Borscht Belt Zen

When did this post begin?  Some would say it began with the Big Bang.

Once the universe was set in motion, this blog post became as inevitable as the formation of the solar system, the emergence of life and consciousness, and Doug Adams’ creation of the Improbability Drive.

I personally think it began in 1966.  That was the year that the legendary Alan Watts, the renowned Buddhist[ref] Watts wasn’t strictly a “Buddhist” interpreter.  He expoused a mixture of Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism, and sometimes his understanding of Zen was a litle idiosyncratic.  Nevertheless he was a brilliant and inspired speaker who did much to familiarize Westerners with Eastern Philosophy. [/ref] interpreter, psychedelic advocate, and alcoholic, arrived at my small East-coast liberal arts college to give a series of talks.

It’s said we are born anew every moment, that every moment is a turning point, a hinge of fate.  Attending Alan Watts’s talks was certainly a turning point in my life, although I couldn’t have known it at the time.

For one thing, it marked the beginning of a life-long interest in Buddhism.  See Exhibit A:

That’s a photo of me reading D.T. Suzuki’s Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism in 1966 taken by my father.  I might not be a Buddhist if it hadn’t been for Alan Watts.  He was my Dharma door.  His talks also sparked an interest in psychedelics, and later that year, while it was still legal, I prepared for taking LSD using The Psychedelic Experience, the Leary-Alpert-Metzner adaptation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as my Frommer’s guide.  Shortly thereafter I read the Evans-Wentz translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead which introduced me both to Tibetan Buddhism and C. G. Jung (who wrote the introduction to the book).  My ensuing interest in Jung helped spark a growing interest in psychology. I became a Psychology major in 1968.  One thing leads to another.

In the same year Alan Watts visited my school, I befriended a fellow undergraduate named Art who was an aspiring comic book artist.  We collaborated together on three projects that year.  The first was a sophomoric underground comic strip that caused a minor scandal on campus.  The second was a dreadful campus radio satire of Star Trek in which Captain James T. Kirk battled a creature made of pure lethargy.  The third is the only one I really remember with any degree of clarity.  (I know, anyone who remembers the sixties wasn’t really there!)

Those of us with a rapidly approaching sell-by date will remember Mutt and Jeff.  

Mutt and Jeff was a multi-panel comic strip created by Bud Fisher in 1908 that remained in syndication until 1987.  Mutt’s the tall one, Jeff’s the short one, and Bud Fisher’s the well-heeled chump on the left.

Inspired by our interest in Zen, Art and I came up with a four-panel Mutt and Jeff homage based on ”Joshu’s Dog” — Case Number One in the Mumonkan. In the first panel Mutt asks Jeff if a dog has a Buddha-nature.  In the second panel, Mutt replies ”wu!” In the third panel Mutt glares at Jeff with daggers in his eyes.  In the final panel we see poor Jeff in a garbage can with a blackened eye and a banana peel resting on his head.  Early twentieth century Zen Masters could be quite fierce!


If my memory serves me correctly, the cartoon eventually appeared in the East Village Other around 1967, but I could be mistaken.  In any case, it seems to have subsequently disappeared. Neither Art nor I have a copy, and I’ve been unable to locate it on the internet.  Like a Tibetan sand painting, it exemplifies impermanence.  Art and I never collaborated on any further projects.  We went our separate ways.  I went on to graduate school.  Art went on to invent the genre of the graphic novel and win the Pulitzer Prize.

The Mutt and Jeff cartoon exemplified the vaudevillian quality of the Zen koan.  I’m currently reading Andy Ferguson’s monumental Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings that was just reissued by Wisdom Publications.  The book covers 25 generations of Chinese Ch’an teachers, which means an awful lot of baffling Zen stories drawn primarily from the Compendium of Five Lamps by the eleventh century Zen Master Dachuan Lingyin Puji.  The Mutt and Jeff cartoon keeps returning to my mind as I read them.  Some of these Zen stories would have made wonderful routines for Borscht Belt comedians. The following is a current favorite of mine.  As you read it, just imagine Groucho as Zhizang:

After Zhizang became abbot of the Western Hall, a layperson asked him, ”Is there a heaven and a hell?”

