No, not really. I just thought the title would grab your attention. I mean, wouldn’t you like to read them? I sure would. I’ll bet they’d be a major best-seller in the Famous Lost Books Of The Bible category, coming in second only to Magdalene’s Story: An Erotic Memoir.
Unfortunately, both books remain lost to history. They are the things no one ever thinks to write down and preserve for posterity when writing about spiritual teachers and their lives. I don’t really miss the Magdalene book. The guy’s sex life, if he had one, was between him and those he loved, and can remain that way as far as I am concerned. But I’d really love to read the comedy routines.
When pressed to delineate the characteristics of an enlightened being, Rama only named two. The first was that, when you meditated with them, you could see that they radiated an aura of golden light. The second, in my opinion, was far more interesting. It wasn’t one of those things you’d expect if you’ve read a lot of books about enlightened beings. It wasn’t, “They are completely positive beings, and can neither conceive of nor do any harm to those around them.” It wasn’t, “They are incapable of speaking anything but truth.” It wasn’t, “They are fun to be around, so studying with them will turn your life into endless bliss.” Nope, none of that. What Rama named as the second characteristic of the enlightened was much simpler, and possibly more profound: “They are funny.”
Well, I don’t know for sure whether Rama was enlightened, but he certainly had the first base covered. So, I assume, did Christ. That would certainly explain the enduring iconography of the Christian world, and its fascination with halos. But we really don’t know how funny Christ was, because the disciples in their wisdom or uptightness didn’t think his comedy routines were worth writing down.
Sad, really. Can’t you just imagine some of the one-liners the man could have come up with, say, before the Sermon On The Mount, trying to cover his disciples’ lack of foresight in the food-preparation department? I can. He probably wandered around the crowd, making horrible puns about loaves and loafers as he manifested the bread, pretending to look under rocks and in the ears of seekers for the seafood course, saying, “Fishy fishy fishy fish…where is that fish?”
I know…Uncle Tantra is kinda pushing the envelope here, making light of a tradition and a teacher that millions take seriously. But if Rama was right and the enlightened of this world really are basically funny people, why do we have to take them so seriously? If being funny really is one of the few characteristics that indicates the state of enlightenment, it seems to me that these guys’ and gals’ funny one-liners and standup routines might have taught us as much as their sermons and their sutras. Or more. So I really regret the fact that Christ’s Comedy Routines, if it ever existed even in draft form, was rejected by the editors and never made the final cut of The Bible.
I know that I am not the right person to write a serious book about what it is like to spend time around an enlightened teacher. Other of Rama’s students are going to have to write those kinda books. My stories are not so much about him as they are about me, and the changes that studying with him put me through. Not all of those changes were blissful, so don’t expect total bliss. What you can expect is total honesty, as much as I can manage. And the honest truth is that Rama - Dr. Frederick Lenz - was the funniest human being I have ever met on planet Earth.
Rama made me laugh so many times and in so many ways that my sides ache with the anticipation of even trying to remember them all. He seemed incapable of speaking for more than even a few minutes without making a joke. I simply can’t even begin to justice to the prodigious nature of his comedic output. But I can try to record a few of the funniest moments, the ones that stick in my memory, and thus try to insure that they don’t go the way of Christ’s memorable standup performance in the temple square, hamming it up for the people who stayed behind after he ran off the money lenders, folks who were secretly happy to see them all go. It was an easy crowd, and he was really on that day.
Rama was on a lot. He peppered his talks with one-liners and jokes, things like, “I don't know how much you know about Zen, but you'll know less when I'm done with you." Or, "Eternity is very big. This is one of the first things you notice about it. It also lasts a long time." Or, "The fastest way to fall asleep is to read a spiritual book."
He commented on the world around him - "California: beach and mountains, with Hell in the middle" - and on the world within - "You might ask, 'What does all this have to do with enlightenment?' And if you have to ask that, you obviously don't know."
But as fond as I am of Rama’s one-liners as core teachings, I have another set of favorite moments when it comes to being funny. They were the moments when he just fuckin’ pulled out all the stops in an attempt to shake his students out of a heavy mood. In these moments, Rama was completely shameless, and would do anything to make us laugh. Anything.
