Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Japanese and Jewish joke

Recently I was writing a piece about the power in the essence of things. And at the start of the piece I was telling a story I heard in a lecture. This story made me think of a joke my father used to tell that I always really loved, but I couldn't tell you that joke at that point because it was a huge digression, and I had important things to say. Luckily, today, I have nothing important to say, so I was thinking maybe I could tell you the joke now. Would that be okay? Please indicate agreement by continuing to read. Indicate disagreement by typing the search term of your choice into the search box at the top of your screen and hitting the "enter" key.

So, first, I will refresh your memory of the story I heard at the lecture. It's a story from a 17th or 18th century Japanese painting. In it a wealthy, successful poet goes to seek wisdom from some wacky sage who lives in a tree. After much travel he finds this prophet or sage or whatever he is, up in a tree, and the poet asks the guy in the tree what the meaning of life is. The prophet in the tree says something like "Be nice to people." This makes the poet pretty mad. He says "Do you know who I am? I came all this way seeking your wisdom and you give me some crappy platitude? Anyone could have told me to be nice to people!"

The sage says "It is very easy to say, but very hard to do."

So, that's not exactly a joke, though it's a little funny, but it is very similar, interestingly, to this joke my father told me. Curiously, my joke is a Jewish joke, but that won't be entirely apparent as a written joke. The final line is spoken with a Yiddish accent, so, if you're up for it, try to remember to do one in your head when you read the last line to yourself.

The more I think of these two sort-of-jokes the more I suspect they are two cultures take on the same thing, though I think the Jewish one is more subtle and curiously more Zen than the Japanese one. Okay, you've waited long enough, here is the joke:

There is a man with all the trappings of worldly success. He has much wealth, is accomplished in his field, and happily married. He himself thinks he is happy, until one day he hears a story about the wisest sage, a person of infinite wisdom, who lives far from civilization and is reputed to have all the answers. Learning of this sage causes this man to start wondering about the meaning of his life, indeed about the meaning of life in general. He eventually becomes so restless and unhappy that he resolves to track down this great sage and find out the meaning of life. His quest takes him to every continent. Disasters befall him. He loses everyone he held dear, but still he seeks. With his money nearly gone, his health shot, and the remnants of his youth becoming a distant glimmer, the man hears rumor of the sage he seeks living on top of a mountain in an obscure area of the Himalayas. He travels all over the Himalayas until, a mere shell of his former self, he finds the mountain the sage lives on top of. With his last strength he manages to climb the mountain and, sure enough, at the top, he finds an ancient sage sitting calmly on top of the wind blown peak.

"Oh great sage!" The man says "I have come across many oceans and searched every continent for you. I beg you, will you answer my one question? What, what is the meaning of life?"

"Life is a fountain." The sage replies.

The man considers. The man is flabbergasted. "I have given up great riches, a happy life, my health, my youth, my family, everything! I have suffered untold hardships and years of privation to find you, and you tell me "Life is a fountain"!!!

The sage looks at him, slightly startled "It's not a fountain?"


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