Zhizang said, ”There is.”

The layman then asked, ”Is there really a Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — the three jewels?”

Zhizang said, ”There are.”

The layman then asked several other questions, and to each Zhizang answered, ”There are.”

The layman said ”Is the master sure there’s no mistake about this?”

Zhizang said, ”When you visited other teachers, what did they say?”

The layman said, ”I once visited Master Jingshan.”

Zhizang said, ”What did Jingshan say to you?”

The layman said, ”He said there wasn’t a single thing.”

Zhizang said, ”Do you have a wife and children?”

The layman said, ”Yes.”

Zhizang said, ”Does Master Jingshan have a wife and children?”

The layman said, ”No.”

Zhizang said, ”Then it’s okay for Jingshan to say there isn’t a single thing.”

The layman bowed, thanking Zhizang, and went away.

It’s a great joke.  It has a terrific build up, and Zhizang’s timing’s impeccable.

The story points to the reality of both absolute and relative truth.  Zhizang and Jingshan teach the same Zen, but Jingshan does it from the vantage point of absolute truth, Zhizang from relative truth.  The joke is that it’s all well and good to dwell on the mountain top of oneness if you don’t have a wife or kids.  If you do, however, you have to come down and dwell in the world of the ten thousand things.

It reminds me of Zen Master Hakuin’s colophon to his painting of Eaglehead Mountain:


”Looking above, Eaglehead Mountain —
Looking below, the fishing boats of Shige and Shishihama.”

We have to coordinate the heights of the mountain top with the view below — both equally valid views.  If you stay at the top you risk altitude sickness.  If you just stay in your little fishing boat, you miss the glorious heights.


I love Zen because it has a sense of humor.  It follows Oscar Wilde’s advice that ”Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

Everything is of the utmost importance.  We do everything with care, attentiveness, and concern.  We just carry the importance lightly.

Sometimes jokes in the West also contain serious messages.

I love the following joke for what it has to say about humility often being egotism in disguise, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing:

”It was Yom Kippur and the cantor left the standard liturgy to improvise before the congregation.  ”I’m nothing,” he cried out.  ”God, I’m like a worm crawling on his belly, like dust beneath your feet.”  He began to wail and rend his clothing.  Hearing him, all the rich congregants in the expensive seats in the front of the Synagogue took up his cries of piety.  “Forgive us, dear God.  We’re nothing.  We’re lower than the low.”  And they too began to wail and rend their garments.  Hearing this, little Mottel the Tailor in the cheap seats way in the back echoed the cry of humility.  ”Oh, God,” he said, ”I’m lower than the lowest vermin.  I’m garbage!  I’m nothing!”  With this the congregation stopped its prayers and stared at Mottel.  ”Who is he,” the rabbi said incensed, ”to think he’s nothing?”

Who is Jingshan to think there’s not a single thing?



20 Replies to “Borscht Belt Zen”

  1. I liked the way you snuck ”and alcoholic” into your description of Watts. It’s true. The first Buddhist book I had was The Way of Zen. I couldn’t understand it. Or I should say it failed to provide me with the big picture on Zen or Buddhism. I was very disappointed to later learn that he spent like maybe fifteen minutes of his entire life in meditation.

    By the way, from what I gather from the Buddhist Blogosphere, we’re not supposed to talk about our Beat Generation, hippy-dippy influences anymore, it’s sooooo boring to younger Buddhists.

    1. Watts died at age 58. If only he had spent more time sitting and less time drinking! I was lucky to see a lot of the “greats” in their time: Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary. You should have seen Watts in action on a stage, though — he was the best! Have I just burned out my welcome in the Blogosphere?

