Articles October 31, 2016

Crazy Wisdom

Wes Nisker

“Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? I would like to have a word with him.” —Chuang-Tzu

A special kind of wisdom is loose in the world. This wisdom is difficult to codify or categorize; and it refuses to be institutionalized. It is called crazy wisdom. And so it is, both crazy and wisdom.

Crazy wisdom is the wisdom of the saint, the Zen master, the poet, the mad scientist, and the fool. Crazy wisdom sees that we live in a world of many illusions, that the emperor has no clothes, and that much of human belief and behavior is ritualized nonsense. Crazy wisdom loves paradox and puns and pie fights and laughing at politicians.

You will find crazy wisdom flowing through all of human history, bubbling up here and there, now and then, pointing out different ways of looking at things, reminding people to take it easy, and providing a necessary counterpoint to self-righteousness. From the Taoists to the Dadaists; from the Book of Ecclesiastes to Mark Twain’s Letters to the Earth, in the parables of Chuang-Tzu and the Baal Shem Tov, out of the cyclonic whirl of Rumi's dervish poetry and the profound nonsense of Samuel Beckett's confused characters, lurking beneath the unruly hair of Albert Einstein and between the bushy eyebrows of Graucho Marx, inside the howly voice of Allen Ginsberg and the crazy rantings of Lily Tomlin’s bag lady: Whatever tone it speaks in and whatever disguise it wears, crazy wisdom arises again and again to expose us to ourselves and to remind us of the strange impossible nature of our enterprise here on earth—life.

Crazy wisdom is the skeptical voice inside us that doubts our importance in the world and questions our belief in a higher purpose. It is the nagging suspicion that both our reasons and our reasoning are mistaken.

Crazy wisdom laughs at our ridiculous ways and shows compassion for the suffering that results from them. It presents us with the bigger picture, and with ways to step lightly through it.

Crazy wisdom is the humbling knowledge of the immensity of the cosmos and the inevitable change and transformation that will ultimately wear away all our achievements. It is the grinning face of death, and the hollow sound of our question “Why?" echoing back at us from the void.

“If you understand, things are just as they are. If you do not understand, things are just as they are.” —Zen Buddhist saying

Although we have no records to prove it, a little crazy wisdom must have been around even in prehistoric times. No doubt some contrary ancient sage was present to tell the cave people that capturing fire would create as many problems as it would solve. Crazy wisdom must be at least as old as conventional wisdom. Every god has both believers and disbelievers. True and false are constant companions.

“You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.” —Thomas Pynchon

Crazy wisdom makes its appearance through four archetypal characters—the clown, the jester, the trickster, and the fool. Although they have been known to trade costumes and steal each other's riffs and magic tricks, each challenges us in their own special way—with questions, stories, or laughter, or by offering their own radically different version of reality. Because these characters have devised some brilliant disguises it may appear that they have nothing at all to do with wisdom. Some of them put on masks in order to unmask us. Others remove all their masks. Some will mimic or mime to show us who we are.

The common message conveyed by the four archetypal characters is the crazy wisdom of doubt. Clowns and jesters have grave doubts about our attitude. “Is this seriousness really appropriate?" Others, such as the spiritual crazy wisdom masters—the holy fools—call into question our entire understanding of ourselves and the world.

The four archetypes share an uncanny ability to escape the trouble they inevitably get themselves into: The clown gets bopped, the trickster is dismembered and blown apart, the jester may have his head cut off by the king or be hit by rotten fruit thrown from the audience, and the great fool is about to fall off a cliff or be martyred by an angry mob. But just when it seems that all is lost, they rise again, recovered and whole, even from death. (The dismembered Coyote reassembles, Jesus Christ rises into everlasting life.) Because of their humor or their innocence, or because their revelations are so important, these crazy wisdom characters are immortal.

Although these four are at times banished from the institutions of church and state, they can often be found hanging out with the common folk. Over time, they have made their way into the stories, legends, and songs of the people.

Excerpted with permission of the author from You Are Not Your Fault and Other Revelations, © Wes Nisker 2016 (Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint).

Wes Nisker

Wes Nisker

Residential Retreat Teacher

Wes “Scoop” Nisker is an award-winning broadcast journalist and commentator, Buddhist meditation teacher, a bestselling author, and a standup Dharma comic who has been described in the New York Times as “masterful at using humor to lighten the enlightenment journey.”