Leave 'em laughing, but also enlightened

Wes Nisker / New York Times News Service

For as long as I can remember, I’ve searched for some meaning to existence. Maybe this can be traced to the fact that I was raised as one of the only Jewish children in a small Nebraska town, always wondering about my place in the scheme of things. This questioning was later fed by reading too many existential philosophers in college.

In 1968 in San Francisco, I became a newscaster on one of the nation’s premier counterculture FM stations, KSAN (also known as the Jive 95), where we played psychedelic rock and denounced the dominant paradigm. At the time, FM stations didn’t pay very well, so the staff had to do some moonlighting to pay the rent. I recall doing voice-overs for several water bed companies.

Eventually, I grew tired of the daily news grind. In 1971, eager to try a different path, I became part of a pilgrimage of young Westerners to Asia, to study the wisdom traditions of the East. In particular, I was interested in Buddhism, and during the ’70s I repeatedly traveled to India, Myanmar and Thailand to study and practice meditation.

When we returned home, several of my friends started to teach the practices of mindfulness meditation, along with Buddhist philosophy, ethics and a smattering of ritual and ceremony. I eventually joined their ranks and traveled to various American cities to teach at meditation centers and at workshops and retreats.

Full of idealism, we offered our teaching based on the Buddhist tradition of dana, or generosity. In short, we didn’t charge for our classes and retreats. Our income was the voluntary contributions of our students. As our former teachers had told us, no price could be placed on the Buddha’s wisdom.

While this may have been a noble intention, it wasn’t a good way to earn a living. In our culture, the idea was unfamiliar, and it was hard to avoid sounding as if we were trying to send our students on a guilt trip, or, worse, as if we were begging.

Eventually, we realized that if we wanted to settle down, start families and save for later years, we had to find a reliable source of income. In the 1980s, I was a co-founder of Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal published in the West. In a leap of faith, the staff decided to distribute the journal on the dana system. No subscription was necessary: Readers sent us their address and we’d send them the journal. Again, my income didn’t show an appreciable gain. (The journal has continued, and I remain an editor at large there.)

In the 1980s, publishers gave big advances for books with Buddhist themes, and I was able to sell them one called “Buddha’s Nature,” about how evolutionary science was confirming what the Buddha had taught. I also wrote “Crazy Wisdom,” a book about the common threads of wit and chutzpah that unite mystics, jesters and tricksters of history. I saw a lot of myself in these characters, many of whom were poor because of their wild behavior and passionate search for meaning.

After those forays into the book world, I still needed to supplement my income for a few years before my meager Social Security payments started arriving. What could I do? Staying committed to my passion for meaning had sustained me over the years, but how could I make it pay off yet again and still practice the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood”?

It occurred to me that I was able to make my students laugh — a lot. Buddhism is mostly about exploring and accepting the human condition, and my teaching usually came with a few jokes about our common predicament. Over the years, I have composed some little routines that I called “misguided meditations” — Buddhist shtick based on the tradition’s profound wisdom but more directly geared toward humor.

Now I travel the Buddhist circuit, offering to teach the standard silent retreats and daylong workshops, but also offering a comic “performance” to begin or end the meditation practices. I often start my performance/lecture by telling the students, “Be here now.” Then a pause. “Whoops, you missed it! But don’t worry, the here and now will come around again soon. So stay alert.”

Recently, I have started performing in legitimate theaters, helping to bolster my income. But a friend said that because I still teach Buddhism through my comedy act, maybe I shouldn’t charge people for the show. “Remember dana,” my friend told me.

But I don’t take that caution seriously. The Buddha’s teaching may be too precious to be bought and sold, but if you can make people laugh while contemplating our common suffering, you deserve to be paid for it.