Zen Humor: From Ha-Ha to Ah-Ha


by Allen Klein


"When one had understanding, one should laugh; One should not weep. "

-- Hsüeh-T'ou

"Laughter," wrote one author, "is breaking through the intellectual barrier; at the moment of laughing something is understood."

Zen humor does exactly that. Whether it be a Zen koan, one of those questions which the rational mind cannot solve, or, a captivating Zen story, when we laugh at these, we go from a chuckle‹"ha-ha"‹to comprehension‹"ah-ha!"

In the following Zen story, for example, we are reminded with a bit of humor that there is a time for everything, including death:

Ikkyu, the Zen master, was very clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked, "Why do people have to die?"

"This is natural," explained the older man. "Everything has to die and has just so long to live."

Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added, "It was time for your cup to die."

Zen teaches that once we can open up to the inevitability of our demise, we can begin to transform that situation and lighten up about it. The classic parable below, for example, teaches that even in the midst of death we can find sweet things about life:

There was once a man who was crossing a field and met a tiger. Running, he came to a great cliff and caught hold of a root and swung over the edge of the cliff. But at the bottom of the cliff was another tiger.

Soon two little mice came along and began to gnaw on the vine. The man looked in terror at the tiger below. But then he saw a strawberry vine. He picked the strawberry and ate it. "Ah, how delicious it is," he said to himself.

Finally, another Zen Master, named Sengai, reminds us to live fully in spite of knowing that someday we will no longer be here:

There are things that even the wise fail to do,
While the fool hits the point.
Unexpectedly discovering the way to life in the midst of death,
He burst out in hearty laughter.

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