      1. Just a warning, so that you don’t wear out your welcome, I guess.

        I’m not 100% sure but I think it was Timothy Leary who told me to get out of a tree at a Love-In in New Orleans in 1968. He was concerned that it might attract “the man.” As far as I know, neither of us were tripping at the time. Well, I really can’t say about him . . .

        I saw Ginsberg once with Dylan and the Rolling Thunder review in Ft. Collins, CO in 1976. He was reading while Dylan was singing his heart out and then later he read a poem to the crowd. I thought he came off as rather pretentious.

        1. I saw Ginsberg in the mid-60s. He was reciting William Blake poems while accompanying himself on the harmonium and also reciting his own Witchita Vortex Sutra. He was very charming that day. Leary was doing one of his “Steppenwolf” shows at the Fillmore East. He was, of course, full of hokum, a veritable Wizard of Oz. What I really want to know though, is: did you get out of the tree?

          1. Yes, I climbed down, just like Christ from his bare tree . . . I only went up there because there was large crowd around him and I wanted to see.

            I think Ginsberg read something by Blake with the Rolling Thunder Revue. I have it in a book somewhere . . . Here’s a post where I talk about my feelings regarding Ginsberg, along with the poem I wrote when he died:

  2. In my mid-20s (in the mid-1990’s), reading Stephen Mitchell’s version of the Tao Te Ching and Alan Watts gave me my first exposure to eastern philosophy, leading, finally (in a roundabout way) to Zen Buddhism. I used to rent audio tapes of Watts’ lectures years ago.

    Two brief instances of Zen comedy:

    A samurai once asked Zen Master Hakuin where he would go after he died.
    Hakuin answered ”How am I supposed to know?”
    ”How do you not know? You’re a Zen master!” exclaimed the samurai.
    ”Yes, but not a dead one,” Hakuin said.

    and this one:

    A monk asked Zen Master Joshu, ”What is the Pure Land?”
    Joshu said, ”A puddle of piss.”
    The monk asked, ”Can you show it to me?”
    Joshu said, ”Don’t tempt me.”

      1. Thank you, Seth… I’m glad you caught the reference. I have ten different recordings of Bach’s cello suites so far! Desert island music for sure…

  3. That was a fun little romp through your history — thanx. That is the third time I have heard that Jewish joke in one month. I think Jehovah must be trying to tell me something.

    1. I first heard that joke years decades ago from psychiatrist Fritz Perls. I have source amnesia, though. I can’t remember if it was in one of his books, or on a audio or video tape. He thought it reflected the relationship between narcissism and feelings of worthlessness. Perls was narcissistic enough to know! A good joke never goes out of style. Want to hear it a fourth time? “It was Yom Kippur…”

  4. Thanx Seth ! The history is fun.
    With all this name dropping of the greats, it brings to mind a question I have had for a long time:
    Back in the day, when I was reading NLP stuff, I remember reading that there was a common pattern among highly skilled psychotherapists (Rogers, Perl, Glasser …) of the following:
    — The master who codify his theory and method
    — Disciples would become fluent at both the theory and method
    –But disciples rarely did as well as the master

    Possible Conclusions:
    (a) The master really did not understand his own magic and the theory and method he wrote down had little to do with what was happening for him.
    (b) the disciples misapplied the theory and practice

    The NLP people were saying it was probably (a).
    So, I wonder how much the same phenomena happens in contemplative circles. Have you wondered about this before?

