Postmodern Zen Koans

“If you see a Buddha in the road, ask which gender pronouns they prefer and then kill them.”

By Elisa Abatsis
Postmodern Zen Koans
Illustration by Mike Taylor

If you see a Buddha in the road, ask which gender pronouns they prefer and then kill them.

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One day Atticus lay down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” His mother came and gave him some cold-pressed juice. Atticus got up and went away because that’s how unschooling works.

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What is your original personal brand before you were born?

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If a minimalist curates a 10-item fall capsule wardrobe but doesn’t blog the experience and doesn’t count her Acne Pistol Boots as one of the 10 items, has she really edited her closet?

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A conceptual sculptor asked Tobias when he was weighing some flax at Whole Foods, “What is Buddha?” Tobias said: “Flax helped me lose three pounds. It’s also my daughter’s name.”

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If a performance artist self-flagellates at MoMa while it’s closed and there are no guards or cameras there, does it still leave a laceration in the shape of a pentagram?

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As the roof was leaking, a yoga instructor told two students to bring something to catch the water. One brought the landlord, the other a bucket with ice. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly retweeted.

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What is the sound of a pop star rapping?

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A MFA student asked her professor, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” The professor reminded her that he was only an adjunct but alerted her to the fact that Starbucks does offer health insurance to part-time employees.

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Read more about Zen koans on Tricycle:


“Postmodern Zen Koans” originally appeared in McSweeney’s, and is reprinted by permission


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  1. Elisa, thank you for your gentle response to my post. I love word play, and on many levels I appreciated the “pun-i-ness” of the koan. I think humor is a wonderful way to open hearts and minds in ways that pure rhetoric rarely can. So keep up the great work!

    In peace,


  2. As a subscriber to Tricycle, a practicing Buddhist, and a former journalist, I rarely weigh in when I read or see something that strikes a sour note, recognizing that people behind what was said or printed likely intended no harm. Also, zealous Monday morning editorial quarterbacking can often be more onerous than the offending bit. But this time it feels appropriate. As the father of a transgender son (and as someone who still is working to get his heart and mind fully around gender identity issues), I found the first “koan” insensitive, especially in its particular context: “If you see a Buddha in the road, ask which gender pronouns they prefer and then kill them.” My son, who is still a teenager, struggled for much of his early young adult life before sharing with his parents his feeling of being completely out of synch with who he is. And we’ve devoted lots of time and energy toward loving and supporting him as well as discussing the issue of gender identity with family and friends who have sincere questions. I think if this were the year 2060, when, hopefully, transgender issues are passé, old news, and seen as just another facet on the diamond of human experience, this might be funny. But in this moment, in 2016, when gay, lesbian, and gender questioning boys, girls, men and women, are still being attacked, ostracized, and demonized, in the United States and abroad, it comes off as a little tone deaf. I’m not asking that it be removed; I don’t believe in censorship. Nor is it my intention to shame anyone. All I ask is that in the future you approach these kinds of topics with a spirit of loving kindness and compassion–even and maybe especially when the point is to be funny. Thank you for a wonderful publication, and for the hard work I know your staff puts into it.

    • I cringed when I read the postmodern koans. I appreciate that you took the time to write a much more rewarding and insightful piece in response.

      • To quote the old farmer in the Taoist story who was told by his neighbors that losing his horse was bad luck, I’ll respond to your comment with: “maybe.” Maybe I was humorless. But I do hope I was kind and fair. And if not, my apologies. Be well, brother.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and a bit of your story. You raise some good points. It certainly wasn’t my intention to offend or to imply any type of derision towards the transgender/non-gender binary community. I wrote this piece about a year ago for a secular humor site and it was recently reprinted. When I wrote the koan in question, the joke was simply centered around the idea of not automatically assuming that the Buddha met in the road was male. I certainly wasn’t trying to imply anything violent (just riffing on the well known “If you meet a Buddha on the road, kill him,” koan) but re-reading the piece now I do see how it could be construed that way, and for that I apologize. If Tricycle would like to remove the first koan from the list I’m okay with that.

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