The Joker (Part 2)

One of Alan’s most popular lecture series, and for good reason—in The Joker, listeners will find out why every society needs fools in order to remind itself not to take life so damn seriously.

Now, to revise a little bit about this morning’s talk so that we’re all up to date: I have been discussing the role of a certain person called the joker. The joker being the one who has insight into the fact that all our social institutions are games. The social game is played with an initial rule. The first rule being: this game is serious. Or: this game is not a game. And therefore, there is a tendency within society to resist very strongly any notion that what it is doing is not altogether serious. And at a still deeper level, beneath the level of social institutions, there is also the recognition on the part of the joker that the basic forms of nature are also games: the human game, the rabbit game, the mouse game, the bee game, the tree game, the stone game. Because all these are forms of a musical nature; that is to say, they are forms played for themselves. They are played in the most intimate interconnection and interrelationship with each other. But they don’t have any purpose beyond what is happening, in the same way as music and dancing.


But when people take games seriously—and part of the fun of a game, you must remember, is to take it seriously—they acquire an attitude which strikes the joker as being half funny, and sometimes a little pitiful. A good joker is inclined, really, not to laugh at people because, if a person is terribly seriously involved—in the sense of the kind of person we call, colloquially, a square—the joker feels sorry for them because they live a deprived life.


But the point is that he is the one who is a wild man, which is to say he has no fixed role. He can play, as the joker can in the deck of cards; any role. And in a way, in that sense, all of us are roles of the joker. Because the real joker—of whom any human joker is a manifestation—the real joker is Brahman, is the ultimate player of the game, the divine ground of the universe.


So, then, if you look upon the world as play—as what the Hindus call the Viṣṇu līlā. Viṣṇu being one of the names of God, and līlā meaning “sport” or “play,” from which we get our word “lilt.” Then Viṣṇu or Brahman is the big joker, and anyone who realizes this is the little joker. And the art of the joker is very paradoxical because it is to give the show away that it is a game, and yet keep the show going on. There is something about a joker of a “now you see it, now you don’t” character, so that even when, somehow, you find in studying all these Hindu and Buddhist texts, that when they’re discussing one’s awakening to the very final secret, somehow there is the feeling of… well, what did we get? Because you step into a new dimension. You see from the standpoint of this sort of awakening that, really and truly, you were awakened all the time.


Imagine going through a gate in a wall. Here is this great barrier. You walk through it, you turn around, and the wall and the gate have both disappeared. And you see you were always there. One of the most extraordinary things that happens in entering into a mystical state of consciousness—one of the most delightful things about it is the discovery that you don’t have to stay in ecstasy. That ordinary consciousness is alright, too. That that is part of the whole total fitness of things. You see that everybody is, as it were, right in the place where he stands. Imagine a pearl necklace; how it’s arranged. Down in the center they put the big pearls, and then they trail off slowly until there are very tiny pearls at the back. And so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a big pearl or a little pearl, you all constitute the harmony of the whole. So they say, in Zen Buddhism:

A long thing is the long body of Buddha,

a short thing is the short body of Buddha.


In the spring scenery there is nothing superior, nothing inferior.

Flowering branches grow naturally; some short, some long.


So from that standpoint, you see, everybody is seen to be a perfect manifestation of the godhead—or of the void; whatever you want to call it. Everybody. And even though the very fact that they don’t know it, and that they’re unhappy, that they quarrel, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, is still a manifestation of this. The whole thing is seen like this. Just as I was discussing the balances of a garden, in which the birds eating the worms and the snails eating the lettuce—all these processes of conflict build up the ongoing miracle of the garden itself. So, in the same way, things that you see in yourself as neuroses, as forms of ill health, as things that you shouldn’t be, they are your slugs and worms. And there is nothing at all in your whole being that’s unnatural. All of it is an integral part of the game. And if you weren’t as awful as you are, you might be creating very serious trouble. Now, I don’t want to say that so that you can say, in turn, “Well, let me be more awful still.” You know, St. Paul got all tangled up in this. He, having explained that without sin there could be no grace, he said, “Shall we then sin, that grace may abound?” And—he’s Greek, you know—mythi genito; “Heaven forbid!”


But this is, of course, a problem that simply has to be faced: that the universe in its grand design has nothing special to do with morality, or rather, no more special connection with morality than with anything else. Morality is a part of the universe. It’s a way of playing the human game. But the thing itself is really beyond good and evil. Now, as I see it, that’s the way it is, whether one likes it or not. It’s always still up to you how you want to behave. If we try to get people to behave decently by scaring them and saying that, if they don’t behave decently, they’ll be out of sorts with God—this doesn’t help at all. Because it merely inculcates a new kind of fear and a new kind of false basis for morality. One can only be moral because you like to do it that way. There really is no other reason whatsoever, and to try and find other reasons always perverts morality.