I remember one night at Fonts Point in the Anza-Borrego desert, on the evening of the Summer Solstice. Thunder and lightning raged in all directions around us, but somehow the weather remained perfectly clear where we were sitting, in a small circle around Rama at the edge of a high desert ridge. Rama paced for a while and then said simply, "I'm open for business." No one said a word.
He let the silence hang there in the air for a while, but finally sighed and said, "You guys are sitting here waiting for me to do something spectacular, when the point is to just be here in a place of power on a day of power with Rama, while he opens up the dimensions for you. Then, if you're open, they can work through you.
"You're all remarkably straight and uptight tonight. You're playing this cagey game with me, but it won't last...by the end of the night I'll have you on the floor with laughter.
"Personally, I would have gone for drinking coffee by a warm fireplace, listening to Rama tell tales of power, but Noooo! You guys have to come to a place of power and sit in the cold and the rain. Look at those clouds rolling in...it definitely looks like it's going to rain on us. And if it starts lightning, we'll have to move quickly, because up on this ridge, we'd be toast. C'mon rain! I want to go back and sit by the fire and drink coffee..."
And then he proceeded to tell us several of the worst jokes that have ever been told in human history. I have blotted most of them out of my memory, but one remains extraordinarily vivid in my mind. His face lit by lightning, Rama paced around in front of us like an ancient shaman, telling us the story of Bill and Mark and Jim and their night in the haunted house. Like many teenagers in their town, they had grown up fascinated by tales of the old, deserted Williams place, and how it was supposed to be haunted. And like so many before them, they had taunted each other into spending the night there, to find out once and for all whether it was haunted.
At first, all went well. They climbed the crumbling stairs to the second floor, and spread out their sleeping bags on the landing, where they could see everything. But in the middle of the night, they were awakened by the sound of a voice, seemingly coming from below them. “Mark,” it said. “Mark. Mark.” Nothing more. They called out, “Who’s there?” but received no answer other than the same throaty cry, calling, “Mark. Mark.”
Bill and Jim urged Mark not to answer, but by now his curiosity had the better of him. He began to descend the stairs, searching the room for the source of the voice that kept calling, “Mark. Mark.” But he could see nothing. Then he noticed that the sound seemed to be coming from outside the house, from just on the other side of the front door. He crept to the door and stood there for a moment, listening to the cries of, “Mark. Mark.” Finally, unable to stand it any more, he flung the door open to see who, or what, was calling his name.
Rama paused for a moment, allowing the lightning in the distance to punctuate his story before he continued. Finally he asked us, “And do you know what he found there?”
None of us had a clue. Rama put on his most serious scary face, and said, “A dog with a hairlip.”
We lost it. And as we rolled on the sand laughing, Rama seemed pleased and said, "Look at this place, the sheer expanse of its perfection. And notice that it's not raining here. Everywhere else, in all directions, it's raining. All over southern California it's raining, but not here. And you guys wanted to sit inside by a cozy fireplace and drink coffee! But I saw that this place would be better..."
There were many such moments in the fourteen years I studied with him. We were a tough crowd, and he had to work overtime to get us to lighten up. Sometimes this 'work' took the form of jokes and one-liners. Other times we were clearly in more dismal shape, and to make us laugh he had to perform extended comedy routines, until we were literally rolling in the aisles, in a lighter and more receptive mindstate, one in which he could actually teach us something about self discovery. And then there were the spontaneous moments, the times when he seemed unable to contain his natural funniness, and would perform antics that would be perfectly at home among tales of the famous Zen masters of the past.
One of the best such moments happened on an airplane. Rama was giving a series of public talks in San Francisco, and a number of students from L.A. had gotten into the habit of flying up for the event, then catching the last flight home with him afterwards. On one such flight, the students from Lakshmi found that they were the only passengers on the plane. So after the flight attendants had served everyone their Cokes and sparkling water, Rama just got loose and started fooling around.
He was sitting next to Carlito, a young student who had been around for years and was, by now, used to being the butt of Rama’s jokes. Rama laughed and joked with him about his lack of success in finding a girlfriend, and finally declared that the reason he wasn’t getting laid was that his penis had gone missing. So Rama enlisted the aid of all the other students on the flight, having them get down on all fours and search under every seat, looking for Carlito’s penis.
