A personal blog by a graying (mostly Anglo with light African-American roots) gay leftist leaning liberal progressive fit married college-educated former Baha'i NPR-listening Professor Emeritus now following the Dharma from California to Minas Gerais, Brasil.
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
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.