In my training as a monk, I made a pilgrimage that involved making a full prostration to the ground every three steps. I bowed 800 miles along the California coast highway from Los Angeles to Ukiah, in Mendocino County. The journey took nearly three years, and I traveled about one mile a day. During the pilgrimage, and for three years after, I kept a vow of total silence, speaking only to my teacher, the late Ch’an master Hsüan Hua. My bowing companion Heng Ch’au and I ate one vegetarian meal a day, and except for the wild roadside greens we gathered, our survival depended entirely on goodwill offerings by kindhearted donors along the way.
One foggy morning in Santa Cruz, where Highway 1 becomes a residential street in the middle of town, I came up from a bow to see a young schoolgirl, perhaps nine years old, on her bicycle. She had stopped to stare at the bowing monk and ponder what in the world he was doing on the sidewalk. She silently watched me make three steps and slowly bow to the ground, then stand, step and bow again. I looked ahead and bowed past her. Several houses later, I heard her bicycle approach from the rear. She came around front, and when I came up from a bow she opened her lunch box and held out a wax-paper package: “Here, Mister, you better take this sandwich. The way you’re going, you’ll need it before you get to the corner.”
What do Buddhists laugh at? Often Buddhist humor comes from suddenly awakening to the transient, unsatisfying and impersonal nature of reality. The glossy surface of the events of our lives is illusory, offering a promise of satisfaction that so rarely delivers. When life hurts, one way to begin healing is to laugh at how much it aches.
How is Buddhist humor different from slapstick, from Punch and Judy cruelly beating each other with clubs, from cynicism? Buddhist humor heals the hurt because the jokes and stories lift the banana peel after the hero slips and falls, to hint at the nature of living beings: that we are “born drunk and dying in a dream.” If the dream is a nightmare, waking up can be a jarring but blessed relief; it was only a dream after all.
Sometimes it hurts so bad, you laugh. During the pilgrimage, one evening near Santa Cruz, Heng Ch’au and I parked in a cul-de-sac behind the fence of a housing unit. I lit the kerosene lamp and we meditated. The next morning after chanting, Heng Ch’au boiled a pot of water for tea. He handed me a scalding bowl. I was still in meditation mode, sitting in full lotus, my feet bare and upturned. Careless of the steaming bowl, in the confined space I upended the tea onto my lap. The tea scalded my upturned bare foot and ankle. Blisters formed within seconds. Oh, it hurt! How was I going to bow on a burned foot? Heng Ch’au poked his head through the door curtains and joked, “Wow! That’s pretty good tea, eh? It could really wake a guy up, huh? Did you get enlightened?” I laughed so hard I couldn’t feel the pain— for at least a minute.
There are other aspects to Buddhist humor. Sometimes the bodhisattva, or awakened being, in Mahayana Buddhism serves as a Trickster figure, like Coyote or Br’er Rabbit. The Trickster bodhisattva has an eye open to reality beyond the reach of ordinary people. In the past, Guan Shi Yin Bodhisattva or Manjushri have appeared as enigmatic figures, powerful and all-wise teachers who use mischief or harsher measures to wake up their students.
Once a hermit cultivated the Way in the mountains. He saw his practice of the spiritual life as essentially complete. He was particularly pleased with his strength of concentration, his “samadhi power.” He felt that he was patient before all states of mind, pleasant or unpleasant, and that his mind never moved, regardless of the circumstances. Near his meditation hut, he nailed together two boards and on them inked three words: “Mind like ashes.” He tied the boards to a pointed stick and hammered this sign into the ground. He dusted off his hands, sat down, and prepared to meditate.
At that point, Guan Yin Bodhisattva decided to test the cultivator’s samadhi. In a moment, Guan Yin transformed into a young lad and knocked loudly at the cultivator’s gate. He continued to knock for five minutes, and the sound echoed in the hills. Seeing nobody, he walked up to the hut and looked through the window to find the cultivator meditating unmoving on his cushion.
“Excuse me!” he said. “I’m sorry to interrupt but I saw your sign down by the trail and I’m really curious. What does it say?”
The cultivator slowly opened one eye, then the other. He seemed to make an inner decision and said quietly, “It says, ‘Mind like ashes.’”
“Oh, what an agreeable sound. I can’t read. Which word is ashes?”
The cultivator paused before answering, exhaled and said, “The last word says ashes.”
“I’m not sure if I’ve got it right. It’s such a lovely idea that I want to understand the meaning. Your mind likes ashes?”
