Le Chantier, kafé - bistro - virtuel

The Wisdom of Jokes

by Alejandro Jodorowsky

The Wisdom of Jokes


  Toward the end of the 1950s, the Zen Master, Yamada Mumon sent his disciple Ejo Takata from Japan to visit a Zendo in San Francisco, California, if I remember correctly. Upon arrival, always obeying the orders of his Master, he looked for a place in which to found a Zen Rinzai school. His search method – he only spoke Japanese—consisted in not looking for it. He simply stood at the roadside and stuck out his thumb, deciding to establish the school wherever the vehicle that picked him up might drop him off. A trucker transporting oranges left him in Mexico City. There he found himself with no other clothing than his koromo, with ten dollars in his pocket. In that immense city of twenty million, he walked around at random for an hour until a psychoanalyst, a disciple of Dr. Erich Fromm, stopped his car and invited him to climb in, quite surprised, or moreover, marveled by the curiosity of finding a Japanese monk calmly walking the streets of Mexico City. Erich Fromm, author of Ethics and Psychoanalysis, among other titles, had just discovered Zen through the work of D.T. Suzuki; and for that reason he considered the arrival of Ejo Takata a most important event for his school and, along with a group of doctors and psychoanalysts, he sponsored the person who would eventually become my Master in a Zendo located in the suburbs of the capital.

Back in those days, our exposure to Zen was limited to a few books poorly translated into Spanish. According to our logical spirits, we considered koans to be unsolvable mysteries. And we imagined an “illuminated” Zen Master to be some sort of magician who could resolve all of our metaphysical doubts and even transmit us the power to conquer death.

After overcoming great difficulty to establish contact with the Master, one day I finally arrived, trembling with excitement, at his door. A smiling, ageless oriental who could have been twenty years old as easily as sixty, with a shaved head, dressed in monk’s habit opened the door and immediately treated me as though I had been his lifelong friend. He led me by the hand to the meditation room, where he showed me a piece of white cloth hung on the wall on which was written in black ink a single Japanese character that he was kind enough to translate and pronounce with some difficulty: “happiness.”

So began my experience with Ejo Takata. That same year I recorded in my diary some impressions that, although naïve expressions of adolescent idealism, continue to be invaluable to me. I have precisely entitled this text “Experience with Ejo Takata.” When he showed me the character for “happiness,” I realized that he was actually teaching me the secret of the soul: to be happy despite misery and failures; that life is a fountain of happiness and the cure is to recognize that below this terrible context in which we live, there’s a river of incredible joy. Then he took two chairs and told me, “Now we’re going to meditate outside.” Halfway down the path he stopped and gave me one of the chairs and suggested, “now you carry it.” That’s when I understood all: for the first half of the path, the Master guides the disciple, but the other half the latter must guide himself.

The years have gone by, but the love impregnated with respect that I felt for Ejo Takata has never vanished from what you could call “my soul.” My interpretations of stories and koans originate in my meetings with this Master who was as great as he was humble. (Of his life in Japan I only know of a single anecdote: while American forces bombed Tokyo, in the midst of a shower of bombs, he continued to meditate).

Later I understood that all narrative structure (including that of jokes) could be interpreted: all stories are profound, if we contemplate them thoroughly.


Experience with Ejo Takata

  The first time I went to the Zendo, the Master showed me a poem that ended as follows:

 He who has feet will help with his feet
 and he who has eyes will help with his eyes
 in this spiritual masterpiece.

While he prayed the Master coughed and sneezed. Trying to meditate, I didn’t even dare to breathe.

 The Master no longer prays.
 These chants are he himself.
 The prayers cough and sneeze.

But the student meditated in a corner of the Zendo, feared that he would get used to his spot, and changed to the opposite corner.

He traveled the four corners and all the other spots where he meditated. The Master meditated in just one spot; nevertheless it was never a habit. 

            The disciple insisted on taking off his shoes before stepping on the tile floor of the Zendo. His feet got dirty. When he sat on the wooden platform, he soiled it.

The Master only took off his shoes at the moment he sat in his spot.

When the disciple arrived at the Master’s home, he removed his shoes to avoid soiling the floor, but when he entered the homes of his friends he didn’t take the trouble to wipe his soles on the doormat.

            The Master invited him to sit down in the garden. He took two straw chairs. Halfway down the path, he gave one of the chairs to the student to carry.

            The Master said, “If we’re in Mexico City, we can see the volcano Popocatepetl. If we’re on Popocatepetl, we can’t see it.”

            When the Master prayed, his words produced a vibration that had a musical sound. The words no longer mattered to me.

I thanked this sound because it made my cells vibrate and arranged them, like a magnet, all in the same direction.

           The Master, before leaving, wanted to give me a walking stick, a keisaku. The following were my feelings:

“If you have a walking stick, I’ll take it from you, and if you don’t have one, I’ll give it to you. Oh, infinite piety, I don’t thank you. I didn’t have it and you wanted to give it to me. Now that I have it, take it from me so that you will have truly given it to me. Allow me to reject your gift. One day my hands will flower and I won’t need the walking stick, because I’ll be able to slap you on the back with my palms (and even with my fingers).”

           The Master would say, “If you do good and then tell someone, you lose everything you gained by doing good.” Nevertheless, he always bragged about each of his good deeds. He boasted, not out of vanity, rather to prevent himself even his own internal benefit.

He wanted to do good with absolutely nothing in return.

            A temple isn’t the “exclusive” place of the sacred.

You go to a temple to learn the meaning of the sacred.

 If you’ve understood the lesson, the entire world becomes a temple; any man becomes a priest and any food becomes the host.

            The Master hit me on the back three times with his keisaku. More than a walking stick, the keisaku was a thin palette. It had Japanese characters written on either side of it. I asked him their meaning.

On the side he hits you with it says, “I can’t teach you anything. Learn for yourself: you know?” On the other side, “the pasture flowers in spring.”

             The Master added, “first the meditation; later spring comes and everything flowers.”

             The Master suddenly fixed his eyes on the disciple’s mouth and asked, pointing at it, “what happened to your mouth?” The latter replied, “I had an accident.”

And the Master said, “one day, your eyes will be very beautiful.”

 Mexico, 1961*


*Text later incorporated as the prologue to Zen en México by Ejo Takata (conference), author’s edition, Mexico, 1970. Reprinted in Antología pánica, Joaquín Mortiz, Col. Contrapuntos, Mexico, 1996. [Editor’s Note].

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Last updated: March 7, 2005. Copyright ©2002-2005 by Claymont Publishing Company.