Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? I would like to have a word with him.
A special kind of wisdom is loose in the world. This wisdom is difficult to codify or categorize, and it refuses to be institutionalized. It is called crazy wisdom. And so it is, both crazy and wise.
Crazy wisdom is the wisdom of the saint, the Zen master, the poet, the mad scientist, and the holy fool. Crazy wisdom sees that we live in a world of many illusions, that the emperor has no clothes, and that much of human belief and behavior is ritualized nonsense. Crazy wisdom loves paradox and puns and pie fights and laughing at politicians. Crazy wisdom flips the world upside down and backwards until everything becomes perfectly clear.
To see truth, contemplate all phenomena as a lie.
—Thaganapa, Tibetan Yogi
You will find crazy wisdom flowing through all of human history, bubbling up here and there, now and then. From the Taoists to the Dadaists; from the Book of Ecclesiastes to Mark Twain’s Letters to the Earth; in the parables of Chuang-tzu and the Baal Shem Tov; out of the cyclonic whirl of Rumi’s dervish poetry and the profound nonsense of Samuel Beckett’s confused characters; lurking beneath the unruly hair of Albert Einstein and between the bushy eyebrows of Groucho Marx; inside the howly voice of Allen Ginsberg and the crazed ranting of Lily Tomlin’s bag lady—crazy wisdom arises again and again to expose us to ourselves and to remind us of the strange, impossible nature of our enterprise here on Earth: life.
How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world, given my waist and shirt size?
Throughout history, certain archetypal figures keep reappearing to teach us crazy wisdom: they are the clown, jester, trickster and holy fool. Although they have been known to trade costumes and steal each other’s riffs and magic tricks, each challenges us in their own special way with questions, stories or laughter, or by offering their own radically different version of reality. Because these characters have devised some brilliant disguises, it may appear that they have nothing at all to do with wisdom. Some of them put on masks in order to unmask us. Others remove all their masks. Some will mime or mimic to show us who we are.
The comic spirit masquerades in all things we say and do. We are each a clown and do not need to put on a white face.
—James Hillman, psychologist
The most human manifestation of crazy wisdom is the clown. The clown’s painted-on mouth is either grotesquely grinning or super-sad, mocking the moods of all us mortals. We laugh at the clown because he is one of us—so pathetic and lovable, trying hard to do things right but always flailing and failing.
The clown shows us our awkward human condition and encourages us to laugh at ourselves. We are all clowns, climbing the ladder only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall, searching for hats that are already on our heads, planning our days only to find that the days have other plans. The clown’s world, in which all of us live, is not a practical joke—it is an impractical joke. It is the world of Laurel and Hardy moving a piano, or of Elmer Fudd trying to “get wid of the wabbit.”
The clown is the everyman figure— personified by Charlie Chaplin—who gets caught in the machinery of modern times, or lured to the gold rush with the rest of the crowd. He is the ordinary sad-sack guy buffeted by the forces of history and his own foolishness, yet surviving somehow, even managing a silly grin as he moves on to the next disaster.
Some say that the clown’s white face is the mask of death, grinning at our feeble attempts to create order and meaning out of life’s three-ring circus. In the end, says the white face, we are the butt of the joke.
Wit is the best safety valve modern man has evolved; the more civilization, the more repression, the more need there is for wit.
Jesters are the wits and critics. They appear as playwright and pamphleteer, roaming minstrel and balladeer, essayist, cartoonist, satirist and stand-up comedian. While the clown reveals the timeless foibles of humanity, the jester takes on the social and political behavior specific to the current age.
No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.
Unlike the lovable clown, the jester stands apart from the human fray and ridicules it. The jester jousts with a sharp tongue, hurling barbs, needles, sticking it to them, killing them. He gets away with dangerous revelations by making them funny.
The jester is Diogenes, walking with a lantern through the streets of Athens at night, claiming that he is looking for an honest man; or Jonathan Swift, suggesting that the Irish famine could be ameliorated if the rich would just eat the children of the poor; or Will Rogers, proudly stating, “America has the best politicians that money can buy”; or Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman’s astute political analysis that “all isms should be wasms.”
Jesters expose the lies of politicians, spread doubt about religious doctrines, and often demand an end to injustice. In the realm of relative truth, the jesters are the masters of ceremony.
Since everybody laughs at me, I will laugh at them.
—Iktomi, Oglala Trickster
Tricksters are the rascals of myth and folklore, often appearing as a strange combination of god, human and animal. Sometimes they are depicted as the bumbling creators of the world, and therefore the source of all our troubles; at other times they manifest as nothing more than ribald sex fiends. Whichever role they play, the tricksters do not abide by ordinary codes of behavior. They emerge from a time before good and evil, and their crazy wisdom is to act out our uncivilized, primal nature.
