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Rant #270
(published March 16, 2006)
Sinister Jokes as Koans
by David Erik Nelson
I used to have a brother-in-law that was easily the most despicable human being I have every personally known. He was a lawyer, and every time he comes to mind, I hear Danny De Vito1 delivering this old saw:

Q: How do you save a lawyer from drowning?
A: Take your boot off his neck.

This human stain I was briefly related to by law used to tell a joke which was startling in its profundity, and went something like this:

Q: What would you call Fred Flintstone if he was black?
A: A nigger.

This is plausibly a joke that can only be intelligibly told in Twentysomethingth Century America, a joke which reflects back on nearly 400 years of racism, 140+ years of "equality," over 50 years of battling for civil rights, countless lynchings and injustices, assassinations, machinations, double-crosses—a joke that looks over all of Detroit 2, a city which seems to almost actively conspire to prove every inbred, sheet-wearing racist half-wit absolutely right . . . the joke has a savage, trenchant wit, a mirror in its hand, and a snide, knowing grin and, worst (best?) of all, it cannot be explained. Either you feel the terrible, inescapable stillness, the hermetically sealed segregation it shows us to have embedded in our hearts, or you don't.

And if you don't see it, you just think I'm nuts—and as vile as that Stain for repeating such trash—and if you do see it, you can't quite say what it is you see. The joke makes us still, and quiet, and live to the horror frozen into the coldness at the heart of everything in America.


Koans are riddles without answers, originating within the practice Zen Buddhism. They are intended to shock our minds into a state of awareness and wakefulness beyond the analgesic zombie-walk in which we spend the better part of most of our days. Example:

Two monks, a teacher and a disciple, are traveling when they come to a river. Standing on the bank is a beautiful young maiden who bemoans the fact that she cannot cross the swift waters. It is a strict rule in the monks' order that they should avoid all contact with women, and so the student looks away from her and does not respond to her in any way. Meanwhile, his teacher has spoken with her briefly, and then picks her up and carriers her across the stream. Having set the maiden down, the monk and his disciple continue on their way.

All day as they walk in silence, the disciple is troubled: one of the central edicts of their order is to avoid all contact with women, and yet his teacher—who is a very pious man, and for whom the student has an enormous amount of respect—touched this woman intimately, lifted her up, held her to his breast, and bore her across the river. How could he resolve these actions—noble as they are—against the fact that they so clearly violate such a straightforward rule?

Finally, that night, after they've made camp and eaten their simple dinner of boiled rice and dried fish, the student asks: "Master, is it not the case that we are to avoid all contact with women?"

The teacher nods in agreement.

"But this morning, back at the river, you spoke to that young woman, you touched that woman, you carried her across the waters—"

"Yes, and I left her at the riverside. You've been carrying her all day."

Probably you get what this is getting at. Also, probably, you cannot simply sum up what is being expressed about human nature, about the nature of proscriptions on behaviors, letter-of-law vs. spirit-of-law and etc. If you think you can sum it up, then you aren't getting it, and if it could be summed up, then it would be useless.

I only mention this because, in a strictly functional sense, the above koan and my ex-brother-in-law's "What do you call a black Fred Flintstone" joke are the same.


We're not strong on koans in America. At first glance, this is fairly predictable: We are a famously ignorant nation, and the ignorant aren't known for searching out mental calisthenics; we hardly exercise our bodies, let alone our minds (or souls, for that matter.) Further, we aren't a terribly Asian nation: If 2000 census data is to be trusted, only about 5% of Americans would prefix themselves as Asian-3.

But, of course, not all koans are asiatic in origin: The Jewish tradition of contemplating Talmud and its commentaries has more than a little of the koan to it, as do a great number of Native-American folktales (anything with Coyote or Iktomi tend to fit the bill.) African-American fables of the Uncle Remus variety—those cryptic tales of Bre'r Rabbit getting Bre'r Fox to toss him into the briar patch—are markedly koanic. Additionally, the Norse (from whom, in all probability, a majority of Americans would draw their descent4) had riddles of startling poetic clarity and stillness—and strangeness, to boot:

Riddle 66

There I saw a mystery,       on the wave it rode,
It was well wrought,       wondrously done.
Wonder was on the wave,       when water became bone.

Yes, the greater bulk of Norse riddles are of the "What can go up the chimney down but not down the chimney up?"5 variety, but that doesn't mean that Lief and Freyja didn't while away the occasional starless night contemplating whether the flag was moving, the wind was moving, or their minds were moving.

This is all to say that we're culturally predisposed to have koans, and yet, they are nowhere to be found.

Is this mental laziness again? A fast food mentality that has spread—like our enormous American asses—into every cultural nook and cranny? We no longer make, but rather produce; we don't buy, we consume; we don't cover songs, we sample them. We want it now, we want it pre-digested, we want it fast, cheap and easy.6 Koans are too much thinking for our good American guts, and in the early 21st Century, we are a nation which prizes above all else our gastrointestinal comfort and precious, sanctimonious ignorance.

