(Graphic designed by Liz Ditz at I Speak of Dreams. This is the second in a series of posts for the Blog Against Theocracy weekend. Thanks again to Blue Gal and the others who spearheaded this, and are posting the links. Check out the Blog Against Theocracy site for a variety of posts!)
Trading Dialogue for Lodging
Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on.
In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The older one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye.
A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. "Go and request the dialogue in silence," he cautioned.
So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down.
Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: "Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me."
"Relate the dialogue to me," said the elder one.
"Well," explained the traveler, "first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here." With this, the traveler left.
"Where is that fellow?" asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
"I understand you won the debate."
"Won nothing. I'm going to beat him up."
"Tell me the subject of the debate," asked the elder one.
"Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!"
— A Zen story, as told by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
When I first read this story as a teenager, I laughed. It may be a Zen story, but it follows a classic joke structure. There are forms of humor that rely on laughing at someone else's suffering, but I've always felt the truth is funny. Our own foibles are funny. Recognizing our own flaws in another can be a epiphany, and funny. Few things connect people stronger than a shared sense of humor, that sideways knowing glance and smile. Religious authoritarians typically have little to no sense of humor, and it's one of many reasons I question their spiritual wisdom, for all their ostentatious, competitive displays of piety. If someone can't laugh, I can't believe he or she speaks for God.
In this Zen story, two monks view the same events in radically different ways. Similarly, I find the story funny, but others may not. What I find wonderful about Freedom of Religion, the First Amendment and the separation of church and state is the multiplicity of viewpoints it allows. Socially, America has its cultural pressures, but legally, it can be viewed as both pro-religion and pro-atheist (or at least, neutral). One person might see providence in the fall of a sparrow, but another may see a dead bird (and a cat may see lunch). I know devoutly religious people who are among the most original, independent thinkers I've ever met, and I know atheists who are among the most moral. As a religion teacher I heard once put it, "There are many paths up the mountain." Many of those paths involve some sort of spirituality, some involve religion, and some involve atheism or agnosticism.
I believe in a path that appreciates comedy. I believe in reverent irreverence. In a free society, anyone is free to laugh at someone else. However, a sign of maturity and security is the ability to laugh at one's self, one's own beliefs — and one's religion. Christianity is the dominant religion in America. It's not necessary to believe in the divinity of Jesus to think he was wise — Thomas Jefferson actually rewrote the Gospels to remove all supernatural elements but preserve Jesus' teachings. Revering Jesus also doesn't preclude valuing the wisdom of Buddha, or Mohammed... or Socrates and Hannah Arendt, for that matter. There's a world of difference between laughing at a god, or religion, and laughing at religious people. (Personally, I'm down with Jesus, it's the tartuffes I can't stand.)
As much as I appreciate America's Freedom of Religion, I also love another part of the First Amendment: Freedom of Speech. Here's some of the best comedy clips I could find dealing with religion. To kick it off, here's Lewis Black:
Here's George Carlin:
Here's Eddie Izzard, on the founding of the Church of England:
Here's the great stoning scene for The Life of Brian:
And here's that unforgettable final song:
In my book, false prophets, authoritarians and idiots deserve mockery, however gentle, just as kindness and wisdom deserve celebration. When met with intolerance, one can get angry, and there are times that may be necessary. However, in other cases, it's best just to laugh. Consider this poll given last March by Gene Weingarten during one of his weekly chats. After the furor over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, an Iranian newspaper announced it would run a Holocaust-denial cartoon contest. An Israeli cartoonists' society responded — but running an "anti-Semitic cartoon contest." I find that brilliant, wise and sublime. Then there's the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, young Arab (and Persian!) comics. Laughter knows no denomination or ethnicity, and can be crude, or mean, but it can also embody self-knowledge, connection, redemption and forgiveness. After all, to err is human — but to laugh, divine.
(To read the next entry in this series, "Theocracy Round-Up," click here.)