Why Zen and Sarcasm Go Together

Peas and carrots.
Day and night.
Good and evil.
Love and marriage.
Horse and carriage.
French fries and ketchup.
Fred and Ginger.
Summer and baseball.
Star Wars and childhood.

Zen and sarcasm.

Hmmm…. not an obvious pairing, and yet so appropriate and minty-fresh!

I admit that when I was being prompted to think of a blog name, Zen Sarcasm just sounded kind of quirky and funny. Even the Monsieur thought it was clever. And it gets me hits on Google, even.

But what is Zen sarcasm, truly? If you reflect on the meanings of both words, neither leads to the other necessarily. Zen is a school of Buddhism that teaches self-awareness through contemplative meditation and reflection on the things we do. Sarcasm, on the other hand, is an often self-derisive way of poking humor at an usually ironic and self-evident situation. Apparently, a common Zen Sarcasm piece of wit goes something like,

“Do not lead, because I may not follow. Do not follow me, because I may not lead. Do not walk beside me, either. Just leave me the hell alone.”

Perhaps it’s nowhere near a Koan –a true Zen Buddhist meditation statement, not a riddle— but it does illustrate the point I’m about to make. And while there may be some anger in those words, they are wise words nonetheless. Sometimes people just need to be left the hell alone. Period. They’ll come around.

Back to Zen and sarcasm: One is hard, requires discipline, and achieves a higher state of consciousness. The other is easy if you have a quick wit and requires only a minor amount of low self-esteem to take effect…. or does it?

Well, okay. Originally, sarcasm –which comes from the Greek sarx or flesh, and refers to the act of biting your lip (flesh) usually to hold in a red rage– was a constructive and funny way to diffuse tension and poke fun at a moronic situation. A proto-Zen way of dealing with anger and frustration, if you will. But people confuse poor dear sarcasm –desperately trying to control the rage, chewing madly on that lip– with its bitter cousins irony and cynicism. Therefore sarcasm gets a very bad reputation and you’re stuck with people using the wrong word for what they mean. Yes, this is an etymological discussion. If you’re just catching on, you can either click here and soothe the pain, or keep reading. I promise it’s actually interesting.

So irony. Irony is just plain literal …. irony. As in Alanis Morisette’s jarring little song, where you “get a free ride when you’re already there”. That’s irony. The classical example of irony goes to poor Oedipus and his family. After all, Oedipus (or swollen-foot, his less-glamourous name) was left for dead hanging by his feet because his dad, King Laius of Thebes, thought Oeddie would grow up to kill him and then get it on with Laius’s hot wife (and Oeddie’s mom), Jocasta. The deep irony being that Oeddie finds out he’s supposed to kill his dad when he’s older, flees from his home and his adoptive dad –the king of Corinth, who was awesome and whom he dearly loved–, and in his flight out of Corinth and ironically straight into Thebes, runs into real dad King Laius who’s apparently a total asshole, because Oeddie kills him on the road to Thebes and then goes and gets it on with his older and obviously-a-MILF-mother Jocasta… and voilà: Irony. Ouch. *gasps for breath*

And cynicism comes from the Greek word for dog (also supposedly from some Greek place where they all met, but I like the dog story better). As in how some Greek guys decided that dogs always looked like they were smiling or sneering because their canine teeth stuck out to the sides in a sneery grimace. Also, how dogs have no manners because they are dogs (though I’ve met some very nice dogs in my time). So some ancient Greeks formed a school of thought and called themselves the Cynics because they kind of didn’t care about crap and looked down on people with a superior sneer. Well, they did care about something: they thought that only virtue was good– which could be good, except that they didn’t really like or trust anybody. So they essentially were a bunch of rude, unmannered jerks. And so, to the modern definition of cynic which in essence is just another word for a jerk. And a jerk who doesn’t really trust anyone or anything. Which can be conveyed humorously, if cynics had a sense of humor –which they generally do not.

So back to the original postulate: Zen and Sarcasm.

Sarcasm is not your enemy. It’s healthier to channel your anger through humor than to let it fester and grow until you become a cynic. Granted, many people who indulge in too much sarcasm and don’t strive for it to be Zen sarcasm end up becoming cynics of the worst sort. And that is entirely too ironic.

And so, A Daily Dose of Zen Sarcasm is simply my reflections on daily life. Some are more Zen. Some are more sarcastic. Some are a little of both, because life, unless you’re a cynical bitter jerk, is a series of humorous vignettes that show you that you always need to be aware of who you are– otherwise, life has a habit of reminding you in less gentle ways.

And yes: a tree in the forest still makes a sound, although technically no one is there to hear it, so it is a lost sound. And the answer to “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is simply extending your hand and hearing the lovely sound of silence. Followed, hopefully, by laughter.

Thank you for reading!

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This entry was published on May 30, 2005 at 11:34 pm and is filed under Soapboxing. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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