Monday, July 23, 2018

Via Tricycle: Ha Ha Zen

Ha Ha Zen

Finding parallels between modern-day stand-up comedians and Zen masters of the past
By Pamela D. Winfield 



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.