Zen, the Giggly smile and 42


I have one Japanese friend, who is a sort of an enlightened far away brother to me. Our conversations frequently run like Zen mondos or like a never ending exchange of pleasantries. And, it must be said, I enjoy these kind of talks immensely. When we meet, he usually inquires into my current situation and I try my best to respond with a candid confession by stating the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. After hearing my rantings he – as a rule – bursts into a wild laughter and then immediately adds a verbal component to his performance: “Magnus, you need a woman”, he says with a giggly smile on his face. Over the course of our many conversations, he was never weary of repeating this line over and over again: “Magnus, you need a women.” Frankly, I found it quite amusing and I took it more as a joke than a friendly advice. But being familiar with Zen logic, I knew there was much more than what meets the eye or, as in this case, what meets the ear, to be exact. His tricks, his laughters and his out-of-place comments can fool any random sucker on the street but they won’t fool me. So, each time he said that I need a woman, deep down inside I knew that my Japanese friend played the classical Zen game on me. Of course, he denied it – this was expected – and when I expressed my suspicions that his comment had a certain stink of Zen, he denounced my knowledge of Zen and said that I know nothing about it. But, having never solved a koan in my life and having never meditated for more than an hour, I knew better. My friend’s reaction fitted perfectly into the repertoire of savvy Zen duels and Zen verbal attacks. His behavior matched the pattern of the old Zen masters way too good for it to be a coincidence. Only those people who deny it, have it. – an old Zen saying goes. In my mind I had no doubt about it, it was as clear as the sun on a cloudless day. And his denial only intensified my initial belief that he was pulling my leg in the prima-facie Zen style.

Now, when it comes to Zen, ever since the turn of the 20th century there are a lot of grave misunderstandings circulating around and polluting the air of our literary environment and our public discourse. So, be careful and don’t believe what you read on those blogs out there. Don’t listen to those sectarian enthusiasts who proclaim that Zen is not a religion, but a kind of empirical science of the mind or a clear mirror of reality. Believe me, the domestic heavyweight Zen of the Far East is as cultish and primitive as it gets, but the soft Western sanitized Zen is nothing but a sport for the middle class housewives and burned out baby boomers. Zen essentially consists of a repetitive exercise in mind numbing narcissism. This is what Papa Ratzi, better known as pope Benedict the XVI, meant when he referred to Buddhism as an advanced technique in autoeroticism. Its main goal is to achieve the awesome state of the deliberate ambiguity, which allows one to transcend the binary thought patterns and to go beyond the dualistic thinking models. On the level of its practical functioning and its methodological applicability, Zen is a marvelous technique of begging the question. It is the ultimate and the useful art of turning the tables on each other and everybody else. Let me break it down for you briefly. According to Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen,

“If anybody asks you about secular matters, answer them in terms of metaphysical matters. But if they ask you about things physical, answer them in terms of things worldly.” So if you ask a Zen master what is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha, he answers immediately, ‘Have you had breakfast?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘If so, go and wash your bowl.’

So, if you are being asked something specific, according to the logic of Zen, you should answer in terms of the universal. Hence, if someone asks you, for example, how much money do you have in your bank account? You should never state even an approximate number of your precious savings, instead you should answer like Abraham Golomb once did: “The river flows its course quietly and serenely, smoothly, without strain.” Let’s try another one. If someone asks you at the dinner table, “what would you rather drink – freshly squeezed orange juice or a glass of tap water?”. You should reply with a solemn voice: “The rain falls down softly and tenderly, in silence, tickling the ground.” And when someone asks you what time it is, you should look out through the window and say: “Clouds wither away and disappear. No noise. Only a heartbeat.”
Now, let’s model a different kind of possibility: if you are being confronted with an abstract and rather general question like: what is the meaning of life? Exactly here, you should be as specific as you can. So better give a mathematical formula or a number like 42 as Douglas Adams knew. This always works like a charm!
If an insolent speaker challenges you to a metaphysical fencing contest by asking what is the difference between good and evil? You should slap his right cheek with the palm of your left hand and say: “Eat two scrambled eggs in the morning and peel the potatoes at night.”

So my friends, there you have it. Now you know the secret inner workings of Zen. Moreover, you know also why my Japanese friend enjoyed a wicked laughter at my expense and why he made a comment that made me look like a fool. But I held my composure and I did not broke down in tears. In fact, after a thorough and detailed analysis of the hidden motifs of our interaction, in the end I came out as a winner. Writing stories like these, having neither friends, nor  women by my side. A true winner, indeed.


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