Thursday, 24 July 2014

Koan as Vaudeville: Nasrudin

Nasreddin khodja statue in Bukhara detail Zen is famous for its koans, those quirky, inscrutable Chinese stories that make no sense but are somehow profoundly true. My own devotion to it is rooted in this classic literature: the thunderous wisdom encoded in The Blue Cliff Record, The Book of Equanimity, and The Gateless Gate.

But the Sufis (Zen Muslims, more or less) may have us beat; not only do they have a prolific koanic tradition of their own, theirs are funny. All while sacrificing none of the point.

These teaching stories, collectively known as The Tales of Nasrudin (نصر الدين خواج , خواجه نصرالدین‎ , نصرالدین جحا‎ ; Nasrudeen, Nasreddin, Nasruddin, Nasr ud-Din, Nasredin…), chronicle the continuing misadventures of an Islamic scholar of that name. Like all academics (to say nothing of religious leaders), Mullah Nasrudin can be long on theory and short on practice, but his gift for brilliant, backhanded insight always makes for a worthwhile visit.

Back in November 2012 I ran one of my favourite examples in Rusty Ring's Kyôsaku series of observations by noted teachers. Others include:

  • The host of an elegant feast required all guests to wear fine clothes. When Nasrudin arrived, he began stuffing food into his shirt and trousers. The host confronted him angrily:

    "What do you mean by this?"

  • "Since clothes are more important than people," Nasrudin answered, "they should eat first."

  • Two children arguing over a bag of marbles came to the mullah to settle the matter. "Would you like Man's justice or Allah's?" asked Nasrudin.

    "Why, Allah's, of course," replied the children.

    "Very well," said Nasrudin, and gave three marbles to one and nine to the other.

  • "Mullah," asked a townsman, "is your theology orthodox?"

    "That depends," said Nasrudin. "Which heretics are in charge today?"

  • "Nasrudin," said another, "four years ago you told me you were forty. Today you still say you're forty. How do you explain this?"

    "I am an honest man!" said Nasrudin. "Whenever you ask me a question, you shall always get the same answer."

  • One day Nasrudin was walking along a river when a man cried out to him from the far bank:

    "How can I get across?"

    "You are across!" shouted the mullah.

(Note that there's a classic koan virtually identical to this, but not the least bit funny. The Sufis took the same wisdom, employed exactly the same imagery, and added a rimshot.)

In Sufi tradition, contemplators are frequently invited to offer commentary of their own, in the form of a suggested moral. In some fora, the list of these responses can be longer than the actual story, each one subtly spinning the punch-line into new – even conflicting – teachings. (Indeed, scholars as august as Idries Shah have even mined the humour of other cultures for that nugget of sanity that all comedy contains.) What a refreshing challenge to our own tradition, where only recognised scholars are permitted to comment.

My man Nasrudin has left his tracks all over the Internet – a medium made for him if ever there was one – and that's good news for his fans. Fertile starting points include The Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin,,, Godlike Productions, and WikiQuote. Load 'em up and laugh.

All the wisdom, half the pomposity.

(Photo of the Nasrudin statue in the Lab-i Hauz Complex, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)
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