Asking ChatGPT for a Zen Joke

Asking ChatGPT for a Zen Joke May 23, 2023

Robot washing dishes



After I shared my ChatGPT “homily on love” in the style of “James Ishmael Ford” one of my kinder friends assured me the voice was no where near like mine. Way too saccharine. Which I appreciated until I realized in a sentence by someone who is a precise writer, who exactly was saccharine was not actually clear. Then another friend agreed that it wasn’t my voice. “Not a single single word sentence.” Which is sort of my trademark.

In any case, following that triumph, I then asked ChatGPT to “tell me a Zen joke.”

I was mainly expecting the old saw about the hot dog vendor with the punchline “make me one with everything.” After all that’s pretty much the only “Zen” joke people know. And you can find it all over the interwebs.

Instead, it responded:

“A student approached his Zen master and asked, “Master, how can I find enlightenment?”

The master replied, “Have you finished your breakfast?”

The student was puzzled but answered, “Yes, I have.”

The master smiled and said, “Then wash your bowl.”

The student was taken aback and asked, “But how does washing my bowl lead to enlightenment?”

The master replied, “When you wash your bowl, wash it with full awareness and presence. Let go of any distractions or thoughts. In that simple act, you will find enlightenment.”

The student nodded, understanding the wisdom in the master’s words. Sometimes, the path to enlightenment can be found in the simplest and most mundane tasks when approached with mindfulness and awareness.”

Actually it was a Zen koan.

For a joke the robot cites a case from a famous koan collected in both the Gateless Gate as case 7 and the Book of Serenity as case 39.

Even more interestingly the actual koan in fact ends with the line “Wash your bowl.” The rest in ChatGPT’s Zen joke was either lifted from somewhere out there, or, perhaps just plain continued on by the robot’s mind. Such as such things are.

What the robot says in all that following commentary not wrong. Or, as one Zen teacher famously said of similar commentaries, not wrong but also not right. Not wrong in the sense that it doesn’t say wrong things. Not right in that it misses the heart of the teaching, the direct invitation.

Still, I kind of like that the robot thinks a koan is a joke. There’s a truth of sorts there.

Of course what exactly a joke might be is up for debate. Sigmund Freud famously attempted a definition of jokes, even wrote a whole book trying to work it all out. With the result that most commentators today seem to feel his belief they occur when the conscious mind allows “expression of thoughts that society usually suppresses or forbids” murky, and not particularly helpful.

A more prosaic definition is that a joke is “a thing that someone says to causes amusement or laugher, especially a story with a punchline.” Not all the helpful, either, of course. Right at the beginning “amusement” begs its own definitions. But it does point to “punchline” as important. Which the robot seems to identify in “wash your bowls.”

This led me to wonder what people think Zen jokes might be and I did a little googling.

Pretty much everyone includes the joke about making me one with everything. A couple add in a conclusion. The person pays with a twenty dollar bill. The vendor puts the money in the cash box and locks it. The customer asks for change, to which the vendor replies, “change comes from within.”

Another goes:

Drink tea and nourish your life.
With the first sip: joy.
With the second: satisfaction.
With the third: peace.
With the fourth: a danish.

Okay, one more.

Two friends meet for lunch. One inquirers after the friend’s husband, a notorious layabout. The friend says he’s no longer unemployed. To which the friend says “wonderful. What’s does he do?” “Meditates.” “What’s meditate?” “I don’t know exactly, but its better than sitting around doing nothing.”

As they say, its funny because its true.

And. Enough.

What surprised me is that a lot of the jokes were, well, I guess they could be read as jokes. Maybe they’re funny because they’re true. Mostly, however, I think they’re included as jokes because the collector of “Zen jokes” finds them non sequiturs. But, they’re actual Zen teachings. Some koans. Like real koans. Like the one offered by ChatGPT.

But if these are jokes, they’re jokes of another category. Not silly. Not non sequiturs. Not clever plays on words. Not cruel. (That’s an interesting category of joke. Maybe for some other time.) Not showing I know something you don’t. Rather. Koans point. Koans invite. With a koan we’re being invited into that liminal space where life and death, meaning and purpose meet.

Kind of a punchline. If you squint.

The punchline in Zen is sometimes called the word head, the point in the story or illustration or whatever is being offered up for one’s consideration. Make me one with everything. Now there’s a joke from one angle, and the great wish from another. And a third thing, as well.

Like “Wash your bowl.”

For the robot, at least for now, it’s just mining things and applying some rules of logic. From one angle the old robot is in fact just doing. Arguably a Zen thing by itself. Without the self reflecting mind involved. Also. Reminds me of an interview with the Korean master Seung Sahn, as I hesitated before giving what he (and I) considered a correct response to a koan. He laughed and poked me in the stomach with his teaching stick, saying, “The robot is slow.” But not wrong.

It’s interesting the robot also swallows the punchline in its telling of the story of Zhaozhou and the bowl. Another kind of missing the point, one could say.

As to the point. Well, as my friend Ellen Skagerberg observes, “Sure, ChatGPT can language a plausible answer, but it’s merely linguistically correct, and vanilla pap theologically and morally. It’s the wrong kind of emptiness.”

What’s not to love with that delicious line of a “wrong kind of emptiness.”

Another punchline.

Maybe that is a joke, after all. You know, it’s funny because its true.

That special category where the universe tweaks our nose and winks at us. Winks, and crooks a finger, beckoning us to follow.

All the way down.

Not bad in the direct pointing business.

Not bad.


About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher and a Unitarian Universalist minister. He is the author of five books. His sixth is due from Shambhala publications next year. You can read more about the author here.
"This article claims "Who she really was and what she believed and what she experienced ..."

How Joan of Arc visits us ..."
"I gave it a quick look. It has to be said that Sengcan was patched ..."

An Evolutionary Chronology of Chan (Zen)
"What a pleasure to share thoughts with James Ismail Ford."

Henry Thoreau on Not Knowing
"This article says "Eventually the Church found it better to have her inside than out, ..."

Who Saves Us? A Meditation about ..."

Browse Our Archives