Wise. Cracks.

Why is a veggie burger better than nirvana?

three stooges 1

Did you hear about the Buddhist coroner who got fired? In the space for “cause of death” on the certificates she had to fill out, she kept writing in “birth.”

I’ve been musing lately about the relationship between Zen practice and humor. This last week we held an Obon ceremony at the Greater Boston Zen Center, remembering our ancestors, those who cared for us, friends who are gone, the suffering of the world, and the “hungry ghosts.” This is important. But I thought that this morning we might look at a contrasting element of this wonderful awful human experience.

It seems to me there are some similarities, although also of course some notable differences, between Zen practice, especially koan practice, and what happens to us when we hear jokes and riddles. We often talk about how Zen practice leads us into questioning our beliefs. Koan practice often includes something accurately described as running into an iron wall. We get to a point where our usual ways of being and ways of thinking just don’t work. We might also describe this  as a place of stopping, or of profound not knowing. When we hear a riddle, similarly, we hit a wall where our usual thinking doesn’t immediately yield a good answer.

Diane Rizzetto describes working with the Buddhist precepts as reaching the “dead spot” in a trapeze act, where the trapeze is at the top of its arc before swinging back. When we hear a joke, there is also moment of suspension when we’ve heard the lead up, and know the punchline is about to come.

Wisdom plays a big role in Zen practice. And when talking about insight or realization, dharma teachers often make reference to the idea of a tiny gap between ourselves and our experience. That gap gives us a tiny bit of space for turning to examine our thoughts and feelings, freeing us from  blindly identifying with them. Or they refer to a crack in that sense of self which we are always working so hard to maintain. Notice that when someone says something clever and funny, we call it a wisecrack. Wise. Crack.

And then what happens?  In Zen we talk about an insight, a dropping away, a turning point, a release. Humor, likewise, works because it contains a twist. We get set up for something, and then have our expectation shattered,  or our perspective shifted. Pay attention to what’s going on in your physical body next time you hear a joke.

Has anyone not heard this old chestnut? What did the Dalai Lama say to the hot dog vendor. “Make me one with everything.”

Now, koans are not just riddles. So the comparison is not exact. With riddles we can sometimes find a solution using our intellect. With koans, we usually still try that, but we soon find that it’s useless.

I was noticing this relation between Zen and humor, this last week, because of a life koan.  Some months ago I agreed to work with two other people in my field, one in New York and one in Europe, on a professional project. It has not gone smoothly. Over the last couple weeks there were some time sensitive things that needed to be done and that had been, by mutual agreement, assigned to my colleague in Europe. As it turned out, she not only didn’t do them, she  wasn’t even returning email messages. So more of the work was falling on me. Three mornings in a row this last week I woke up angry at this colleague. ”She shouldn’t be going back on her commitments! She has to do this! We need to get her to do her job!”

As sometimes happens, I found my life koan  reflected in one of our official old Chinese koans. I really identified with the head monk:

Yaoshan Ascends the Rostrum

Yaoshan hadn’t given a talk for a long time. The head monk said, “The monks have been anxious for instruction for a while. Won’t you please give a talk?” [Do your job, man!] Yaoshan ordered the bell and drum. The assembly gathered. Yaoshan ascended the rostrum, and after sitting there for a while, he descended and returned to his room. The head monk followed him and asked, “You consented to give a talk; why didn’t you say anything?” Yaoshan said, “For sutras, there are sutra specialists. For shastras, there are shastra specialists. Why do you wonder at this old monk?                     (The Book of Serenity, Case 7, emphasis added)

So I was sitting in zazen with this professional situation, and with all my anger and frustration with this person who I believed was not doing her job. And, objectively speaking, she was not living up to what she said she would do. Yet as I faced into my feelings, I felt a release and even had to chuckle at myself. I realized that my anger came from her not living up to my beliefs about what she should do. I realized that I was becoming frustrated because I could not control her actions. My chuckling to myself came with the thought, “Gee, I’m trying to control what someone else is doing. That’s always worked so well before. [Not.] I can’t imagine why it isn’t working at now!”  😉

When I saw that my anger came from all this stuff I had piled on top of the mere fact of the situation, the anger energy literally shook out of my body and dropped away. The feeling reminded me of the physical sensation  of release that I get with a good laugh.

This didn’t resolve the situation. But it did take away the hard edge, and softened me around it. I did continue to send her emails pointing out the problem that her nonresponse was creating for our third colleague and me. But I think they were more factual, and less decorated with self-righteousness. Whether because of that, or because of shifts in her own life, a couple days ago there was a bit of movement on things.

And sometimes our old Chinese koans can be funny, or at least I think so. I came on this one this week, which reminds me of a Three Stooges slapstick routine:

The old woman’s miraculous powers

Magu, Nanquan, and another monk [Larry, Moe, and Curly] were on pilgrimage. Along the way they met a woman who had a tea shop. The woman prepared a pot of tea and brought 3 cups. She said to them, ”Oh monks,  let those of you with miraculous powers drink tea.”  The three looked at each other [the three ran straight into a wall, turned around, and rubbed their noses] and the woman said, “Watch this decrepit old woman show  her own miraculous powers.” Then she picked up the cups, poured the tea, and went out. [Zing!] (From The Hidden Lamp)

I’ve also found in my life that, while humor is not always appropriate, it is not necessarily incompatible with grief, suffering, and stress. Maybe my family has a darker sense of humor than most, but we’ve shared laughs on occasion next to a casket or in the face of serious illness. When I was in extremely difficult divorce negotiations many years ago, a point came where the mediator had my  soon-to-be-ex-spouse and me go down a checklist of things we should agree on how to pay for. He said, “I’ll pay for bar mitzvahs if you pay for weddings.” We’re not Jewish.

So, why is a veggie burger better than nirvana?  Because nothing is better than nirvana…  but a veggie burger is better than nothing.

(Talk given at GBZC on August 27, 2016)

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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