In just the same way, the powers of the universe—the power of fire, the power of electricity, the power of steel—they are neither good nor evil. You can use either one for the blessing of people or for their destruction. And so the truth itself—I mean, the foundation reality of the world—is something like that. Although it does have this certain edge to it. And so does all human activity. And the edge is something like this. Those powers that we call positive are always in a process of overcoming those that we call negative. It’s the nature of the positive to win and the nature of the negative to lose. But win and lose always go together. Nobody wins unless somebody loses, nobody loses unless somebody wins. Their relationship is transactional in the same way as buying and selling. But if it were the other way around—you see, if the negative were always in the situation of overcoming the positive—you would get a universe that would not be a continuing game. It would be 100 percent tragedy.


You see, the positive and the negative together constitute existence. We have to use “existence” as a neutral word that doesn’t have as an opposite “non-existence.” Existence already includes non-existence. You could say being and non-being constitute existence. Just as we know, physically, sound is constituted by sound/silence in very rapid alternation. So being/non-being constitute existence, and existence is something of which you may say the game is worth the candle. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be. It’s like that. Some people try to say there is good and bad with a small “g” and small “b,” and they together constitute Good with a capital “g.” Or one might say that humanity and the good of humanity is a curious combination of beneficence and rascality, of reason and passion. And if human beings didn’t have those two sides they would be less than human. Man is, in a certain sense, redeemed by his passions, redeemed by being something of a rascal. Because if he weren’t he would be like a stew with no salt in it. The salt somehow is something that, in a large quantity, is horrible, but in a certain small quantity, delightful. And so everybody has to be salted with a certain amount of unrespectability. Otherwise, they’re impossible and intolerable. The only thing is—as a fervent cook—don’t overdo it.


It is in that respect, you know, that it’s said of great gurus in India—they have a very funny thing they say. Westerners go over and they meet this man who’s supposed to be extremely holy, and they’re all agog, you know? And then, after spending a few days with him, they begin to wonder. They find he smokes cigarettes. They find that he occasionally loses his temper. And they begin to think, “Well, is this man so holy after all? I mean, he surely should not be dependent on these little habits and luxuries and so on.” And then they find he has a girlfriend, and they leave because they’re so scandalized. Well, then the Hindus say, “Nuh, uh, uh, uh, you shouldn’t get so upset about this, because if this man didn’t have a few little vices, he would cease to manifest. He would simply disappear. He has to have these things to keep him grounded; to keep him in the world.” Or if, suddenly, you know, he gets terribly angry with a certain student and seems to lose his temper, they say, “Oh, no, no, no. That’s a tactical anger that he did on purpose to wake you up to something. It was for your own development and for your own good. He didn’t really feel angry at all.” Oh dear! But do you see the point? There is something in the fact that if he didn’t have these little attachments, he wouldn’t be manifesting. He’d simply disappear. There’s something in that. Only, don’t take it too piously. I think you get the point.


So then, we now have to explore a very important aspect of the joker as equivalent to Gurdjieff’s sly man. You see, he points out the four ways: the monk, the fakir, the yogi, and the sly man. And all the first three ways are ways of great difficulty. They involve very, very strenuous discipline. And, of course, as we get it through the books about Gurdjieff, the way of the sly man involves a discipline, too. But I think there’s more to be said about the way of the sly man than appears in any of those writings, because this is very closely connected with the whole approach of Taoism, the Chinese philosophy of wú wéi (or non-aggression), and with what is called in Buddhism the Middle Way.


When the Buddha first discussed the Middle Way he put it like this: he said, “To try and solve the problem of suffering by immersing yourself in pleasure only leads to a hangover. To try and solve the problem by asceticism also brings no liberation.” You merely get tied up in a kind of masochism where you say, “I know I’m right just so long as I’m hurting.” And all that is doing is expiating your infantile guilt sense. So he said there is a Middle Way between asceticism on the one hand and hedonism on the other. But actually, the Middle Way is more subtle than that, and it’s beautifully discussed in Professor Bahm; a book called The Philosophy of Buddha. Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico. And he gives a very, very fascinating analysis of the Middle Way in the form of a dialogue, whereby it works simply like this: the student brings a problem to the teacher, and he says, “I suffer and it’s a problem to me.” And the teacher says, “You suffer because you desire. If you didn’t desire, you wouldn’t suffer. So try not to desire.” And the student goes away and says, “I’m not very successful in this. I can’t stop desiring. It’s terribly difficult. And furthermore, I find that in trying to stop desiring I’m desiring to stop desiring. Now what am I to do about that?” And the teacher replies, “Do not desire to stop desiring any more than you can.” And so the student goes away and practices that. But he comes back to the teacher and said, “I still find myself desiring excessively to stop desiring, and it doesn’t work.” So the teacher says, “Do not desire too much not to desire to stop desiring.”


