"In fact some Zen Centers don’t want Zen Monster in their libraries or bookstores. I also take that as a sign of success! We are rebels. We are independent of any church hierarchy. My thinking was that we needed a publication not supervised by the hierarchy, not supervised by an abbot or a Zen teacher. When there is a problem or a crisis in American Buddhism we need to have thoughtful, well-informed lay people able to discuss it without anything holding them back."
From my point of view Zen Monster is one of the most interesting art projects having come out of the Zen community ever. This is how Zen Monster 3 was announced at the San Francisco Zen Center.
On March 18th 2012 I have been able to interview Brian Unger, chief editor and publisher about the story and the goals behind Zen Monster.
Enjoy the full interview here ...
Enjoy the full interview here ...
Hi Brian, I am happy this finally worked out. Great to meet you. Are you in New York now?
Yeah nice to meet you. Actually I am living in the tropics this winter, Puerto Rico. You know, it is very hard to stay on schedule here because it is so very sunny and beautiful. We refer to it as la-la land. I am a surfer so I go surfing almost every day. I often have to take a nap in the afternoon because surfing is so physically demanding, and I just pass out and fall asleep. And then I wake up and it’s five o’clock and then I have a glass of wine or two, and then I have to cook dinner, and it just goes in a big circle.
That’s very different from what I expected. I expected meeting some kind of nerd being completely sucked up by language and art, living in New York in a flat with thousands of books.
Yeah, that’s what my life is like in New York. I am an independent consultant and writer and this is the second year I was able to work from Puerto Rico for the winter. I am almost done with my Ph.D. in English and American literature. I have about somewhere between six months and a year to finish, working on the Zen poet Philip Whalen. Philip was part of the Beat Generation, although he was not as famous as, say, Allen Ginsberg. He was very close with all the writers and poets collected around the San Francisco Zen Center and he was eventually ordained a Zen monk. He became a monk under the tutelage of Richard Baker.
Beat Generation? So how old are you?
I turned 60 in January.
Oh, you won, I am just 47. I was in the midst of the German punk movement when being young. Tell me, how did the whole story about you and Zen Monster start?
When I arrived at San Francisco in 1976 and started studying Zen I slowly began to realize that it was very much connected to a literary movement. The founders of the Zen Center were closely connected to Beat Generation poets and writers like Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, Mike McClure, Gary Snyder, and others. These artists and writers were really sort of in the background of the foundation of Zen practice in North America.
So that was when I was very young, and then I moved back to New York, found a job, raised a family and no longer practiced like a monk. After about fifteen or twenty years my kids grew up and I returned to Zen and began to practice more intensely.
I also renewed my study of literature and enrolled in New York University and began to study literature formally again, and when I did that , the two strands [Zen practice and literature] came together very forcefully. After a few years, influenced by poets and writers who used small presses, small magazines, to publish and distribute their work, I thought about starting a little literary magazine.
Realizing that there was, perhaps, a gap in North American Buddhism, I thought a new independent magazine would be useful. I perceived an an intellectual gap in that the current magazines like TriCycle and Shambhala Sun were very weak in intellectually critical content; they seemed neither willing nor able to offer a critique of Buddhism which might from time to time be useful and important.
You mentioned there was an intellectual gap. How did this lead you to Zen Monster? From perceiving an intellectual gap someone would expect something very different from that.
What would you expect?
Well, maybe this is an European thing but an intellectual gap is usually filled by publishing boring intellectual articles.
When I started Zen Monster I did it from the perspective of poets and artists and people that practice Zen. I didn’t see it as an intellectual journal for academics that might be published by a university press some day. Rather, I wanted it to be a vital part of a community of people who practice, and within that group, people who see that the notion of praxis, the application of Buddhism and politics in real life, is something important to explore. After talking with a lot of people it soon became obvious to me that artists, writers, and poets are the ones who are the most interested in that kind of discourse.
And how did you actually start it? Were you renowned in the Zen community? Or did you just sent out letters to zen centers and dojos and waited for what happened?
At first I mainly went with people whom I already knew, mostly in San Francisco, New York and L.A., which have large Zen communities and large numbers of writers and artist practicing Zen.
And they might occasionally have an art show or a public reading, and I just started talking to people, and the first issue came together very quickly and it was very, very well received. A year or so later the second issue was well received. In fact we usually have more material than we can publish, we get much more than we are able to squeeze between the covers.
