Book Review: Way of the Peaceful Warrior

July 19, 2009 · 1 comment

Today’s hike was a good one.  Jack said it was “pretty easy”, then promptly fell asleep in the car for half an hour.  On the way back we stopped at the Rosendale street festival to see our friends Johnny and Nicole.  It was pretty interesting.  I checked out some of Johnny’s art and bought some of his hot sauce.  Good stuff.

I myself promptly fell asleep when I got home (about 4:30PM) and finished Way of the Peaceful Warriorby Dan Millman.  Sadly, it’s subtitle “A Book That Changes Lives” does not (yet) apply to me.  At least, not in the dramatic way that’s implied.

Overall, I found the writing to be pedestrian and the insights to be about the same.  Though I can’t really offer a good review, I can say that it was a quick read and that it would be suitable for one’s first peek into zen.  I would put it in the same category as Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner.  Both are first-person accounts of the author’s experiences with nondualityand the resulting shock to the system.  Both authors describe similar experiences arising from zazen meditation practice, as well as teachers who were fairly rigorous in their enforcement of the disciplines that lead thereto.  In both cases, the teachers were quick to point out that these experiences don’t mean anything.

Millman’s Experience (pp. 196-8)

Then the cave was again shrouded in darkness.  Socrates [Millman’s semi-fictional teacher] stood quickly and walked to the entrance with me right behind.  The air smelled of ozone as we stepped outside.  I could feel the static electricity raise the hairs on the back of my neck.  Then the thunderstorm struck.

Socrates whirled around to face me.  Lightning flashed.  A bolt struck one of the cliffs in the distance.  “Hurry!”  Socrates said, with an urgency I’d not heard before.  “There’s not much time left – eternity is not far away.”  In that moment, the Feeling came to me – the feeling that had never been wrong – and it said, Beware! Death is stalking.

Then Socrates spoke again, his voice ominous and strident.  “Quickly, back into the cave!”  I started to look in my pack for my flashlight, but he barked at me, “Move!”

I retreated into the blackness and pressed against the wall.  Hardly breathing, I waited for him to come get me, but he had disappeared.

As I was about to call out to him, I was jarred almost unconscious as something viselike suddenly gripped me behind the neck with crushing force and dragged me back, deeper into the cave.  “Socrates!” I screamed.  “Socrates!”

The grip on my neck released, but then a far more terrible pain began:   my head was being crushed from behind.  I screamed, and screamed again.  Just before my skull shattered with the maddening pressure, I heard these words – unmistakably the voice of Socrates:  “This is your final journey.”


With a horrible crack, the pain vanished.  I crumpled, and hit the floor of the cavern with a soft thud.  Lightning flashed, and in its momentary glare I could see Socrates standing over me, staring down.  Then came the sound of thunder from another world.  That’s when I knew I was dying.

One of my legs hung limp over the edge of a deep hole.  Socrates pushed me over the precipice, into the abyss, and I fell, bouncing, smashing against the rocks, down into the bowels of the earth; then, dropping through an opening, I was released by the mountain out into the sunlight, where my shattered body spun downward, finally landing in a heap in a wet green meadow far, far below.

The body was now a broken, twisted piece of meat.  Carrion birds, rodents, insects, and worms came to feed on the decomposing flesh that I had once imagined to be “me.”  Time passed faster and faster.  The days flashed by and the sky became a rapid blinking, an alternation of light and darkness, flickering faster and faster into a blur; then the days turned to weeks, and the weeks became months.

The seasons changed, and the remains of the body began to dissolve into the soil, enriching it.  The frozen snows of winter preserved my bones for a moment in time, but as the seasons flashed by in ever more rapid cycles, even the bones became dust.  From the nourishment of my body, flowers and trees grew and died in that meadow.  Finally even the meadow disappeared. 

I had become part of the carrion birds that had feasted on my flesh, part of the insects and rodents, and part of their predators in a great cycle of life and death.  I became their ancestors, until ultimately they, too, were returned to the earth.

The Dan Millman who had lived long ago was gone forever, a flashing moment in time – but I remained unchanged through all the ages.  I was now Myself, the Consciousness that observed all, was all.  All my separate parts would continue forever; forever changing, forever new. 

I realized now that the Grim Reaper, the Death Dan Millman had so feared, had been his great illusion.  And so his life, too, had been an illusion, a problem, nothing more than a humorous incident when Consciousness had forgotten itself.

But I knew.  If he had only known then what I know now.

I lay on the floor of the cave, smiling.  I sat up against the wall then gazed into the darkness, puzzled, but without fear. 

My eyes began to adjust, and I saw a white-haired man sitting near me, smiling.  [Socrates]  Then, fro thousands of years away, it all came back, and I felt momentarily saddened by my return to mortal form.  Then I realized that it didn’t matter – nothing could possibly matter!