Now, do you see what’s happening? Step by step, almost like Achilles approaching the tortoise, the student is being brought together with himself to the point where he catches up with his own inner being and can accept it completely. And that is, you see, the most difficult thing to do: to accept one’s self completely. Because the moment you can do that, you have, in effect, done psychologically what is the equivalent of saying, in philosophical or theological terms, “You as you are now are the Buddha”—just as I was explaining a few minutes ago. That’s unbelievable. Because we’re always trying to get away from ourselves as we are now in one fashion or another. And we will only stop doing that through a series of experiments in which we try resolutely to get away from ourselves as we are. So that is the Middle Way.


But ordinarily in these other ways—the way of the yogi, the fakir, and the monk—the individual makes a big thing out of the work of liberation, and especially likes a kind of teacher who will put him through the most severe paces. It’s interesting how there arise, from time to time, schools in the West where someone comes along offering—people say, “Look, it’s all very well to go to discussion groups and talk about these things, but that’s not the real thing. What you need is really to get down and do some work.” And often these teachers are very rude and very stern. But people love it. And such a person will always attract a great following. Because people get the feeling now we’re at serious business here. This is really something, you see? And this, you see, though, can be an awful problem.


Let’s suppose that you have some difficult and distressing habit, like drinking too much. And you’re assured that, once you’ve become the victim of this habit, it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to get rid of it and it requires intense willpower. And so that kills you right off. You’re a dead duck from then on. It’s as if, you see, you had said to the devil one morning, “Look, I’m going to get rid of you. I’m not going to have anything to do with you anymore.” So the devil—who is an archangel, and is terribly clever—is all set for you. And because he knows that you are getting out of his way he surrounds you with greater temptations than you ever imagined. If you are going to outwit the devil, it’s terribly important that you don’t give him any advance notice! And this is where the work of the sly man comes in.


Put it in other terms—in Hindu or Buddhist terms; in popular terms of popular Hinduism and Buddhism: liberation is getting out of the toils of karma. It’s like this. During your many past lives you’ve done all kinds of deeds good or bad, and you are reaping the consequences of these deeds today. And also, today, you are setting up future consequences. Now, before you can be liberated you’ve got to pay off your karmic debts. And so the moment you set your foot on the path of liberation you are apt to find that all your karmic creditors will come to your door. And that’s why it’s often said that people who start out on a serious work of yoga suddenly get sick and lose their money and their best friends drop dead, and all kinds of ghastly things happen. That’s because, you see, they served notice that they were going to do this. And so all the creditors came around. If you’re going to leave town and you owe lots of money, you know, you mustn’t announce that you’re leaving or give a farewell party to your friends, because the grocer will find out.


So the art of the sly man is to make no contest, but simply to leave without one word. In other words, that’s the meaning of wú wéi in the technical vocabulary of Taoism. Wú wéi: not to interfere, not to force things. That’s the best translation of wú wéi: “not to force things.” But so, he just drops it like that. But in this respect, you see, you’re your own worst enemy. Because even if you serve notice privately on yourself that suddenly you’re going to drop it all, already the devil knows—because who do you think the devil is?


Now, this lies behind the whole problem that is discussed in the book Zen in the Art of Archery. The necessity of letting go of the bowstring without first deciding to do so. Another way of putting it is that the decision to release the bowstring and the action of doing so must be simultaneous. Not to decide and then act, but to act-decide all at once. Now why is this?


If you are going to be an expert archer, you must shoot before you think, otherwise it’ll be too late. You don’t aim and then shoot. It’s all one action. And this is true, likewise, of any sort of shooting—pistol shooting as well—that, if you aim, if you decide and then fire, you’re apt to do things like pulling the trigger instead of squeezing. All kinds of wrong things are done. And you’re always a moment too late if you decide first. You have to act and decide simultaneously. So what does that do, you see? That puts up a very curious problem, which in its own term becomes a bind. To try and act quickly enough so that you overtake the preliminary decision. To try not to decide first. And that is an impossible problem.


