Seeking Wisdom in Nonsense: Zen Koans vs. Pataphysics

Peter Clarke
7 min readJul 8, 2020

When it’s done correctly, nonsense can be divine, practically sacred. A lot has been written about how nonsense sharpens the intellect, and how our brains make sense of nonsense. But there’s plenty to explore about the different flavors of nonsense — from what they are and how they’re used to the ways they interact with each other, the brain, culture… A baby’s babbling is distinct from sound poetry, but it’s also similar in ways. Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is worlds apart from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, but again there are plenty of intriguing similarities that might explain the richness and cultural staying-power of each.

Somewhere in the universe of intellectually stimulating nonsense, there’s a particular region that we might call the Deepak Chopra Galaxy. This region is populated by a cluster of nonsense types that walk the fine line between profound wisdom and profound-sounding gibberish. Take any statement from this galaxy, and you’ll find that it has perfect syntax but dubious semantics (as opposed to sound poetry, for example, which lacks both syntax and semantics). Noam Chomsky’s famous phrase “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” has the right idea, except that it’s a little too obviously nonsensical. A better example would be anything that pops out of the Deepak Chopra generator, an algorithm that generates profound-sounding quotes that have the flavor of real Deepak Chopra aphorisms. Consider: “The cosmos is at the heart of intricate brightness.”

I’m particularly interested in comparing two forms of nonsense that exist somewhere within the vicinity of the Deepak Chopra Galaxy: Zen koans and the “science” of pataphysics. At a glance, it’s hard to see what these two forms of nonsense have in common. Koans originated in 7th century China, the creation of Buddhist teachers; pataphysics originated in 19th century France, the creation of Alfred Jarry, the alcoholic playwright who founded the Theatre of the Absurd. Koans are associated with traditional spirituality; pataphysics is associated with artistic expression and Dadaism. But upon closer examination, their similarities are practically begging to be discovered. In this brief exploration, I arrive at the conclusion that nonsense of the Deepak Chopra sort is best used for creative or artistic purposes, rather than for seeking profound…

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Peter Clarke

Author of “The Singularity Survival Guide” and Editor at JokesLiteraryReview.com. Read more at petermclarke.com. Follow me on Twitter @HeyPeterClarke