Saturday, May 08, 2010

P.1 Zen and the Art of the Joke

There’s a saying out there somewhere that I haven’t bother to look up, nevertheless it sticks in my head as it sort of catches me for one reason or another. It goes something along the lines of, “The world is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.” I’m definitely on the comedic side of that spectrum, which isn’t to say that I’m funny (maybe I am), only that I find humor in most things as apposed to tragedy.

I have a tendency of overusing sayings such as a particular Koan, or some other seemingly ambiguous statement that contains obvious signs of mysticism, whether it be from the bible, Buddhism, Hinduism, or just some random yokel. Then it occurred to me, “You know what, Andy, a joke is only funny the first time around. Sooner or later people are going to stop giving you the curtsy laugh and just tell you they’ve herd that one before…” Quite right, Andy, quite right.

So with that in mind I’m going to start off with something I’ve use before:

The Zen master Mu-nan had only one successor. His name was Shoju. After Shoju had completed his study of Zen, Mu-nan called him into his room. "I am getting old," he said, "and as far as I know, Shoju, you are the only one who will carry on this teaching. Here is a book. It has been passed down from master to master for seven generations. I also have added many points according to my understanding. The book is very valuable, and I am giving it to you to represent your successorship."

"If the book is such an important thing, you had better keep it," Shoju replied. "I received your Zen without writing and am satisfied with it as it is."

"I know that," said Mu-nan. "Even so, this work has been carried from master to master for seven generations, so you may keep it as a symbol of having received the teaching. Here."

The two happened to be talking before a brazier. The instant Shoju felt the book in his hands he thrust it into the flaming coals. He had no lust for possessions.

Mu-nan, who never had been angry before, yelled: "What are you doing!"

Shoju shouted back: "What are you saying!"

I feel your pain, Shoju… Somewhere in a box in my basement under the stairs there is a “Yo Mamma” snaps book. You know, “Your mammas so dumb she took a donut back because it had a hole in it” type of shit. It’s probably 10 years old and in like new condition. I mean come on, I was 24 years old, still a bit confused. I’m pretty sure I bought it along with Brian Greene’s “The Elegent Universe” when I was going through my layman’s physics stage. Sure, Brian did a pretty good job, but does anyone really understand any of that shit? Anyway, the reason that book sits packed away is for two reasons. 1.) I’ve already had my laughs, and 2.) let’s face it, it’s just plain embarrassing. “Gee Andy, I can’t help but notice that tucked between Nietzsche and Quine on the shelf here is, well let me see, oh it’s James Percelay’s best seller “Double Snaps”.” Some conversations just aren’t worth having, I mean maybe I’m not really embarrassed about it, but it’s not as though I’m going to be using it as a reference any time soon, so let’s just leave it in the box shall we.

I digress... Let’s imagine someone tells a joke – my guess is one of four things happen:

A.) It immediately grabs you and you laugh uncontrollably.
B.) You’ve heard it before, and give your best courtesy laugh. Or maybe you just come out with it and say, “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.”
C.) You just plain don’t find it funny.
D.) You don’t get it at all, but laugh like you do. I mean, everyone else seems to be laughing.

Let’s consider “D” for a moment. Suppose you go away thinking about the joke and what it means, and where you became lost in the whole thing. You spend some part of your day thinking about it, and finally get the mechanics of the joke. i.e. you understand the underlying metaphor/analogy that gave the joke it’s comedic appeal. Unfortunately at this point, whatever initial humor there was to be had has been exhausted in your search for the underlying meaning of the joke. Maybe it’s no worse for you though, because now you can retell it and perhaps enjoy it vicariously through others; it’s always good to have new material.

Still though, if you don’t understand a joke, no amount of thinking about it is going to give you that initial pleasure that is the point of the joke in the first place. In this way you have to consider that “thinking” about a joke and its meaning sort of misses the point. If you didn’t get it strait away, you’re never going to capture that which everyone else did. In essence, eventually “getting it”, isn’t anything like immediately “getting it”. To put it another way, trying to comprehend the underlying form of a joke, as apposed to immediately grasping its surface appeal, never makes it funny.

How about “B”? Suppose you hear a joke and you’ve heard it before. Do you laugh? Perhaps you do, but it’s not the same as the first time around. What was initially funny about the joke has become not so much lost on you, but more importantly, it’s now become some intellectual piece of mumbo jumbo that resides in your mind somewhere. It’s a piece of information that perhaps you can use on others, but it’s no longer useful for the purposes of arousing a sense of your own personal laughter.

“A” and “C” we can take together. If you get the joke and immediately find it funny, your disposition is instantly transformed. It’s like suddenly being punched in the face and taken from one state (being comfortable) to another (extreme pain) in the snap of a finger. You can’t control it, you can’t stop, it has suddenly and from nowhere consumed you. If you don’t find it funny, well, what the heck, you don’t find it funny.

I find that understanding Zen is much like the Art of the Joke. There’s nothing intellectually [per se] to be grasped about Zen, and if at once one try’s to grasp it as such, it immediately slips away. What was there to be gained is lost in your thoughts on the matter, in much the same way your ponderings over a joke never brings about the laughter. To be more specific, Zen is not philosophy, nor is any mystical tradition. (Let me make a special note here to say that when I use the word “Zen”, I’m using it in a rather generic way to refer to that which lies at the foundation of any mystical tradition, whether Christianity in the west or Buddhism in the east.) To at once ask what the sound of one hand clapping is, is to tell a joke. However, these words don’t contain the essence of understanding or the path to a solution any more then a joke contains within it, and at its foundation, the essence of humor.

The words and patterns of a joke, along with the sayings of mysticism are a catalyst, a path that can only be traveled down once. Again, as Zen is not a philosophy, neither does it, or the comedian for that matter, claim to have some secret formula that aims to tap into some eternal fountain of laughter and enlightenment. Quite naturally one doesn’t expect to be able to carry around an old joke to maintain one’s laughter any more then Shoju could be further enlightened by his master’s old book of sayings – that’s dogma. It’s akin to a comedian hopelessly repeating his routine to the same crowd over and over again. If the humor was in the words, the crowd would forever laugh, although I think the poor comedian will find that soon enough the crowd will be leaving.

The path to enlightenment is like the path to laughter. It’s never anything we arrive at, rather it’s something that comes upon us when we’re willing to be amused.

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