    1. Complicated question! First, in the domain of psychotherapy: Were the “masters” ever really masters? They were important discoverers and theory builders, but there’s no evidence that their patient “cure” rates were actually any better than those of less famous therapists. Was their practice in accordance with their theories? They all deviated from their theories in actual practice, and it’s hard to know whether their successes were because of their theories or in spite of them. There’s a wonderful book called “The Wolf Man” about one of Freud’s famous patients. The Wolf Man’s memory of his therapy with Freud bears little resemblance to Freud’s account of the same therapy. Whose view was right? Did the disciples accurately understand and follow the masters? Each “disciple” had areas of agreement and disagreement with his or her master, (e.g., Jung and Alder with Freud) and each had his or her own unique style even when they copied their masters slavishly. None of this, by the way, is intended to detract from the important innovations and discoveries these seminal figures made. (BTW, I don’t agree with Bandler and Grinder’s NLP analysis of what they considered the linguisitic “structure of magic.” Looking, for example, at the famous “Gloria” films of Perls, Rogers, and Ellis — while the films help viewers differentiate the theories and techniques, none are models of how to do good therapy. ) Second: In regard to contemplatives: every student has areas of agreement and disagreement with his or her teachers. Traditions branch out and diverge with a tradition’s founder being just an origination point for future development and variation. I think the truths of lived existence need rediscovery by each individual in each generation — past teachers provide clues and guideposts, but everyone must rediscover truths anew. (This is different from scientific truths which change with new observations and tests, but which also consist of sets of established facts, relationships, and mathematical descriptions which can be memorized and passed down.) Lastly, do students sometimes misapply theories and misunderstand practices? I am reminded of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, where even the word of an Abrahamic God can be gotten wrong by His Prophet. We’re human, so we can’t help getting things wrong. Mistranscriptions get passed down through the ages too, like transcription errors in DNA.

  5. I just remembered this one– from Quaker tradition:

    A newcomer enters the meeting house for the first time and takes a seat. Several minutes of silence pass. Naturally puzzled by all this, the newcomer turns to a Quaker sitting next to him, and whispers ”When does the service begin?” The Quaker replies, ”When the meeting ends.”

    I wish I still had my old copy of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim— there were loads of wonderful stories in it…

    1. I also loved Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim which disappeared from my bookshelf over forty years ago. Buber put his own existentialist spin on the Hasidic tales, removing them from their original context and meaning and turning them into Zen stories. The one I best remember (and I am sure my memory is distorting this story in a variety of ways) is of the Hasid who has a vision of Moses in the afterlife. He is shocked to see Moses living in a tiny hovel. “I thought Moses was in Heaven!” he exclaims. Moses turns to him and says, “No, Heaven is in Moses!”

      1. My favourite one is about Rabbi Zusya on his deathbed,where his students gathered round. He said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not like Moses?’ — they will ask, ‘Why were you not like Zusya?'”

  6. Dear Seth,

    Years ago, I had a conversation with a Jewish poet about whether this hoary old joke was Jewish or Irish:

    “How do you make God laugh?”
    “Tell him your plans.”

    As I recall, we decided that the joke was probably Jewish. We knew nothing of its origins, but its flavor seemed more Jewish than Irish.

    You may have heard a more recent story, in which Bono, pausing in the midst of a concert, clapped his hands at seven-second intervals. “Every time I clap my hands,” he portentously declared, “an elephant in Africa dies.”
    “Then why don’t you stop clappin’ your feckin’ hands,” came a voice from the crowd.

    And here’s a third. The fund-raising wing of a certain Oxford college sent out a solicitation to its alumni, politely requesting a generous donation “per anum.”
    “Thank you for your suggestion,” came one reply, “but if you don’t mind, I will continue to pay through the nose.”

    These samples might be taken as examples of Jewish, Irish, and British humor, respectively. Each has its own tonal coloration. Do you think that Zen humor has its own as well? And if so, how would you describe it?

    All best,

    1. Thanks for the laughs, Ben! In Zen, you suspect there’s a joke, but you’re not quite sure what it is. Did I get it? It’s in there somewhere! A few are crystal clear, like the monk carrying the woman across the river and his companion who’s still carrying her, and have an intellectually coherent point to make. Most, however, surpass all understanding — which is, of course, their point.

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