I wonder if you ever read von Kleist’s story about the fighting bear. This is included in Nancy Wilson Ross’s book The World of Zen as a kind of Western Zen. It’s a story about a man who has a fight with a circus bear. And the bear reads his mind. And always forestalls any attacks that he makes on it. There’s absolutely nothing he can do to get past the bear. And so, in the same way, you might imagine a guru who is a mind reader, and he always knows if you decide you before you act. And if you do, you see, the devil will catch you. Instead, you see, of deciding that you won’t be an alcoholic anymore, the only thing to do is not to drink without any previous decision on this matter.


But how can anyone do that, you see? That’s the question. How can I decide not to decide? How can I announce that I won’t make any announcement without making an announcement? You see, there is no way out of that bind. Try as you may, you’ll go on and on and on trying, as Herrigel did, to release the bowstring without thinking first to release it. But then, strangely enough, one day the thing happened. He did it. And this is involved in our learning of almost all techniques. That we work and work to achieve that final point of perfection, and it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come. And then one day it happens. Now, what is the reason for that?


Is it simply—and this is really, you know, a way it’s usually explained. But this is an oversimplification. It is not that we have practiced it so often that it suddenly becomes perfect. It is much more subtle than that. What happens is that we’ve practiced so often that we find out we can’t do it. And it happens at the moment you can’t do it. When you reach a certain point of despair, when you know that you are the one weird child who will never be able to swim, at that moment you’re swimming. Because the desperation and the total inability to do it at all has brought you to a point which we might call “don’t care.” You stop trying. You stop not trying; trying to get it that way. You just have arrived at the insight that your decision, your will, doesn’t have any part in the thing at all. And that’s what you needed to know. You’ve overcome, you see, the illusion of having a separate ego.


There is no way of telling anyone that that’s an illusion and getting appropriate action, because we are thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that it’s real. And if I say, “Well, I’m going to get rid of my ego,” that’s what the Taoists call “beating a drum in search of a fugitive.” He hears you coming! So the ego—that is to say, the illusion of having a separate will and a separate “I”-center that can be an effective agent—that cannot be overcome by a decision which seems to be centered in the ego. You might as well put out fire with fire. It can come only when an attempt to act from the ego-center has been revealed to be completely futile. Then the thing happens, because you’ve really discovered that it was, after all, an illusion.


Now, be very careful how you formulate this sort of thing philosophically. This could, of course, correspond to the kind of person who feels unafraid and who feels very free because he’s a complete fatalist. A lot of people are, and are very happy in their fatalism. They really feel that they don’t do anything, it just happens, and that it’s all life, and that they won’t die until it’s their time to die. And so why worry? They have the sense of everything is just happening to them. And this is a kind of a floating feeling. It’s as if you didn’t have to push things at all. They just float along.


Well, now, that state of affairs—that feeling of you don’t have to push anything, it just floats along—is very similar to the experience I’m describing, if not the same thing. But this person has interpreted it, as a fatalist, in a rather passive way. That is to say, he has felt that there still is some kind of a little differentiation between himself as the experiencer on the one hand and that force or set of forces called fate on the other. He is pushed around, but he witnesses being pushed around. Now, in this state, this person still has a little fragment of impurity left. There’s still one fly left in the ointment. And that is the sensation of being pushed around. There is still a fundamental division between the knower and the known. And in this case—the case of the fatalist—the knower seems to be the passive thing, and everything known (the objective world, all the goings-on of his own physiology) they appear to be the active end. And the knower just has the experience of himself being moved, moved, moved, moved by the tides of life.


The important thing to find out is this: that the sensation of being the knower and the experiencer of all this is not, as it were, aside from everything else that’s going on, but it’s part of it. Just as you—although you experience your own existence subjectively—you are nevertheless part of the external world. You are in my external world just as I am in your external world. So in this way the final barrier between the knower and the known is broken down. There is nobody, as it were, being carried along by fate. There is just the process. And all that you are is part of the process.


Then there is a curious flip. The individual who has always felt himself to be the tiny little thing on the end of the big determining process suddenly goes bllwwwp! Have you watched, sometimes, a tiny little piece of mercury coming nearer and nearer to a large piece of mercury? There’s a sudden moment when they touch each other, and bllwwwp! The little thing vanishes into the big one almost more dramatically than a drop into the ocean. In this case that I’m talking about it isn’t that the individual organism vanishes; the individual human being doesn’t vanish. But he experiences no longer a passive relationship to the world. He simply sees that all that he is and all that he ever was was something that the entire process was doing. At the time, in other words, when he felt himself to be separate, he sees that that is, in a certain way, just what he should have felt. Because that was what the process was doing in him in exactly the same way that it was giving him brown or blue eyes, or blond or brunette hair.


And that’s going through the door, and turning ’round and seeing there wasn’t a door. Finding that you aren’t fated, that you’re not trapped—because there’s nobody in the trap. And it takes something trapped to make a trap.

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