Art: Eniko Eget

It is nice to occasionally experience the universe as incredibly silly, to see the world as a vast field of play. In even the most dire of circumstances, at times we can taste a quality of suchness and light, one that existed before we attached the definitions “pain” and “struggle.”

In one of our recent Pacific Zen gatherings we talked about jokes, about improbable joy, and the play of the universe. A joke that popped into my mind: the very first one I learned as a young child. It is a silly one that I like to spring onto my family once a decade or so, to a chorus of groans.

It was interesting that as I sat with it, the childhood joke took on the quality of a koan: simple, clear, repetitive, and yet somehow alive without holding a particular meaning. And during the session, a surprising synchronicity emerged: A joke about ducks came up and then the famous Yunmen koan, Upside-Down Statement:

A monk asked Yunmen, “When it’s not the present intellect and it’s not the present phenomena, what is it?” Yunmen responded, “Say something upside down.”

(Blue Cliff Record Case 15)

It was almost as if the whole forum, along with Yunmen himself, had written the child’s joke:

Question: “Why do ducks fly upside down?”
Answer: “So they can quack up!”

It doesn’t make any sense but that is why it is so alive.

Sometimes the nonsensical are the funniest of jokes. 

A couple weeks ago our neighbors joined us for dinner and brought along a young distant cousin who had recently moved from New York to North Carolina. The young man, in his early thirties, had studied philosophy for some years and spoke of different philosophical streams of thought with great eloquence. I was entranced. He had just finished his first Zen retreat at a nearby center and had some questions about practice. For some reason I felt rather taciturn and only added a few thoughts about Zen, while the others chatted on about it. He asked about koans, and I mentioned Yanguan’s Rhinoceros:

One day Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me my rhinoceros-horn fan.” 
The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me the rhinoceros.” 

(Blue Cliff Record Case 91)

I had read that koan dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. This time I found it irrepressibly funny and began to laugh loudly, wholly out of character with the tone of our discussion. Everyone at the table looked at me and I felt a little embarrassed. Perhaps you had to have been there.

—Jon Joseph