Marx Brothers Buddhism

IN THE mountains of ancient China, Chan Master Dao Lin lived in a tall pine tree. The locals called him the “Bird’s Nest Monk.”

Hearing about his wisdom and reputation, Minister Bo made the trek to the Qin Wang Mountains to see Master Dao.

Calling up to him, Bo said, “It’s very dangerous where you are sitting, Chan [Zen] Master.”

Master Dao replied:

“My danger may be very great, Minister, but yours is even greater.”

“I am the commander of Qian Tang,” Bo said, “What danger is there?”

The Master responded:

“Fuel and fire are joined, consciousness and identity do not stay: How can you not be in danger?”

The Meaning

Changing the subject, Minister Bo then asked: “What is the overall meaning of the Buddhist teaching?”

The Master replied, “Don’t commit any evils, practice the many virtues.”

Bo said: “Even a three-year-old child could say this.”

Master retorted, “Though a three-year-old child can say it, an 80-year-old man cannot carry it out!”

Minister Bo bowed and departed.

From Swampland Flowers translated by J.C. Cleary.

Duck Soup

Compare this to Groucho Marx’s quip in the film “Duck Soup,” about whether a report was clear and understandable.

“Clear? Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report,” Groucho says, and then turns to an aide:

“Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail out of it.”

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

Facetious references to children being able to understand things that adults do not truly have a base in esoteric philosophy, where the term “children” really represents “initiates.”

Madame Blavatsky says in The Secret Doctrine:

“…Jesus states repeatedly that he who ‘shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein’ and if some of his sayings have been meant to apply to children without any metaphor, most of what relates to the “little ones” in the Gospels, related to the Initiates, of whom Jesus was one. Paul (Saul) is referred to in the Talmud as “the little one.”

And even the mysteries of the dragon, she states earlier in the passage, can only be understood by the “little ones”—initiates.

“[To] understand the meaning of the Dragon is not given to the “Companions” (students, or chelas), but only to “the little ones,” i.e., the perfect Initiates,” she says. (SD II 504)

Three in the Morning

Humor is also used in ancient philosophical texts to make fun of the wavering, ever-unstable fickle human consciousness. The danger of attachment to things impermanent Master Dao warned us about earlier in saying

“Fuel and fire are joined,
consciousness and identity do not stay.”

One illustration of this idea is articulated in the writings of Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), a fourth century B.C. Daoist (Taoist):


“When we wear out our minds, stubbornly clinging to one partial view of things, refusing to see the deeper agreement between this and its complementary opposite, we have what is called ‘three in the morning.’

“What is this ‘three in the morning?’ A monkey trainer went to his monkeys and told them: ‘As regards your chestnuts: you are going to have three measures in the morning and four in the afternoon.’ At this they all became excited and angry.


So he said:

‘All right, in that case I will give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon.’ This time they were satisfied.

“The two arrangements were the same in that the number of chestnuts did not change. But in one case the animals were displeased, and in the other they were satisfied.

“The keeper had been willing to change his personal arrangement in order to meet objective conditions. He lost nothing by it.

The truly wise, considering both sides of the question without partiality, see them both in the light of Tao [Dao]. This is called following two courses at once.”

The Vimalakirti Sutra

From The Way of Chuang Tzu translated by Thomas Merton.

Formulated about the time of Christ, the Vimalakirti Sutra was a successful paradigm shifter in the transition between Theravada Buddhism and the rise of the Mahayana.

While we know from HPB’s teaching that many esoteric gems were embedded in the earlier sects, many of them died away or became so completely lost, and letter-of-the-law, that the Vimalakirti Sutra could only make fun of the remaining old-fashioned misogynistic monks — who actually believed that only monks, male monks, could gain enlightenment.

The stooge representing this mindset in the Vimalakirti Sutra is none other than S(h)ariputra who is poked fun at throughout the text.


For example, when Vimalakirti’s consort, a goddess, is pleased by his teaching and the great assembly of bodhisattvas and others, she magically bestows flowers on them.

However, the flowers showered upon the old-minded monks such as Sariputra, stick to them, and they create a scene trying frantically to shake them off.

The goddess asks Sariputra why he’s doing this.

“Goddess,” he replies, “these flowers are not proper for religious persons and so we are trying to shake them off.”


“Reverend Sariputra, impropriety for one who has renounced the world for the discipline of the rightly taught Dharma consists of constructual thought and discrimination, yet [you] elders are full of such thoughts. One who is without such thoughts is always proper.

“Reverend Sariputra, see how these flowers do not stick to the bodies of these great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas! This is because they have eliminated constructual thoughts and discriminations.”