One of the most notorious tricksters is Coyote, a familiar figure in the mythology of many Native American tribes. When the world was being created, it is told, Coyote had a sack full of stars that he was supposed to place in the sky. He did a good job at first, putting the stars in neat rows, but after a while he either got restless or wanted to go looking for sex, so he just flung the rest of the stars into the sky, where they now appear scattered and randomly arranged. This kind of thing happened with many of Coyote’s jobs as creator.
There are real-life tricksters, too, such as the rascal Tibetan saint Drukpa Kunley, a notorious fornicator who went around blessing prostitutes and drunkards. In the spiritual ceremonies of many Native American tribes, costumed members of a special trickster clan will arrive to disrupt the solemn proceedings, or lead a bawdy ritual of their own. For instance, in a Cherokee ceremony called the “Booger Event,” the tricksters all have obscene names, and when they step into the sacred circle they make belching and farting noises, and then pull fake phalli out of their pants and do a lewd sexual dance. Perhaps this is to acknowledge that we live in half-wild, sexual, animal bodies. The Christian missionaries must have been shocked to witness such events, especially as a routine part of a spiritual ceremony.
The trickster makes no distinction between the sacred and profane and won’t let us forget that we have only recently stood upright and put on garments. Just outside our civilized encampments, you can still hear Coyote howling at night, reminding us of the primordial world from which we emerged.
If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.
There is a foolish fool and a great fool. The trademark of both is innocence, however the foolish fool tries to live according to convention, and his innocence makes him awkward and unsophisticated. The holy fool does not try to fit in but lives by his own rules and unique understanding. The foolish fool and his money are soon parted, but the holy fool gives his money away. The foolish fool always gets lost, while the holy fool is at home everywhere. The holy fool is the grand master of crazy wisdom.
The holy fool lives with “beginner’s mind,” without preconceptions or judgments, open to the surprise of each moment, in constant amazement at the ordinary wonders of the world. We are jaded and take for granted the miraculous dance of creation while the holy fool always sees it for the first time.
The fool on the hill sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head see the world spinning ’round.
The holy fools arise from the spiritual subcultures, the esoteric and mystical underground of the world’s great religious traditions. They know a different reality than the rest of us and live every moment in accordance with their understanding. Among the better known are Lao-tzu, Buddha and Jesus—all challengers of conventional truth, all masters.
Today it may seem inappropriate to label these holy men “fools,” but that is probably what they were considered in their own time. Lao-tzu was reportedly a crazy visionary poet who turned down a good job with the emperor in order to live secluded in the mountains. The Buddha left his palace to become a cult leader, teaching his followers to reject worldly pursuits for an odd-sounding doctrine called the “Middle Path.” If the Buddha were alive and teaching today, many parents would probably arrange to have their children kidnapped from his community and deprogrammed. No doubt respectable people saw Jesus as a scruffy, wandering street person. He lived among the poor to whom he ministered, knowing that the religious and political authorities would never accept his radical doctrine of love and forgiveness.
A rabbi whose congregation does not want to drive him out of town is not a rabbi.
Many Asian sages were proud to accept the label of fool. Lao-tzu boasted that “others are sharp and clever, but I alone am dull and stupid.” Chuang-tzu said, “Those who know they are fools are not the biggest fools.”
The holy fools are found in two distinct streams of crazy wisdom. In one are the Taoist and Zen masters, who accept that they know nothing and learn to ride the currents and surrender to the flow. They make doubt their guide and each moment their god. In the other stream are visionaries like Jesus or the Sufi poet Rumi, who pass through doubt into the certainty of their own uncommon visions. They lose themselves in love of a particular God, or the mystery, or the oceanic Oneness, living thereafter in an altered state.
An image crosses the heart: “Return to your origin.” The heart flutters all around and away from the world of colors and perfumes, clamoring: “Wherefore the origin?” while tearing apart its adornments, because of its love.
Whirling out of Islam came the Sufi masters, mad with dancing and chanting the names of God. They offered the faithful a simple and joyous means of knowing and loving Allah. Similarly, the Hasidic rabbis arose out of Judaism in the Diaspora. In the midst of constant danger and uncertainty, they led the people in song and dance in praise of the Lord. The same message comes through the African-American Southern Baptist gospel tradition and the hypnotic, ecstatic singing of Krishna devotees: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your religion.”
In singing and dancing is the voice of the Law.
—Zen Master Hakuin
Holy fools are often religious revolutionaries. Some write their own scripture, or else their lives become scripture. After their deaths come the charlatans and churches. Chances are, if the great crazy wisdom masters came back today, they would refuse to join the religions established in their names.
God has no religion.