Humor in Zen Literature

There are 3 main forms of Zen "literature" through which we can see the comic spirit of Zen that will be discussed here:


The haiku is a three-lined verse of seventeen syllables, and is often associated with Zen. The poems themselves are short, allowing them to be focused on a single subject matter. Usually, the subject matter is something commonplace, once again denoting the Zen shift away from the overly sublime. Some haikus are rather humorous in nature, such as the following by Issa:

Yes, the young sparrows
If you treat them tenderly
Thank you with droppings.

In R. H. Blyth's essay on Zen Humor, he catalogs nine different types of humor in a volume of Zen haikus, including laughter of disillusionment, examined idiocy, spontaneous idiocy, exaggeration, dilemma, bathroom humor, dry humor, breaking from convention, and sympathetic pity. Although nearly not all haikus are comic like this, the haiku is a comic achievement. When one has an infinity of words to describe something, the haiku limits one to only seventeen syllables - the least amount that can get the job done. This task is difficult, and yet comic, trying to express oneself in such a limited form.

Ikky's Poetry

Ikky is a fascinating character in Zen history. He is often ascribed to the level of being a "Mad Zen" monk because of his extreme actions, such as parading around towns carrying a skull to demonstrate that the world is impermanent. Much of his poetry is erotic in nature, as he believed that satori could be reached through paying visits to "pavilion girls." His poems are bold, and even appear blasphemous:

That mischieveous creature,
Having appeared in this world -
How many, many people, alas,
Have been misled by him!

This poem at first sight is a complete shocker, and appears blasphemous. However, after thinking about it, it appears that Ikky is referring to how people attempt to follow the way of Shakyamuni, yet they do not give it their full effort, only following ceremony. Those who blindly perform the ceremony without actually believing are misled. Another one of Ikkyu's "blasphemous poems" can be seen below:

Why are people called Buddhas after they die?
Because they don't grumble any more,
Because they don't make a nuisance of themselves!

At least from a Western standpoint, this poem is downright amusing. The idea presented is extremely bold, yet it reveals to the reader some startling truths. After one dies and reaches enlightenment, there is no more pain, no more grumbling - there is nothingness. Ikky treads the fine line of the comic and the blasphemous in his writings.


Although kans are not an explicit form of literature per se, the way that most Westerners learn about them is through a catalog of these witty, thought provoking, and sometimes downright amusing words. Kans are usually very short stories are phrases that get one thinking about some fundamental idea of Zen. The two major schools of Zen, the Rinzai and the St, have opposing views on the use of kans. On one hand, the Rinzai school believes that kans are a useful tool in helping to eliminate the ego, build up frustration, and reach enlightenment. The kan is a tool, revealing Zen's eccentricity and how one can suddenly reach enlightenment. On the other hand, in Dgen's St school, kans are rejected, as is the goal of having an enlightenment experience. Therefore, the way of Zen is no way - one should "just sit" according to Dgen. Only through zazen (personal meditation on nothing), can one achieve enlightenment in the end. Both the kan and zazen lead one to nothingness - the kan in the removal of the ego, and zazen in its meditation on absolute nothingness - this is one of the great paradoxes of Zen: attempting to do something to experience nothing. Zen is aligned with jiriki, using one's power to attain enlightenment.

Humor in Art



Jason Anderson
Japanese 92 Final Project
Professor Hare