That actually should have been my next question. There is some obvious quality in Zen Monster. It is a contemporary discourse about Zen, an attempt to find a contemporary expression for the Zen experience. What’s missing - in a positive way - are these images showing water drops at the tip of a leaf. You must have received many of those.
(laughs) We do get those and I am just not that interested in them and other stuff like that. There are those little haiku groups with Americans sitting around writing haiku as if they were living in 12th century Japan. It just has no interest to me and to my colleagues to pretend that we live in medieval Japan. We don’t. And we never will.
And how are the editorial decisions met? Is there some kind of committee or is this just your project? Are you the sole editor and publisher or how does it work?
We have a pretty strong network of editors and contributors, and a very strong art editor. But actually among the literary editors and the other editors there is a lot of disagreement. I wanted to be sure that we have an identity which is not too amorphous. I thought we better stick with Zen as our unifying discourse. In the last two issues I had to be pretty forceful about not including some things some of the other editors wanted because I felt it was outside the realm of our interest.
So you have a group of people with whom you reflect and discuss. You said Zen Monster is a success. How do you perceive this success. By number of sold books or by the number of cites in other media?
By the responses of other poets, artists, thinkers and writers. They quite often email me and send in stuff, they want to be in the next issue. I think we are successful because there is a lot of buzz around us.
In fact some Zen Centers don’t want Zen Monster in their libraries or bookstores. I also take that as a sign of success! We are rebels. We are independent of any church hierarchy. My thinking was that we needed a publication not supervised by the hierarchy, not supervised by an abbot or a Zen teacher. When there is a problem or a crisis in American Buddhism we need to have thoughtful, well-informed lay people able to discuss it without anything holding them back.
Zen in the U.S. is starting to look like the Roman Catholic church. I thought Brad Warner’s article “How to make a Zen Monster” about how the students attitude supports the creation of irresponsible teachers was very important and very well written. The next issue is going to have a very sophisticated, very intellectually solid article that picks up from where Brad left off. It’s going to talk about Zen teachers, and power, and sexuality. I can’t wait to see this in print.
Zen Monster is all about laying the foundation for a critical discourse that the next generation of Zen practitioners can build on.
We have 200 years of Aufklärung, age of reason. We can not go back beyond our understanding of psychology and about how groups, hierarchies and society as a whole work.
Yes, that’s the point. Zen priests and zen monks need a realistic critical view. We all need to be adults. There is no sense in having children in church. In American Zen we lost an opportunity to attract intellectuals, professionals, business people, professors. There was a real, palpable sense of infantilization. We would infantilize almost anyone who came into the zendo or dojo. Frankly, it’s a turn-off to many people who would otherwise study Zen. The fact is Dogen’s teaching is that everybody is very capable, and everybody is enlightened in a very sophisticated way even before they come to Zen practice. That is really a very strong lesson of Dogen Zen. So we should encounter everybody as knowledgeable and awake, just as we are.
And how did you come up with the name Zen Monster?
We had a very difficult time coming up with the name for about six months before the first issue was published. The group of us, five or six editors, couldn’t agree on a name. Finally, the wife of one of our editors, after six months of us coming up with unusable names, she just blurted out, “This thing is a fucking monster, it’s a Zen Monster”. It was like a light bulb went off and we finally had our name!
And how about this bold visual design, how did you come up with this?
For the first two issues we had a well known cover designer, Charles Woods, who works for a big book publisher. He resigned after the first two issues, and now the design and layout is handled by the poet and artist Aaron Howard, of Brooklyn, New York. He just lives for art. Aaron is a complete rebel and lives “off the grid,” as we say here. I kept meeting him at parties in Brooklyn, and we were talking one day and he said “I design books,” and he showed me his work, these exquisite hand-made books. He is just so creative. That’s how Aaron got involved in Zen Monster.
Have you thought about translations?
Yes, and especially a German translation. Germany played such a big role in the encounter of Buddhism and Western culture. But doing a translation is a huge amount of work. However, I’d be extremely happy if someone would take it on.
Are you going to be in Europe at some point?
Actually I am looking forward coming to Europe this summer or autumn, and I’ll be happy to meet anyone who’d like to get in touch with our project and starting something similar in Europe.
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Zen Monster is now also available via Amazon Europe but due to some strange Amazon rules it is quite expensive (25€ in Europe vs. 10$ in the US). Or send me an email at email@example.com, especially if you run a dojo and would like to receive a copy of Zen Monster for your library.