Saturday, April 25, 2009

Layer 149 Zen, Laughter and Enlightenment.

I was thinking recently about my reference to Zen in a previous Layer which mentions the importance of laughter in the spiritual life:

This week Yoko told me about a meeting she went to with colleagues, in the course of which she made a joke and cracked everybody up. It seems she’s normally not at all given to making amusing comments in business meetings, and therefore her professorial colleagues, predominantly middle-aged men in spite of it being a women’s university, were very surprised by her humour, and it seems laughed quite a lot.

She suggested it was because of my recent influence that she uncharacteristically slipped in a humourous remark during the staff meeting- “You are always laughing and making jokes.”

Well I don’t know about ‘always’, and I certainly don’t tell jokes, as such. But it’s true that I find a lot to laugh about in this crazy world, and therefore on a good day I’m inclined towards the sardonic and laconic, and indeed ironic. And satirical.

It’s quite hard to resist pointing out the absurd and the ridiculous since it’s all around us all of the time. People are so often ludicrous and foolish in their behaviour. So what are we supposed to do about it, except laugh? It would be a pretty dull old world without laughter. But it’s amazing how many people have had a humour by-pass.

Of course people get upset if they know someone’s laughing at them, so we should try not to offend, and try to avoid causing anyone any grief, whenever possible. It’s also important to be able to laugh at yourself.

When I think back to my school days I remember having to be careful about commenting on the pompous and puffed-up behaviour of teachers. They really hate what they consider to be subversive elements among the pupils - those who like to hang out at the back and mutter asides to one another to help overcome the tedium and pointlessness of traditional lessons.

But if it’s in your blood and your character then I suppose it’s always going to crop up, even in adult professional life. It’s just a Zen thing. It was only a while back that I recall setting my friend Pete off on a fit of the giggles as we were listening to some dry as dust hyperfeminist droning on at a conference. What did it on that day was my cartoon-like doodle/sketch of our aesthetically challenged speaker. I guess it can happen in a number of ways on any day, in any situation.

I suppose it’s been said many times that humour is the best means for the powerless to deflate the powerful, usually by pointing out that these little emperors and would-be dictators have no clothes at all.

Mainly, though, it’s the human condition that’s funny. But just because life is ultimately pointless and our pretensions and desires are absurd doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life, providing we go about it in the right spirit.

The right spirit involves generosity and compassion, and an enlightened attitude, as far as possible. The first step entails admitting we’re not enlightened, and setting out on the right path towards such a state.

The wonderful thing about the Zen monks I’ve come across, and about spiritually intelligent people generally, is that they’re not po-faced, and don’t take themselves and life in general too seriously. Laughter is important.

What they do take seriously is the need to find, and to remain on, the right path.

Taoists call it the “Tao” - the Way. Zen calls it the “Do”.


This week we went to visit the Myoshin-ji temple complex, which is a huge incredible oasis of peace and beauty near the centre of Kyoto. This “Temple of the Wondrous Mind” is the headquarters of the largest of the fourteen schools of Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and was established in 1337.

Its excellent website can be visited at

Look out for the photo of the horned dragon painting, which covers the entire ceiling of its huge lecture hall. It’s a phenomenal piece of art, which apparently took years to complete. It’s the Sistene Chapel of Zen.

“The purpose of Zen is to awaken to the bodhisattva within us. This perception, also called kensho, ‘seeing self-nature’, opens the way to a true Zen life lived in unrestricted liberation. To attain such freedom, one must strive in all of one’s activities to live in accordance with the Bodhisattva Vows:

Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them.
Desires are inexhaustible: I vow to end them.
The Dharma gates are infinite: I vow to master them.
The Buddha way is unsurpassable. I vow to attain it.


I was just too stubborn
To ever be governed
By enforced insanity . . .
Someone had to reach for the rising star
I guess it was up to me.

Bob Dylan - Up To Me
From Blood on the Tracks

In Japan, as in Germany, nobody crosses a road if the pedestrian light is red, regardless of whether there’s a car in the vicinity. It’s just how they do things here. Rules are rules.

There are rigid expectations regarding social proprieties and what’s considered proper behaviour. Unfortunately it really raises my hackles when someone tells me that I SHOULD or shouldn’t do this or that.

It’s fair enough when someone says “this is the way we normally do things here” or “this is what people generally expect in such and such a situation”, in which case I might just say, “Oh really - well it’s not the way I do things” or “fair enough, but it’s not that way in the culture I’m familiar with.”

I hate cultural absolutism, and any attempt to impose cultural norms that I don’t subscribe to. I particularly hate rules and expectations that are plainly ludicrous and without logic or even sense.

Japan is a wonderful country in so many ways, but in the long run I suspect I’d grow weary of the prevailing conservatism and dogmatism. I reckon I’d end up like one of those warrior monks who just said ‘fuck you’ to authority, and retire to a mountain top, real or metaphorical, to do my own thing in the company of people who see life the way I do.

Sadly for the warrior monks of Kyoto they all got wiped out by a particularly vicious and nasty warlord and his army, who eventually took violent exception to their lack of respect, their autonomy and their rebelliousness. C’est la vie. C’est la morte. A few years later the monastery and the temples were rebuilt and the community re-established, and the warlord met with his just deserts.

The mistake the warrior monks made, I suspect, was in making themselves and their community too obviously a threat to the established authority. Governors and governments hate those who have an alternative vision of how to live. The lesson to be learned is that in order to be an enlightened free spirit you have to appear as ordinary and unthreatening as possible, whilst getting on with life as you see fit.

In a way it pains me to say such a thing - to admit that a quietist and pacifist attitude might be for the best - since I hate injustice and oppression, and ideally I’d like to see despotism and injustice overthrown, forcibly if necessary. The problem is that those who do the overthrowing tend to set up their own despotic regimes once they gain power. Ultimately the only road to freedom and justice is through individual enlightenment and refusal to use force or violence as a means to an end, no matter how just the cause.


From the website:

Sitting in meditation is known as zazen in the Zen School, with za meaning ‘sit’ and zen meaning ‘meditation’. The seated posture is one of stillness and relaxation, and expresses a tranquil mind and a settled body. The state is one of union of body and mind, deepened through the relaxation and regulation of the breath.

Meditative practice brings about a non-dualistic state of consciousness through the deep harmonisation of body, breath and mind, a state of unification and profound stillness known as Samadhi.

Although profoundly still, Samadhi is not a state of passivity, unconsciousness or trance. The stillness of Samadhi is vibrant and dynamic, arising from a mind that is completely clear, aware, and open. In this state of awareness the ordinary world is seen in a new light, in which the unexamined ‘common sense’ view of a dualistic world is transcended and the underlying unity of all existence is clearly experienced.

Zen is not a system of defined beliefs, but a path to clarity and awareness. As such it has no conflicts with science, and can enrich the inner life of followers of any religious tradition. All are welcome. From wherever one enters, the path to the bodhisattva mind unfolds.

This may make it sound like Zen has no clear goal, but that is not the case. One is free to enter the path to ‘seeing the bodhisattva within’ from whatever gate one wishes, but the ultimate objective is the same: to attain liberation, then to help others according to their needs to attain liberation themselves. This, in Buddhism, is know as bodhicitta, the mind that strives to seek enlightenment, and to awaken all sentient beings.

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