Zen for all you Cynics

Posted in Uncategorized by Vikram on March 13, 2012

In Zen Buddhism there exists a construct called the Koan, which, to non-Buddhists, appear as beguiling paradoxes, but it is evident that Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike share a connection to the Koan through a common concept: humour.

A Koan is, in essence, a tool.   It can be a phrase, story, or question used to open a Zen Buddhist’s mind to the meaning of perception and the nature of the mind.  Zen masters provide students with these Koans, such as the well-known “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Many Zen Buddhist students will attempt to use their rational mind to provide an answer or seek meaning in understanding the Koan, but the purpose of the Koan is not to discover an answer, or even think about the nature of the question itself; rather, the intent lies in removing oneself from one’s ego, and the habitual responses that are formed through simply living one’s life.  Once a student begins to discover their true nature, they begin to understand the intent of the Koan.

So how does this all relate to humour?

Inasmuch as we form habits and thought patterns, we are surprised when habits and patterns don’t pan out according to their predicted intent.  This is, in essence, the basis of humour.  Humour looks to defy expectations, and through this incongruity between expectation and reality, we are surprised, and we laugh.  Consequently, in order to understand humourous phenomena, we must remove ourselves from our common frame of reference.   Once we look at life as a pattern by understanding our collective thought patterns and reactions to certain stimuli, we can create reactions that don’t match what these stimuli “should” evoke, and we have comedy.

In other words, in order to be humourous we need to understand ourselves.

So, “being Zen” isn’t as far away from everyday life as you might think it is.  Detaching ourselves from our rational mind by cracking a joke is something we all do, day-in, day-out, to varying degrees.  Of course, the idea of a Koan is to reach the state of Satori, in which the true nature of reality is glimpsed, unencumbered by logic or personhood.  While humour does not go that far, certainly the concept is similar.

Indeed, jokes and humour can be Koans.  The simple and non-topical “Why did the chicken cross the road” can easily be compared to a Koan since it requires an understanding of expectation, and what in our nature evokes that expectation.   And if it were a Koan, I’d have to say there was a pretty good reason the chicken crossed that road: to force us to understand ourselves.