From the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman

Boy Meets Goddess, Boy Loses Goddess

In another scene in the Vimalakirti Sutra, Sariputra challenges the goddess and asks why she doesn’t transform herself out of her “female state” and into a man so she could properly pursue Buddhahood:


Goddess: Although I have sought my “female state” for these twelve years, I have not yet found it. Reverend Sariputra, if a magician were to incarnate a woman by magic, would you ask her, “What prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?”

Sariputra: No! Such a woman would not really exist, so what would there be to transform?

Goddess: Just so, reverend Sariputra, all things do not really exist. Now, would you think, “What prevents one whose nature is that of a magical incarnation from transforming herself out of her female state?”


Thereupon, the goddess employed her magical power to cause the elder Sariputra to appear in her form and to cause herself to appear in his form. Then the goddess, transformed into Sariputra, said to Sariputra, transformed into a goddess:

“Reverend Sariputra, what prevents you from transforming
yourself out of your female state?”

Also from the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman

Robert Thurman: Vimalakirti – Video 1

Watch the entire series of his lectures on the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra.

The Laughing Buddha

Off the central coast of 10th-century China lived a Chan master whom many believed was an incarnation of the Future Buddha Maitreya.

Known as the Hemp-bag Bonze, this charismatic fellow lived under a bridge and anyone who observed that his sandals were wet, knew for certain that rain would soon descend.

If he snoozed while squatting on the bridge with his head resting on his knees, that was a sure sign to the townspeople that good weather was on its way.

Children loved to chase the plump laughing Master and beg him to reveal the contents of his bag. As he removed each item, one by one, the children clinging to his shoulders or sitting in his lap, clapped their hands in surprise and joy. Their parents asked questions about the bag itself.  How old was it? And the Bonze replied,

“It is as old as space.”

One time he was bathing in the river, when a friend came upon him and saw that he bore a wisdom eye on his back.  “You are a Buddha!” the friend exclaimed. “Shhhhh!” the Hemp-bag Bonze responded, “Don’t tell anyone!”

Everyone loved the laughing pot-bellied Bonze, seemingly both a fool and a wise man.  Poems honoring him circulated and images of him became popular in temples and homes throughout the Far East.

One placard in a Chinese tavern some 70 years ago honored this form of Maitreya saying:


“The big belly is capable to contain,
it contains all the things under Heaven
which are difficult to contain.
The broad face is inclined to laugh,
to laugh at the laughable men on earth.”


How She Must Laugh

Speaking of laughing at laughable people, Theosophy co-founder William Quan Judge wrote an article after Madame Blavatsky’s passing about people who claimed to be “channeling” her and the bizarre messages they attributed to her.

W. Q. Judge

“In one case, and that was the hugest joke of all,” Judge explains, (Path, July, 1892),

“the medium made a claim to at once step into H.P.B.’s shoes and be acknowledged the leader of the Society!”

“How she must laugh! Unless mere death may change a sage into an idiot, she is enjoying these jokes, for she had a keen sense of humor, and as it is perfectly certain that Theosophists are not at all disturbed by these ‘communications’ her enjoyment of the fun is not embittered by the idea that staunch old-time Theosophists are being troubled.”

Laughter Still the Best Medicine

We know from Norman Cousins who healed himself of an autoimmune disease in the 1970s by watching humorous videos, that laughter is a powerful medicine.

When we laugh, one study shows, the hormones beta-endorphins (the family of chemicals that elevates mood state) and human growth hormone (HGH; which helps with optimizing immunity) – increased by 27% and 87 % respectively when people anticipated watching a humorous video.

Another study reveals that the same anticipation of mirthful laughter reduced the levels of three detrimental stress hormones.

Cortisol (termed “the steroid stress hormone”), epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), and dopac, (the major catabolite of dopamine), were reduced 39, 70, and 38%.

High levels of these stress hormones released chronically can be detrimental to our immune systems.

More recently, medical researchers at Loma Linda University found that mirthful laughter, as a preventive adjunct therapy in diabetes care, raised good cholesterol and lowered inflammation.

Laughter Releases

Laughter is not only good for the body, but also for the soul and spirit as we see from the Buddhist and Daoist examples in that it helps us to release worn-out ideas and stilted ways of thinking.

Some people even believe that we can heal the world through laughter.

Laughing Monks

© Kara LeBeau 2010. All rights reserved

4 responses to “Marx Brothers Buddhism

  1. PS Re the goddess and Sariputra switching bodies–here’s a science study I found today on this very topic!


  2. A great reminder: “Laughter is the best medicine.”


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