No. That's facile, self-hating anti-patriotic bullcrap. It sells well to the seats on the left-side of the stadium, but it isn't the truth. We certainly haven't lost our fondness for didactic tales. We are a culture rife with parables (popularized by Jesus, and pretty much the only term appropriate to prime-time dramas like Joan of Arcadia) and fables (Aesop springs to mind, but so does every video favored by our young nephews7, let alone the vaster bulk of video games, with their only quasi-human protagonists and ham-handed lessons on nobles oblige and clean-living—either through example8 or counter-example9.) Even our e-mail disseminated urban myths are generally parables, clearly intended to educate us in the dangers of pre-marital sex, outcast hitchhiking wanderers, and transgressing social norms.

In the end, it's a little shocking that we have no koans in America, taking into account first our cultural history of koans (which can only be enhanced by the massive cultural cross-pollination we've seen from the Far East in the last 20 years10) and second our persistent fondness for teaching-tales. Of course, there is a fundamental difference between the koan and the parable, fable or myth, and that is this: the stories that we still trade so heavily on—the simple lessons and "true meaning of whatever" stories that populate our air-waves and cable bandwidth—are entirely cerebral (e.g. whodunit and howtheydunit shows like Monk) and/or emotional (again, Joan of Arcadia11), aiming generally to conk us either in the head or the heart (or, failing the heart, then lowering the bar and going for the viscera; Fear Factor jumps to mind): They seek to teach by engaging us entirely on a conscious level, strictly above the board. Fables and parables get by on being clever; they are entirely human-made works, impress us or hold our attention by laboriously manipulating the pieces of the games we've conceived of and called culture, and teach us about the world of man. Koans, on the other hand, don't just aim below the belt, they aim bellow the everything, diving deep past conscious thought, preconscious mind, personal unconscious, collective unconscious. Koans come from that timeless place that we scratch into when we no longer know what we're talking about or where the words are coming from, only that our mouths continue moving, that something is pouring out of us because it is pouring through us. If fables and parables are cerebral, emotional or visceral, then koans are numinous, and speak to our higher mind—our mind beyond words—because they are speaking from whatever it is that's behind this veil of tears.12

This is really what we're avoiding when we so carefully avoid koans: it's not that we're lazy as a culture, nor ignorant, it's just that we don't want to stretch out beyond what can be known or said, commit our weight out past the edge of the cliff, stop being clever and drop into whatever it is that we don't quite explicitly get, that floats in the void behind the Void. We're afraid of feeling it instead of understanding it. Why? Maybe because any understanding can be explained away or argued into oblivion with sophisticated rhetorical peregrinations and slight-of-thought, but when you feel it, you feel it. We live in an America which has, over the last 4 years, crossed a line, and gone from being a world made of objects (a Pepsi, a Ford, a cop with a gun) and become a world made of claims and arguments ("The smoking gun will come in the form of a mushroom cloud," "The Social Security system is collapsing," "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!") If we go from understanding it to feeling it—well, there will be things to answer for, if nowhere else, then in our hearts. That's a lot to ask of a simple and well-meaning people. If the tail wags the dog, does it have the Buddha nature?

But how can we live without the sacred and paradoxical riddle open to multiple answers (or, really, manifold answerlessness), the riddle whose point is not the unravelling solution, but the due consideration of the riddle itself? Isn't something beyond our bodies and minds still integral to our enjoyment of a whole life? At least as integral as it was to all of those traditions—those coolies and slaves and rabbis and Indians and nameless, failed viking colonists—that feed into the spiritual Anima Americana?

The answer is that we don't live in a koanless America. The koan, the sacred riddle that brings inner stillness upon contemplation, always sneaks back in and asserts itself; like Monkey came to Tripitaka to help him bring Buddhism back to China from the West, it comes to every generation to show us how to live. And, in America, it has done so in our jokes. Our laughter is the surprised exhalation in response to that shocked moment of reversal, where we were going one direction and then suddenly another, and so are, for just a moment, still, and can thus see the world clearly for what it is, see beyond the blur of every moment of every day.


As such, I offer the following American pop-cultural koan, which is so funny and apt that it just breaks my goddamned heart:

So I went into the bar the other day where I found Bush and Rumsfeld bellied up to the bar sipping their beers. I was so amazed to find them there I had to go up and ask "Hey aren't you guys the leaders of the free world? What are you doing here in my neighborhood bar?" To which Rumsfeld replied "We like going to out of the way places like this to plan big things like our invasion of Iran."

"Whoa" says I, "How is that going to happen?"

"Well," says Rumsfeld, "We plan to kill five hundred thousand Iranians and one bicycle repair man."

"No way!" says I, "Why would you kill a bicycle repair man?"

