Alan Watts on Zen stories, laughter and disappearance of an “initial problem”


A man whose name was Eka came to where Bodhidharma was meditating and said: “Master, I have no peace of mind, please pacify my mind”. Of course, he didn’t even get in for a long time to ask his question, because Bodhidharma refused to see anybody. Finally, when he cut off his left arm as a token of his sincerity and presented it to the Master, Bodhidharma said: “All right, what do you want”. And he said: “Well, I have no peace of mind”. And Bodhidharma said: “Bring your mind before me, I’ll pacify it”.

And Eka said: “When I look for my mind, I can’t find it”. Bodhidharma said: “There, it’s pacified”. Now somehow this answered Eka’s question. And all Zen stories are like that. One thing I must tell you about these stories is that they are of the same nature as jokes. That is to say, the joke is told with the object of making you laugh.

Laughter is not an intellectual thing. It is an emotional reaction, and the point is the emotional reaction. If therefore a joke is explained to you, you may laugh out of politeness, a throaty laugh, but you will not laugh spontaneously, a belly laugh. Now the object of Zen stories is not to produce laughter but to produce awakening, clarification, enlightenment, or what is called in Japanese ‘satori’.

Satori is like laughter, something that happens suddenly. You don’t as a rule slowly begin to laugh and then laugh louder and louder – because you see a joke instantly. A joke is always a matter of an “ah ha!” So in the same way, these stories are intended to produce an “ah ha!” reaction in you of “Oh but I see! Now it’s clear!”

And really they don’t contain any information. Their design is not to tell you something, that is to say not to impart information or knowledge. Their design is to get rid of something, to get rid of a false problem with which you are wrestling so that the problem will disappear as a result of understanding the story.

And you will see from the story that I told you that what happened was the disappearance of a problem. Because Eka when he looked for his mind, that was giving him so much trouble, he couldn’t find it.

PS: picture from – Dazu Huike (Eka)

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