“Like ashes, not likes!”
The questioning went on for thirty minutes until the cultivator, provoked beyond endurance, shouted, “You’re an idiot, open your ears! How many times do I have to tell you, it’s ‘mind like ashes’!?”
The young boy suddenly leaped into space and transformed into Guan Yin Bodhisattva, appearing majestically in full lotus on a purple-golden cloud. “Well, it seems there are a few embers in the ashes yet. I’ll come back in a year or two and visit you again. Be vigorous.”
Buddhist humor presents suffering with principle. Dharma laughter comes as medicine to heal the universal human disease of mortality; the suffering involved in birth, death and rebirth are no joke. Because the Buddha’s project was ending suffering for good, leaving the cycle of birth and death completely, his parameters for humor tended to be earthy, broad, almost slapstick in illustrating our primal suffering. From the Buddha’s perspective of wisdom, in our realm of desire, delusion reigns. Fundamental ignorance of how desire ties us down is the basic joke, and the laugh is on us. The Buddha describes us as upside down, running towards desire and away from liberation, dragging chains of ignorance that inevitably drop us back into suffering.
One rainy February week on our pilgrimage, Heng Ch’au and I bowed through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of America’s largest urban parks, making slow progress along the Great Highway just south of San Francisco. From the highway shoulder, movement was a constant assault: wind in our teeth, flying sand in the eyes, and restless thoughts haunting the mind. Thousands of cars passed by, staring, wondering and occasionally stopping to find out why we were bowing.
One such vehicle was a twelve-passenger van belonging to the park’s rangers. A red-haired, cheery Irish Catholic named Mickey hopped out and walked over. “Hi, fellows. Guess you must be working for a spiritual cause. Buddhists? I’m with the rangers here at the National Recreation Area, and I drive up and down this coast all day long. Must have seen you first down by Devil’s Slide a month back. You guys sure stick with it. I’m kind of a lapsed Catholic myself, but I sure like the way you just keep moving up the coast. So, hey, I stopped to tell you to be careful up ahead, they’re patching the Great Highway, and you’ll want to stay over on the grass by the ocean side, all right?”
Mickey kept watching out for us across the Golden Gate Bridge and down to Fort Baker, giving us advice on road conditions, even bringing us hot soup from his kitchen. One Monday, he stopped by at lunch with a story. “What a joke! You guys seem to be having some kind of an effect. I’ve got a coworker in administration who doesn’t like you two, not a bit. He says he would just as soon roll his truck up the curb and run over the both of you. He thinks you’re the devil himself. He’s a decent enough guy. It must be something about religion that pushes his button. He came in last week and said, ‘Look at those two jerks. What losers! They can’t come up with anything better to do than bow on the road in public? Who are they trying to impress? Why not go do that in a closet?’
“So the guy shows up for work this morning with a black eye, a missing tooth and a hangover. ‘I went on a date to Tahoe to ski and play the slots,’ he told us. ‘The trouble started when we were driving to the Interstate and passed by those two freaks bowing. You know me, I let them have it. When I said the world would be better without those guys, my girlfriend piped up and told me to lay off. She said they’re probably bowing for world peace and weren’t hurting anybody. They were actually doing something meaningful instead of complaining about things all the time.’
“‘I told her, “No way! They’re total losers, zombies, they’re probably cursing the cars driving by.” We argued all the way to Sacramento and then she stopped talking to me. Bad start. When we arrived at the hotel, I lost my car keys and we couldn’t open the trunk to get to our liquor stash. We wound up having to buy premium stuff and I got drunk. I took a swing at my girlfriend, fell over the railing, broke a tooth and lost my wallet in the snow.
“‘She left with the car and I had to take the bus to Sacramento, where my brother picked me up. I went looking for a good time this weekend but came back miserable, without my wallet, my keys, my car, or my girlfriend.
“‘But the strangest part of the trip was what happened when I got back. It was late Sunday afternoon, and when I reached Highway 1, there were those two monks, bowing like it was Friday, or Monday, or last month, except now they were three miles farther north than when I went to Tahoe. They were still doing that same bowing thing, wearing the same expression on their faces and . . . I couldn’t believe what had happened to me since Friday. I had my life turned upside down; they suddenly seemed kind of peaceful. I wonder if they’ve figured something out. Funny how it made me think, you know.’”
Mickey summed up, “Well, I guess ‘losers and winners’ is just a state of mind. Here’s a loaf of bread I baked on Sunday. You guys take care.”