Recently, I spent a lot of time binge-watching Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld’s formulaic interviews with his fellow comedians on Netflix are as banal—and compelling—as his old network show. After watching a couple of seasons and for the first time seriously reflecting on comedy as a profession, I realized that many Zen masters would probably be stand-up comics today.
I am not saying that comedians are enlightened Zen masters (though who knows?—there may be some incognito bodhisattvas among us). Nor do I want to belittle the great Zen tradition by reducing it to an alternative series about the contemporary comedy circuit. But Americans treat Zen with such obsequious reverence that they often fail to realize that many of these guys were really funny characters, and that much of Zen discourse is based on their witty repartee and blistering one-upmanship.
I use the words “guys” and “one-upmanship” deliberately here, since funny Zen nuns and laywomen in Buddhist history are not well represented in the literature. There are some exceptional examples, such as the nameless woman selling rice cakes by the roadside who cleverly bests the proud Diamond Sutra scholar Deshan Xuanjian, but her gender is part of the joke. The moral of the story is that if even a simple woman can outsmart you, then you really need to up your game. Likewise today, Jerry’s guests are overwhelmingly male, as well as positively pumped to be driven around the streets of New York or Los Angeles in classic sports cars to go eat hot dogs or smoke cigars.
Besides male dominance, the traditions share other characteristics as well. Like Zen monks, stand-up comics have their own professional periods of itinerancy, their own mentoring networks, inside jokes, and a kind of certifying transmission based on their first appearance on a late-night talk show or Saturday Night Live season. For comedians and monks alike, the process of studying human nature, gathering material, and perfecting their lines is a lifelong practice and way of being in the world. They both also learn from the masters and then overturn that received knowledge, subverting expectations and articulating their own idiosyncratic take on reality. And monks drank a lot of tea back then, which is kind of equivalent to today’s consumption of coffee.
Stand-up bits also often reveal an underlying understanding of the first two noble truths of Buddhism: that life inevitably involves suffering, and that much of it is caused by our own self-interested folly. While some dark humorists, like Garry Shandling, may have explicit connections to Buddhist thought and practice, plenty of others possess this same tragicomic sense. Get a couple of them together, and they’ll riff off each other relentlessly.
As a result, the unscripted banter on Comedians in Cars is peppered with great Zen-like zingers. This is similar to the format of Zen’s capping phrases, when a master would take a verse, koan, or commentary by a previous master and cap it off with his own crowning punchline or fresh twist on the matter. For example, the 9th-century Chinese master Yunmen took up one of the most profound questions of his day, “What is Buddha?” and irreverently blurted out, “a dry shit-stick!” (They wiped with bamboo sticks back then, not TP.) His potty humor was later capped off by Master Dongshan’s (Jp., Tozan) quip that Buddha was nothing other than the “three pounds of flax” that he was then making into a Buddhist robe. The upshot? Buddha is right before your eyes, you idiot.
Or when asked “Does a dog have buddhanature?” the Chinese master Zhaozhou (Jp., Joshu) reportedly barked out “Wu!” (Jp., Mu). It’s never funny if you have to explain the joke, but basically, “Wu” in the original Chinese is a double entendre literally meaning “No” (in other words, a dog doesn’t have buddhanature) but also indicating “Yes” since wu is the Chinese word for “emptiness,” the definition of enlightenment itself. The joke works on another level as well since the pronunciation of “Wu!” is the Chinese onomatopoeic equivalent of “woof!” (although the barked-out delivery got lost when it traveled to Japan). Zhaozhou’s startling response thus collapses the distinction between human and nonhuman, “Yes” and “No” answers, into an open field that’s empty but full of possibility.
In another duality-dissolving koan about killing or not killing a cat, Zhaozhou capped off the impossible standoff between life and death by walking out of the room with his sandals on his head instead of his feet. We can imagine his teacher, Nanquan, cracking up as he approved of his star pupil’s brilliant sight gag that cut through the tension of the live-or-die situation. Sometimes sheer silliness (not to mention a profound grasp of nondualism) is the best solution to seriousness.
The 18th-century Japanese Zen master Hakuin also knew how to provoke a good belly laugh. He claims to have cured his case of “Zen sickness” (zenbyo) by focusing his qi energy down in the lower abdomen during meditation, increasing his physical exertion, and essentially not taking things so seriously anymore. The result was an extraordinary artistic output that parodied and deflated the Zen tradition of its own importance. For example, Hakuin’s brushed ink caricature of Zen’s great founding father, the first patriarch Bodhidharma, depicts him with a furrowed unibrow, bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, facial hair, long-lobed ears, and copious amounts of body hair. These details all make fun of Bodhidharma’s Indian features and his irascible demeanor, and prove that for Hakuin at least, laughter really is the best medicine.
Bodhidharma was a fitting subject for satire, as he himself used Zen humor to speak truth to power. According to Zen lore, when Emperor Wu of China asked how much karmic merit his imperial patronage for Buddhism had generated, Bodhidharma reputedly replied “None (wu)” or alternatively, “it’s all empty (wu).” The befuddled and outraged emperor missed the main message—that he needed to detach from the results of his empty actions—and blustered, “Who do you think you are?” Bodhidharma capped it off with “I don’t know” and left the court.
Centuries later, it’s easy to think of these Zen masters as stoically sitting above life’s trifles. But they were still people—and sometimes very silly people at that. Each one had a personal, quirky capping style; from Yunmen’s scatological approach to Zhaouzhou’s witty tack, and from Hakuin’s caricatures to Bodhidharma’s deadpan delivery. That doesn’t make them any less wise. In fact, if there really is truth in comedy, maybe there must also be comedy in truth.
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