They never found it, and Carlito just sat there in the seat beside Rama, looking glum. So, since the flight attendants had long since settled into their seats in the back of the plane, Rama took advantage of their absence and began to perform a little magic to try to cheer him up. Carlito was sitting in the window seat, while Rama had the aisle seat on the left. Rama began to wave his left hand in the air, forming a series of mudras and generating a small but spectacular display of lights and colors. Carlito sat there transfixed, unable to tear his eyes away from Rama’s hand, as captivated as a cobra by the snake charmer’s flute.
Rama noticed his concentration and intensified the motions of his left hand and the impromptu light show until he had succeeded in capturing every ounce of Carlito’s attention. But while he was doing this, with his right hand Rama slowly picked up his glass of Coke, and at an appropriate moment, reached over and emptied its contents into Carlito’s lap. It was one of those classic…uh…cool Zen moments.
I hope Rama got a kick out of all these antics, because we sure did. I only remember one time when he commented on what he got out of such moments. It was when we all lived in Malibu. There was a public meditation series coming up, so a buncha guys had a meeting at someone's apartment to distribute the posters for the series and decide which area of town everyone was going to cover. Rama showed up towards the end of the meeting and gave us all a little pep talk. Then, in the middle of his talk, the phone rang and Carlito, whose place I think it was, answered the phone. Rama asked him, "Who is it?"
Carlito said, "It’s Abelard.” Abelard was one of Rama’s oldest students, one of the few who had been around back in the New York days, before Rama moved to San Diego. Carlito listened to the phone for a moment and then said, “He's asking whether he should come over."
Rama said, "Hang up on him."
Carlito stammered, "What?"
"HANG UP ON HIM!"
Carlito hung up on him. His mama didn't raise no stupid children.
Rama then laughed and said to the group of guys, "There are days in a spiritual teacher's life that make it all worthwhile."
Then he proceeded to tell us a story. He said that he had been working a couple of days earlier at his house in Malibu with Sarah, one of the women who helped with the administrative details of running a spiritual center. The energy had started to get thick, so they decided to take a break. They hopped in his car and drove through Malibu Canyon over to the San Fernando Valley, with the idea of going to see a movie.
But when they got there, they discovered that the times listed in the paper for the movie they wanted to see had been wrong, and that they had almost an hour to wait before it started. So they bought their tickets and looked around for a coffeeshop or a restaurant in which to wait, and found nothing interesting. So then Rama noticed that they were standing in front of a bar, and he looked at Sarah and shrugged, and they went in.
It’s your classic dark San Fernando Valley bar at 3:00 in the afternoon on a weekday, which is to say empty. So Rama and Sarah look around and decide to sit at the bar. They order margaritas and are sitting there drinking them when Rama looks up and, in the mirror behind the bar, sees Abelard sitting in a booth at the far end of the room. And he’s not alone. He’s with his old girlfriend from New York, the one Rama had spent years trying to get him to break up with, for his own good.
He points Abelard out to Sarah, who cracks up, because she knew both Abelard and his former girlfriend and had no great love for either of them. Rama thinks to himself, “Now why would Abelard be here, in a dingy bar in the San Fernando Valley, at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon, meeting with his old girlfriend? Why, because it’s the last place on earth he would expect to run into Rama, of course.”
So Rama looks at Sarah and she looks at him and they swivel around on their barstools and shout in unison, “Hi Abelard!”
Telling the story, Rama paused just the perfect number of beats and said again, “There are days in a spiritual teacher’s life that make it all worthwhile.”
I hope so. I hope that he laughed as hard at his little jokes as we did, because they made all the difference. They turned what could have been a deadly serious quest - the pursuit of enlightenment - into a comedy of Shakespearean proportions. I was the butt of more than a few of these jokes and pranks along the way, and although sometimes I was embarrassed at being made a source of laughter for others, I don’t regret even one of them because I was laughing, too. At myself, at the futility of trying to take myself seriously when the universe obviously did not, at the magnificent clown I studied with and his seemingly endless attempts to show me that life is basically funny. Another great clown, Charlie Chaplin, once said, “Life is a tragedy in closeup, but a comedy in long shot.” Thank you, Rama, for being a great cinematographer, and for your ceaseless efforts to share with me the Big Picture.