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Zen Laughter: From Ha-Ha to Ah-Ha

When one has understanding, one should laugh; One should not weep.


"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 a comprehension—"ah-ha!"

Zen teaches us that even death, our stalwart enemy, does not escape laughter. In the following story, Zen teaching reminds 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 death, 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. How delicious it was.

Another Zen story provides a similar lesson while subtly teaching that death is no big deal:

As Roshi Taji, a contemporary Zen master, approached death, his senior disciples assembled at his bedside. One of them, remembering the roshi was fond of a certain kind of cake, had spent half a day searching the pastry shops of Tokyo for this confection, which he now presented to Roshi Taji. With a wan smile the dying roshi accepted a piece of the cake and slowly began munching it. As the roshi grew weaker, his disciples leaned close and inquired whether he had any final words for them.

"Yes," the roshi replied.

The disciples leaned forward eagerly. "Please tell us!"

"My, but this cake is delicious!" And with that he died.

Laughter may be difficult to accomplish when we are facing death but Zen masters teach us that it is the clown, the comedian, and the fool who can turn reason into nonsense and bring death down to our level. For example:

A nobleman asked Master Hakuin: "What happens to the enlightened man at death? What happens to the unenlightened man?"

The master replied: "Why ask me?"

"Because you're a Zen master!"

"Yes," said Hakuin, "but not a dead one!"

Finally, another Zen Master named Sengai reminds us that it is perhaps the fool who is the wisest of all:

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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