The night that bestselling author and Zen teacher Brad Warner learned that his childhood friend Marky had died of cancer at the age of forty-eight, he had just arrived in Hamburg, Germany where he was scheduled to give a talk to a group of Zen students. It was the last thing he felt like doing. Instead, Warner was thinking about all of the things he never said to his friend, since topics like spirituality and meditation didn’t exactly fit with the passion for punk rock they had shared since they were young. So, as Warner continued his teaching tour through Europe, he began writing out all the things he wished he had said to Marky before he died, and the ultimate result is the new book Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen. Simply and humorously, Warner reflects on why Zen provided him a lifeline in a difficult world. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
It’s still drizzling in Hamburg, but the Hamburgers don’t seem to mind. That’s actually what you call someone from Hamburg in German — a Hamburger. Some folks took me out for ice cream after my talk last night. I got a flavor called engelblau. That means “angel blue,” which sounds like it could be the name of a porn-video distributor. It tasted like the blue-moon-flavored ice cream they sold at Bidinger’s Ice Cream Stand in Wadsworth.
I’m sad that you’re gone. My God, am I sad!
People have some weird ideas about Buddhism. They think that Buddhists spend all their time trying to overcome attachment. They assume this means that we try to be as aloof and uncaring as possible, so that we never have any feelings toward anyone or anything and therefore we don’t hurt when someone dies.
That’s not what Buddhists mean when they talk about attachment.
The Sanskrit word that gets translated as “attachment” is upadana. It originally meant “fuel.” Its use was later extended to mean anything that keeps some process going. Other English translations of upadana include “clinging” and “grasping.”
It’s about our desire to keep things the same and the mental fuel that keeps that process going. Change is unavoidable, but we don’t like it. We want stability, dependability. It’s natural to want such things. It’s hard for any organism to adapt to change, and humans are no exception, even though, compared to most animals, we seem to do pretty well with change. Still, that doesn’t mean we like it when something we rely on is no longer reliable or when something we value is no longer available. I valued the times we talked, and now I can talk to you but you can’t respond. I don’t like that.
In that sense, I was attached to our friendship in the form it had developed into by the time you died. I wanted that friendship to continue in that form. But it couldn’t continue in that form because you died.
So in some sense, my grief is caused by my desire for things to be different from how they actually are. But does that mean that I would have been better off if I had never valued our friendship? Would I be happier now if I had been more aloof from you, if I hadn’t cared about you?
I don’t think so. Maybe I wouldn’t feel any grief right now if I’d been like that. But in order to be the kind of person who could resist caring for people who were close to me, like you, I would have to be very hard and cold. I don’t want to be hard and cold. That doesn’t seem like a good way to live.
There’s a term for using spirituality as an excuse for not feeling anything. People are calling it spiritual bypassing. I hate trendy terms like that, but the fact that someone made up a trendy term for it shows how pervasive it is. Lots of people seem to think that the way to be spiritual is to deny what they actually feel and pretend, instead, to be an aloof caricature of a spiritual person, like a phony Buddhist monk from a TV sitcom.
I don’t go for that. Instead, when grief comes, I let it come. I feel it as fully as possible. But I try not to hang on to it. I try not to dwell in it. I refuse to define myself by it, even when I want to. Since you died, I’ve had moments when I’ve felt engulfed by grief. But these moments, like all moments, pass. I try not to be too attached to my grief.
If you’d have asked me to talk with you about death, I would have talked about it. I told you this in an email. You thanked me, but you never asked anything. Sometimes I regret not pushing that point just a teeny bit harder. Maybe you wanted to talk but needed more encouragement. I’ll never know. In any case, you know a hell of a lot more about death now than I do.
I would never assume that a person who knows he’s dying wants to talk about death. When I’m dying, I hope nobody hits me up with their pet theories about death. I try to extend the same courtesy to others.
Sometimes, though, I wonder what I would have said to you if you’d asked me about death, Marky. Do I know anything about death that’s worth telling a friend who is dying? Are the teachings of Zen Buddhism valuable to such a person? Would they have made a difference to the quality of your last days?
People who believe in religions generally assume the beliefs that have brought them comfort will bring comfort to anyone they share them with. Having been on the receiving end of such attempts at sharing, I can tell you that’s not always the case. Usually, it’s exactly the opposite.
I wasn’t gonna be that guy to you, Marky. And yet there are times when I feel like if we had discussed it, maybe together we’d have come around to something valuable. I’m sad that I was too chickenshit to bring it up in person rather than just in an email.
So what I’m gonna do, starting with my next letter to you, is bring up everything I didn’t bring up when I had the chance.
Until then, keep on smiling!
Brad Warner is the author of Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen and numerous other titles including It Came from Beyond Zen, Don’t Be a Jerk, and Hardcore Zen. A Soto Zen teacher, he is also a punk bassist, filmmaker, and popular blogger who leads workshops and retreats around the world. In addition to his books, his writing appears in Lion’s Roar, Tricycle, Buddhadharma, and Alternative Press. He lives in Los Angeles where he is the founder and lead teacher of the Angel City Zen Center. Visit him online at www.hardcorezen.info.
Excerpted from the book Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen. Copyright ©2019 by Brad Warner. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.