – an aspect of my being that is fine with whatever happens. The part of me that knows there is no place to fall to and that does not believe in death in the usual way we think about it.’

Fair enough. But then yet another issue arises: given that experiences of non-duality seem to be elusive and rare, a product of decades of unstinting meditative practice, and given also that arguably what the world needs now, faced as it is with problems like climate change and the ever present risk of nuclear annihilation, is an unlikely awakening to this condition on a large scale, is the human enterprise doomed to failure? As a species, is it not therefore plausible that we stand more chance of becoming a failed experiment on the part of the ‘sentient’ universe?

These questions and misgivings aside, The Other Side of Nothing remains a welcome addition to the literature on Buddhist ethics. As with all Warner’s books it is frequently humorous and irreverent, though there is no getting around the fact that parts of it are also challenging and difficult. For this reason, while every educational establishment would certainly benefit from having at least one of his publications on a shelf in the library, bright A Level and GCSE students might find Warner’s earlier works, like Hardcore Zen or Sit Down and Shut Up, to be more immediately accessible. Entertaining though it undoubtedly is, this is a title that is perhaps more suited to those who teach Buddhism to examination level.

*Here is what happened when the Dalai Lama Pizza Joke got told to the Dalai Lama himself.