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Zen Humor

Page history last edited by Emma Guild 11 years, 7 months ago



     While most religions have an antagonistic relationship with levity, Zen Buddhism embraces humor as an instructional tool and mode of expressing enlightenment, or satori. The Rinzai school of Zen teachings, the oldest Zen school in Japan, teaches that enlightenment cannot be attained through rigorous, logical thought, but only in a sudden, transcendent understanding of the universe. In this way, achieving Zen enlightenment is something like understanding a joke. Humor dies when it has to be explained; similarly, satori loses its power when one tries to rationalize it. It is understandable, then, that given the nature of Zen enlightenment, many Zen scholars use humor in their teachings to help their students realize satori for themselves.



     Two forms of Zen instruction show Zen's use of humor particularly well: the asking and answering of koans, which predates Zen's appearance in Japan, and the production of zenga, a form of Zen meditation unique to Japan.




     Koans are stories or riddles told by Zen masters to their students, and providing the right answer to the koan usually requires a non-logical thought process. Because of the irrational nature of many koans, outsiders often perceive them as funny, but the interesting thing about some koans is that devout seekers of enlightenment are supposed to observe a sort of humor in them, as well.

     Take, for example, the famous koan, "What is Buddha? Three pounds of flax." The answer may provoke a laugh in one who was expecting a more serious explanation, but what the answer also does is break the rational thought process of trying to understand Buddha. The story behind this koan is that a younger monk posed this question to an older, wiser monk while the older monk was weighing ingredients. Without skipping a beat, the older monk answered by holding up the contents of his hand-- three pounds of flax. The absurdity of the answer amuses the listener and hopefully shocks them into the understanding that the Buddha nature is not to be found by sitting around contemplating the Buddha nature, but rather in the immediacy of the objects and actions around us.

     Other Zen koans illustrate the use of humor to counter rationality and bring students into the moment rather than remaining in contemplation of the moment. One especially funny one is this story, which incorporates another logic-countering method popular among Zen instructors: violence toward students.


     An elder monk was addressing his students with a large staff. He asked the first student, "What is the Buddha mind?" The first student answered as well as he could, and said "To know the Buddha nature in all things." The elder monk hit the first student in the head with the staff.

     He went to the next student, and asked again: "What is the Buddha mind?" The next student answered "non attachment," and the elder monk hit him with the stick, too.

     He asked the third student the same question, and the third student did nothing but quake in fear. That student got a knock on the head as well.

     The process continued until one of the elder monk's students, before the elder monk had even finished his question, grabbed the stick out of his hand. That was the correct answer.





     Zenga are ink paintings made with soft-bristled brushes on thin paper by monks in meditation. A monk making zenga must move the brush swiftly across the paper to avoid blotches and tears, and must paint confident strokes without forethought or hesitation. Zenga serve much the same purpose as humorous koans, in that they sever the artist's connection to rationality in favor of an existence completely absorbed the action of the brushstrokes. As a result, many zenga portray lighthearted subjects, and have more in common with simply-drawn newspaper comics than with grand, multi-layered masterpieces. Zenga are a distant ancestor of Japan's now-ubiquitous manga, and often incorporate words with pictures. Many zenga illustrate written koans that appear in calligraphy alongside the images.

     Zenga may depict figures riding horses backwards...



     Or jugglers...



     Or the physical symptoms of drunkeness...



     Or an adorable monkey reaching for the reflection of the moon in a pond.





Zen Koans, copyright 1973 to author Gyomay Kubose, is an extensive collection of koans accompanied by Kubose's explanations for each one. A small selection of these koans (regrettably lacking Kubose's commentary) is reproduced here. "No Beard" and "The Turtle in the Garden" are good examples of Zen using humor to counter logic.


Another large collection of koans, from specifically Japanese sources, is this one. While many of Kubose's koans could be said to embody absurdist humor, several of these koans display a more accessible, modern form of humor-- see "Time to Die" and "Teaching the Ultimate," for example.


The Zenga section of the Manyo'an Collection is the source of the lovely images on this page and contains many more examples of meditative art by Japanese Zen scholars.


This page, despite just about every link on it being broken, offers a well-written discussion of the many functions of humor in Zen Buddhism.


Steven Seagal explains Zen, employing some unintentional humor along the way:

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