A monk asked Hyakujõ, “What is the most wonderful thing?” Jo said, “I sit alone on this Great Sublime Peak.” The monk made a bow. Jo struck him. (“The Blue Cliff Record,” Case 26)
Larry: “Where’s your dignity?”
(Moe slaps him)
Moe: “There it is.”
(“Hoi Polloi,” 1935)
All great comedians are Buddhist monks in disguise. Look to the classic figures of 20th-century slapstick: Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton, the Marx Brothers, the young Jerry Lewis. They all used physical humor — the pratfall, the pie, the refusal of everyday objects to play nice — to monkey-wrench the audience’s minds and pull the rug out from under their dignity and ours. A good belly laugh can be an opened window to enlightenment: In the shock of the joke is the recognition that the world doesn’t behave according to our assumptions, that Meaning itself is suspect. Consider the way Groucho and Chico reduce the English language to rubble while Harpo plays Einsteinian physical games with reality. Look at how things transform in Chaplin’s hands while the universe bends around Buster.
In this spirit, I submit to you that the secret Zen masters of American pop culture are the Three Stooges.
To which you say, bosh, because the Stooges never get any respect, even with a new Farrelly brothers movie commemorating the trio’s shtick getting released this Friday. Where intellectuals and aesthetes have long embraced the Marxes, Chaplin, and all the rest — and we know how the French feel about Jerry Lewis — the Three Stooges have remained a cultural no-fly zone, the perceived province of the uneducated and the very young. But that just proves the point. Where most comic geniuses eventually find their way into the ivory tower of highbrow appreciation (and some, like Chaplin, actively sought it), the Stooges neutralize canonization, scorn pretension, insist on the blunt ontology of the smack in the kisser and the kick in the pants. They are rigorously unprofound. That’s why they’re profound.
True, you weren’t thinking of Buddha-nature when you wasted a Saturday morning with the Stooges while your mother told you to go outside, for God’s sakes, and stop watching those idiots. (If the humor of Howard, Fine, and Howard offers no toe-hold for the cultural elite, it’s an active affront to all things Mom. Always has been, always will be.) And I doubt the boys would have hung out at the Zen Center of Los Angeles even if that worthy institution had existed back in the Studio Era. But you take your Dharma bums where you find them, and the Stooges embody a long-revered tactic in the search for satori — the judicious application of blunt force.
Let’s back up a bit. A hallmark of Zen Buddhism is the use of brain-cramping paradox for fun and metaphysical profit. All those inscrutable koans and tales of monks playing cruel mind-games exist not (merely) to baffle novices but to cross their wires, free them from the limiting veal-pen of rational thought, and get them to see the really big picture. It’s fine to say, per the Heart Sutra, that form is emptiness and emptiness form. You can agree with Dustin Hoffman in the excellent Zen primer “I Heart Huckabees” (2004) that “we’re all part of the same blanket.” But you can’t truly comprehend what they’re talking about unless you climb way outside the box. (And even when you think you’ve got it, you almost certainly don’t. As ancient belief systems go, this is one of the more humbling ones.)
Great teachers have come and gone since Bodhidharma brought Buddhism from India to the Far East in the 5th or 6th century CE, but the 8th-century patriarch called Mazu Daoyi in China and Baso in Japan is worth singling out, since it was he who introduced the idea that a quick, sharp shock to the system could jolt a student out of complacency and bring about sudden enlightenment. Baso pioneered the use of shouting, slapping, nose-twisting, and smacking practitioners with a wooden stick (still in use in some Zen lineages and called a keisaku). In short, he may have been the first Stooge.
An example from the 1,000-year-old collection of koans called
Or there’s Case 20, which is the closest Zen literature comes to an actual Columbia Stooges short from the mid-1930s. This koan involves a novice named Ryuge querying two patriarchs, Suibi and Rinzai, but for the purposes of illustration, let’s change their names: “Curly asked Moe, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ Moe said, ‘Pass me the board’. Curly passed the board to Moe, who took it and hit Curly with it. Curly said, ‘If you strike me, I will let you. But after all, there is no meaning in Bodhidharma’s coming from the West.’ Curly asked Larry, too, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ Larry said, ‘Pass me the cushion.’ Curly passed the cushion to Larry, who took it and hit Curly with it. Curly said, ‘If you strike me, I will let you. But after all, there is no meaning in Bodhidharma’s coming from the West.’”
The novice could just have easily said, “Moe, Larry, cheese!” — he thinks he’s enlightened, but the double slapstick’s a reminder that he’s as clueless as the rest of us. I would submit that the Stooges films themselves — besides being crass, stupid, exhausting, silly, and hilarious — offer endless variations on this theme of awareness simultaneously attained and forestalled. Like the 13th-century cook who became a Zen master but chose to stay a cook, the Stooges are content to remain idiots. Short film after short film involves figures of authority — professors (“Hoi Polloi”), fire chiefs (“False Alarms”), heads of surgery (“Men in Black”) — expecting the three to step up, to become productive members of society, and time after time, each Stooge loses himself in the immediacy of the moment and the need to get the other two to “wake up.”
In some films, they clearly possess mystical powers. In 1935’s “Horses’ Collars,” the three stride into a western saloon and toss their hats over their shoulders onto the antlers of a stuffed moose head without looking back. Later, a bad guy throws a gold coin in the air, Moe shoots at it, and change rains down. If there’s a patriarch here, it has to be Moe, dealing out the blows with beetle-browed severity. He’s the top dog, the roshi, but he’s also eternally frustrated: Try as he might to get the light bulb to turn on over Curly’s head, no approach ever seems to work. That’s because the light bulb’s already on — the most gifted comedian of the crew, Curly expresses a ridiculous, miraculous energy in every move of his body, every nyuk-nyuk-nyuk. He’s probably a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has returned to earth for the purpose of helping all sentient beings. (If nothing else, Curly’s a ringer for Budai, the Chinese folkloric figure “the laughing Buddha.”)
As for Shemp Howard, who stepped in after Curly was felled by a stroke, in 1946, he seems more of a desperate novice monk, his mantra of “HEE-BEE-BEE-BEE” never quite leading him to cosmic bliss.
Shemp’s replacement, Joe Besser, wasn’t even that worthy: to Moe’s Baso-like ministrations, he’d only whine, “Not so haaard.” We will not speak of final Stooge “Curly Joe” DeRita.
And Larry? I think he’s the Buddha himself. Many have mused on the mystery of Larry Fine — the one core Stooge who wasn’t a Howard brother, the odd man out, a comedian who seems to have no comic skills whatsoever yet who beams with an innocent, all-knowing purity. Jack Kerouac, in his extended Stooges riff in 1951’s “Visions of Cody,” called him “a saint in disguise, a masquerading superduper witch doctor with good intentions actually,” which gets remarkably close to the heart of the matter. If Larry is Siddhartha Gautama, revisiting earth to insist on the Meaning/No-Meaning of slapstick, he may be forever pondering the mighty question: What is the sound of one hand slapping?
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.