Warner’s Experience (pp. 178-9)

I’m not sure how many nights later The Big One hit.  Maybe a couple weeks.  Maybe a month.  It started off with coming to full awareness while deeply asleep.  It wasn’t a lucid dream.  I’ve had so many of those I’m used to them by now.  This was something entirely different.  I was actually aware of that open formless state of deep dreamless sleep.

Real trippy, doncha think?  And it gets even better.  Soon I found myself surveying the entire universe much as God himself might do.  I could perceive the whole of all creation at once.  I don’t say I “saw” it because I didn’t seem to have any eyes or any body.  Or rather the universe itself was my body and mind.  I perceived galactic clusters and massive star formations in the way I normally perceive my own arms and legs.  Or something.  It’s impossible to describe.

The universe was evolving before me.  I was aware that millions of years were passing, yet I was experiencing them as mere moments.  Again, description is impossible.  Whatever.  I saw the universe coming together.  First one planet became unified into a single being.  Not just the intelligent species but all life-forms on the planet and ultimately the planet itself.  This spread through the planet’s solar system and then on to other solar systems nearby.  Meanwhile the same thing was happening in other parts of the universe millions of lightyears away.  The unified sections gradually met each other and became bigger and bigger.  Finally the entire universe consisted of just two “beings” composed of the combined matter and space of a billion, trillion, Godzillian galaxies.

The two beings faced each other, and I, now one of those beings, felt exactly as I do when I face my wife.  And we melted into each other.  The whole universe, stretching on into infinite time and infinite space, was now one single unified being.  No tension.  No fear.  No competition.

But the universe was lonely.  There was no one to talk to.  No one to share its experience with.  No other.  And with no other to contrast to, no self.  To cure its loneliness it split into two again, then four, six, eight, and so on until, over a period of billions upon billions of millennia it was back to being countless individual beings.  At that point I felt myself swept back into my own body once more.  I opened my eyes and I was in my bed.

Socrates and Nishijima

Millman’s teacher – again, semi-fictional – was a kindly anonymous old man.  Warner’s teacher (Nishijima) was an arrogant semi-celebrity hardass.  Millman had his experience in a cave in northern California; Warner was living in Japan, working in the Godzilla-movie industry.  Both men’s experiences are colored by their own life-situations, but they share the same undercurrents:  that I am the Universe and the Universe is Me; that Iam nothing more than an expression of the universe here and now.

Both authors’ experiences are followed shortly thereafter by a feeling of oneness with the universe – specifically, with their immediate surroundings.

Socrates tells Millman that the cave-experience is rare and that his feeling of oneness will subside.  I prefer Nishijima’s reaction to Warner’s explanation:  that it was “just a fantasy” that would “never come true even in the future.”


If you’re interested in checking out zen from the periphery, dear reader, I’d suggest reading Way of the Peaceful Warrior first.  If that piques your interest and you’d like a little more detail, move on to Hardcore Zen.  The former gives a very nebulous account of the general ideas of zen, whereas the latter gets deeper into the bases and fundamentals of the practice.  Neither of these are a substitute for the real thing, though.  Zen is not an academic practice – it’s not something that can be achieved via reading – it’s something that has to be lived.  To their mutual credit, both authors make this clear.

Ted’s Note

In both cases, I identify more with the teachers than the students.  Good for you and your mystical experiences, now get back to living life.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent plenty of time pursuing such mystical experiences – I’ve even had some myself – but while sometimes comforting and sometimes frightening, I don’t believe that we live in them.  Whatever the true nature of the universe may be, I still live in it, and any knowledge thereof is simply my perception. 

At bottom, one consistency I’ve noticed about zen teachers is that they’re always telling their students to turn their attention back to real life.  Zen isn’t about cosmological understanding, it’s about attention to and purity of one’s actions.  Without sounding too arrogant, I think I’ve passed these turning points that Millman and Warner describe.  I’ve spent my time in contemplation of the world around me and reached the conclusions.  Yes, I still have plenty of things to let go, and yes, I need to spend more time sitting zazen – but not with the aim of becoming “wise”.  I need to do these things so that I can be more attentive and pure in my actions.  I need to demonstrate wisdom through my actions, not through my thoughts.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

$@bs July 21, 2009 at 13:35

I absolutely loved Way of the Peacful Warrior – for me it was life changing. But I was in college, so what book wasn’t? I also loved the Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior. At the time I was having a hard time identifying teachers, I’d have to agree with you on feeling more like a teacher than a student in that capacity. Life experience is a better teacher than individuals (in my humble opinion). Humans have their flaws… Have you been to Millman’s blog? Lacks bells and whistles 4 sho:


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