One day in college I found myself in the student union reading about Buddhism in Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. I came upon a passage describing dukkha — suffering arises from craving security in an evanescent world — and a thin man wearing a gray suit and a brown fedora appeared. “You ever hear,” he said in what seemed a fake British accent, “of the lazy student who took the class in Zen and turned in ten blank pages for his term paper? He thought this stunt would show his professor his knowledge of the essence of Zen—all form is emptiness—and he would get an ‘A.’ But the professor gave him a zero. When the student protested, the professor said, ‘To the true student of Zen, nothingness is bliss.’”
Buddhism attracted me as a collection of practices that estrange us from our normal habits of thought and perception.
This, I thought, was peculiar: Buddhism as a clever joke, whose punchline startingly reverses expectations. That the vessel of this oddball parable was himself an eccentric—I now noticed he was wearing spats—quickened the absurdity of the scene.
Jed, as he called himself, knew he looked ridiculous. This is what he wanted. He had been reading Alan Watts, who observed that the best gurus are tricksters. They will do about anything, no matter how silly or sinister, to shock you out of the habits blocking direct experience.
Watts had told of Tozan. When a student asked this master to explain the nature of the Buddha, Tozan replied, “Three pounds of flax!” The student was enlightened. Another trickster, Gutei, answered all questions about Buddhism by raising one finger. When he discovered that a young apprentice had been mimicking him, he cut off the boy’s finger. He then held up his own finger, and this awakened the boy.
In both cases, the teacher jolts the student into an awareness of tathātā — the stark concreteness of existence. The three pounds of flax, the amount of material required to weave a monk’s summer robe, reveals that the Buddha isn’t an idea but this student’s particular texture. Likewise, to sever a copycat’s finger is to horrify him into raw actuality. These emancipations of the “is-ness” from the “ought” are satori — attunement to reality.
Before I could glean more from Jed, he vanished. But that moment with him at the union stands as my first awakening to the weirdness of spiritual experience, if spiritual experience means your familiar world leaping into galvanic strangeness, or a freakish occurrence pulsating your heart.
Since that epiphany, Buddhism has attracted me as a collection of practices that estrange us from our normal habits of thought and perception, nullify old conceptual maps, and so propel us into uncharted regions, outlandish and bracing, where we must create, if we are to thrive, coordinates more capacious than the ones we already know.
My recent book How to Be Weird is, among other things, my effort to translate my enthusiasm for Buddhism into brief exercises — ninety-nine of them — that upset stultifying usages and celebrate unnerving verve.
One exercise draws from the story, reported by Francis D. Cook in his translation of Dōgen, of the master and the fan: “A Zen master pointed to a fan and asked two monks what it was. The first monk picked it up and fanned himself silently. . . . The other monk took the fan, placed a tea cake on it, and offered it to the master. The ‘fan’ was now a serving tray. This is the emptiness of the fan.”
“Fan-ness” is not tangible; it is an abstraction meant to fix an object into one meaning. But a thing is less a noun than a verb, more a likelihood than a solid. Why not liberate objects from their traditional uses, and thrill to the enchantment of turning anything into virtually anything else?
Take a paper clip. What else can you bend it into? A hook or a key ring, or an un‑clogger of glue containers, or the letter “L,” or a bracelet.
Now emancipate another object. Perhaps close the laptop or smart device on which you are reading this. It is a tray, something to spin on your index finger, a measure of your posture (can you balance it on your head?), a stage for a firefly.
Another exercise overturns those hierarchies that dupe us into thinking that some things, such as old cathedrals and lake-side views, are more significant than others — like porta-johns and manholes. In his 1975 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Georges Perec describes how he spent three straight days in Place Saint-Sulpice paying attention to “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” His focus on the ordinary did for him what sitting a long time in one place, out‑of‑doors, in your town, can do for you: invited things to shine forth as things that are simply things, not “examples of,” “segues to,” “substitutes for,” “distractions from,” only as this, here, now.
For one day, stage your own Perecian sit-down. Situate yourself at a seemingly trivial place and record all the details you can. At twilight, list at least five things you noticed that you had not before. How has this new alertness invigorated your relationship to the locale?
You can sit still amidst the impermanence, or you can walk to the mountains and gaze into the surrounding mist and feel your imagination reach for infinity. This yearning for the inscrutability of nature is as melancholy as it is beautiful.
In Hōjōki (An Account of My Hut), from 1212, poet Kamo no Chōmei calls this mysterious profundity yūgen, and it captures an essential insight of Buddhism: always passing into something else, existence is ungraspable. According to Watts, we miss the vitalizing flux because our perception is usually controlled by two drives: to survive and to understand. In survival mode, we see only what meets our most basic needs; in pursuit of comprehension, we notice only what conforms to our mental frameworks.
Then, sudden as the weather: those moments — unfathomable but electrifying — that silence our practical concerns and summon us over the knoll, behind the wall, to that door’s other side.
Foster your own moments of yūgen.
Set aside an hour in the morning or evening and take a walk. As you move, recall the anticipations of your childhood. Anything can happen!
Now pay attention to thresholds along your way: doors, gates, fences, windows, tree hollows, puddles. What’s on the other side? Let your mind play among possibilities, the stranger the better.
When you get home, write a sentence or draw an image that represents this walk. Store the page in a drawer. When you feel frayed and tired, take it out and remember, there is something else.
There is always a Jed — if that’s really his name — around the corner, waiting to make the same, different. You don’t need to look hard. Just be ready. And remember that sometimes the outré recalls us to our most fundamental haunt, like crazy lightning reminds us that our very bodies are electric.