Bush then smacks Rumsfeld on the arm and says "See, I told you no one would care about five hundred thousand dead Iranians!"13

Oh. Ouch. Awake to emptiness.

This is how the world ends: with a giggle, not a bang.


My sister's first husband, the Stain, had another joke, which went like this:

Q: Why did the woman have two black eyes?
A: 'Cause she didn't listen the first time.

A very simple truth beats at the heart of that joke, and I never saw it, not until well after the divorce was final.

Often, when we think we understand something, when it's just a joke anyway, we take it in and decode it and then cease to consider it further; we're thrust into that singular, still moment of consideration—a precious moment of clear seeing—but go nowhere with it. Although the sinister joke is a koan, it all too often fails to do what the koan is expressly for: To help us see the deep truth in the story, to help us see the world as it is. Why does the sinister joke fail in this regard? Because it is supposed to: It distracts from itself, is a revelation with misdirection built in. We hunger for the numinous truth beyond words, and at once satisfy that hunger while providing ourselves an out to seeing what's true because what is true is so often vile. It's a fantastic duplicity: Tell me you abuse your wife, then smile and wink, and we all laugh, and you have told me the truth, and I have discarded it as a joke, and none of our hearts or minds or souls need be bothered with it further.

Don't finish reading this essay thinking about me, about my sister, about her ex-husband—think about Bush and Rumsfeld in that bar, about Iran and the bicycle repairman, about how funny that joke was just now, and how funny it might not be 18 months from now, as the War on Terror rolls on and on and on.

Awake to Emptiness.



1 No, I have no idea why it's Danny De Vito. Maybe because of his part in War of the Roses? Which reminds me, what do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

2 My family, the human stain—we are all Jews from Detroit and its suburbs. In the 1920's, when Detroit suddenly blossomed into the 4th largest city in the U.S., it was due to the burgeoning automobile industry. Motown was born as blacks poured north and Europeans west for attractive factory jobs. Almost all of these newcomers were "Americanized" through the factories which, as a by-product of mass producing identical, interchangeable products, produced identical, interchangeable citizen-workers. Eastern European Jews, systematically locked out of factory positions, worked in commerce (merchants, middle-men, organized crime), and largely failed to melt into the pot. Together, blacks and Jews composed about 10% of the city's ⅓-of-a-million residents . . . although they weren't really together at all, except for in their ostracism. The two communities were dark doppelgangers: the blacks were American, but cut off from the American Dream by virtue of their blackness, systemic discrimination and their previous condition of servitude; the Jews were white, but cut from the gravy train cronyism of white skin privilege by virtue of their enforced separatism and, in these years between one World War and the next, their suspicious, immigrant alienness. And, like any wedgied schoolyard punching bags, these two beleaguered losers chose not to embrace each other and grow stronger as a coalition of outcasts, but to focus their hatred on each other, to remain forever separate, and see in each other the portrait of their own weakness, loathsomeness and inferiority.

Jews have long since fled Detroit, the last trailing slow-pokes of this urban center's White Flight; analysis of data from the 2000 U.S. Census lead to Detroit being declared "the most segregated city in the United States."

3 Of 290 million folks living in the U.S., only about 15 million consider themselves to be "Asian" in any degree.

4 81% of America—or about 237 million folks—consider themselves at least whiteish if not downright White.

5 An umbrella. Also, Big Ron Jeremy.

6 Which reminds me of a joke about your mom . . .

7 Thomas the Tank Engine, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, et cetera, ad nauseam.

8 Pokémon, the Zelda series of games.

9 The much belovéd Grand Theft Auto series.

10 N.B. The ever growing popularity of Asian animation and action films; take for example Princess Mononoke(1997) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000). But, more importantly, note Asian cinema's influence on domestically produced films and aesthetics: Consider the markedly kung-fuish demeanor of fight sequences in the more recently produced (which is to say 'produced after the startling success of Crouching Tiger . . .') Start Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones(2002) vs. the quickdraw cowboy shoot-outs and traditional European-style fencing lightsaber duels in the original Star Wars film (a.k.a. Star Wars: Episodes IV — A New Hope, 1977.)

11 Sorry, I don't watch much T.V., and as such, my television examples are somewhat limited.

12 Yeah, malaproping of "vale of tears" was intentional—there's a notable charm to this common mistake. For the persnickety (or, at this point, confused), please see Paul Brians' Common Errors in English:

The expression "vale of tears" goes back to pious sentiments that consider life on earth to be a series of sorrows to be left behind when we go on to a better world in Heaven. It conjures up an image of a suffering traveler laboring through a valley ("vale" ) of troubles and sorrow. "Veil of tears" is poetic sounding, but it's a mistake.

13 I initially came across this joke on the politics/culture discussion site Plastic.com; it is post #154 on a February 3, 2005 thread entitled "Heard The One...?"

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