Updated On — 17th Nov, 2022
Yes, we are all in a mess, with suffering and despair everywhere-yet one lonely channel broadcasts the remarkable message that despite it all, everything is fine.
In a web-series from a few years ago hosted by Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian Garry Shandling recalls telling a joke once to an audience of Buddhist monks, one of whom was the Dalai Lama. Side note here: Garry, who passed away in 2016, was a longtime Buddhist practitioner and a student of Thich Nhat Hanh.
This is Garry talking:
So one time I was with the Dalai Lama and he said,
“I understand you have some joke about the Buddha.”
How would you like to be in this position? And you know, he’s looking at me and he’s got the glasses on, and he’s the Dalai Lama. I’m talking to the Dalai Lama. And I’m comfortable with that.
And I said, “Well, [delivering the joke]:
Buddha never got married ’cause his wife would have said, ‘What are you gonna do, sit around the house like that all day?’
“Well, I’m meditating, honey.”
“Why don’t you meditate while you’re taking out the trash?”
And there’s dead silence in the hall, except for three American monks in the back, who are laughing hysterically. And so then I explained the joke to him:
“In American culture, the husbands and wives sometimes argue because the wife thinks the husband is lazy and sitting around…”
And [the Dalai Lama] goes, “Oh… Funny.”
Garry’s take on this experience: “That’s what you want — a three-minute gap from when you tell the joke to when you get the laugh!”
Fortunately for Shandling, he isn’t the only one to bomb telling the Dalai Lama a Buddhist joke. Here is an Australian news anchor who waded into these dangerous waters.
Back in ancient times, before kids, my wife and I took a long cross-country RV trip. We ate frugally on the road, with her inventive RV cooking, but we had the ritual of eating breakfast on Sunday mornings in a local diner.
One Sunday morning, in one of the Virginias I think, a dog-eared menu had a message prominently on display on the very top:
If you don’t have a sense of humor, you have no sense at all.
I think of that menu from time to time, especially when just sitting down to meditate becomes challenging.
I ask myself, what am I taking so seriously?
The whole notion of human trouble and pain is serious and not serious at the same time. As I intentionally, and sometimes with great effort, bring awareness to what is happening in any given moment, I eventually get it–what I call my life is just a stream of mental events, often tethered to anxieties about the past or the future.
When I finally see this, my heart relaxes a little.
Yes, we are all in a mess, with real suffering and despair all around us, and yet one lonely channel broadcasts the remarkable message that despite it all, everything is fine.
Ancient telegrams telling me to relax
Reading early Buddhist texts, I feel I am receiving ancient telegrams telling me to relax, it’s all good. Nothing lasts, everyone gets bothered, but really there is no one to be bothered.
The Buddhist approach may seem cold and impersonal. But a view that initially seems absurd and depressing reveals a peaceful existential oasis. That everything is in constant flux, that distress is normal (get over yourself, already), and that there is really no one to get over anything, really – is refreshing news!
It’s only absurd if we take ourselves seriously. It takes me a while to get the message.
I have Leonard Cohen on a playlist I listen to a lot. The other day, the refrain from his song Anthem hit its mark:
There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
Humor celebrates the cracks. And seeing the cracks brings in enough light to discover the things we hit up against aren’t all that solid or heavy.
And if we are patient, a little joy may poke through.
The Thai meditation master Ajahn Cha once pointed to an enormous boulder and asked one of his students if he thought it was pretty heavy.
Yes, it’s very heavy, he said— to which Ajahn Cha replied:
Well… it’s not heavy if you don’t pick it up!
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